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Knowing the different parts of the guitar is necessary and vital information every guitarist should know. This information will help you immensely when learning how to play as well as the basics of maintenance.
However, if you’re an absolute newcomer to the guitar, you might wonder what the word “headstock” means. Read on, and you’ll discover what “headstock” refers to on the guitar, and the importance of its function.
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Why Is It Called A Headstock, And Where Is It Located?
Believe it or not, “headstock” doesn’t refer to a large music festival (though it would make for a cool name). Instead, the headstock is what can be found at the very end of the guitar, opposite to its body.
In other words, you’ll find the headstock to be located at the end of the guitar’s neck. When standing a guitar upright, the headstock looks as if it’s the “head” on (what would be) an anthropomorphic guitar.
That seems simple enough, right? You’d almost think that there has to be some kind of catch; surely it can’t be that simplistic.
Well, guitarists are not known to be rocket scientists, and this simple label actually makes sense. But, when we trace the historical roots of the guitar itself, the headstock is a sort of genetic trait.
For instance, the guitar’s closest relatives (including the lute and the vihuela) all have a headstock of sorts. Even distant relatives, including the violin family, have headstocks of their own.
After centuries of use, the headstock seems to be somewhat of a permanent solution for the guitar to actually work as intended.
What Is The Importance Of The Headstock?
So, if the headstock has been a vital aspect of the guitar since the beginning, what purpose does it serve? Well, for starters, it’s usually associated with the location in which the strings are wound around the pegs.
Every guitarist will, at some point, become quite familiar with the tuning pegs on their guitar. String ends are fed into the pegs, whereafter, the guitarist turns the tuning machines to tune the strings to pitch.
This isn't the only function of the headstock, but it is perhaps the most involved with regard to the guitarist. The other important feature to be found on the headstock is the guitar’s nut.
If you’re going to put strings on an instrument, it’s important to at least have them secured at both ends. This allows the strings to vibrate without moving beyond playability, thus producing a predictable pitch.
The guitar’s bridge (found on the body) serves as one fulcrum point in securing the strings. At the other end, the nut (which is slotted for each string) keeps things in place during play.
Another thing you’ll find on the headstock is an access point to the guitar’s truss rod. This rod runs the neck’s length and adjustments made reflect how much curvature is present in the neck.
Adjusting the guitar’s truss rod is a vital skill to have in maintaining the optimal setup for playing conditions. Most guitar manufacturers will include the proper wrench associated with the guitar’s truss rod.
The only exception here with truss rods comes with vintage guitar designs. Sometimes, this truss rod access point can be found at the neck’s heel, where it conjoins the body.
Aside from these important design aspects, the headstock also serves importance in other ways. One of the most recent is the emergence of headstock tuners, which has made tuning incredibly convenient.
These tuners clip onto an open space on the headstock and measure the string vibrations to determine pitch accuracy. Due to their low cost, these tuners have become a vital and necessary accessory that every guitarist should have.
Is that all the headstock is good for? Well, actually, there’s actually a couple of functions that you might not have considered.
Some acoustic guitar players choose to attach their guitar strap to the headstock rather than a strap button. This can help place the guitar into a higher player position that could be more comfortable when standing.
Secondly, the guitar’s headstock actually plays a role in how balanced a guitar feels when in the playing position. While the body should be the heaviest, the headstock can help offset some of the weight.
Anyone who has ever played a neck-heavy guitar understands the troubles associated with neck-dive. A properly-balanced guitar adds levels of comfort without the worry that your guitar’s headstock might smack the floor.
Are All Headstocks Created Equally?
If you’ve casually browsed the endless racks of guitars at a music shop, you’ll notice a few things. Aside from the obvious differences between models, each guitar seems to have a unique headstock.
Let’s be honest for a second. Most of the guitar designs available on the market resemble each other to a certain degree.
For instance, the Fender Stratocaster and the PRS Silver Sky essentially look like the same guitar to an untrained eye. But, even the untrained eye will notice that one of the noticeable differences between these models is the headstock design.
If you’re quick on your toes, you might already have guessed the reason for this. Guitar manufacturers tend to have a customary headstock design to make the guitar models more recognizable.
It’s one of the primary reasons why Fender guitars are immediately recognizable by looking at the headstock alone. In some cases, the headstock design is just as iconic as the guitar’s body design itself.
Aside from the actual shape of the headstock, this also serves as a location to display the manufacturer’s branding. This is why everybody looks to the headstock to identify the make and model of the guitar they’re looking at.
Manufacturers use the space of the headstock in different ways, especially when it comes to acoustic guitars. You’ll often find this area adorned with inlays to make the brand logo stand out in a more appealing way.
One of the most famous instances of headstock inlays has to go to Gibson’s line of Custom Shop guitars. The Custom Les Paul, for instance, has a signature inlay that makes it identifiable compared to standard models.
However, as you’ve probably seen, headstocks differ beyond just the way that they look. What is the difference between these various headstock designs?
Common Headstock Designs
There are 2 primary headstock designs that dominate the industry. These are what are known as “6 in a line” and “3 + 3”.
If you’re confused, take a breath and remember that guitarists are not typically rocket scientists. This naming scheme actually refers to the orientation in which the tuning machines are placed.
The most common found on both acoustic and electric guitars is the “3 + 3” design. As its name suggests, each side of the headstock has 3 tuning pegs.
Some of the manufacturers you’ll find using the “3 + 3” headstock design include:
“6 in a line”, on the other hand, is exactly as it sounds. All of the tuning pegs are placed on one side of the headstock.
Perhaps the most iconic “6 in a line” manufacturer is Fender, who even uses the design on some acoustic guitars. Some manufacturers use both “3 + 3” and “6 in a line”, including:
Of course, the differences between these designs do not stop at the organization of the tuning pegs alone. There is one fundamental aspect of the headstock that plays an important role in the guitar’s overall design.
The Headstock Construction
More often than not, the guitar in your hands will have a headstock that has been glued to the neck. Depending on the color finish of the guitar, you can probably visually identify the joint.
Some guitars have the neck and the headstock as one solid piece. This is almost exclusive to the “6 in a line” design but can be found with some “3 + 3” models.
The Headstock Angle
For a guitar’s strings to ring properly without jumping out of the nut slots, an angle needs to be involved. Having the tuning pegs at an angle away from the nut applies the string tension against the nut itself.
“3 x 3” headstock designs typically place the entire headstock at a somewhat acute angle. Visually, you can see that the strings are held at an angle from the nut to the tuning pegs.
Because “6 in a line” designs are usually one entire piece of wood, the headstock is seemingly recessed away. The natural placement of the tuning pegs will hold the strings at a sufficient angle.
With the “6 in a line” headstock, it’s not uncommon to see a string tree provided for the lighter strings. A string tree is similar to a screw with a large head, under which the strings are held.
The lighter, higher-pitched strings have a greater distance to travel from nut to peg than the lower strings. String trees help to keep the angle intact without worrying over whether the strings will jump the nut slots.
How Durable Are Headstocks?
If you’re planning on playing the bar and brewery circuit, you better plan on playing in some tight spaces. Accidentally bumping the guitar on walls (or other instruments) is something that comes with the territory.
Nobody likes to purposefully bump their guitar on a brick wall (unless you’re one of those people). And, aside from the obvious detuning that happens, you might wonder if fears about the headstock are justified.
You may have seen pictures of horror story guitars where the headstock seemingly broke off of the neck. Seeing these pictures is enough to haunt you at night after a gig that was particularly cramped.
The headstocks that are primarily at the greatest risk of this happening are those with the “3 x 3” design. “6 in a line” headstocks are a little more protected by the solidity of being one whole piece of wood.
The reason this happens is probably pretty predictable and comes down to both the angle and the joint itself. Headstock angles that are a little more extreme seem to be the most prone to such breakage.
An incredible amount of force is constantly present on the guitar under normal string tension. Sometimes, a bump in the right place is enough to release the tension, much like a rubber band.
The glue used on a guitar should theoretically hold up and last a lifetime. But nothing is perfect, and improper storage routines could play a role in a headstock breaking.
The glue is pretty much the only thing holding the headstock at such an angle under heavy string tension. If a human was assigned to such a daily task for years, we’d probably buckle under the pressure, too.
While it’s nothing against the company or the guitars it produces, Gibson guitars are perhaps the most notorious for breaking. The angle is indeed fairly steep, but there is also a slight design flaw that doesn’t help at all.
More often than not, the area where the headstock and neck joins is reasonably slimmed down. This is done to make it more comfortable when playing open chords in the lower position.
Unfortunately, this does nothing in the name of reinforcement. And when a neck-heavy SG takes a good dive, it’s easy to see what could happen next.
With that being said, not all Gibson guitars are prone to this. I’ve had an SG Standard for 15 years with no such issue (though I will knock on wood).
Then again, I’ve had friends who suffered the fate of a broken headstock, one of which actually broke 3 times. Today, that particular guitar is rock-solid and can be trusted in just about any situation.
And while broken headstocks are dreadfully unfortunate and a nightmare to fathom, hope is not lost. Like my friend, many people find that repairing the headstock actually makes it stronger.
A good luthier will be able to repair your guitar and bolster the joint with a few tricks. Quite often, they’ll install reinforcement rods to make the headstock joint stronger than it ever was, to begin with.
Do Guitars Need To Have Headstocks?
The guitar and its design are steeped heavily in tradition, but that hasn’t made it exempt from evolution. Even though a headstock can be a brand’s signature identifying aspect, some guitars actually do not have headstocks.
If you’ve never seen a guitar without a headstock, prepare yourself for an unusual sight. These guitars look like something from the future, in a year far beyond the one in which we currently live.
But, in all actuality, “headless” guitars have actually been around since the 1980s. When you consider the risky, futuristic aesthetic of that decade, it all kind of makes sense.
Headless guitars have a sort of reversed construction from that of a traditional build with a headstock. Rather than feed the strings through the bridge, headless guitars string up through the nut.
From there, the strings stretch across the fretboard as usual until it reaches the guitar’s bridge. Headless guitars have their tuning machines built into the bridge, allowing you to tune as you normally would.
Make no mistake about it, headless guitars can be quite the jarring sight if you’re a traditional purist. But there’s actually some benefit to playing this type of guitar, despite being without a headstock.
The biggest benefit is the reduction in weight and the increased balance of the guitar in the playing position. You’d be surprised at how much a headstock at the end of a long neck actually weighs.
In terms of function, there really is no difference in the way these headless guitars play from traditional guitars. Due to their compact nature, they might make you feel more sleek and tactile when you do play.
It’s safe to say that the traditional designs will continue to hang around, but headless guitars remain an enigma. This slight modification might be the most innovative improvement upon the guitar since the birth of the electric guitar.
Like most improvements and discoveries, it’s taken quite a long time for the design to catch wind and become popular. But, as each decade passes by, headless guitars continue to find increased adoption.
What Is A Guitar Headstock, Final Thoughts
You probably didn’t know that there was so much to learn about when it comes to a guitar’s headstock. This design aspect that we mostly take for granted plays one of the most important roles in the guitar’s functionality.
It’s also an area that has continually seen advancement, ranging from signature headstock shapes to having none at all. When you buy your next guitar, what kind of options will you explore when it comes to the headstock?
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