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
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.
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.
InlaysAlthough 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.
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).
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)