In a previous article, we discussed the overview of the general acoustic guitar anatomy. We learned that it was divided generally into 3 sections, the head, neck and body regions. In this next article, we will take a closer look at the first region we discussed, the head region or headstock.
The headstock is an important region for many reasons. Most importantly, it houses the guitar tuners, tuning machines or machine heads as they are commonly referred to. It is the location of the tuning end of the suspended guitar strings. Additionally, the head region or headstock is notorious for displaying the branding for mass produced beginner guitars like the Yamaha FG700s, or the trademark or fine artwork of finer, hand made quality guitars like the Larrivee D-09. Regardless of the quality or brand, the headstock serves these 2 basic purposes.
Tuners, tuning machines, tuning keys or machine heads come in all kinds of makes and models as well as materials. The guitar, belonging to the chordophone family of instruments is defined as an instrument with suspended strings which create sound or music by the vibration of these strings.
Other instruments belonging to this same family of instruments are the banjo, the harp, the piano, and the lute to name just a few. If you see other instruments whereby sound is created by vibrating a sstring suspended between 2 points, chances are, it belongs to the chordophone family. The way in which a guitar player keeps his or her instrument in tune is by the use of the tuners at the headstock region of the guitar.
When looking to purchase a guitar, one point to take into consideration is the quality of the tuners. Some cheap, mass-produced guitars at lower price ranges might cut corners with the tuners, making the instrument difficult to keep in tune throughout the life of the instrument. When purchasing a guitar, be sure that the tuners are quality tuners. Even some middle-of-the-road models have installed inferior tuners to cut costs and increase profit margins.
There are basically 2 kinds of tuners for steel string acoustic guitars – solid and slotted pegheads. Slotted pegheads might appear to most as a “vintage” look, and the main machine gear is set through slots in the gutiar headstock (most commong on a classical style guitar). The solid machine heads are made for solid, non-slotted headstock. The tuning machines also come in an opened or closed design where the gears are exposed or concealed. Plastic tuners are often cheap and should be avoided, unless they are made from a composite and are built by a quality manufacturer.
Some quality manufacturers of fine tuners are Grover, Schaller, Hipshot and Waverly. Many name brand guitar makers like Fender and Yamaha guitars produce their own chrome quality tuners, or have them made by other tuner manufacturers.
One common-sense approach to selecting a guitar with solid, quality tuners is 3-fold.
- Do your research first on quality tuners and guitar makers to find what they use
- Ask a lot of questions from advanced guitar players, teachers and especially technicians
- Test tuners on the guitar models you are considering by turning them, tuning and playing
The headstock of the acoustic guitar is generally made from a limited number of solid woods. Honduras Mahogany is often used for the headstock, which is almost always a continual piece with the neck of the guitar (crafted this way for strength and long life). Additionally, sometimes other woods like Maple, Sapele, Sipo and Spanish Cedar are also used.
Traditionally and practically, the head and neck should be made out of wood that is strong, fairly straight grained, and dense. With the steel strings of the acoustic guitar putting about 180 lbs. of strain on the neck and body, this wood needs to be strong in order to maintain a long guitar life.
Not only is the headstock a piece of solid, strong wood, but can also be the location of branding, trademark, or beautiful inlay artwork using precious materials such as abalone and other sources of mother of pearl. Abalone are actually edible sea snails, which produce a very beautiful lining in their shell composed of nacre (mother of pearl). This iridescent lining interplays with light to produce beautiful, colorful effects.
Here is an example of some unique inlay designs by Candian guitar maker Jean Larrivee (http://www.larrivee.com/3_products/inlays/headstockInlays.html).
In review, the headstock of the acoustic guitar can be a combination of quality, beauty, and functionality which will not only add value to the guitar, but can add aesthetics as well.
In future articles, we will look at the neck, fretboard, and the body of the guitar…learning about how the tonewoods create the diverse tones, overtones, and sound personalities of the various guitar models and manufacturers available.