les paul

Why do Gibson headstocks break?

Why do Gibson headstocks break?

There's a big chunk of my income that comes from repairing broken necks and headstocks. And, by far the biggest chunk of that comes from repairing the broken necks and headstocks of Gibson guitars. 

So what is it that makes Gibsons more prone to lose their heads?

Setting Intonation on a Gibson

OK, on this one, we're assuming you have a Tun-O-Matic bridge. This is what's generally installed across a huge swath of the Gibson range and it's almost certainly what's installed on your Les Paul, SG, Firebird, Explorer, 335, etc., etc. There are a couple of styles of tun-o-matic but the basic operation is the same. If you've got a wraparound-style tailpiece bridge, check out that article. 

The adjustment screws can be a bit fiddly to access so be careful. Try not to damage your strings, your guitar top or the screw itself. Use an appropriately sized screwdriver (usually a small-medium flat-blade)


First up, though, let’s recap the prerequisites.

The rest of your setup must be right for you before you start. Intonation is the last thing to set so get your action, relief, nut and pickups sorted out first. You should have fresh strings (of your usual gauge and brand) installed, properly stretched, and tuned up as normal.

Remember, too, always check intonation and tuning with the guitar in the playing position (i.e. not lying on a table or counter but upright as if you were playing it).

The basic theory is this:

  1. Pick the open string and verify it’s in tune.
  2. Fret at the 12th fret and pick this note. Compare it to the open string—is it flat or sharp?
  3. If the 12th fret note is flat, move the saddle forward a little by turning the adjustment screw. You'll usually want a small, flat-bladed screwdriver for this. 
  4. If the 12th fret note is sharp, move the saddle back a little by turning the screw.
  5. Retune the open string and go back to 1.

Setting intonation on a Gibson tun-o-matic


  • Usually, the adjustment screws are accessed from the back of the bridge. Occasionally, though, you might find a guitar with the bridge reversed—the adjustment screws are accessed from the front. This can be a bit tricky—drop your bridge pickup down a little if it helps get to the screws and be careful not to scratch or dent the pickup. 
  • Because the tun-o-matic is pretty narrow, and there’s not a lot of back/forward movement possible, Gibsons may be less forgiving to certain string gauges. Lighter gauge strings can require more overall compensation. If you’ve problems intonating your 8-gauge strings, you might have to flip saddles or move bridges (see below).
  • You can see that the Gibson bridge is installed at an angle—farther back on the bass side—in a similar manner to an acoustic guitar. Since the tun-o-matic bridges are generally relatively narrow, this gives them a ‘head start’ in the compensation game but sometimes it's not enough.  The saddle flipping trick outlined below might help.
  • Every now and then, you might come across a Gibson that just will not intonate. Sometimes, the bridge is just in the wrong place (seriously—it happens) and, even if you flip saddles, there isn't enough travel to intonate. If you bought it new you can try warranty service. There are also some after-market tun-o-matic bridges that are wider and might allow extra travel if you can find one. And, as a last resort, you can have the original holes plugged and the bridge re-mounted. It's a pain but it's occasionally required. 


The big quirk on these bridges is the reversed saddles. It might be helpful if I expand a little on the bridges themselves.

While there are any number of slight variations, there are two types of bridge fitted to most Gibson electrics. They are the ABR-1 and the Nashville.

The ABR is the original bridge. Usually, you can look at an ABR bridge and see that two or three bass-side saddles are installed ‘backwards’ (with the sloped or angled side pointing towards the neck). This is to make up for the fact that there is insufficient travel on the intonation adjustment screws to get these strings to properly compensate. By flipping the saddles, you can get a tiny bit more compensation before the saddle hits the back of the bridge. Essentially, it’s a cludge. It’s a workaround.

Gibson tried to address the issue by introducing the Nashville tun-o-matic bridge. This bridge has a little more travel and it generally intonates without any saddle-flipping. Of course, as with many changes made by Gibson, lots of players complained they preferred the original and so you’ll find a mixture of Nashville and ABR bridges installed across Gibson models.


The ABR already has some saddles flipped. The Nashville doesn’t. However, on either bridge, you’ll occasionally have to flip one yourself. Sometimes you’ll be at the end of the saddle’s travel—it won’t go any farther back or forward but you’re not quite intonated. Flipping a saddle might just get you where you need to be.

On the ABR, it’s pretty easy (if a little fiddly) to do.

  • First up, slacken off the string you’re intonating.
  • On the bridge, there’s a really thin ‘retainer wire’ holding the saddle screws in place and stopping them from falling out. Use a small flat-bladed screwdriver to remove one end from its hole and carefully move it so the screws are free.
  • Lift the saddle and screw out of the bridge slot. You might need to prise it slighly. Be gentle.
  • Back out the adjustment screw, flip the saddle 180º and re-insert the screw.
  • Pop it back into the bridge and (the fiddly bit) put the retainer wire back in position over the saddle screws and get the end back in the hole.
  • Bring the string back up to pitch and continue intonation.

Reversing a saddle on a Gibson ABR-1 tun-o-matic bridge


On the Nashville bridge, you can get lucky and find a model that the screws just ‘back out of’ but most often the screws are ‘captured’ by a clip of some kind.

This may be a circlip (C-clip) or wire clip. Getting these off to flip saddles is possible but it’s a lot of hassle—especially putting them back again. The wire clip in particular will probably need to be replaced afterwards.

Approach this with caution and talk to your trusted repair person rather than forcing the matter.

Circlip or C-Clip retainer

Wire retainer clip

Scale Length Affects Feel, Playability AND Tone

The 'scale length' of your guitar and bass refers, broadly speaking, to the 'sounding length' of the instrument's strings—that is the length between the nut and the saddle.

An instrument's scale length has a large part to play in how it feels AND sounds

An instrument's scale length has a large part to play in how it feels AND sounds

I say 'broadly' as, if you measure this, you'll find each string's measurement to be a little longer than the actual scale length. This increased length helps the instrument to sound in tune all over the fingerboard—it's called compensation or intonation and we'll get into that another day.

To accurately assess the scale length of an instrument, you need to measure from the inside of the nut to the centre of the 12th fret. Once you have this, double it. That's the scale length.

So, if you measure your Strat, you'll find a nut-to-12th-fret measurement of 12.75". Doubling this gives us 25.5". That's our scale length. Easy peasy.

So why do we care?

Scale length actually makes a big difference. It affects the feel, playability and even the tone of an instrument.

Longer scale, bigger gaps

Lets get the obvious stuff out of the way. A longer scale length means the gaps between the frets will be correspondingly wider. At a very basic level, if you've small hands, you might feel more comfortable with a shorter scale instrument.

String Tension

The longer the scale, the more tension must be applied to the string to achieve the same pitch. So, the same gauge strings will feel 'tighter' on an instrument with a longer scale.

This is one reason a lot of people prefer a Les Paul over, say a Strat, when it comes to big bends—the Gibson's slightly shorter scale makes for easier bends.

This scale length affect on tension can be helpful to consider with bass guitar too. Especially so for a 5-string bass. That bottom string wants to flop about and can lose focus easily. If you can't seem to get it tamed, maybe shifting to a longer scale (perhaps from 34" to 35") will do the trick.

The part played by string gauge

We can't go on without considering string gauge. Because shifting up a gauge of strings also increases their tension, perhaps a heavier bottom on that 5-string will work without the hassle of buying a new bass.

String gauge should also be considered when you're going to a shorter scale instrument. I'll often talk to someone who's bought a Fender Jaguar and has strung it up with the same set of 9s they use on their Strat. The result can often be a bundle of floppy, weedy, instability. As the scale length shortened, the string tension reduced. Ligher strings need less tension naturally so… floppy strings.

If that's your thing, go for it but I'd recommend a heavier string than you're used to if you move to a Jag. Remember that the heavier string tension will be somewhat cancelled out by the reduced scale length tension. On the shorter scale instrument, you'll feel comfortable playing a heavier string than you might think.

The big one: TONE

Scale length plays a HUGE part in your instrument's tone.

Really. Huge.

Where all of the overtones and harmonics sit on a string is determined by its scale length. With a longer scale, and more room for the harmonics to breath, you end up with a more clear, ringing tone. Think of the shimmer of a Strat here. That increase in tension brings more focus too.

Conversely, as the scale shortens, things become a little more crowded together. Tone thickens up and we hear that as more warmth. Think of our Les Paul tone here. We loose a little of the tightness in the bass as we gain that warmth, though.

As an example, my own Blue Collar model has a 25.5" scale length and is fitted with a P90-style pickup (one you'd associate more with a Gibson). While the Blue Collar can certainly growl with the best of them, it keeps more focus and tightness because of its longer scale. That P90 brings a broader sound than, say a Tele or a Strat, but it never strays to muddiness. I love it (but, then I'm biased).

And, of course, the same goes for basses. A 30" scale will usually give a warmer, darker tone than the more focussed, clearer tone of a 34" bass.

So what's the best scale length?

How long's a piece of guitar string? Ha! Really, though, it's horses for courses—depends what you like and what you're aiming to achieve.

Keep in mind the fundamentals of tone and feel and then try a few different instruments to see what feels and sounds right to you. Remember to keep string gauge in mind as you go, though. A different gauge can change the sound and playability of any instrument you try (including the one you play all the time). ;-)