I think its safe to say that most guitarists today are familiar with the iconic Gibson headstock design, with its trademark "moustache" carve and 3 strings each side. I myself am the proud owner of several Gibson guitars that bear this headstock. However, it is an open secret amongst guitarists that this headstock design is deeply flawed. And while I myself am certainly no luthier, I thought it might be fun today to talk about the two major issues that have plagued Gibson headstocks since some of their earliest instruments.
The Problem With The D and G Strings
Perhaps the least egregious of the two major issues, the Gibson headstock design creates a problem involving the D and G strings on their guitars. Due to the positioning of the tuning pegs, the D and G strings exit the nut at a pretty sharp angle.
You can see in the image above that while the two E strings, the A string and the B string all pass through the nut and remain relatively straight as they head into the tuning peg, the D and G turn a fairly sharp angle after the nut to get to the tuning peg.
In terms of playability, this issue can make keeping your guitar in tune somewhat complicated. What tends to happen is that when you bend a string on either the D or G strings, the sharp angle after the nut leaves a very low probability that once you release the bend, the same part of the string will sit in the nut as was previously there before the string bend, putting you out of tune.
Another complication is that when you're tuning your guitar, if your string is too sharp and you're moving the pitch downwards, the sharp angle can cause the string to get a little bit "caught" in the nut. When this happens, you might think you're in perfect tune because a chord sounds great or the tuner is reading that the pitch is correct, however the moment you fret the string that is caught, or god forbid you should bend it, the note will become "un-caught" by this movement and once you un-fret the note or release the bend, the note will be very noticeably flat.
What Can You Do About It?There's a couple of things that can be done about this. The cheapest but most nuanced involves being meticulous about the way you tune your Gibson guitar. Always come from below the note to ensure the highest chance that the string will not get caught in the nut. This means even if the string is too sharp, tune it down until it is below your target pitch by a little bit, and then tune it up to where it needs to be. In conjunction with this habit, also make sure to do a couple silent string bends once you've got the string in tune. This will make sure that the string isn't caught in the nut.
If you really don't feel like doing all that and you're wondering if there is a more simple fix, I've got you covered! The best thing I've seen on the market to address this problem is called the string butler.
The string butler is something you place on your Gibson headstock with no need to drill any holes or anything invasive like that. Once it's in place, it pulls the strings after the nut to ensure that the angle of the strings coming out of the nut is perfectly straight. Not only does this little device pull the main offenders (the D and G strings) so that they're straight, but it also adjusts the A and B strings, ensuring all the strings are straight as an arrow.
The Problem With The Neck Angle
Now it's time to talk about the more serious issue with the Gibson headstock design; The angled headstock. Let me set the scene with a little bit of background information. Every guitar that is built correctly must have a steep enough downward angle, known as a "break angle" after the nut and going into the tuning pegs that the string will work properly and stay inside the nut while it is being played. Over the years countless luthiers have engineered a variety of solutions for this problem but as I said in the opening, I am not a luthier. So let's stick to the basics. Fender's solution to finding a break angle is simple. After the nut, the headstock is thinner and sits lower that the fretboard. Then, to confirm the proper break angle most Fender guitars use "string trees" on their headstock. A string tree is a simple little "T" shaped piece of hardware, under which the strings are held after the nut on the headstock.
I'm sure that if you were to consult somebody who is an expert in building guitars they would tell you that Fender's headstock design has it's own problems and is far from perfect. That said, I've never experienced any problems with them, nor have I ever met anybody who has told me a horror story about something going wrong with them.
Gibson's solution to the "break angle" problem is arguably more aesthetically elegant, but as I will explain, has proven to be pretty problematic.
Due to the fact that there are 3 tuning pegs on a side instead of all 6 on one side the way that Fender does, Gibson guitars do not need string trees. Furthermore, the way that they achieve the correct break angle after the nut is by angling the headstock back after the nut.
This makes for a really beautiful looking guitar design, however there is a fundamental and significant flaw. This angle creates a weak point in the neck right where the neck and headstock meet, and the angle begins. All through their history Gibson guitars have been plagued by headstocks breaking from even the most mundane of occurrences. A quick google search will reveal endless horror stories involving Gibsons falling off of guitar stands and snapping off at the headstock, or people leaning their instrument against their amp at a gig only to return to it having fallen over and the headstock broken off, or even buying a brand new guitar only for it to arrive broken in the case at the headstock.
At different points in time, Gibson has tried to introduce solutions to this issue. The most interesting fix I've seen is called a "volute". This is a little piece of mass added at the joint between the neck and the headstock that gives some support to the otherwise weak point.
I have seen volutes added to Gibson 335's as well as SG's, but I'm not sure what year these were put on, and also I have no idea why they didn't make this kind of thing regular practice going forward.
What Can You Do About It?
Honestly, the best solution that I've found to protect your fragile Gibson headstock is by investing in a great guitar case. These days Gibson has become pretty good at case building themselves, so if your guitar came with a heavy duty Gibson hardshell case, I bet that will do the trick. That said, some Gibsons are still sold in gig bags, and those things will definitely not protect that neck joint.
The best option I've found where practicality meets with high quality manufacturing is Mono cases.
I've flown with my Gibsons many times using a Mono case and I've never had an issue with them!
In my opinion, this dual case is the best because as the name would suggest, it can hold two electric guitars at once. Their cases are built in such a way that the headstock is suspended and well protected, which is the best thing you can do proactively about the weak neck joint on Gibson guitars.
If your Gibson headstock does snap or break off at some point, know that it can absolutely be repaired. This sort of repair shouldn't affect the overall tone or the quality of the instrument in any major way, but if you are lucky enough to own a vintage Gibson and the headstock is damaged, it can affect the resale value of the instrument.
Thank you for checking out my thoughts on the design flaws of the Gibson headstock! As always, it is my privilege to be a small part of your journey with the guitar!
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