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Headstock Angle

This is what headstock angle is. the top one is the Fender model where the angle is created by lowering the face of the headstock as opposed to actually angling the headstock itself. One of these will break more easily.

The angle of the headstock on the ES models changed in 1965. It went from 17 degrees down to 14 degrees. Surprisingly, I get correspondence, whenever I have a 65 to sell, asking whether it has the 14 degree or 17 degree headstock angle. Before I address this, let’s take a look at why the folks at Gibson decided to do this. It seems (and most of you know this) the headstocks were breaking off at an alarming rate and the brass at Gibson needed to find a way to keep this from occurring. By lessening the angle of the headstock, they felt that it would be less likely to break off in the event of a fall. The logic seems sound but the reality was different. The headstocks still broke at a somewhat alarming rate. Interestingly, you don’t see broken headstocks on Fenders. The headstock angle on a Fender is zero. Or maybe it was the maple rather than mahogany necks. So, in any case, it didn’t fix the problem. So, why do so many vintage guitar lovers only want the 17 degree headstock angle? If you go back to the post about the break angle from the bridge to the tailpiece, you will probably get your answer. It seems there is a feeling that the more extreme the break angle (at either end), the better the guitar will sound. Totally untrue. There are some who say that the string tension changes. Simple physics says it doesn’t. The idea of “compliance” which is how easy or hard a string would be to bend to a given pitch is real and does change when the break angle changes. But the change from 17 degrees to 14 degrees isn’t going to be perceptible. The way you wind your strings will probably have as much effect on compliance as the 3 degree change in the headstock angle. Finally, here’s what Gibson says on their website: The headstock is carefully angled at 17 degrees, which increases pressure on the strings and helps them stay in the nut slots. An increase in string pressure also means there is no loss of string vibration between the nut and the tuners, which equals better sustain. OK, how many of you have had strings jump out of the nut on your Gibson? Nothing like making a problem where one doesn’t exist. ¬†Sustain? From more fractionally more pressure on a nylon nut? Sounds like hype to me. The Fender folks would have something to say about this as well. Me?,¬†I think it’s more a matter of taste than anything else. The most desirable 335s have a 17 degree angle, so that’s what people want. I get it. It makes sense. It’s the same as the chrome/nickel thing. There is no change in tone but one looks different from the other. Truthfully, if they aren’t side by side, it’s hard to tell 17 degrees from 14 degrees. Now, the only time this matters is of you’re considering buying a 1965 ES-335. 345 or 355. 1965 is the only year that both angles were available-and big necks and little necks and chrome and nickel. That’s what happens in a transition year. But if I wanted a big neck ’65 because I want to save thousands of dollars over a 64, I’m not going to worry about whether the headstock angle is 14 degrees or 17 degrees. I’m going to pay more attention to how it plays, how it sounds and how it speaks to me.

These aren't ES-335's but you get the idea. Seventeen on the left, fourteen on the right.

3 Responses to “Headstock Angle”

  1. […] like this with a scarf joint: from Melody Maker build – Page 2 – Telecaster Guitar Forum Headstock Angle | The Gibson ES-335 __________________ dbb http://www.davidmbrownmusic.com […]

  2. Peter S says:

    The difference in string firmness, pick attack and bend resistance near the nut is clearly noticable. As the peg head angle is reduced, the friction at the nut is lower. Tuning stability improves and the strings feel a bit more slinky (action and everything else equal). Works exactly the same way as when you lower string break angle at the bridge by raising the stopbar or top wrap.

    (Gibson understood this and changed to 14 deg, but Norlin went back to 17 deg in the ’80s. PRS also understands this and use a 10 deg angle. Gibson is probably forever stuck with 17 deg, because its “historically correct”, many players think it looks good and believe it affects tone)

  3. OK Guitars says:

    Thanks for the insight. It makes total sense-especially the tuning issue as most 17 degree peg head Gibsons tend to stick at the nut when tuning. The difference in feel is pretty subjective though. If I sat you down with two ’65s-one with a 17 degree and one with a 14 degree, strung with the same strings, I don’t believe you could tell the difference if you were blindfolded. There are guys who say they can hear the difference between a Brazilian rosewood board and an Indian rosewood board, too but I don’t believe that either. At the other end, it’s a bit more reasonable. The difference between a stop and a trapeze can certainly be felt even though the tension on the strings is the same. On the other hand, if I lower or raise the stoptail so the angle changes by a few degrees, I don’t think most folks will perceive it. It may sound a little different but I don’t think it will feel any different. also, I think the 14 degree peghead angle had more to do with economics than anything else. The 17 degree angle requires a larger piece of mahogany and generates more wasted wood.

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