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The Guitar Headstock

For those who have only just taken up the guitar it’s useful to know the names and functions of the various parts of the instrument. So, starting at what might be called the ‘top’ of the guitar, you will find the headstock. This is the flat, paddle like, piece of wood (or composite on those few guitars made from one of the new materials) on the end of the neck. It’s sometimes also called the head or ‘Peghead’.
Like many other stringed instruments, the guitar headstock is there purely to support the individual tuners for each string. It doesn’t contribute directly to the sound of the instrument.

The headstock and branding

Stuck out there on the end of the neck as it is, the headstock presents a clearly visible flat surface so luthieres often use it for the secondary purposes of branding and decoration. Many guitar makers employ a distinctive outline for the headstocks on their guitars, so they are easily recognised.
For example, although the flared, square ended outline was used on a lot of early guitars, today the CF Martin guitar company is one of the few to continue using this old design. By doing so they enhance the image of their products as traditional hand crafted instruments. Other companies using this style of headstock use it to build reproductions of the old Martin guitars. Unfortunately this headstock design, particularly in the slotted form, isn't particularly practical in terms of ease of stringing or in minimising string binding in the nut slots.

Flamenco and classical nylon strung guitars usually all use the same type of slotted headstock design, but with an ornate carved crest at the top of the headstock. Although to the uninitiated these headstock may all look very similar, each maker tries to design their own distinctive carving pattern. Such guitars also don’t normally employ a headstock logo or brand. Any branding on these guitars is restricted to a paper label on the inside of the guitar that’s visible through the soundhole.


Headstock on a Cond'e flamenco guitar with characteristic carved crest.

Inlays

Although inlay work doesn’t make a guitar sound any better (often quite the reverse) it does boost its price. The headstock is a favourite area for decoration and many showpiece guitars have breathtaking inlay work applied to the headstock surface. At it's most restrained the inlay is often of the makers brand.

The design requirements for the headstock and tuners

The headstock has to provide convenient access to the tuners, both for loading the strings and for tuning. It also has to allow a direct path for each string through the nut. There must be sufficient down pressure over the nut so that, at normal playing tension, each string remains firmly seated in its nut slot. This down pressure is produced by the angle between the headstock and neck, normally this is around twenty degrees. This is enough to clearly establish one end of the vibrating length of the string, without the outside of the bend over the nut going beyond the strings elastic limit. Once this bend radius is exceeded the string is prone to breaking.

String paths and tuning problems

Electric guitar makers are well aware of tuning problems caused by friction in the nut slots. When strings are bent or the ‘tremolo’ bar is used, the strings stretch like a spring and need to slide through the nut. Friction in the nut slots can cause strings to jam as they stretch and relax, resulting in tuning instability. Electric guitar string paths through the nut are often dead straight, to minimise the chances of strings jamming in the nut.

Before the advent of the electric guitar, the, often quite sharply angled, string paths on acoustic guitars, typical of the old 'vintage' headstock designs, didn’t cause much of a problem, since playing techniques at the time did not produce much movement of the strings through the nut. Older headstocks aren’t great for tuning stability because they flare away from the nut, producing a converging path for the three strings on either side. The nut slots often aren’t straight, but cut at various angles to allow for the convergence.

Today, acoustic techniques are much more extreme, with heavy bends, on-the-fly tuning alterations and behind-the-nut bends, requiring the best possible tuning stability. As a result modern acoustic guitars often feature headstock designs that provide a straight, or at least straighter, string path over the nut. In these designs the headstock flare is reversed, with the widest point just above the nut, then tapering towards the top of the headstock. This brings the three tuners on each side more closely in to line with the string slots in the nut, so the string paths are straighter. Players interested in the new acoustic techniques might find a guitar with this feature a better choice, if they want to avoid tuning problems.

Headstock on a modern CA Guitars carbon fibre guitar with logo inlay.

The Basic Variations in Headstock design

Apart from the general outline and carving of the crest there are three main structural variations in headstock design (dictated by the type of tuners) that are used on acoustic guitars; the six on a side, the three on a side slotted and the three on a side solid (these are the authors own classifications and refer to the type and distribution of the tuners).

Tuning Pegs

Early guitars used simple tapered wooden or bone pegs, of the type still used today on violins, hence the older name of ‘peghead’ for the headstock. Although these friction-fit pegs work reasonably well on gut or nylon strings, they can’t cope too well with higher tension metal strings, so when steel strings started to be used they were abandoned in favour of the metal, geared types of tuner. Pegs obviously have no gearing, but directly affect the strings, so accurate tuning is quite difficult. On the other hand they are a simple design that is relatively easy to make with hand tools. With pegs a solid headstock, or peghead, is normally used, with two rows of tapered holes, bored through the thickness of the peghead. One great advantage of this type of construction is that the peg keys are all conveniently presented at the back of the peghead for tuning by the players left hand. They can also help keep headstock weight to a minimum which can help with the overall balance of an instrument, particularly with a very light weight body, as is the case with flamenco guitars.


Headstock on an restored 1840 Martin guitar with ivory, friction tuning pegs. The headstock is made from a separate piece of timber and glued on to the neck using the old style modified bridle joint (picture by Frank Ford).

The ‘Six-on-a-side’ headstock

This headstock design has a curious history and is worth mentioning for its place in the progress of guitar development, even though it is not currently in use on any production acoustic guitar. As far as is known it was first developed by Johann Stauffer, a Viennese luthiere active in the early 1800’s. Stauffer’s guitar designs included a number of advanced innovations that weren’t appreciated at the time. He obviously thought deeply about the problems of the guitar and, although his headstock design does offer straight string pull through the nut (well almost) he probably most wanted to provide the accuracy and stability of geared tuners, with the tuning keys all on one side of the head and all turning in the same direction, for convenience of tuning.

The Stauffer headstock is a very lyrical design with a sweeping scrolled outline. The design looks more complex than it is, since the geared tuning machines are mounted in a cavity at the back of the headstock and are covered by an elaborately engraved bronze plate. The tuners themselves are worm gear types much like those use today, mounted on a single brass strip.

Stauffer’s place in the history of the acoustic guitar is particularly significant because he employed a certain Christian Frederic Martin as an apprentice. C.F. Martin emigrated to the USA in 1833, set up the Martin guitar company and for a brief time continued to make guitars to the Stauffer design, before developing his own designs.

The six-on-a-side headstock design has found extensive use on electric guitars, most famously and originally on those made by Fender. Although the inspiration for the famous Fender headstock is often attributed to Paul Bigsby’s one-off custom guitar, built for Merle Travis, it’s entirely possible that either, Travis, Bigsby or Leo Fender may have seen a Stauffer style Martin guitar.

In 1963 Fender introduced the Kingman flattop acoustic with a bolt-on neck and the characteristic, Stratocaster style, six-on-a-side, headstock. These guitars weren’t popular and the model was only produced for a few years.

Reproduction Stauffer tuning keys and plate made by Rodgers (pics by Rodgers)


The Slotted Headstock

The next design step from friction pegs is the slotted headstock. This uses geared metal tuners mounted three on-a-side, with the shaft fitting into holes drilled across the width of the headstock. The strings are threaded into the tuner shafts through long slots cut in the headstock. This design is complicated to build and the finished headstock is a little more delicate than the solid design. It does provide support at either end of the string posts and easy access to the tuning keys. Fitting new strings can be a bit tricky with a slotted headstock.


C.F. Martin 00045S slotted headstock & OM41 special solid headstock both with the inlaid brand name (pic courtesy of C.F. Martin Co.)

Complex inlay on a Larrivee' headstock

Around 1930 guitar makers first began using the modern solid headstock layout, with 3-on-a-side individual tuners mounted in round holes drilled through the thickness of the headstock. For the manufactures this has the advantage of being a simple design to execute, it makes for a stronger headstock and individual tuners can be changed if they are faulty, rather than having to scrap all three-on-a-plate if one doesn’t work. From the player’s point of view, string loading is easier, but the tuning keys are a little awkwardly placed and it just doesn’t look as cool as a slotted headstock!

Jointed headstocks versus solid necks

Guitar necks are either ‘solid’ necks carved from a single block of wood, or they may be built up from several pieces of wood. It's a common misconception that earlier guitars and today’s top of the range guitars, all use solid necks and that this somehow a superior method of construction. This is not the case, since most of the earliest guitars had headstocks made from a separate piece of wood, glued onto the neck. Although carving an entire neck from a solid blank may result in a neck that looks better, it leaves an inherent weakness in the headstock area. This is because the wood blank will be cut with the grain, so the neck itself will have the wood fibres running in parallel along its length, resulting in the strongest possible neck. However, because the headstock angles back from the neck, when the headstock is carved from the same block, the grain runs at an angle across the thickness of the headstock, so there’s a weakness at this point. With a glued headstock cut from a separate piece of parallel grain timber, the wood is once again being used in its strongest fashion. Contrary to what is often thought, a properly constructed glued joint, particularly when made with modern glues, is stronger than the wood around it and of course it makes more economical use of the raw timber. So a multi-part glued neck is in fact superior to a ‘solid’ neck in every respect, except possibly cosmetically.


The line of the scarf joint between the neck and the timber of the headstock is just visible on this picture of a Conde' flamenco guitar.

Classical and flamenco guitars have traditionally used a simple diagonal ‘scarf’ joint located under the nut where the headstock joins the neck. This is perhaps the weakest form of scarf joint, since the surface area is relatively small, but it works well on nylon strung guitars with their lower string tension. Many modern acoustic guitars use a longer scarf joint located either between the first and second frets or in the lower third of the headstock itself.

 

PICTURE – filenames – BabiczHdstkFront & BabiczJumboVolut&Scarf

The Volute

A small raised section of wood can often be found at the back of the neck in the angle formed between the headstock and the neck. This is often called a ‘volute’ and it is supposedly included to strengthen the junction between the head and neck, although it’s also a nice decorative feature. It either takes the form of a simple raised lip or it may be a pyramid or dart shape. Modern guitars with solid necks made to the old style often have dart volutes. These mimic the design of guitars made in the 1800s, notably by the C.F. Martin Guitar company. All early Martin guitars had jointed headstocks, with the headstock attached by a complex joint that is a modified form of ‘bridle joint’. In this joint the end of the neck is carved into a square point or wedge and the headstock has a matching socket. In addition, the back of the neck has a finger of wood, carved into the dart shape, which meets with the back surface of the headstock. This is such a tricky piece of joinery that Martin abandoned it in the 1920’s, but they continued to carve a dart volute on the back of many of their necks as a sort of tribute to the earlier necks. Since then other makers have copied the dart volute whenever they want to add some 'vintage' style to an instrument.

Note – The term ‘volute’, although commonly used to describe the carved fillet at the back of the guitars neck, is degraded, since the word means ‘a flat spiral’ and when applied to musical instruments was probably originally used to describe the scroll at the top of the pegheads used for instruments of the violin family.

The above two pictures show the modified bridle joint used to attach the headstock on old C.F. Martin guitar. The 'dart' volute, that's part of the joint, can be seen where the neck meets the back of the headstock (pics by Frank Ford).

This modern, one piece, neck is carved to imitate the vintage bridle joint found on the older Martins.

Tayor's NT neck design uses a finger joint between the neck and headstock. Shown both in the rough pre-assembled state and as the nearly invisible joint on a finished neck (pics courtesy of Taylor Guitars).

New Developments

The design rules for acoustic guitars may seem fairly mature by now and in any case musical instrument seem to develop quite slowly compared to the frantic rate of change in other areas of modern life. It’s also fascinating to see that, what often appear to be, new ideas, are really old ones revived, for example the six-on-a-side layout of the Stauffer design. Another ‘new’ feature has appeared recently that, again like the Stauffer machines, hides the gears inside the head. Although it has appeared on some very recent instruments, this design dates back to the work of Parisian builder, Rene Francois Lacote, active in the 1800’s. The Lacote tuner, now beautifully reproduced by Rodgers Tuning Machines, allows for a very clean and elegant line for the headstock.

Headstock of a reproduction Lacote guitar with Rodgers tuners made to the Lacote design (pic by Rodgers).


In conclusion

At first glance the acoustic guitar may seem to be a fairly simple object. However even the simplest things can behave in very complex ways. This article has covered only the first 20cm (that’s around 8 inches for the old folk) or so at the top of the guitar. Obviously there is a lot more to say about the instrument and although it’s been around for over 200 years there is much about it that still isn’t well understood, even today.

By Terry Relph-Knight

Credits and Web resources –

Thanks for their help in writing this article to – C.F. Martin & Company Inc., Frank Ford of Gryphon Stringed Instruments, to Rob Rodgers of Rodgers Tuning Machines and to Taylor Guitars.

www.martinguitar.com – C.F. Martin & Co Inc company website
www.frets.com – Frank Ford’s website
www.rodgers-tuning-machines.co.uk/ – Rodgers Tuning Machines website
http://home.houston.rr.com/verrett/erg/erg/builders.htm - For info on early guitar designs and builders.