String break-angle at nut - A Primer

So, I want to talk about a few tips related to string ‘break angle’ — the angle the string takes over the nut or saddle. However, I reckon that it might be useful to explain what I mean and to give a little background on this area first.

Let's start with the break angle at the nut — that's the angle at which the string leaves the nut and heads for the tuner.

Traditional angled headstocks

On a more ‘traditional’ style guitar, the headstock angles back (and if you want to kill a few hours/days/weeks, you can easily get into a heated forum discussion on precisely what angle is best).

Having an angled headstock like this means that each string takes — more or less— the same angle from the nut to tuner. From a manufacturing point of view, it also means either:

  • A big (and therefore expensive) hunk of wood from which you'll carve the entire neck AND headstock (let's call it Gibson-style)

OR

  • A relatively complicated (and therefore expensive) joint to connect a smaller hunk of headstock wood to a another hunk of neck wood (let's call it Martin-style). Of course scarf jointed headstocks aren’t so involved as the crazy Martin diamond joint but they still add a layer of complication (and therefore expense).

Then along came Leo Fender.

Straight headstocks

Leo was all about efficiency and cheapness. He took a pretty standard lumber-yard sized plank and made a neck from it. Instead of angling the headstock, he kept it straight and just recessed it slightly. Cheaper from a material, and a manufacturing, point of view. Clever stuff.

On a straight headstock, the angle over the nut is too shallow for some strings

The problem, though, is that the angle that the strings take from the nut to the tuners was too shallow for some strings. As the strings move from bass to treble side of the headstock, the tuners are each farther from the nut. Every time the distance increases, the angle becomes more shallow.

Shallow angles cause trouble (more of which in later posts).

"Never mind," thought Leo, "I'll pop on some string retainers to make the angle more steep for the strings that need it."

A string tree or retainer can force a steeper string angle over the nut.

And so, the first two strings on most Fenders have a little thingie that pulls the strings down to the headstock closer to the nut. Sometimes you'll see one on the third and fourth string too. These string retainers (or string 'trees') are there to sharpen that string angle on the headstock side of the nut.

Other Solutions to the String Angle Problem

Lots of people don't like string retainers. And for mostly reasonable reasons. For instance, on trem-equipped systems they add another point of friction and another 'bend' in the string. Neither of these are particularly great for tuning stability.

That said, in my opinion, retainers aren't the biggest problem in the world and, most of the time, I don't think you need to worry too much about them.

But… People love to try solve a problem.

Staggered-Height Tuners

One way of addressing the retainer problem is by getting rid of them.

Staggered height tuners have string posts that get progressively lower — those at the far end of the headstock are lower than those nearer the nut. This means the string's angle increases to compensate for the increased distance from the nut.

Sort of.

Personally, I don't feel that staggered tuners give enough of an increase in angle. There's just not enough scope in tuner-post height to pull the first and second strings down to an angle that’s as steep as a well-placed retainer would allow.

I'm not a fan of staggered tuners but Fender seems to disagree so who am I to argue?

Changing Headstock Shape

The Music Man headstock is a clever solution to the straight-headstock problem.

The necks are still made from the same sized piece of lumber as Fender's but the Music Man headstock is shorter. Instead of six tuners, each further from the nut than the previous, the MM headstock puts four tuners on one side and two on the other.

This 4-2 arrangement means the most problematic strings (in angle terms) — the first and second — are closer to the nut and, therefore, no longer a problem.

Nice thinking. And nice to have the luxury of designing a new headstock shape to solve this problem. Sorry Fender, you’re stuck with tradition on this one.

Other stuff

I’m not going to spend any time here on roller retainers, or teflon-impregnated string trees, or retainers made from Vaseline and banana skins, or whatever. These are all still retainers.

So…

The bottom line

To round out this discussion, I’ll just reiterate the the angle at which the string leaves the nut is important to consider. With traditional-style angled headstocks, the issue is pretty much taken care of. Your straight, Fender-style headstocks, however can have some issues worth thinking about.

And more on them in the next thrilling instalment. Don’t touch that dial.