Excuse me, Butler, please assist with these guitar strings!
EXCUSE ME, BUTLER, PLEASE ASSIST WITH THESE GUITAR STRINGS!
Machine heads, break angles, string trees, binding, nuts, slot width, etc: what on Earth does it all mean?! And for that matter, why is that damn G string always the one string that’s out of tune?! While many guitars are instantly identifiable by their headstocks, it turns out that many of these iconic designs look the way they do for reasons beyond aesthetics.
When you tune your guitar, do you ever think about the design of the headstock as you go? Did you learn to tune on a 3x3 or an inline headstock? If you’re a Fender guy, you know the inline 6 feel, Jackson- that [often] inverted 6, and for PRS/Gibson players you know the 3 by 3 feel. If you tune a guitar you’re not used to, you’ll know how your muscle memory will throw you for a loop as you try to tune. But what gives? Besides the looks and ergonomics, there has to be more to this layout than meets the eye, and as with just about every piece on the guitar, there is. So let’s open up another can of worms, this time on headstock design and tuning stability.
A headstock’s main purpose is to provide a solid anchoring point for the machine heads, located at - you guessed it - the head of the instrument. These machine heads are what provide the rotational mechanical adjustment needed to bring a string up to, or down to pitch (and ideally hold it there!). While there are some more unconventional guitars that feature tuners elsewhere, or even some guitars like Strandbergs or Kiesels with NO headstock at all, the headstock is one of the most commonly-used and interacted-with part of a guitar.
Most headstocks shapes fall into 3 main schools of design: the curved inline 6 (Fender style), the straight/inverted inline 6 (Jackson, ESP, Washburn), and the symmetrical/asymmetrical 3 by 3 (Gibson style). Within these three schools, there are countless different ways to skin the proverbial cat. Some manufacturers have found ways to make small changes to the above schools. Others have thrown the rulebook completely out the window with extreme designs like the Dean Flying V headstock or the MJ Mirage’s “hollow” inverse headstock (both of which happen to provide clean break angles and straight shots to the nut, but more on that later).
As with many things Fender, it turns out Leo got the headstock right too. Maybe it’s because he wasn’t a guitarist, or he just had a knack for drawing things with the perfect marriage of form and function; but the Fender headstock effortlessly blends what many argue is THE most attractive guitar headstock of all time, with purely elegant function that “just works.”
Leo’s design has served as the inspiration for countless others with his classic, tried-and-true, 6 in a row, line-em-up tuner design. Not only does the Fender design have that iconic rounded look, but the pegs are also arranged in such a way that the strings are guided in perfectly straight lines directly to their respective nut slots. This straight line/path is what we refer to as “zero break angle” because the strings do not break left or right as they pass through the nut. Now, there are also multiple kinds of Fender headstocks with different logos and with and without trees, but that’s another ball of wax for another day - we’re only trying to fall down one rabbit hole here!
This leads us to the 3x3 design school, which our revered Gibsons make use of. It is yet another iconic headstock that just “looks right,” with all the proper rock and roll vibes. It’s a design that is simple, symmetric, and the source of visual inspiration for dozens of builders. However, if you’ve ever played a Gibbo, you may have found yourself cursing at the damn thing for not staying in tune … especially that damn G string! Or maybe you have found that the guitar seems to tune “roughly” - and small movements on the tuning keys equate to overshooting the pitch you are aiming for. You can try new nuts, enlarged slots, graphite lubricants, locking tuners, different string winding techniques and robot tuners to no avail. The problem here stems from binding strings. Companies like PRS have created workarounds with their staggered 3x3 pegs on their asymmetric headstock to allow for straight shots. However, it still leaves players with a cool vintage Les Paul style guitar they love, but wish had more stable tuning. Well, before you lose your mind trying to figure out how to improve an old design, German guitar gurus Dietrich Parts come to the rescue!
Dietrich has found a non-destructive way to modify your beloved guitar and problematic headstock. The solution is a beautifully simple aftermarket part that allows these 3x3 tuners to run in straight lines. With a simple piece of machined metal and roller bearings, Dietrich’s String Butler reroutes the break angles to higher up on the headstock away from the nut where the binding usually occurs that causes tuning issues. Since the break angles were moved to the String Butler, the new break angles are now passing over smooth roller bearings (NOT at the nut) which easily eliminates all binding. After being routed around these rollers, the string then passes in a perfectly straight line to the nut. Best of all, the String Butler installs around the guitar’s machine heads, which means there’s no holes to be drilled, and no gluing; so you can always reverse the process later if you want to return the guitar to stock.
Since almost all of us guitar folks are skeptical, especially of these cheaper “too good to be true” mods, you may find yourself asking: does this thing even work? Does it really solve tuning issues and create a more stable guitar? You’ll definitely want to watch this video from GCH Guitar Academy, in which he seeks to find out if it works and if you need one. In this video demo, he modifies his own Gibson-esque “SHINE” guitar with the String Butler. His main issue with the instrument was that it would not tune up “smoothly” due to binding at the nut.
After installing the String Butler, pay attention to how GCH also routes his strings to the INSIDE of the machine head rollers, because this again, decreases the break angles, ensuring the String Butler works at its best. Wait until about 11 minutes in when they are showcasing the extreme closeups of the strings moving past the rollers - who knew the strings moved that much during tuning? These rollers are a crucial part of the String Butler’s design and effectiveness.
Finally, here is one last great watch for all you skeptics, where our old friend Darrell Braun gives his String Butler the ultimate test by putting his Epiphone Les Paul’s G string through the most hilarious and comical multi-step bends in a quest to try to push the guitar out of tune! Can Darrell get it to go flat? Did the String Butler work in this ridiculous torture test that no normal player would ever do? Watch below to find out if the String Butler can take the heat!