Many people think headless guitars are complete monstrosities of ugliness, but for those who think that, I have to challenge you: have you tried one? Have you spent any considerable time with one? If not, keep reading.
Once you you recognize (and hopefully experience) the benefits, you will be able to really see the invisible beauty of the headless design.
Let’s take a look at how headless guitars can make your life a little easier and more enjoyable.
1. Open up your eyes
One of the most interesting aspects, and perhaps most important considering the guitar is amusical instrument, is that “headless” guitars have no headstock. Obvious, right? “What’s interesting about that?” I can hear you say. Aha!
It’s what you DON’T see that actually makes the difference!
Let me explain. When you play any normal guitar (with a headstock), and you look down at the fretboard to play on it, you subconsciously notice two additional things: the headstock and the body, both of which aren’t necessary to physically play on the fretboard.
“Extra stuff” to focus on always takes up more space in your brain than “less stuff”, and as a result you have less attention available to pay to each of the “stuffs”. In other words, you notice the headstock when playing, which takes away some of the available attention you have to focus on the music itself.
If we remove the headstock, we free up some “visual energy” which is now available to make further connections between what your fingers are doing on the fretboard, and the music that is produced by them.
In short, without a headstock, it’s easier to focus on playing music rather than playing a musical instrument.
2. Take a load off and relax
Another huge advantage of headless guitars is less weight. I don’t think anyone would argue if you told them to strap on a 5lb guitar versus an 8lb guitar and stand up all night.
Less weight is a blessing to our shoulders and our backs, especially over time.
The advantage of weight reduction from removing the headstock is twofold. Again, with less physical load on your body, you’re not wondering when the next break is or how much longer til the song’s over. You can more freely focus on the music you’re creating, and gain much more enjoyment from the whole experience.
For those of you who don’t think 1lb makes much of a difference, I challenge you to play a four hour gig with first an 8lb guitar and then again with a 7lb guitar. Then we’ll talk.
3. Open up
The vast majority of guitars have a “nut” that terminates the string’s vibration, denotes the end of the fretboard, and keeps the strings spaced proportionally down by the headstock. Usually, nuts are made from some type of plastic, bone, teflon, or other material, and a small number of nuts are actually metal.
For all practical purposes, all frets are made of metal (there are a few exceptions). The problem here is that on guitars with nuts, the open strings have a slightly different sound quality than fretted notes since the strings contact different materials when played (the nut or the fret).
This isn’t to say that guitars with nuts don’t sound good; open notes and fretted notes simply sound different.
Most headless guitars have what is called a “zero fret” in place of the nut (of course there are exceptions here too). With a zero fret, technically all open strings are actually fretted, and as a result, both fretted and open notes sound the same which gives the guitar a more “tonally uniform” sound, similar to a keyboard in which the only difference between different notes is pitch.
4. Its all about balance
We have already mentioned the negative side affects that the extra weight of an “extraneous” headstock can have on our backs and shoulders, but now let’s look at another way that the weight of a headstock can affect your guitar playing.
You’re guitar neck acts as a lever (due to it’s weight extended away from your body). As gravity pulls the neck down, it pushes the body of your guitar up towards your armpit area. The bigger the headstock, and the longer your guitars scale length, the more leverage you guitar’s neck has against you.
You have two options.
1. Either hold your guitar neck up with your fretting hand while you play it (which tremendously compromises your playing freedom) or, 2. push the guitar’s body back down with your picking arm and “squeeze” it close to your body to counterbalance the leverage of the neck.
Which one would you rather do? Neither? Great.
This is where headless guitars really shine. Without the weight of a headstock (and tuners!) at the extreme end of the neck, the neck has far less leverage, and therefore the weight of the body is usually more than sufficient to counterbalance the neck’s weight. So much so that without a headstock, we have even more weight reduction options such as removing body material behind the guitar’s bridge and even getting lighter pickups.
This dramatically reduces the weight of the entire guitar while also allowing you to play much more freely.
5. Ease some neck tension
Not only can a headless guitar ease tension in your tired achy back, neck, and shoulders, it can help to ease tension in you hands too!
For guitars with headstocks, after reaching the nut, the strings must travel an extra (sometimes significant) distance to reach the tuners. Simple physics says that a longer string tuned to a particular pitch will have more tension than a shorter one tuned to the same pitch (as evidenced in short vs long scale guitars).
Without a headstock, the string must terminate at or very near the nut, which reduces the overall length of the string. As a result, the strings suddenly require less pressure to fret and less force to bend which can reduce the amount of tension in your hand as you play and also provides you with more freedom to focus on the music you’re hands are making.
Additionally, with less string tension, you can upgrade to thicker strings which will produce a “beefier” tone thus making your entire guitar (and you) sound better.
Ok, so I have completely changed your mind and you can’t wait to rush out and find a headless guitar to try, right? Well, maybe not, but I encourage you to “try in before you deny it”. You may be surprised and literally change how you view headless guitars after spending a little time with one. You may find them attractive for very different reasons than you thought before.
For further proof, watch some of YouTube videos of Allan Holdsworth talking about why he plays headless guitars. Mr. Holdsworth is an exceptional guitarist and a very well-known, and long time authority in the guitar world.
Originally published by Jonathan Boyd in Tuned Up Tuned In.