Have you ever wondered why some guitars have a pickguard and others do not? Some guitars cannot operate without them, whilst others exclude them.
What is a pick guard? A pick guard (also referred to as a scratch plate) is laminated plastic used to protect the body of the guitar from being scratched caused by picking. If guitarists have heavy picking they could unintentionally but permanently, damage the wood of the body and the pick guard is used to take the beating.
In this article, we will discuss more about the types of pick guards in more detail, so that you will get a better understanding of your options.
1. What is a Guitar Pick Guard / Scratch Plate?
A pick guard is also known as a scratch plate, finger rest and scratch guard and is a thin laminated material that is positioned behind the strings on the body of a guitar.
Plastic is a very common material that is used for a pick guard but you may also see other materials such as Plywood, Glass, Metal & Acrylics. Moreover, any material can be used; in some rarer cases even exotic woods, fur, gold, silver, abalone pearl and even gems are used.
2. Why is a Guitars Pick Guard Important?
A pick guard is important for many reasons. They were originally installed to protect the finish of the instrument. However, as electric guitars entered the scheme they were used as access points to the electronics.
A pick guard it very important and serves Four main functions:
- Protect the guitars finish – Aggressive strumming with a pick can easily damage the polished surface of the guitar’s soundboard. It may also be used for protecting the guitars finish from being scratched from constant strumming.
- Autograph – A pick guard can also be used for famous people to sign it and leave their autograph. A signed pick guard can be easily removed and changed if needed.
- Decoration – a pick guard can be used for decoration that is often used with a contrasting colour to add some character to the guitars design and aesthetics.
- Access Electronics – Whilst some brands access the electronics from the rear of the guitar, some brands such as Fender will provide access to the electronics by removing the pickguard at the front of the guitar.
As discussed a pick guard has a specific function to protect the guitar but it also serves a purpose of enhancing aesthetics and design. As guitars became electrified, the pick guard was increasingly used as a mounting device for pickups (especially for Fender designs). In the early electric guitars the pick guard had become an essential part of the structural integrity as well as just protecting the finish from getting scratched.
3. Acoustic Guitar Pick Guards
Pick guards made for acoustic guitars are designed with plastic and usually 2mm in thickness. The common material is PVC whereby adhesive is used and the pick guard is placed just beneath the sound hole.
It is essential when fitting pick guards to acoustic guards that the material does not exceed 2mm in thickness as this is known to reduce the sound vibration. If the material exceeds 2mm of thickness then it is likely to affect both the tone and volume of the instrument.
Removing the Pick Guard for Acoustic
There are times you would want to replace your pick guard, mainly when it is old, scratched and beaten from years of practice. The good news is that a pick guard can be easily removed and replaced. You would go through the process of heating the glue with a light (this makes glue unset and easily remove) and then using a blunt object to prize under an area where the bond between the plastic and wood is broken.
If you have no experience in changing the pick guard then I would advise that you give it to a luthier or a guitar technician. Unless you are looking to learn, then practice on a cheap guitar that does not hold much value.
When playing finger style acoustic guitar the pick guard is a common place to get percussive sounds effect from. It is common to be used to hit with the pores of your fingers to make a beat and access the 3rd beat (as a snare drum replacement).
When playing a guitar acoustically you may hear a slight difference in tone with and without a pickguard comparison. But, how much does this impact your tone?
There is a debate around this subject and it is hard to know for sure, as there are so many variables that need to be factored in and there are no controlled experiments that I am aware of.
Overall, I will say the smallest changes in tone can have massive impact when you are in the studio. When you start adding effects and laying instruments these differences will really stand out. But, I don’t think this will change the overall character of the acoustic guitar and I would argue it won’t sound better or worse for it. Rather, it may sound a little different so its nothing to really worry about.
4. Electric Guitar Pickguards
Even though the pick guard serves as protection on electric guitars it is also an access point to the electrics. Brands such as Fender will render the pick guard over a hole on the guitar body. This will be held by screws and behind it will store the electronic components such as the pickup electrics, potentiometers, switches and wiring.
This means you access the electronics of the guitar from the front end of the guitar. Other brands such as ESP will not even have a pick guard and they will mount the electrics under the pick ups which you can access from the back of the guitar.
Removing the Pick Guard from Electric Guitars
If you own a Fender then removing the pick guard is very easy, all you need to do is remove the screws, and it would come straight off. However, these types of guitars are required to always have a pick guard as it is built into the integral part of the design.
Other brands may have it glued down. If this is the case, you are able to remove it permanently. This can be done easily if you heat the pick guard up with a light (to unset the glue) and then use a blunt object to separate the plastic from the wood.
If you were to listen to an electric guitar unplugged (acoustically) then you will hear the difference in tone by changing the pick guard. However, once the guitar is plugged in to an amp or some kind of recording device then you will not hear any difference in tone.
From my experience, the main points of tone come from the strings, pickups, wood type and nut from an electric guitar. In my opinion the pick guard does not make any noticeable changes when dealing with electric guitars.
5. Common Pick Guard Materials
As discussed earlier pick guards can be made from any kind of material (within 2mm thickness). However, there are certain materials that work better than others for both manufacturing purpose and functionality.
The three most common pick guard materials:
- Celluloid – Celluloid is a material that was common with “vintage” guitars and can come in a number of colours, but is no longer used as it flaws with the material. A few flaws include being extremely flammable (just by smoking next to it can cause it to set alight), it tends to shrink and change shape which can cause cracks to show on the instrument.
- Vinyl (PVC) – Vinyl is by far the most popular and you will probably find it on 90% of the guitars out there. This material comes in any desirable colour, it is not flammable and will not shrink overtime.
- Acrylic glass – Acrylic glass is transparent, it is not flammable just like PVC and will not shrink overtime.
As discussed, you can make a pick guard out of any material. However, these three are most common for manufacturing purposes, functionality and tone.
Major brands in manufacturing avoid metal pick guards as they cause electric and magnetic interference with the pickups. The differences between metal and plastic create changes that can be very noticeably heard. This is because surrounding a pickup has a conductive or ferrous material that can alter its inductance and interfere with the pickups magnetic field that alters the natural frequencies that are produced.
Zemaitis guitars purposely use aluminium pickguards that is a unique characteristic of its tone. However, it is necessary to avoid metal and select pickups that will match and complement each other, especially when dealing with metal pickguards.
6. Pick Guard Types
There are many types of pickguards on the market. All serve a different purpose in functionality and design. In this section, I will cover all the types of pick guards providing you with a good understanding of the options available to you.
Floating Pick Guards
A floating pickguard (also known as an arch top pickguard) is a piece of material that has been raised slightly by metal support brackets. It is floating because as one side is raised off the ground allows you to adjust the height, with a thickness of around 100-.125mm thick.
The floating pickguard is commonly seen on carved-top solid body guitars (such as the Gibson Les Paul) and arch-top hollow-body guitars (such as the Gretch Chet Atkins Country Gentleman).
Gibson originally introduced this design in 1909 with its arch-top acoustic models such as the Gibson L-1.
Clear Pick Guards
Clear pickguards are transparent and thin which is similar to vinyl stickers. They are easily detachable meaning you can replace them easily. They remove like vinyl stickers that cling to glass and are perfect for those guitarists that do not like the aesthetics of a pickguard but are afraid of damaging their guitars finish.
They are like adding a screen protector to your touch screen smart phone. You have to apply with much care or else bubbles will find their way between your pick guard and the body of the guitar. Just like a phone screen protector you start by placing one side first and then slowly stick the rest towards the middle with a rolling motion.
Even though these can be cut with scissors you must cut this material with a template or purchase from a shop as to get a professional finish can be a challenge.
Pre-made Pick Guards
Pre-made pickguards come in one traditional shape. They come in many tort and multi-colours covered with a faux tort pattern covered by a clear top laminate.
These will usually be stuck down by glue and so removing them can be a problem as sometimes it will leave a line around the outside of the woodwork and permanently ruin the finish.
These are a cheap option and can be purchased from any music store for around £10.00.
Hand-Made Pick Guards
Sometimes you will find that ‘pre made pickguards’ are not available in the right shape or size. This means you will be required to create your own hand-made pick guard.
Usually after removing the original pickguard, you will use it as a template. You would then get the replacement material and scribe the edges with an awl. When a deep channel is made you can go over it a few times so the material will separate and be snapped free. From here the edges will need to be smoothened out, beveled and buffed.
There are some retailers that specialise in handmade pick guards, they will have a catalogue of templates that you will be able to choose from.
The 1965 humming bird featured a thick pickguard and even though it looked beautiful, the pick guard was very unpopular for two reasons:
- Damped the tone – thick pickguards are known to be tone killers as they are placed over an essential resonator being the sound hole. A thicker pickguard will diminish the frequencies and ruin the overall tone of the instrument.
- Decay – as time goes on thick pickguards will begin to show a shattered like pattern. Eventually, this will lead to the pickguard starting to feel like the body of the guitar and it will eventually need to be replaced.
Thick pickguards are not that common but you can still find them on the market. These are usually three times the thickness of the standard pickguard and have three layers of wood pattern.
Inlaid pickguards refer to the technique of stamping a pattern of your choice onto your pickguard. It is for decorative purpose only which are set in the exterior of the material. These do not pose any advantages or disadvantages as any kind of pickguard can be inlaid.
7. Does a Pickguard Effect the Sound of your Instrument?
The guitar body is the main resonator that produces the tone, resonance and amplitude of the instrument and by applying a plastic plate may slightly interfere with the free flowing vibrations. In some cases, a pick guard will affect the sound of your instrument whilst other cases it may not. This is dependent on three things:
- Material – Usually, the thicker the pickguard the more a pick guard may have a smaller effect on the tone of an instrument.
- Thickness – Also, metals can also affect the tone of electric and electric acoustic guitars because of the electromagnetic interference
Overall, when coming to tone and resonance the pickguard will do more harm than good if you are not careful. Jazz players will use floating bridges for this reason.
8. Does a guitar need a pickguard?
For many guitars, the pickguard is only aesthetic. Truthfully, the majority of guitarists do not even need pickguards as most guitarists do not harm their guitar by strumming too hard. However, Fenders use the pick guard as an access point to access the electrics.
8. Do pick guards shrink?
Overtime, it is known for pickguards to shrink. If it is attached by glue then it can pull hard enough to crack the body. A shrinking pickguard can crack your guitar.
9. Can I take the pickguard off my guitar?
Removing a pickguard is not a problem, however, it can get messy if you do not unset the glue to begin with. You can use a light or a hair dryer to heat up the pick guard and unset the glue. You can then use a blunt object to help separate it from the guitar.
To note: Do not leave the heat on for too long and it may upset the wood. You just want to unset the glue so the plastic will gently release.
A pick guard will help protect the guitars finish from getting scratched and fading away.
On some guitars, the electrics are accessed through the pickguard. On these types of guitar the pickguard is an integral part of the guitar’s overall form.
However, I would argue that it is not a necessity, you could live without a pick guard and your guitar will sound just as good.