Brighten a Les Paul: Part I: Steel Bridge Posts

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.

Test Guitar

Edwards E-LP-98LTS vintage honey burstFor 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.

Bottoming Out

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.

Removing/Installing

Removing ABR-1 post with thumbscrewWait 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.

Sound

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

7 Replies to “Brighten a Les Paul: Part I: Steel Bridge Posts”

  1. VERY interesting article and experiment! I’m a firm believer in the nut/bridge/tailpiece combo being all that transforms the vibration of the strings into the tones that come out of your guitar. It can make or break it! Can’t wait to find out what effect changing the screw material has on the tone!

    1. Appreciate the feedback, Gearhead. I’ve been playing twenty-some years and only now see how vital this little transfer point is. That you can change the original tone of a guitar here at its starting point, rather than compensating down the line with pot values, pickups etc., is a revelation!

  2. […] “air” to a dark Les Paul. Having tackled the surprisingly effective bridge post mod in Part One, this much discussed substitution seemed a natural fit for Part Two. You can also think of it as a […]

  3. […] dark Les Paul, to lift the blanket off its tone, so far we’ve looked at steel bridge posts in Part One, and, in Part Two, aluminum tailpieces, like they used in the Fifties. It makes sense that these […]

  4. […] Brighten a Les Paul: Part I: Steel Bridge Posts Brighten a Les Paul: Part II: Aluminum Tailpiece Brighten a Les Paul: Part III: Pickup Tweaks >>> WIE ICH ZU MEINER GIBSON SLASH SIGNATURE APPETITE FOR DESTRUCTION (AGED & SIGNED) LES PAUL AUS DEM CUSTOM SHOP KAM <<< >>> MY EQUIPMENT <<< Zitieren […]

  5. As far as I know the screws fitted to factory built guitars are normally only ever either brass or steel (and yes stainless steel can be used). Zinc casting alloy is routinely used to make the ABR and Nashville bridges (and the stop bar tail pieces) because it can reproduce a complex shape quickly and cheaply. Machining a Tune-O-Matic bridge from brass or steel is rather more expensive. Zinc casting alloy is not usually used to make screws or even the threaded inserts, it is not strong enough.

    You can tell if your bridge support screws are steel by using a magnet to see if there is any attraction. Brass wont be affected by a magnet, but I suppose you could double check by filing off the plating from the bottom of a bridge support screw after you have removed it and looking for yellow metal.

  6. Comments will be closed for a while as this page is the bizarre target of a major spam attack. Bots from spam enablers Enzu, Inc. are drawing around 15GB of our bandwidth per month just trying to post their rubbish here! Millions of attempts. Imagine all those computing cycles put to good use instead of trying to post an ad that might make an idiot a few cents.

Comments are closed.