setting tailpiece height
on a gibson les paul

If you have a guitar with a ‘tune-o-matic’ bridge, you may have wondered how high you should set the tailpiece.

As always with these things, there is no ‘correct’ height. Instead, there are a bunch of considerations that need to be balanced against each other. Here’s what you need to know.

Two rules to follow

Tailpiece height is affected by a number of things, such as how high the bridge is, where on the bridge the saddles are set, neck angle and the distance between the bridge and tailpiece.

Regardless, here are a couple of ‘absolute’ rules to follow:

Rule 1: The strings should not touch the back of the bridge as they travel from the saddles to the tailpiece

Rule 2: The string break angle over the saddle must be sufficient to avoid potential ringing, buzzing and sustain problems

However, even though these are ‘absolutes’ there is still plenty of room for personalisation. The following considerations will help you fine-tune your tailpiece height to suit your playing style and personal preferences.

String ‘slinkiness’

The sharper the string break angle over the saddle (created by lowering the tailpiece relative to the bridge), the ‘tighter’ the strings will feel to play and the harder it will be to bend strings.  

This means that setting the tailpiece a little higher (thereby reducing string break angle) results in a ‘slinkier’ feel which many players enjoy. However, don’t set the tailpiece so high that it violates Rule 2.

If you use heavier gauge strings, adding a little more slinkiness can be a nice compensation for your thicker, less bendable strings.

Lowering the tailpiece all the way down

Some players insist that lowering the tailpiece all the way down to the body improves tone and sustain. The argument is that the greater string break angle improves the transfer of energy from the strings down into the bridge and guitar body.

If you try this, you’ll definitely have sufficient string break angle (meeting Rule 2) but the strings may not clear the bridge on their way down from the saddles (violating Rule 1).

It’s worth mentioning that if you use lighter gauge strings, setting the tailpiece low could be self-defeating. The extra slinkiness of thinner strings will be cancelled out by the greater string break angle, which makes the strings feel tighter. (We acknowledge that you may have tonal reasons for doing this – that’s a conversation for another time!)

oiling strings

Top wrapping

The most common solution to a low tailpiece violating Rule 1 is ‘top wrapping’. Top wrapping is famously practised by a number of big names including Joe Bonamassa, Billy Gibbons (ZZ Top), Duane Allman (Allman Brothers Band) and Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin).

Top wrapping involves fitting the strings ‘backwards’ through the tailpiece so that they come over the top of the tailpiece, from the back, on their way to the saddles.

This raises the strings at the tailpiece, relative to the saddles, helping them to clear the back of the bridge (thereby meeting Rule 1). You can think of it as achieving the effect of a raised tailpiece, without actually having to raise the tailpiece.

However, top wrapping can lead to other issues if string break angle (Rule 2) is insufficient.

Bridge type

There are two types of bridge commonly found on Gibsons: the ABR-1 typically found on older, more vintage models and the ‘Nashville’ version found on most modern Les Pauls.

The ABR-1 is thinner (front to back), meaning that you can have a sharper string break angle without the strings touching the back of the bridge. This means that, in theory, the tailpiece can afford to be set lower (though bridge height will determine just how low).

The Nashville bridge is a little wider, meaning that string break angle may need to be a bit shallower to avoid the strings touching the back of the bridge (though saddle position will impact on this).


On some guitars, the saddles for some strings may need to be set all the way back on the bridge to achieve the correct intonation. The further back the saddle is, the lower the tailpiece can be (relative to that string).

Where the saddles are set towards the front of the bridge (as they will be, for example, for the high E string), the tailpiece will need to be a little higher in order to meet Rule 1.

Bridge bow…

There is some evidence that in extreme cases, a tailpiece lowered all the way to the guitar top (and not top-wrapped) can, over time, bow the bridge in the middle due to the sharper string break angle which creates greater downward pressure on the bridge.

Realistically this would take years if not decades to happen, if it happens at all, but it is possible.

A bowed bridge can have a number of undesirable affects such as altered string spacing, altered string radius at the saddles and potential associated issues setting string action.

Where to begin

Now that you know some of the key issues associated with tailpiece height, where should you begin?

We suggest following this simple process:

  1. Set the guitar’s action and intonation first (to get the bridge height and saddles in their final positions)
  2. Set the tailpiece as low as you can without the strings touching the back of the bridge (Rule 1). You should be able to slide a piece of paper between each string and the back edge of the bridge. This will automatically give you sufficient string break angle (Rule 2)
  3. Play the guitar. If it sounds and feels good, don’t mess with a winning formula!

If it doesn’t, or if you just want to experiment, adjust the tailpiece height to your preference. Pay attention to how the strings feel and listen out for changes in tone and sustain. Beware that you don’t inadvertently violate Rule 1 or Rule 2.

Making adjustments safely

One final word. Slacken the strings before attempting to adjust the studs of the tailpiece.

At full tension, strings exert a lot of pressure on the tailpiece and you will find it very difficult to adjust. A screwdriver or other tool will easily slip from the stud’s slot damaging the tailpiece or your guitar top – not what you want!

StewMac sells tools for adjusting tune-o-matic bridges and tailpieces with the strings under tension. However, they’re expensive and probably not worth buying unless you’re going to be adjusting tailpieces on a regular basis.


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