There is much interest currently in exchanging components of the Les Paul bridge assembly for those of alternative materials that have some reported sonic benefit. Lightweight aluminum tailpieces, stainless steel bridge posts, brass saddles… The effects range from subtle to essential, depending on who you talk to, with the occasional wet blanket piping up to report no discernible change at all.
One problem I perceive is that players making these changes often perform several upgrades at once, obscuring the efficacy of any particular one when they come to share their findings excitedly on the forums.
In a short series of connected articles, I aim to make a few of the more popular changes one at a time, so we can look at what they do individually for the guitar’s tone.
For these tests I’m using my Edwards Les Paul, model E-LP-98LTS, based on a ’59 Gibson (read the review). Although owners of import Les Pauls may find the info particularly useful, as I had to use metric parts and measurements, in terms of materials and results it should all apply to almost every LP player. US Gibson or import copy, most of us start with cheap, heavy zinc hardware installed with varying degrees of success at the factory, dissimilar to the parts that helped those vintage Lesters sing so sweet.
Until I played the same pickup in the neck of my Charvel and Edwards, I didn’t realize I had a dark Les Paul. Of course they’re not meant to sound the same — the point of a Les Paul is fat, deep, rich tone — but if my approximate tone goal is Gary Moore’s two million dollar ’59, to my ears I could use a little brightening. So that’s what I set out to get.
Steel Bridge Posts
Bridge posts, studs, height screws, whatever your name for them, they are the two headless machine-thread screws that support the tune-o-matic bridge on two thumbwheels, running directly into the maple cap on ABR-1 type systems found on old Gibsons or the Edwards here, into threaded metal inserts on Nashville type bridges on newer Gibsons and some imports, like Epiphone Les Pauls.
What has become known as the “MapleFlame mod” has brought a lot of attention to these inconspicuous components, with players tooling up in their droves to replace them for a super low cost, high-yield tone lift. The MapleFlame mod uses stainless steel posts made by cutting the heads off 6/32 (US) or M4 (import) screws, and I’ll get there, but I wanted to start with plain steel to see if even that made a difference compared to the stock mystery metal posts.
Replacement posts from places like StewMac or Allparts don’t mention what they’re made out of, only what they’re coated in: nickel, chrome, gold. As with the stock posts, which I assume are Gotoh in my case, the material itself could be anything. Not a terrific reference point. A trip to the local Ace yielded steel screws in the correct size and thread pitch.
If you’re cutting your own screws, it’s worth measuring how deep the holes are drilled into the body, and adding that amount to the height your original posts protrude from the surface. On most Les Pauls, again Gibson and import alike, the stock posts don’t go all the way down, and there’s an easy case to be made for increased coupling here resulting in increased transfer from vibrating string to body, and all the benefits that brings.
For quick setup afterwards, I also measured the heights of both thumbwheels.
Some Gibson posts in particular are found to be sitting very shallow, only a quarter inch or so into the wood. Going all the way down with new screws should also stop these guitars’ bridges rocking or leaning, which must play havoc with intonation. The truly resonance-hungry are going a stage farther, drilling down to reach into the mahogany with an extra long set of posts. I won’t take a power drill to my guitar unless I have to!
The holes in my Edwards LP measured 21.5 mm deep. Some quick calculation showed that the stock posts hadn’t been installed all that shallow, but still 8 mm from the bottom of the hole on the low E side, 6 mm high E side. I marked the new screws at 36 mm, sawed them to size, filed the ragged ends a little, and drove them all the way in to the bottom of the holes.
Wait a minute. How do you remove the original ABR-1 bridge posts? Yes, moving a threaded pole with no head proved to be its own little puzzle. I liked the solution pictured best: thread on one of your thumbwheels, then a couple of nuts above it — pick these up at the hardware store when you buy the screws! The three bind together, gripping the post, so you can remove it by turning the thumbwheel.
The opposite setup works for driving the new replacement posts into the body; put the nuts on first, then the thumbwheel. Measure now and then so you know when you’re nearing the bottom. You do not want to break a post in there, or strip the wood.
Each guitar and ear is different, but this change, of a couple of screws, really had an effect. (Note that for consistency I didn’t change the strings.) I wasn’t sure what to expect. Given the hardness of steel I thought, if anything noticeable occurred, it would be some extra brilliance or shimmer, something brighter at the very top end, but that’s not what I got.
The guitar now sounds lively and springy and clear, as if these couple inches of steel reached down, took hold of the entire midrange and pulled it up and out into the daylight where it could be observed and appreciated. There’s a twang to it. Where the sound could be soft-edged and wallowing, even muddy, seems crisply defined — it’s just like you’re hearing more. The difference is obvious even unplugged. Amped up, my bridge position seemed louder, and the neck position, which had seemed too tubby and thick with its Burstbucker 2 before, where I couldn’t get a real shape to the notes until dropping the pickup down unusably low, had begun to hollow out, taking me further towards that big tubular sounding Gary Moore ideal.
This is where I became a believer. What your posts are made of matters. At first it seemed absurd. They’re just screws, right? They hold a bit of the guitar on. But thinking about it, it begins to make sense. The bridge is the vital point of contact between strings and body, and these posts the conduit, feeding right into the wood the sound from the strings. Suddenly it doesn’t seem so silly that changing the material of those posts alters what is transferred, lost, attenuated, accentuated, across the spectrum, given that each substance has its own properties when it comes to sound. Alder sounds different to mahogany. Steel sounds different to zinc.
I can assume the tone could be taken the opposite way with brass posts mellowing and deepening a naturally bright guitar, where steel would lift and brighten it. Finding brass screws shouldn’t be tough.
I’m interested in yet more detail and air in the sound, so next I’m going to try an aluminum tailpiece, an upgrade that’s not only seen as 50s-correct, but a way to put some sparkle and zing on the top end. It seems like a lot less vibration travels through the tailpiece than the bridge. Can it really do anything for tone? That will be Part 2…