What's the problem with swapping Fender and Gibson bridges?

Issue 67 August 07, 2008

“I want to put a Tune-o-matic bridge on my Tele. Is there a problem?”

Bad bridge installation

Yep, there is! It’s all about neck set angles. Let me show you what you’re up against...

Frequently Asked Questions

Several customers have asked me how to put a Tune-o-matic on a Tele, or an archtop bridge on a Les Paul.

These modifications are doable, but they could be more trouble than you want. If you know the pitfalls, you won’t wind up with a FrankenStrat that has terrible action:

Gibson Tune-o-matic bridges are designed to lift the strings up high on a guitar with the neck angled back.

But Fenter neck joints are flat and straight. They want a much lower bridge design.

Fender bridges

To sort out which bridges work on which guitars, we can divide all guitars into three categories based on their neck/body angle:

1. Fender style

Fender bridges are very low profile, for guitars with a very shallow neck angle (zero degrees, or just a hair over). Leo Fender’s bolt-on designs don’t have a neck heel like the other two we’ll look at — everything’s kept flat like a plank. (You’ll find Fender style bridges on some neck-through body designs also, though.)

Straight flat neck body joint

2. Gibson Tune-o-matic

Pioneered by Gibson for archtop guitars, then applied to the Les Paul, the Tune-o-matic and tailpiece are for use with neck sets in the area of 1.5 to 4 degrees.

Tune-o-matic bridges

3. Archtop bridges

Bridges for archtops have a fitted wooden base to lift the strings up higher off the body. They’re used on acoustic archtops with neck sets around 3.5 degrees and up.

Archtop bridges

To make yourself a Tune-o-matic Tele:

Dan Erlewine says in the ’60s he wanted a Tune-o-matic bridge on his Fender. He hoped it would make the guitar tune better.

Tune-o-matic on a Telecaster

Chances are, if he'd just lowered his neck pickup, the strong magnetic pull would lose its effect on the bass strings and the Strat would play in tune. But Dan didn't know that back then. He’d recently built a Strat-style guitar for Jerry Garcia, who wanted an ABR-1 bridge, so Dan was in a Tune-o-matic mood.

He ground the tailpiece down to practically nothing to lower it for a workable string angle over the bridge. The result worked fine, but looking back on it Dan wishes he'd left that valuable Strat alone!

Here’s a better way:

Instead of modifying the bridge, modify one of our Tele bodies. Use a router to create a recess for the bridge. That's what I did here, for a customer who wanted a different look for his Tele.

Tele body

When you keep the neck angle in mind, it’s easier to pick a bridge for your project. Choosing the wrong one could mean you can’t adjust it high or low enough for good playing action.

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