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Guitar Headstock Design

12 Oct 02 - 06:59 PM (#801944)
Subject: Guitar Headstock Design
From: Murray MacLeod

I was prompted to create this thread by clicking on one of the random Mudcat links (nice feature of the new Mudcat btw), namely

Now, I have no doubt that Michael Dunn builds beautiful guitars that sound great, but from an aesthetic point of view his headstocks are plain ugly. They are ugly in the same way that Ovation headstocks are ugly, but it is not only the mass producers like Ovation who cannot get it right. Stefan Sobell makes amazing guitars, but his headstocks look weak. Doc Watson's favorite guitar, made by Gallagher of Wartrace Tennessee has a really crappy-looking headstock, and I could quote plenty of others. Lowden and Taylor spring to mind ....

Now, I know that many will say that it is all subjective, and that "beauty is in the eye of the beholder", but I would contend that
the elegance of headstock design can be likened to elegance in architecture. The ancient Greeks nailed the concept of column design over 2000 years ago, and nobody has come up with anything more elegant in the intervening couple of millennia.

IMHO there are only three guitar manufacturers at present who make guitars with elegant headstocks. Firstly there is C F Martin, who got it right first time and produced a timeless elegant design that has stood the test of time. Secondly there is Collings, whose design varies ever so slightly from Martin's but still looks oh-so-
right. And thirdly there is Fender, whose Stratocaster headstock is a masterpiece. (The Telecaster headstock, however, is clumsy by comparison)

When will guitar manufacturers and wannabe luthiers realise that it has all been done before and that they would be better of sticking to the tried and tested instead of coming up with outlandish designs which only make the true aesthete wince?


12 Oct 02 - 07:13 PM (#801950)
Subject: RE: Guitar Headstock Design
From: CraigS

In the classical world the headstock is the distinguishing mark of the maker, and each maker's headstock is traditionally unique - it is the one part of the guitar that no self-respecting maker would ever copy. Most of those who make guitars by hand adhere to this tradition (the others are usually trying to commit forgery). The far Eastern manufacturers see the name change as sufficient difference (to them it is just a pretty pattern, anyway). I would agree that some headstocks are just plain ugly - I hate Grammer's headstock, and I'm not fond of Fleta's - but I think that most of the examples that Murray is quoting are a matter of proportion.

12 Oct 02 - 07:16 PM (#801952)
Subject: RE: Guitar Headstock Design
From: catspaw49

Murray, what the hell are you drinking tonight? Can I have some?

I admit that you DO have point and that as you say, beauty IS in the eye and all of that. I have never thought of headstocks in quite the same terms as you did here and I think although your points have merit, my main concern in a headstock is resistance to cracking, which is both a function of the wood AND the design. When it comes to appearance however, I think many builders are looking for a trademark design as well. I never found the Martin to be especially pretty (it's a friggin' rectangle), but on the basis of form following function, it is, as you correctly put it, elegant.

Most High-Line guitars tend to follow the Martin idea. Collings has sharper corners, Larrivee is a bit broader with a rounded top, Lakewood is quite similar........Gibson and Guild have distinctive headstocks and appear better to some than others and are both larger than Martin. Grammer went the Gibson look to an outlandish size that looked just incredibly out of proportion and stupid although it gave plenty of room for inlay....and since the Grammer was an Opry favorite that made sense, They were thinner though and the extra size combined with that made them prone to cracking. Then there are the wacky acoustics like Breedlove.........

I dunno'..........I could sit here and write a critique of everyone's headstocks including electrics(Fly, reverse Fly, blah, blah, blah...),but if I had to pick an acoustic headstock that best proportioned to the guitar and had the classic and elegant Martin line, I'd go with Larrivee.


12 Oct 02 - 07:20 PM (#801956)
Subject: RE: Guitar Headstock Design
From: Murray MacLeod

Craig, you are right, I should have limited the discussion to steel strung acoustics. (Alright the Stratocaster is a solid body electric but it stil is a timeless design)

IMHO many designs which look enchanting on a classical guitar simply look naff when transferred to a steel-strung.


12 Oct 02 - 07:35 PM (#801964)
Subject: RE: Guitar Headstock Design
From: Murray MacLeod

Larrivee certainly wouldn't win any awards for the ugliest headstock, I agree, Spaw, but that rounded top ??? Uh uh.

I mean, let's face it, like every other manufacturer they wanted their instruments to be immediately recognizaable to the punters in the audience. I can understand that.

Quite justifiably, aesthetics will always take a back seat to commercial considerations.


12 Oct 02 - 07:42 PM (#801967)
Subject: RE: Guitar Headstock Design
From: Sorcha

This is too weird to me as a fiddler. Almost all (99.9%) of fiddle "headstocks" (better known as the scroll) are same; that is a triple grooved scroll. I only really pay attention if the scroll is not a scroll.....Johnny Cunningham had one (at one time, at least) where the scroll was a hand carved Old Man, probably a Druid.

12 Oct 02 - 07:57 PM (#801973)
Subject: RE: Guitar Headstock Design
From: Murray MacLeod

Good point Sorcha. Stradivarius , Guarnerius et al got it right four hundred years ago. You can't improve on perfection.


12 Oct 02 - 09:15 PM (#801994)
Subject: RE: Guitar Headstock Design
From: Bee-dubya-ell

I agree that some guitar headstocks make you wonder if the luthier maybe put the wrong kind of mushrooms in the spaghetti sauce. But, I don't think Michael Dunn's guitars are a valid target for criticism because his guitars are intentional copies of the famous Selmer and Maccafferi jazz guitars including the headstock shape. If you look at any of the gypsy guitars being produced today (i.e. Le Voi, Dell'arte, Dupont as well as Dunn) they all stay true to the elongated narrowing hexagon that was used on the originals. It may not be pretty, but, if so, the blame belongs to Selmer and Maccafferi, not Michael Dunn.

And, yes, the Fender Strat headstock is the quintessential electric guitar design. But, remember when Fender was using that same headstock shape on their acoustics in the '60s. UGLY! A totally inappropriate shape for an acoustic.


12 Oct 02 - 09:19 PM (#801996)
Subject: RE: Guitar Headstock Design
From: Mark Ross

Remember that the Fender headstock design seems to be based on the old Stauffer guitars made by Martin in the early days.

Mark Ross

12 Oct 02 - 09:42 PM (#802002)
Subject: RE: Guitar Headstock Design
From: catspaw49

Good point Mark.

As Craig and I each mentioned Grammer independently, for those of you not familiar with the "Bat-Wing" headstock....Here's a picture....BTW, that guitar has a particularly lovely back, a beautiful bookmatch.


12 Oct 02 - 10:14 PM (#802016)
Subject: RE: Guitar Headstock Design
From: Bee-dubya-ell

A friend has a Grammer on which a large chunk of the headstock has been broken off precisely because the wings of the "Bat-Wing" headstock are too fragile, as well as ugly. However, like the example Spaw linked to, it has a simply gorgeous BRW back plus the most outrageous bear-claw top I've ever seen.


12 Oct 02 - 10:23 PM (#802021)
Subject: RE: Guitar Headstock Design
From: catspaw49

Like I noted above Bee, it's hard to find a Grammer that either isn't cracked at the headstoc or has one that's been previously repaired. Elderly had a real beauty awhile back...except the headstock was almost unrepairable. Ugly and fragile ain't a good combination. A shame really becasue they DO have an excellent sound and some choice woods in the the body.


12 Oct 02 - 11:03 PM (#802034)
Subject: RE: Guitar Headstock Design
From: Bert

Yup it's in the eye of the beholder. As and engineer I look for form being somewhat related to function. Therefore headstocks that taper towards the end are more functional and appear more pleasing to me.

One example of course is the Ovation in which the taper is well balanced and quite pleasing in appearance. There is of course that quite irrelevant decorative spoon end. But even with that, their headstock seems to me to be more pleasing than the Fender which is cumbersome and way too long and wastes one whole side of the headstock. The poor attempt at balancing this design by adding one Mickey Mouse ear to the unused side is kinda pitiful from the design point of view. But I guess they were catering to the lowest common denominator.

Bert *TEE HEE*

12 Oct 02 - 11:26 PM (#802047)
Subject: RE: Guitar Headstock Design
From: John Hardly

I tend to like the simpler Martin/Larrivee (no ornamentation) though I grew up thinking Gibson was cool and I still like that headstock too. Of those that have copied the J45 I tend to like the Collings "haircut" headstock, but find the Santa Cruz (on their VJ) too weak (curiously, I like the sound of the VJ better than the Collings and would choose it in spite of the headstock.

I never liked Dana Bourgeois' "Snakehead" headstock and was very glad he started offering the traditional option (to my taste his slope shouldered dred is the most visually beautiful guitar on the market today).

Notice -- from the back you can't tell Larrivee from Huss and Dalton.

The one mass-produced headstock I really find visually off-putting is Seagull (it looks like a bayonette)

I also think that C.Fox' lack of marketing success is because of that really foul looking headstock. Nobody would argue that his guitars aren't among the best made today but that headstock.......p.u.

12 Oct 02 - 11:39 PM (#802052)
Subject: RE: Guitar Headstock Design
From: Rick Fielding

Murray...I wish I'd seen this earlier. I agree with you 100%!

I'll be back later to drone about about why.



13 Oct 02 - 04:19 AM (#802115)
Subject: RE: Guitar Headstock Design
From: Murray MacLeod

Jeez bert, I didn't realize that studying engineering could so screw up ones sense of aesthetics ! *G*

A headstock does not look beautiful or grotesque per se of course but only in relation to the rest of the instrument. That is why, as Bruce says above, the Stratocaster headstock looks so graceful on a Stratocaster body, and so out of place on an acoustic. Also, what looks superb on a F5 mandolin or a Mastertone banjo would look plain silly on a guitar.

I am actually not so sure that it all subjective. In the field of furniture, ten (or a hundred) pairs of trained eyes confronted with, say, two different cabriole legs will be unanimous in their assessment of the relative merits of each leg. An untrained eye might well disagree. Similarly no architect would ever contend that a column with parallel sides is as attractive as a column with the traditional Greek "stasis", tapering towards the top. A novice might never perceive the ddifference.

To carry on with the furniture analogy, I suppose it all comes down to whether one prefers the understated timeless elegance of Shaker furniture or the florid excesses of the rococo style. I know which I prefer.


13 Oct 02 - 05:28 AM (#802132)
Subject: RE: Guitar Headstock Design
From: Mooh

Some are an acquired taste, like the aforementioned Seagull flat-top, but I like 'em. There are some, like the oversized paddle heads on some Gibson mandolins which just don't have the grace of the snakeheads, but still have some funkiness. I feel the same way about many Harmony Sovereigns but it doesn't prevent me from owning one.

Unlike Murray, I think the Telecaster headstock is a thing of beauty. The larger '70s Strat is out of whack but the earlier and later smaller ones are nice...funny what a few mm will do!

Breedlove guitars don't turn me on, but the shape looks quite proportional on the mandolins, at least to my eyes.

Many of the pointy headed electric guitars (some B.C. Rich for example) look ridiculous, like they were designed by some anime cartoonist. A waste of wood.

It's kinda like the colour of one's car. It doesn't mean a damn thing when you're flying down the highway at 130km per hour, but makes a statement when seen in one's driveway. (I suppose...personally couldn't give a shit either way!)

Peace, Mooh.

13 Oct 02 - 05:33 AM (#802135)
Subject: RE: Guitar Headstock Design
From: Mooh

Oh yeah, my vote for the most ugly? The Martin Backpacker.

13 Oct 02 - 08:34 AM (#802171)
Subject: RE: Guitar Headstock Design
From: Willie-O

Anyone interested, the Twelfth Fret currently has a VERY early Martin with the Stauffer-style (Renaissance Strat) headstock. It looks unspeakably weird today and its interesting to think of Martin's standard symmetrical headstock as an innovation, which it was. Interesting that even their most ornate overblown models don't deviate from this tradition.

I agree that snakeheads aren't as pretty, especially the shrunken Seagull-LaSiDo ones which look badly out of whack. But they make great sounding mandolins, why not guitars? String separation at the tuners is a good thing.

My grandfather had two fiddles; the cheap one was a Czechoslovakian one with a carved wolf or lion head peghead. A macho effort to distinguish an inferior instrument.


13 Oct 02 - 09:07 AM (#802181)
Subject: RE: Guitar Headstock Design
From: CraigS

Just a few points from the above -

I'm not sure, but I think the first electrics with hockey stick ends were made by Paul Bigsby and Semi Moseley (Mosrite) at about the same time as Leo Fender came out with the Broadcaster, which became the Telecaster as TV became popular. SInce this was the late '40s and the Stratocaster came out around '54, I don't think Fender deserves all the credit.

I have a Seagull, and I have a healthy dislike for the headstock. Conversely, I have always quite liked the Selmer/Maccaferri headstock. Until this thread started, it didn't occur to me that they were actually quite similar, but the Selmer is slotted.

I quite like Gibson headstocks, but Spaw's comment about the size reminds me that I prefer to look at the '50s and early '60s models because they have a smaller form of the same headstock.

13 Oct 02 - 09:38 AM (#802189)
Subject: RE: Guitar Headstock Design
From: GUEST,van lingle

The design of the Strat headstock was probably influenced by the the one on the solid body electric Paul Bigsby made for Merle Travis in the late 40's . Travis wanted the convenience of having the tuners all on one side but an added benefit was that the strings pull straight over the nut which supposedly improves tuning (Bigsby also made a neck for Travis' D-28 with a six-on-a-side headstock).

My favorites are Larrivees, the Collings haircut and the ones found on the guitars of a local (Naples, FL) builder, Ross Teigen, which actually have an oval hole in them.

And Sorcha, a fiddler/artist friend of mine from Germany made his own non-traditionally shaped fiddle and carved a likeness of the devil into the scroll. Very cool.vl

13 Oct 02 - 12:29 PM (#802266)
Subject: RE: Guitar Headstock Design
From: Bee-dubya-ell

Actually, the very first true violins were made with pegboxes carved as human likenesses. Gaspard Duiffopruggar is credited as the very first maker of violins, as opposed to the earlier viols. He is equally famous for his human-head pegboxes. Many violins with such carvings bear false labels crediting Duiffopruggar with their manufacture in the same fashion that "Stradivarius" labels are found in some cheap instruments. Vassar Clements supposedly has a genuine Duiffopruggar, though I understand that even it is suspect (though it is certainly a fine instrument regardless of its true manufacture). The standardization of the scroll into its now conventional form is doubtlessly due to the influence of Amati and Stradivarius.

13 Oct 02 - 01:11 PM (#802294)
Subject: RE: Guitar Headstock Design
From: Thomas the Rhymer

Function. The strings should be as little angular at the 'nut' as possible... ie, the string friction needs to attain a certian level in order to vibrate properly,... but the angle behind/above the nut, if kept straight, minimises tuning difficulties, by derceasing bind. the tapered headstocks are an attempt to aesthetically do this... if you imagie a "v" pattern of tuners on a rectangle headstock... no go... But yeah... there is a definate size pref... I often dream of changing the headstock design to fit My aesthetic needs... really, it is an easy part of the guitar to change... Chop chop, and glue and peg on a new one!

13 Oct 02 - 04:52 PM (#802445)
Subject: RE: Guitar Headstock Design
From: Willie-O

Thomas, I agree about the improved tuneability, but I also feel you just plain get a better tone with a peghead design that keeps the strings well separated. After all, you can get a buzz just by having a loose string end rattling around up just makes sense not to have one string bumping up against the wrap of another enroute to its own tuner.


13 Oct 02 - 05:14 PM (#802456)
Subject: RE: Guitar Headstock Design
From: Bee-dubya-ell

"you can get a buzz(from)one string bumping up against the wrap of another enroute to its own tuner."
Santa Cruz had to make a minor alteration to their headstocks on some models for that very reason. The fifth (A) string had a tendency to rub on the winding of the sixth (E) string. They now offset the tuner shafts on the second and fifth strings about 1/8 inch toward the center of the headstock to prevent such rubbing.

13 Oct 02 - 07:25 PM (#802517)
Subject: RE: Guitar Headstock Design
From: Lanfranc

Much though I revere the timelessness an elegance of the headstocks of my Martins, I have recently acquired a Washburn WG2S, and it is the only guitar I own that I take out from time to time just to look at it!

It has the broad, Guild-like Washburn headstock (which I like better than either the regular tapered variety or their latest slotted (between the machines!) variety), inlaid with the maker's name and aa torch in abalone in the wilds of China. The binding and purfling is also abalone, with the top laminate of the back and rim in a wood I cannot identify, but has been suggested as being stained quilted ash. Had they used a better, more closegrained spruce for the solid top, it would have been too perfect for the couple of hundred pounds it cost me.

Oh, and it plays pretty damned well, too! Best guitar bargain I've bought in a long while.


24 Jun 11 - 01:46 PM (#3175841)
Subject: RE: Guitar Headstock Design
From: GUEST,its1110

I believe the idea of the Strat (well, all the Fender electrics) head-stock was to get all the tuning keys on the top... such that it is easier to hold a chord or fretted note and reach over for a tuning knob at the same time. It's a bit more awkward to get the tuning knobs on the bottom side of the head-stock... reaching across the front of the finger board, you've more of a chance to dampen something and it can sort of put a cramp/crimp in your fretting arm position.

'Course, it's still not what I'd call an easy reach even with the knobs all on top... depending on your arm length and such.

24 Jun 11 - 10:42 PM (#3176046)
Subject: RE: Guitar Headstock Design
From: PHJim

I find the Strat headstock looks good on a Strat, but not on a Tele. My friend had a Tele with a Strat headstock and humbuckers with an f-hole. It just didn't look right somehow.

Here's an interesting article. It seems like they've waited a bit too long to try a stunt like this, but...

Martin Guitar Headstock

25 Jun 11 - 03:52 AM (#3176105)
Subject: RE: Guitar Headstock Design
From: Rusty Dobro

Just back from southern Croatia, where a traditional group featured half a dozen 'guitars' of various sizes, from large ukelele up to dreadnought. All featured ornate variations of the Bigsby/Stauffer/Strat
shape, except a modern Washburn which looked out of place in that company.
My 1905 Portuguese guitarra has the Lisbon-pattern headstock, which is somewhere out beyond bizarre.

08 Jan 12 - 05:22 AM (#3286921)
Subject: RE: Guitar Headstock Design
From: GUEST,jeffLV03RE

Glad I ran across this site..neat stuff & I do agree with the original analogy above per the Greek column design...somewhat. I have always leaned toward simple is better in Larrivee, Martin & the Collings haircut (which Epi used in a few models)~ Taylors are TOO pointy (along with their pickguards)& certainly not my FAV ..although their build quality, fit & finish are ultra perfect. REG. Epiphones just lumpy..Ovations have always sucked..bad idea from the get go ~ along with those amoeba like pickguards on Les Paul by PlayDough...Gibson has made very few design errors over the years.
I lived with a D-35 Martin for 26 years (sold it) and then a Taylor 510ce for 11 years during which I found a Larrivee P03K (extremely simple, elegant & functional) ~ The Larrivee style & quality won me took a while but now I have only ONE...a Larrivee LV03RE Custom (with wood inlays in the headstock & fretboard ~AWEsome yet simple. On the wide side, I do appreciate the old Guild/Washburn classic headstocks for what they are at the same time. In the process of acquiring a Washburn WG2S and LanFranc is correct..can't stop lookin at an old Cris-Craft with inlay..WOW.
Electrics ~ well Strats are Strats and the old smaller headstocks still look better and Teles were just a mistake nobody fixed and now we're used to it

08 Jan 12 - 12:45 PM (#3287078)
Subject: RE: Guitar Headstock Design
From: Pete Jennings

Re the Martin press release about the headstock shape trademark (see limk on PHjim's post above).

Somebody at Martin must have been smoking dope...other luthiers only have to change that shape by a couple of milimetres and it ain't a transgression. Absolutley pointless IMO.

Have they patented the D body shape, or the 000's shape?

09 Jan 12 - 02:23 AM (#3287377)
Subject: RE: Guitar Headstock Design
From: Fossil

Talking of elegant guitar design, take a look at the ColeClark range, from Melbourne, Australia. Their Fat Lady range features integrated, subtly retro and functional design from the headstock to the scratch-plate and on to the bout. I should know, I've loved the look of mine ever since I got it! Sounds good, too... (someone do the clicky, please)

09 Jan 12 - 04:00 AM (#3287400)
Subject: RE: Guitar Headstock Design
From: Musket

I can appreciate the design and craftsmanship that a half decent luthier would put into headstock design, but by the same token, I am comfortable with understatement.

So.. not sure whether that makes me a yeay or nay?

09 Jan 12 - 01:26 PM (#3287633)
Subject: RE: Guitar Headstock Design
From: Brian May

Must agree that the Martin Backpacker is the most blatant apology for a guitar on the planet . . . given it's pedigree.

It's also grossly unbalanced.

Love Martin's normal headstock thanks (not the slotheads though which are limited by the configuration).

Martin's headstock is iconic - that'll do for me

09 Jan 12 - 09:35 PM (#3287839)
Subject: RE: Guitar Headstock Design
From: Don Firth

With Spanish luthiers, the shape of the headstock (usually, the very top end) is a sort of trademark. This is the design that José Ramirez uses:    CLICKY #1.

Luthiers in other countries often don't respect the trademark design. In fact, with a guitar like a Ramirez (Segovia's choice after he retired his Herman Hauser), quite a number of guitar makers copied the design. I have a Japanese-made classic that was imported by José Oribé of San Diego, which he licensed to be sold under his label. I bought it from The Rosewood Guitar, a quality-guitar import shop in Seattle. Steve Novacek, who owned the shop at the time, and I sat there one afternoon and we tried several guitars in various price ranges, including a couple of Ramirezes (spelling ?). I opted for the Oribé import because in terms of sound and playability, it was practically indistignuisable from the Ramirez (we did a blind test on each other), and it was one-tenth the price of the Ramirez (which WAS one helluva guitar!). $350 instead of $3,500!

I did a recital of folk songs and ballads for the Seattle Classic Guitar Society, accompanying myself with the Oribé import, and because it was a dead ringer for a Ramirez—same woods, cedar soundboard and Brazilian rosewood back and sides, and the trademark headstock design, AND because it sounded so full and lush—even those who owned Ramirez guitars automatically assumed that that is what it was.

Helluva bargain!!

I also have an Arcangel Fernandez flamenco guitar that I bought from the maker in Madrid. One of the Seattle Classic Guitar Society members showed the Arcangel flamenco that he brought back from his recent trip to Spain, and when I drooled all over it, he put me in touch with Fernandez. Once again, with dumb luck, I scored! I got it in 1961 for about $175, including import duty and air freight from Madrid to Seattle.

Arcangel Fernandez was an apprentice of Marcello Barbero, whose guitars were the favorites of those flamenco guitarists who could afford them, such as Sabicas, Carlos Montoya, and Mario Escudero. When Barbero died, Fernandez inherited the shop. He wanted to sell the guitars under his own name, rather than, as some makers did when the master died, continue the name, but indicate in small print on the label that the guitar was actually made by someone else. But to indicate the lineage, he kept the Barbero headstock design to indicate that the guitars were made by a student of Barbero. This is the Barbero/Fernandez headstock design:   CLICKY #2.

I recently learned that the early Fernandez flamencos, circa 1961, are rare, and I also learned that a couple of them have been sold, through brokers, in the $15,000 to $20,000 range!!!


Don Firth