The guitar headstock is the piece of the guitar that is located at the upper end of the guitar neck. This piece is attached and held by the guitar neck and holds the strings. in the guitar making industry, there are three different approaches to the headstock construction.
What are the guitar headstock types? There are three main guitar head stock types, the Straight headstock, the Tilted-back headstock and the Scarf headstock. Every brand will use these types of headstock; however, manufactures usually vary this construction and customise the design slightly.
In this article, I will take you through all the guitar headstocks in detail…
1. What is a Guitar Headstock?
The guitar headstocks main purpose is for tuning the strings and then holding the strings in place once they have been tuned. The guitar headstock is a component that houses the Nut, Tuning Pegs/Machine Heads, Trust Rod and the headstock head.
- Nut – This is the bit that the strings lean on and is located between the headstock and the fret board
- Tuning Pegs/Machine Heads – this is the component that holds the strings, and adjusts the tuning. On the headstock lie what we call the tuners or tuning pegs, what we use to tweak the strings and adjust the pitch of the sound the guitar produces.
- Trust Rod – the trust rod located above the nut on the headstock and is a pole that is turned to alter the tension of the guitar neck.
- Headstock Head – the head of the guitar is located right at the top of the headstock and is where the guitar brand/manufacturer name is displayed
Headstocks all vary in design for different types of guitar. They will naturally vary in shapes and consequently alter its purpose. Apart from aesthetic reasons guitar headstocks of different brands are also constructed differently in order to distinguish themselves to their competitors, for tonal purposes.
2. Why is the Headstock Important?
The guitar headstock is important as it houses the Nut, Tuning Pegs/Machine Heads and Trust Rod, which are all essential components to ensure your guitar functions properly. More recently, guitars are being produced without headstocks mainly because with innovations of design these components are housed on the guitars body.
Even though this is a cool design and makes the guitar noticeably lighter, there is a major flaw in this design. This mainly includes the lack of flexibility of tuning whilst playing. You are unable to tune your guitar whilst playing which makes them not ideal for playing live. They are also very expensive. Because of these two reasons, these guitars have not yet replaced the headstock entirely, still making it an essential component.
3. The “Straight” Headstock Type
The Straight headstock, as the name implies, is straight in that the headstock is not angled in any way. This method of production uses one piece of flat wood to construct both the guitar headstock and the neck.
This type of headstock is one of the most easily recognized and common thanks to the low production cost and the strength it has. This headstock type was made popular by the early Stratocaster by Fender.
Advantages of the Straight Guitar Headstock
The low expense comes from the simplicity of its design. In an industry, the capability of mass production would be desirable for the business to reduce the final cost.
By building the neck and the headstock from a single wooden plank, the cost for material can be driven down dramatically. The wood of this size can be come across easily and the decent quality can be assured at a reasonable price. Furthermore, a whole, unsawn piece of wood states the fact that the structural integrity between the neck and the headstock is solid, making the whole guitar more resilient. The secret lies in the wood grains, as they remain intact, connecting the neck to the headstock.
Disadvantages of the Straight Guitar Headstock
However, many people are not fans of this design as they claim that the angle does not push the strings down the nut hard enough, making them less solid and harder to hold the tuning. Over time, this flaw has been amended by introducing a new, more slippery material to the nut, reducing the friction and allaying this shortcoming.
The straight headstock is usually seen on mass produced guitars such as the Telecaster and Stratocaster by Squier or the budget products from Jackson or Yamaha.
4. The Tilted-back Guitar Headstock
The Tilted back headstock, or the angled non – jointed headstock, forms a pronounced angle with the neck. Similar to the straight headstock, the tilted back requires one whole piece of wood to produce. But also different from the straight one, the tilted back headstock requires a larger amount of material due to the curve, which is why the production is also higher as a result.
The Tilted back guitar headstock can be seen on mid to high – end guitars, such as Ibanez or Gibson, despite the latter receiving the notoriety from it.
Advantages of the Tilted-back Headstock
The angled headstock was designed to minimise the flaw inherent in the straight headstock. The strings held by the angled headstock will be slotted deeper into the grooves on the guitar nut. This construction allows little wiggling to the guitar strings, making them less likely to slip out or detune. On a side note, many believe that the wholeness of the material makes the tone more lively, producing a vibrant and expressive sound.
Disadvantages of the Tilted-back Headstock
But there is a notion that the tilted back headstock comes short in structural integrity. The angle exerts considerable tension on the headstock and the neck, rendering it more liable to breaking. In fact, this is not a myth without evidence. The angled headstocks on Gibson guitars have notoriously succumbed to this misery. The cause to this issue is the short wood grain between the guitar neck and headstock, where the guitar is thinnest, and thus, weakest.
The Tilted back headstock is also expensive to produce. Firstly, it requires more material to form the angle. This method results in a huge amount of excess and waste material. Secondly, more material to work with is equivalent to longer manufacturing time. These reasons are behind the high price tag of a guitar having this feature.
A complex guitar headstock would require a high level of craftsmanship and many working hours. Thus, manufacturing it is an exclusive domain for expert luthiers, and consequently, restrict the design from the average workers.
5. The Scarf Headstock
The Scarf headstock shares the same angled appearance as the tilted back headstock. The difference is in its design: one single straight piece of wood will be cut into two separate pieces to form the neck and the headstock. Creating an angled joint between the headstock and the neck which are glued together.
A scarf joint is consists of cutting the wood therefore there are two places the wood can be joined backtogether to form the angel. cut, but we won’t go into that here) and
Advantages of the Scarf Headstock
The similarity in the angle with the tilted back has also earned this guitar headstock its advantages: stability in the strings and overall tone of the guitar. This approach in design, in addition, has given the guitar a more solid build. As the grains across the neck and the headstock are aligned, the structure as a whole is fortified.
Disadvantages of the Scarf Headstock
The material involved in making this headstock is the same as the straight headstock: one straight piece of wood. As a result, this method requires not as much material expense as the tilted back headstock and for that reason, should be cheaper to produce. And as it is made from fewer material, luthiers can ensure the quality of the wood at a low price.
However, this headstock is one step more complicated than the straight headstock. The processes of cutting and gluing together these two pieces require more time and a certain mastery in making guitars. So while it is certainly cheaper than the tilted back headstock, its price still is not as friendly as the straight headstock design.
6. Explained: What are the Different Parts of a Guitar Headstock?
Located between the machine heads and the fret board, the guitar nut holds the strings in position, preventing them from slipping out and detuning. A guitar nut is usually made from hard and dense materials. This tradition comes from the fact that dense material will convey the sound more easily, producing a gentle and vibrant sound. The preferred materials for the nut are traditionally ebony, ivory or bone. However, these materials are rare and very expensive, and acquiring them in large quantities can be considered an act of felony. As a countermeasure, some manufacturers have developed new materials, boasting the same traits as those but not at the expense of animal lives. Brands such as Graphtech have succeeded in introducing the material Tusq, assuring the delivery of a rich and crystal clear sound. For budget guitars, the most common material is plastic.
The nut is designed with grooves engraved on to serve as slots for the strings. The nut is directly responsible for the quality of the guitar sound when played on open strings. The nut also needs to be smooth and without rough edges, as these can damage the strings overtime. To diminish the friction between the strings and the nut, graphite can be applied to the grooves.
Tuning Pegs/Machine Heads
On either side of the guitar headstock are the machine heads, used for tuning the pitch of the instrument. While many traditional stringed musical instruments feature mechanisms mainly depending on friction to hold the strings, guitar machine heads feature gears for this task. The gears impede any movements of the capstan independent of the knob. Also, the gears can be oiled and allow more precision in tuning.
These apparatus differ from a classical guitar to a modern or folk guitar. For the classical guitar, the machine heads are located on the two sides of the headstock. The gears in this case are exposed, usually slotted in ornate braces above plastic tuning knobs. The modern steel – stringed guitar has these gears encased in metal housing, unexposed. This design offers more protection to the gears. The gears inside are lubricated permanently. Additionally, the machine heads are placed on the backside of the headstock, as opposed to their classical counterparts.
The truss rod is a rugged metal bar running inside the entire guitar neck. The truss rod can be adjusted at the exposed end of the guitar neck, above the nut or at the other end, inside the guitar body. Apart from allowing the players to adjust the guitar action, the passive function of the truss rod is to add strength to the neck, prevent it from breaking under changes in the environment and physical trauma.
The truss rod, in general, includes two types: single action and dual action.
Single action truss rod allows players to bend the neck slightly backward. This type of truss rod is mainly the countermeasure to the neck bending to the tension of the strings over time. The main advantage of this truss rod lies in its weight and the ease for the guitar builder. However, it is much more vulnerable to the changes in the atmosphere, which could affect the neck to bend in either direction depending on the humidity.
On the other hand, dual action truss rods can either bend the neck to the tension of the string or to counter it. Dual action truss rods are heavier but also more rigid, and susceptible to the outside conditions. This type, in addition, permits the player to experiment with the truss rod, as while many people like to lower the action for easy and fast execution, there are those, myself included, like to sacrifice this pleasure for a more resonant sound.
The headstock head, or head of the headstock is the area which the manufacturers logo sits.
A volute is located on a scarf headstock joint and is a slight ridge on the weaker area to provide support and tuning stability to guitars with a headstock that is angled.
I like to provide clarity and so I will go into slightly more detail about what a volute is. A “Volute” or also known as a “carved heel” is a triangular reinforced beam located at the point between the headstock and the fret board.
These are only relevant to tilted headstocks because the tilted headstock has a weak point at the point where the headstock and fret board join (scarf joint).
This reinforced beam is a thickening of the wood usually triangular, as triangles are known to be the strongest form.
Like the instrument, the headstock has been developed and modified throughout the years. From sharing its design with the violin or the lute, the headstock of a guitar now has its own distinct shape.
Overall, every manufacturer and brand have adopted their very own head stock design however, they all are one of the three headstock types; straight, tilt or scarf headstocks.