What is String Break Angle?
By Strings Direct – 29 August, 2023
You know us! We’re big on strings here at Strings Direct. And we’re all about helping you make your strings sound as best as they can. One aspect that can really help make a big difference to how your string sounds and vibrates is something known as the break angle. You may have heard us talk about this in previous blog posts and to us, it’s a pretty big deal. Here’s why….
What is break angle?
You’d certainly be forgiven for asking “what the bloody hell are those nutters at Strings Direct on about now?”
Well in this blog, we’ll talk about all things break angle and give you a quick primer on how this simple concept can have a massive effect on the playability of your guitar and your tone!
Simply put, it refers to the angles of trajectory that all your strings take across and behind your instrument’s nut and saddles.
Up at the headstock, the break angles are the downward angles that your strings make as they emerge over the fingerboard, pass through the nut slot and come out of the back edge of the nut down to the string wraps on the machinehead posts.
Down at the bridge, it’s the angle the string creates between your saddle and where the ball end of your string sits.
Why is the break angle so important?
Break angles determine the downward forces that the string transmits into the guitar.
A good break angle ensures that as much of the energy that you are putting into the string when you play passes into the neck and body of the guitar to make it vibrate and resonate so that it responds to your playing as much as possible and the strings ring and sustain to the max.
This translates into improved tuning stability and improved tone as well.
Get the break angles wrong and that energy that you put into the strings gets wasted and you not only get short changed on tone, sustain and volume but, if the break angles are too shallow, you can end up with strings that buzz and rattle in their nut slots (or over the bridge saddles) and they sound...well… pretty awful!
Break angles are critical for all stringed instruments, but even more so for acoustic guitars because the break angle over the bridge saddle is what creates the downforce that makes the soundboard vibrate to generate and amplify sound within the body of the guitar.
Does my guitar have enough break angle?
Whilst there is no exact science and no exact angles for you to follow, you’ll be pleased to hear that nearly all guitars are designed to help create and maintain a healthy break angle.
The angle of our headstock is a prime example. For instance, you may have noticed the angle of a headstock on a Gibson guitar is what is known as ‘pitched’ i.e. the headstock sits at a downward angle in relation to the guitar’s neck meaning the strings pass over the nut and naturally angle down as they travel towards our tuners.
But what about a typical Fender headstock where the front of the headstock sits parallel to the fingerboard? How do Fender control their break angles? One way is through their use of string guides (aka string trees). These little guys help to pin the string down and create the break angle behind the nut with the angle itself controlled by the string guide's height and how far it sits behind the nut.
But why don’t all the strings travel under a string guide? The strings that wind on the machineheads located closest to the nut naturally have a decent amount of angle over the nut. However, as you work your way up towards the lighter strings, you'll notice the angle between the back of the nut and the machineheads decreases. Therefore a little intervention is needed to help steepen that angle slightly… this is where the string trees come in. Without these, the strings wouldn’t benefit from that downward angle and would end up sounding sub par.
Another way of maintaining a healthy break angle on a Fender style guitar is through the use of staggered height tuners. Not all Fender’s instruments are fitted with this style of tuner but the beauty in their simple design is that the height of the posts of the treble strings are lower, thus increasing the angle the string makes as it leaves the back of the nut.
One little string hack that we’ve found to be beneficial on Fender-style six strings is when changing our strings, before winding them around the tuning post, leave a touch more slack in the string than you usually would on the G and D strings.
The extra slack creates a few extra winds of string around our post resulting in a greater angle between the back of the nut and our tuning post. Nice eh! And it doesn't cost a penny!!
Psst, for Fender bass players, you’ll need to add some extra slack to that A string to help create a sufficient break angle!
And what about down at the bridge?
A lot of Fender guitars and basses utilise their ‘through-body’ string design. Leo Fender’s ergonomic design allows the string to be anchored at a gentle angle behind the bridge saddles of the instrument within the body. Through body stringing normally gives fairly steep break angles from the saddle to the holes in the bridge plate. The ones that can have too shallow break angles are the ‘toploaders’ like some Teles where the strings don’t go through the body but stop at the back of the bridge next to the intonation screws, like a Fender bass bridge and hence the name toploader
A lot of Fender guitars and basses utilise their ‘through-body’ string design. Leo Fender’s ergonomic design allows the string to be anchored at a fairly steep break angles from the saddle to the holes in the bridge plate. The ones that can have too shallow break angles are the ‘toploaders’ like some Teles where the strings don’t actually go through the body but stop at the back of the bridge next to the intonation screws, similar to a Fender bass bridge and hence the name ‘toploader’.
In comparison, Gibsons’ (and plenty of other instruments) strings are anchored on the top of the guitar with the strings’ ball end sitting in a tailpiece located a few inches behind the bridge.
Our in-house Les Paul enthusiast Sam pointed out that in order to create a greater break angle between the bridge and tailpiece on a Gibson style guitar, it’s a good idea to sit the tailpiece as close to the body as you can. You may need to raise it ever-so slightly if the strings are riding the back of the bridge on the way down or if you play quite heavily and your strings are snapping at the bridge.
Is there anything else to look out for?
Always check those nuts guys!! (...and girls too!)
It’s always a good idea to be mindful of the angles of the slots in your nut.
As an example, if you took a Fender guitar with the headstock parallel to the fingerboard and cut the nut slot parallel too, the string would most likely buzz and rattle in the slot (regardless of having a string tree on the headstock).
For this reason, we need a small break angle on the leading edge of the nut where the string emerges on the fingerboard side. That’s where the string takes off at the start of its speaking length and it’s at that point where we really want the downward force to be applied. The nut slot is then back filed down at a slight angle to help support the string as it travels through the nut and down towards the windings on the machineheads.
A properly back filed nut slot helps to spread the load of the string across the nut whilst also ensuring that it has the necessary break angle over the leading edge so that the string takes off and rings properly.
As a rule of thumb, you want the break angles to be roughly comparable or at least evenly progressive and to ensure that each string rings cleanly and doesn’t rattle or buzz in the nut.
Can you have too much break angle?
Yep, you can certainly have too much of a good thing here and too much break angle can have it’s pitfalls.
For instance, if that back filed angle is cut incorrectly and is steeper than the angle that the string can take to the machinehead, then there would be an air gap underneath the string and too much force would bear down on the leading edge of the nut causing the string to wear the slot down quickly and start buzzing.
We recently watched an interesting video of the great Dan Erlewine (world famous guitar repairman) carrying out some work on a Squier Stratocaster. In this particular video he noticed that there was too much break angle on one of the strings that passed under the first string guide. He pointed out that if this string was subjected to a big string bend or heavy tremolo use, it would stretch and the string would ‘bind’ (get caught) on the edge of the string tree.
As the bend is released, it wouldn’t return back to where it started and consequently, the string will be out of tune.
N.B. If you find that your string trees need a bit of adjustment, you can get nylon and metal spacers in different heights to help adjust the break angle to your needs.
String breakage over the saddles can also be a symptom of excessive break angle down at the bridge.
Breakages can also occur on the edges of the holes in bridge plates where through stringing is used.
Earlier in the blog, you may recall we mentioned Sam here at Strings Direct lowered the height of his tailpiece on his Les Paul. Whilst he achieved a greater break angle this created more downward pressure on the bridge and consequently, he has gone through a number of bridges as they’ve ‘collapsed’ in the middle.
But don’t let this frighten you, Sam has been known to use some eye-watering string gauges!!
Whether the concept of break angles is completely new to you or whether you’re already familiar with the concept, we really hope that you have found this blog post to be helpful.
In essence, break angles are a simple concept but can have a huge impact on our instrument's playability and tone.
If you feel your guitar is lacking in tone or not quite up to its full potential, before you list it on ebay or go out and buy that new set of pickups, be sure to check out those break angles... it could be just what your guitar needs. Of course, if you feel you need some guidance, be sure to visit your local guitar luthier who should be able to give you some advice and help to make any changes if they deem them necessary.
Before we bid you farewell, we’d like to express a big thanks to Chas Johnson for all his kind input and wisdom in helping to put this blog together.
As always, we love hearing from you so if you have any thoughts or questions, feel free to drop them in the comments box below.
Until next time! See you soon.