Trapeze vs Stoptail in the Real World

Which 2 screws are going to transmit sound to the body better? The little teeny ones that connect the trap tail to the end of the center block or the big, fat, one inch steel studs that go smack into the middle of the center block? I'm going to guess the studs are the better sound medium

Those of us who are fortunate enough to be able to play stoptail equipped 1958-64 ES 335s and 345s generally believe that the stoptail or stop tail is the best way to anchor strings to a guitar. It makes sense too. The stop tail studs anchor almost a full inch into the center block and this would presumably get the thing vibrating pretty well which should, in theory make the guitar sound like a maple bodied solid body guitar. The block, being attached to the top of the guitar should get it vibrating as well, acting something like a laminate bodied acoustic.  Contrast this to the trapeze method of anchoring strings. the idea was to get the top of the guitar vibrating by suspending the strings above it and not have anything attached to the top of the guitar that would impede its vibrations. I’m not sure how much sense that makes, given that some very fine sounding acoustic guitars anchor the strings to a bridge glued to the top of the guitar. Those things tend to vibrate pretty well. But, I guess the bridge on a trapeze tail would serve that same function. But for a guitar with a center block, it seems the stop tail would be the better method of generating sound. That’s simple logic and Physics 101-sound travels best through a solid. The trapeze tail is connected directly to the end of the center block by two little screws and the strap pin screw. That can’t be the same as a one inch long heavy steel stud, can it? Well, let’s throw out the theory and look at the practicality. I recently acquired a trapeze tail 1965 ES-335 with a big fat ’64 type neck. Since I had a 64 available with a stop tail, I thought I would do a little test to see if maybe one of them sounded better or sustained better or had better or at least different frequency response. I haven’t started posting audio clips but I probably should. For now, you will have to take my word for what I found.  First, let’s examine what is different about a trapeze tail beyond the way the sound is transferred to the body of the guitar. A trapeze has a much shallower string break angle and it tends to be rather flexible. The obvious physics here is that it shouldn’t really make much difference the string tension is the same no matter what the break angle because tension is what creates pitch and break angle doesn’t affect how tense the string is. But does it affect the downward pressure on the bridge? Logic says yes but does that necessarily change anything. I found this quote on one of the forums: “Steeper angle = snappier, more biting tone; shallower angle = less bite, more even tone.” That would indicate that the stop tail would be more biting and the trap, less. Makes sense, no? Then there’s the argument that the string will bend more easily if the downward force is less (shallower string break angle). That seems not to make logical sense since the tension is the same but I guess you could argue that the bend action is affected by the part of the string beyond the bridge and the amount of downward force on the bridge. I  dunno. What I do know is that I have 2 nearly identical guitars that are set up pretty much the same. They have similar pickups and similar bridges. One has a stop and a pretty extreme break angle and the other has a trap and a more shallow break angle. Here’s where I leave the computer and go play the two guitars. OK, I’m back and here are my findings. On the issue of sustain, no difference at all. They both sustain beautifully. One the issue of string bending ease, exactly the same. And I should mention that I perceived no movement of the trapeze when I bent the strings as far as I could. There are those who believe that the trapeze moves under heavy bending. As far as “snappier” tone from the stop, I found little evidence to support that even though it makes some logical sense to me. But they did sound different. I can’t say that one sounded better than the other but the overall tone was not the quite the same.  I have it on very good authority from a pro player who is very knowledgeable about 335’s (and others) that when you switch a trap tail to a stop (or vice versa, although that rarely happens) you can change the tone of the guitar. Tone is very subjective and hard to describe but it has to do with the interaction of all the components of a guitar-electronic and structural.  When you change the physical dynamics of that delicate interaction, you are going to change the way the guitar sounds. I don’t think you’ll change the feel very much but tone is a whole ‘nother thing. This same player tells the story of a ’67 ES-335 that sounded magical and had a trapeze. His thinking? Well, if it sounds this good with a trap, imagine how great it will sound with a stop. Then he made the very invasive modification. To his shock and dismay, the magic was gone and the guitar sounded merely ordinary. So, there is a difference in how a stop and trap work with the rest of the components.  The problem is that it isn’t terribly predictable or even all that quantifiable without some pretty sophisticated test equipment. The lesson is that if your 335 sounds good the way it is, don’t try to change it. Or put more simply: If it ain’t broke…you know the rest.

7 Responses to “Trapeze vs Stoptail in the Real World”

  1. Mike says:

    I’ve owned both and concur with your findings. Changing to a Bigsby from either tailpiece will also change the tone…good or bad would be a matter of personal taste. Maybe this will help knock off some of the prejudice against the much-maligned trapeze.

  2. Eric Parker says:

    For years I played out on a ’66 ES 345, first with a trap, then stop-tailed. I used to play very loud in a very loud band, and the trap allowed the top to vibrate, leading to uncontrollable feedback. Stuffed it wth rags, etc, no go: it still fed back like crazy (maybe the top wasn’t glued completely to the center block?). HAD to stop-tail it and that ended the feedback problem: DEFINITELY sounded and played differently. Not better/worse, just DIFFERENT, (with a much less “live” top).

  3. Eric Parker says:

    For years I played out on a ’66 ES 345, first with a trap, then stop-tailed. I used to play very loud in a very loud band, and the trap allowed the top to vibrate, leading to uncontrollable feedback. Stuffed it with rags, etc, no go: it still fed back like crazy (maybe the top wasn’t glued completely to the center block?). HAD to stop-tail it and that ended the feedback problem: DEFINITELY sounded and played differently. Not better/worse, just DIFFERENT, (with a much less “live” top).

  4. OK Guitars says:

    Well, Eric, I think that kind of halfway agrees with my bedroom volume findings. I found no difference in how they play but certainly different in how they sound. My test was anything but scientific. The next time I come across a former trap tail that’s been converted to a stop, I’ll do the test using the same guitar. I have a 65 ES-345 incoming that I could probably use for that test since it has a stop on it now (unless it was one of the rare original 65 stops which I doubt. I also played a trap tail very loudly back in the day when I gigged and we were plenty loud and I never had a feedback problem. And when I say loud, I mean Fender Showman loud in big cavernous college and high school gymnasiums.

  5. Theo Dahlem says:

    I used to play a mid 60ies ES 335 mono w. a maestro (Can’t remember the exact year) Compared to my 1975 (?) 335 TDW w. a trap, the 355 sounded lower in volume when played unplugged. It was also less woody and less big boxish than my trap ES 335. It was comparably more like a solid body than my 335 w. a trap.
    Now, that’s probably from the guitar’s more open design as a result of the center block not stretching all the way through the body. But other than that I feel that the trap gives the guitar more high mid range and trebles.
    It is known to most Telecaster players that the normal body through bridge design w. it’s steep break angle does give the tone more power and more profound tone in the lower range than the so called top loader Telecaster which is a rare 50ies bird (Not many top loader produced). The top loader models do not load the strings through the body.
    That’s known to many guitar builders and players a s well, so deciding on string retention design of any kind is not only a cosmetic thing but a serious method of how to tweak a guitars overall tonal character.
    A trap has only very low pressure on the bridge and therefore does not transform the lows that much. That’s a good thing IMO as it helps the ES to be less muddy and also to keep a good definition.
    While stop tale guitars sound more solid, the trap seems to give my 355 guitar more sparkle and some nice tonal effect that I can’t describe in words. Think of a tremolo equipped Statocaster where, opposed to the non tremolo guitars, the strings in the back of the body give your tone some subtle or not so subtle reverb effect.
    I feel that similar is going on w. the trap and the extra portion of strings behind the bridge.
    I took my trap ES to a big guitar store and compared it with some of the high prized ES models that all of them had stop tail. Same here again. Those other fancy ones all did sound good w. a lot of snap and sustain to the tone but quite ordinary at the same time. My trashy laminated 335 w. its’ trapeze sounded a lot more like what you would expect from an ES to sound like. Not like those fancy new ones that try to give a Telecaster a rally.
    To compensate for the short center block I installed about 10 home made sound posts out of super hard oak wood. These snuggly connect the lower and upper portion of the center block. The result is an audible improvement in sound definition (tighter lower strings) and an improvement in sustain as well.
    All in al I’m in great favor of a trap for the many reasons mentioned above. To me it sounds and looks better. All IMO

  6. cgelber says:

    Very interesting observations. I spend so little time with 70’s guitars that I have to defer to your judgment on the reasons for the increased resonance. I agree, the short center block is the likely reason. I recently had a 79 ES-335 in my hands for awhile and will be writing about it soon. It was a factory stop (rare) and the top ply was birch rather than maple. It didn’t have a short center block either which struck me as unusual.

  7. Little Leroy says:

    Great post, Charlie. Which makes me realize I have to go back and read your entire oeuvre. 😉

    It does seem “everyone” wants the stoptails and is willing to pay more for them than the trap guitars. My concern with the trap has always been, “does it stay in tune?” and the solution seemed to be get a stoptail and you won’t have to worry about it.

    Then you pointed out to me in a recent conversation that many of the great jazz guitars have some kind of trap tailpiece and wow! That was something this rock n’ roller hadn’t considered ’til that moment. Granted, jazzers aren’t bending strings a minor 3rd or a 4th, but the point is made.

    Now I may be to only guy reading your blog and visiting your site and buying guitars from you who loves the sound of an ES-330. Yet who doesn’t love the sound of vintage P-90s? My ’52 Les Paul sounds amazing (2 p90s and a trap) and I’ve owned a wonderful ’62 ES-330 (that I should not have sold, of course). But they do feedback like crazy and p90s buzz like any single coil and isn’t that why Seth came up with the humbucker design? A P90 that doesn’t hum?

    So it does make sense to me that the trap 335s may have more of that open, woody sound that I love in the ES-330. They could be the perfect balance between the 330’s feedback, the P90’s hum and the stoptail guitars’ heavy low end.

    If they stay in tune.

    ~ LL ~

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