What is a Guitar Headstock and Why Is It Important?

Published Categorized as Guitar Information

Well, what is a guitar headstock? Is it as important as people say? If so, why?

All this and more today as we explore the guitar headstock in concept in thorough detail!

Introduction to Guitar Headstocks

What is a headstock? Well, a headstock is that part of a guitar’s anatomy (or that of similar stringed instruments such as a lute, mandolin, banjo, ukulele, and others of the lute lineage) at the top of the instrument.

The main function of a headstock is to house the tuning pegs or other mechanism that holds the strings at the “head” of the instrument – it corresponds to a pegbox in the violin family.

At the “tail” of the instrument the strings are usually held by a tailpiece or bridge. Machine heads on the headstock are commonly used to tune the instrument by adjusting the tension of strings and, consequently, the pitch of sound they produce.

Their role in the tuning of an instrument cannot be understated as they are almost always the central mechanism by which this is done on a guitar, along with those various other stringed instruments listed above.

Types of Guitar Headstocks

The two traditional layouts of guitar tuners are called “3+3” (3 top tuners and 3 bottom ones) and “6 in line” tuners, though many other combinations are known, especially for bass guitars and non-6-string guitars.

When there are no machine heads (i.e. tuners are not needed or located in some other place, for example, on the guitar body), the guitar headstock may be missing completely, as in the Steinberger guitar or some Chapman stick models, both of which are purported to offer better tuning stability as a result.

In terms of the instrument’s construction, the headstock may be carved separately and glued to the neck using some sort of joint (such as a scarf joint). There are two major trends in headstock construction, based on how the string will go after passing the nut. The advantages and disadvantages of both trends are very debatable and subjective, so these two variants are used:

  • Straight headstocks form a single plane with a flat surface of the neck (and fingerboard). This makes the neck and headstock easier to manufacture and they can be constructed from a single piece of wood. Fender usually uses non-angled, straight headstocks. Because of the low angle of the string over the nut, string trees may be used to avoid the string coming out of the nut while playing.
  • Angled headstocks form some kind of acute angle with a surface of the neck. The value of the “magic angle” (called headstock pitch) that gives the best tone and stability is also very debatable, but it is usually in a range from 3° to 25°.

Luthiers of both styles frequently cite better sound, longer sustain, and improved tuning stability as advantages of each style. Fragile construction is cited as a disadvantage of each style too – single-piece necks are more likely to break on occasional hits and are harder to repair, while glued-in necks can break with time.

Anatomy of a Headstock

Of course, while a headstock is an incredibly important part of a guitar, it also consists of important parts in and of itself.

  • Tuning pegs: any of the pegs in the neck of a stringed musical instrument around which the strings are wound, and which are turned to adjust their tension and so tune the instrument, arguably one of the most important parts of a guitar overall.
  • Logo: apart from its main function, the headstock is an important decorative detail of a guitar, for it is the place where the overwhelming majority of guitar manufacturers draw their logos. Some guitars without machine heads have a headstock for purely decorative reasons in this way.
  • Truss rod: a component of a guitar or other stringed instrument that stabilizes the lengthwise forward curvature of the neck. Usually, it is a steel bar or rod that runs through the inside of the neck, beneath the fingerboard.

The Function of Headstocks

The headstock is traditionally used for supporting the mechanical assemblies used to wind the strings, although in some modern designs, string winding is done at the bridge.

The headstock serves as a support for the tuners but also plays an important role in the overall sound of the instrument. The stiffer the headstock and neck/headstock joint, the more the instrument will tend to keep the vibration to the strings intact for the benefit of sustain.

Of course, some musicians attempt to forego the headstock altogether, opting instead for an instrument without a headstock in favor of one at the bridge.

The lack of weight at the headstock in such instances means that if the guitar should fall down, there is much less momentum being built up, and the odds of surviving the fall without damage are better. When tuning the guitar, you can fret notes with the fretting hand and comfortably access the tuners with the picking hand.

Headstock Maintenance

The headstock is a weak point on many guitars, particularly ones made from mahogany, and every Gibson owner will be privy to the dangers!

The headstock’s weakness can be due to a variety of factors: a change in the direction of the timber grain, weakening due to the truss rod access hole, heavy tuners, and the fact that the wood is not that dense can all be to blame.

Compared with a maple Fender Strat neck, we have denser timber, a no-grain direction change, and only that small sculpting behind the nut.

Of course, for many, maintaining the headstock will be as simple as giving it a clean every now and then.

Polishing the finish is excellent guitar care, but before you reach for your guitar polish, be sure you’ve taken the time to remove any dust or fingerprints from the guitar with only your microfiber cloth. Failing to remove hard debris like metal flakes will result in scratches to your beautiful glossy finish.

Once you’re confident that any unwanted debris has been removed, spray your cloth with the guitar polish and lightly wipe down the guitar in circular patterns. Be sure to get the back of the neck and headstock and try not to leave any residue behind.

Common Issues and Solutions

As already elucidated above, it can be very common to see a beloved Les Paul, SG, or acoustic with a neck break – sometimes it comes clean off, and other times it’s simply a crack.

Gibson necks and headstocks are all carved out of a single piece of wood, a construction method that is a little more costly as there is a bit more waste compared to alternative methods. It is also more expensive to do because you have to start with a thicker piece of timber.

This is why knockoffs of Gibson designs often feature scarf joints at the headstock. It allows them to use less wood, therefore making it a bit cheaper to make.

Cutting out the angled headstock naturally leads to structural weakness when you start cutting through and compromising the grain of the wood. It is much easier to snap a headstock than it is to snap a neck of a Gibson because the neck grain is in line with each other, offering a lot of support.

The grain of the headstock is not, though they do have a headstock veneer that does help add some stability to the headstock wood, hence why we most commonly see the headstock break right at the start of the headstock/end of the fretboard – the weakest point on many Gibson models.

Quick Solution: Visit your local guitar technician or luthier and/or avoid purchasing another Gibson or similar model.

Customizing Your Headstock

On some electric guitars and basses the finish used on the body is also applied to the face of the headstock. Generally, matched-headstock models carry a price premium over their plain counterparts due to the extra processes involved in the finishing process.

Although Fender no longer offers matched headstocks on production models made in the United States or Mexico, certain models from Fender Japan are available with matched headstocks.

The definition of a “matched headstock” can vary between manufacturers and players – for example, the headstocks of Gibson guitars are nearly always black, and it is debatable whether a black-bodied Gibson has a matching headstock. Generally, a guitar is only considered to have a matching headstock if the guitar is usually produced without matching body and headstock finishes.

This kind of trend has given to rise to many customizing their headstocks themselves at home, using this as inspiration for all sorts of crazy and ingenious designs. Check out this video on how to do it at home yourself!

Choosing a Guitar: Headstock Considerations

In the 1950s, Leo Fender sought to create a headstock that was both sturdy and cost-effective, minimizing wood waste. The result was the straight headstock.

The straight headstock, otherwise known as the flat headstock, lives up to its name without any noticeable angle, fashioned from a single, flat piece of wood that forms into the neck. This design is widely recognized and frequently used due to its sturdiness and affordability. You’ve most likely seen it on the early Fender Stratocasters.

Unlike the straight headstock, the angled headstock requires more wood to construct due to the sharper angle between itself and the neck.

As a result, the production cost is often higher, and you’ll typically find these mid to high-end guitars, such as those from Ibanez or Gibson.

One of the primary benefits of angled headstocks is that they address the inherent issues with flat headstock designs. Thanks to the sharper angle, there’s ample tension on the strings, preventing them from slipping out of the nut grooves. As a result, no complex solutions, such as string trees or staggered tuners, are required to keep everything in check.

Additionally, the increased string tension provides better sustain and intonation. The famous sustain that you get from a Gibson Les Paul, for example, is partially due to the angled headstock.

However, many guitar enthusiasts argue that angled headstocks, despite their benefits, are structurally weaker than flat headstocks, even though they are both single-piece designs. The larger angle creates more tension on the neck and headstock, making it more susceptible to breaking (in theory).

Conclusion: The Importance of Understanding Headstocks

So, we should clearly be able to see now just how important headstocks are. They are the foundational be-all and end-all of tuning stability on a guitar and should be taken as such. Guitar appreciation and guitar care should begin with the headstock, at least in spirit.

FAQs Guitar Headstock

What is the headstock of a guitar?

The headstock holds the tuning pegs and keys that allow the guitar to be tuned. Headstocks can be straight or angled, and come in many different shapes depending on maker and model.

What guitar has an F on the headstock?

With their stylized “F” logo on the headstocks, changed only modestly over the decades, these were the first in a line of Furch musical instruments that would one day be sold on five continents, and no longer in secret.

How many types of headstock are there?

There are two major trends in headstock construction, based on how the string will go after passing the nut, straight and angled.

How do you fix a broken headstock?

With a bunch of epoxy wood glue and a prayer or two.

Why do people like reverse headstocks?

The thinner strings are shorter, so require less tension, therefore making string bending easier, and chords are easier to hold down.

Can you replace a guitar headstock?

Everything is possible, but not everything is worth doing. There’s a strong chance that the level of work required for that job would far exceed the cost of a neck replacement.

By Nate Pallesen

Nate is just your average (above average) guitar player. He's no Joe Satriani, Jimi Hendrix or Jimmy Page - wait this site is about acoustic guitars (sorry) He's no Django Reinhardt, Chet Atkins, or Michael Hedges, wait? who!? He's no Robert Johnson, Eric Clapton or Ben Harper - more familiar? Anyway you get the point :-)

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