A top-wrapped Gibson SG
| February 5, 2024 |

What is Top-Wrapping and Should You Do It on Your Gibson Guitar?

Science or myth? Weigh up the potential pros and cons of top-wrapping on a guitar fitted with a Stop Bar tailpiece

Do you top-wrap the guitar strings on your Gibson Les Paul, SG, or ES-335? It’s a topic that stirs up quite the debate, both online and in taverns where guitarists meet over a pint to chat about the latest mods to their instruments. Whether you’re for or against top-wrapping, it’s important to weigh up the pros and cons specific to your situation. So, let’s delve into this—ale in hand, of course!

What is top-wrapping?

Top-wrapping is a technique that involves restringing the guitar so that the strings feed through the Stop Bar tailpiece from the bridge side, rather than being fed through it from behind in the conventional manner. A little extra string length is introduced, since you’re threading the string in the opposite direction, wrapping it over the tailpiece, and, finally, the bridge saddles. As a result, in order to try top-wrapping, you might need to use a new set of strings rather than restringing with your existing set.

As guitar modifications go, it’s one of the simplest we can think of. It’s also completely reversible. But why do so many guitar players do it? And can it cause string breakages or other issues?

YouTuber Rob Galley took the time to top-wrap a Gibson SG and evaluate the results

Who top-wraps their guitar, and why?

Top-wrapping is a stringing technique that has been used by many famous guitarists over the years, including Billy Gibbons and Joe Bonamassa. The reasons why guitar players top-wrap can vary, but Bonamassa top-wraps all of his Gibson Les Pauls because he believes it gives them a slinkier playing feel, akin to swapping a set of 11-gauge strings for a set of 10.5s. But why would this be the case?

First and foremost, a Stop Bar tailpiece is designed to provide an anchor point for the strings. It is also height-adjustable to ensure that the strings have a suitable break angle over the saddles. Some players believe that screwing the tailpiece down tight to the body creates a more direct connection between the guitar and the strings, enhancing sustain and tone. However, this may create too sharp a break angle over the bridge saddles, or put too much pressure on fragile vintage bridges.

Top-wrapping is regarded by many as a best-of-both-worlds solution here because you can screw the tailpiece all the way down, while the strings retain a shallower break angle over the bridge. This delivers the perceived benefits of tailpiece-to-body coupling with less downward pressure on the bridge and reduced string tension.

Does it sound or feel different? What does the science say?

Whether top-wrapping makes a difference in sound or feel is a lively debate among guitar players. Some players claim it improves the guitar’s tone and sustain, while others believe any differences are too subtle to notice.

In the following video by DylanTalksTone, the YouTuber tests a Les Paul using a spring scale tension gauge and determines that bending a string up a whole step takes more tension than when the guitar is strung up the traditional way. He finds this surprising, having expected the opposite. 

DylanTalksTone jumps right into the science

A debate on The Les Paul Forum explores this further, with forum member B Ingram explaining why he believes the strings might feel slinkier with top wrapping even though they require more tension when bending. He writes:

“After top-wrapping my strings felt slinkier (I can now bend a perfect-fourth or further on the D & G strings). There’s a difference between tension and elasticity. String gauge, scale length, and tuning pitch set tension of the string (or you might say, ‘The pitch is the byproduct of string gauge, scale length and string tension’).

“But materials have some degree of elasticity. The elasticity is a constant-per-unit-of-length for the material. If you have 30ft of a string, it bends and stretches more easily than three inches of the string, after being tuned to the same pitch. The total length of the string (including that beyond the nut and beyond the saddle) contributes to the total elasticity/slinkiness, unless the string is locked at the nut and/or saddle.

“If you’ve ever been around a large ship, you already know this. The big woven nylon ropes used to moor big ships to a pier are also used (in a short length) for tug of war. When playing tug of war, pulling that line yanks forward the other team. But when a several hundred feet of the same line moor a ship to the pier, the line will stretch 20-40 feet or more. Per-unit-length elasticity is the same, but the longer total length yields more slinkiness.

“Top-wrapping slightly increases the total string length, which is why it slightly increases slinkiness.”

Joe Bonamassa, complete with top-wrapped Les Paul

Can top-wrapping be bad for your guitar?

Top-wrapping is generally considered safe for guitars, but it’s important to note that it can change the tension over the guitar’s bridge and affect the intonation—though this should be easily remedied with a touchup to your setup.

Some players have reported that top-wrapping caused their guitars to go out of tune more easily. Some guitar manufacturers may not recommend top-wrapping, and doing so could void the warranty. Over time, there’s also the possibility that the friction of the wrapped part of the string rubbing against the tailpiece could cause additional wear and tear, too.

While some players swear by it, no comprehensive scientific evidence supports claims that top-wrapping improves the guitar’s tone or sustain—that may come down to the individual instrument and many other factors. In the Rob Galley video above, he concluded that he couldn’t distinguish between traditional and top-wrapping methods. Your findings may vary.

It’s important to consider the potential effects on your guitar’s bridge tension and intonation before deciding to top-wrap your guitar, and we’d always recommend that you consult with a professional guitar tech or luthier if you have any doubts or concerns. There’s nothing wrong with leaving an instrument totally stock, though many of us are tinkerers by nature. Nothing wrong with that, either.

Overall, top-wrapping can be a valuable technique for guitar players looking to experiment with different tones and feels—it also has a different visual appeal. While the science behind it is inconclusive, you should be the judge. After all, it costs nothing to try it. Let your ears guide you toward what sounds best and what feels right when you play.

The majority of instruments from Epiphone and Gibson use a Stop Bar tailpiece, which will allow you to experiment with this concept. Give it a shot!

Learn how to change guitar strings from Master Luthier, Jim Decola and explore Gibson’s Guide to Guitar Setup and Maintenance on Gibson TV.