this blog will be all about headless guitars and basses. I will give a very very short overview on the history and then I talk about benefits, problems, tipps and everything you should know when you talk about guitars and basses without a headstock.
Common thinking of who was the inventor of the headless instrument is, that it was Ned Steinberger. But this is not completely right.
There were indeed a number of headless instruments before. Fender designer Gene Fields made a headless bass prototype in 1975 (5 Years before Ned founded Steinberger Sound), and if you search deeply, you will find single instruments before that, and there are even a very few historic instruments (lutes etc) wich have the tuners mounted on the bottom end.
So it is not possible to tell, who actually was the first one, who had the idea (it is a bit like Eddie can Halen and his two handed tapping technique). But one thing is sure. Fact is, that Ned Steinberger was the first one, who made his bass the first headless instrument, which was a public success and he was the first one who could make the headless design the key feature of his company.
I really want to give full credit to Ned at this point, he is definitely a genius, who spend years in testing out new ways of making a stringend instruments, and he found out things almost 40 years ago, which most of the companies today still not do understand, or do not do because of tradition, but ending up with bad instruments.
The first time I met Ned was at the Musikmesse Frankfurt in 2015. He came to my booth took a close and long look at my guitars and basses and then he told me that I am „on the right way“ and that I have a „good eye for design“. This is such a great honor and I am so thankful for the conversation we had.
The benefits of a headless guitar
The most obvious reason to get rid of the headstock of a guitar or bass is to reduce the weight on the headstock side and to make it less head-heavy. So the guitar will be a lot more ergonomic and there is less stress on your shoulder. Especially on basses the weight of the headstock can be some pain in the *ss sometimes.
But also while this is definitely right and every musician on the planet will be happy if he or she will not suffer from shoulder aches after half an hour of playing, we have to admit that not every guitar or bass is head-heavy only because it has a headstock. There are definitely instrument that are well balanced with a headstock (so are all the Moby Dicks and Leviathans by the way! ) and there are also instruments wich ware completely unergonomic and unbalanced even, if they would be headless (I am thinking of that BC Rich Chuck Schuldiner, never had a more uncomfortable guitar in my hands, and I am a huge fan of Chuck!).
And this brings me to some more interesting facts about headless instrument, you might not have thought about yet, but which are the real benefits.
As you might know, I am coming from a heavy metal background, and I used to play (and still do) a lot different metal styles from thrash, over technical death metal, up to djent. And when you play metal and when you play machine gun-like staccato riffs on a regular guitar with headstock you have an annoying buzz of ringing strings behind the nut. You can play as tight as possible, but your tak tak tak – riff will always sound like tamtamtam. This is the point where people start testing different noise gates (by the way I really can recommend the ISP Decimator pedal, I feel this is the only noise reduction pedal which does not change the sound too much). But a noise gate also limits your possibilities of playing with different dynamics and often times it also compresses the sound.
Next thing what people do is they try to stop the strings from vibrating. So they put all sorts of foam and rubber behind the nut, or wrapping a sock around the headstock. This might work, did you really bought a guitar for 2000 bucks to wrap a sock around the neck?
There are more elegant solutions like the string damper from Tesla or a very effective way that I found was to put shrinking tubes around the strings.
Whatever you do, this is extra work you have to do and it also can be done wrong. If you put to less foam it does not work; if you put too much, it CAN effect the tuneability.
Obviously this is a problem headless guitar simply cannot have!
Now where the word fell, let us talk about tuneabiltiy. On guitars and basses are two things interesting when we talk about tuning them. How easy it is to tune and how often you have to tune, or how well it stays in tune.
How easy a guitar is to tune depends mostly on how easy the string pulls through the nut. If the string hangs on the nut (and this is something you cannot see, only feel and hear) then it does not react directly by turning the tuning peg. On very bad guitars you can even hear it. The string should move completely silent, but sometimes it sounds like an old squeaking door. If you have that, throw the guitar away instantly. And no matter what, do not try to change the tuners. This will not help, because how easy the string pulls through the nut has nothing to do with the tuners.
It depends of course on the nut itself (from what material it is, and how clean it has been filed) (by the way, I recommend the Graph Tech nuts, because they are very slippery). But there is another important factor that most people forget about.
It is the design of the headstock!
There are tons of different headstock designs, but for most companies it looks to me like they only care about the look and not the functionality.
When you take a look on a headstock, first take a look on how the string are running. Are they running straight over the nut or are they angled? If the strings running angled after the nut, the strings have too much friction and this is the main problem! Jackson Guitars pushed this to a limit. Please do not get me wrong. I love the look of the Jackson headstock. It is so metal and it defines so much where I come from, when I was young. But technically spoken, completely without emotions, this something works really bad. I had some Jacksons and I know that a lot of them have tuning problems!
But also guitars where the strings are running straight can be problematic, when the headstock is not angled, and they need to use a string retainer (like Fender and a lot others). It is the same problem again. Another point where the string causes friction and cannot move easily.
So here is a basic rule: If you want a guitar with a headstock, look for straight running strings, without string retainers, and you will be happy!
You think we are done talking about tuning? Oh no, my friend! Now I am just warmed up!
Here we go examining the factors of how often you need to tune your bass or guitar.
And I like to mention that I will not talk about the string itself. There might be some materials that might be stay better in tune than others, but I never tested that, so I leave this to the string manufactures and concentrate on the guitar part.
The reason a stringed instrument goes out of tune is due to climate changes, means temperature, humidity and air pressure. EVERY material on earth changes due to that factors! There is absolutely not one that is not effected. But of course every material reacts differently. While woods does not shrinks or expands a lot by temperature changes, it changes dramatically on humidity. Metal on the other hand is the exact opposite. While humidity has not a noticeable affect on metals like stainless steel or aluminum, temperature makes the parts shrink and expand a lot!
On a guitar we have all those materials, and it is just natural that it reacts to this things. If you travel with your guitar through the winter air to a gig, come into the wet hot air of the concert hall your are playing in, your guitar is stressed a lot. And because of all that shrinking and expanding of the neck, of the strings and the parts you have to retune your guitar all the time.
Back to the topic: on a guitar with a headstock there is not only the part of the string, that you are playing on ( the part from the bridge to the nut), but there is also a shorter or longer part of the string behind the nut, going to the tuners, and if you do not have locking tuners, there is also a lot of string which is wrapped around the shaft of the tuner. So there is a lot of material that also is affected by those climate changes.
There is this conflict, that you need a certain number of turn arounds of the string around the shaft of the tuner, until it sounds good. But the more turn arounds you make, the more material is there that can be effected by climate and also causes friction.
(Here one tip: you start with 3/4 turn around on the low string and want to end up with max. 3 turn arounds on the high e-string. This seems to be the best compromise between tuneability and sound).
On a headless guitar this is clearly no problem! There is no string turned around any tuners and no long part in addition to the played part of the string that can be make trouble. In fact the way a headless guitar tunes, but pulling the string straight backwards is also a lot more stable for the tuning!
At this point I like to mention, that there are of course more factors, to the tuning like the stiffness of the neck etc (another reason why my guitars stay very well in tune). But this blog focusses only on the headless factors. So I will come back to this another day.
Now I am coming to the last technical benefit of headless guitars and basses. The fact, that a headless guitar has more sustain than a guitar with headstock!
And I can hear some of the headless-haters screaming now. But wait for it and let me also clarify this: all the statements I am making here are referring to comparable guitars. If it is simply a bad headless guitar, made from bad wood, with bad hardware, of course it will be a worse guitar, than a guitar with headstock, wich was made extremely well. So please keep in mind, that I am always talking about, if we would assume to have the very same guitar once with a headstock and once without. (actually this is what I have here all day for years now: always the same quality of the wood etc, and sometimes with headstock and sometimes without).
Sustain means how long a string rings. When you pluck a string not only the string itself swinging, but all the other parts of the guitar also is vibrating. Following picture is very easy to understand for most of us: You can image that if you would make a neck out of rubber your guitar would have like the worst sustain ever, because the rubber just would stop the string from vibrating. If you go on my stiffening the neck (for example by using wood), we would increase the sustain a lot.
Same thing is if you use soft of hard wood. Thats why nobody uses soft woods like poplar of alder for necks. Because those soft woods cannot vibrate in the right frequency as the string, and the result is that those different vibrations on the whole guitar will kill each other out. Which you will notice in a short sustain.
(By the way, Steve Vai one of the greatest guitar players ever, and a personal hero of mine has a certain way of picking our a guitar. He could go in any guitar store and take a JEM. The features, the neck profile etc all suites him. But he is looking for a specific interval of how the body and the attached neck rings to each other. If the body and the neck fit together, it is a good guitar for him.)
I wrote before that on a guitar with a headstock the strings behind the nut also vibrate, when you play. What happens then is the very same as with the wood and other parts of the guitar. The strings vibrate and of course they are vibrating differently from the main string, resulting in the phenomenon, that those different frequencies again kill each other and you have less sustain.
And I am repeating myself, that you simple do not have this on headless guitars and basses, which also leads to the fact you most rarely have any issues with dead spots.
So in short. Headless guitar and basses:
- are better balanced (are more ergonomic)
- do not have issues of noise
- stay better in tune
- have longer sustain
The importance of looks
After blathering about how great the headless guitars are I like to come now a completely different point of view. I could talk about this for hours to you, but it would not make the slightest change in your mind, if you simply do not like the look! And this is again where I imagine a lot of people getting up from their seats and being upset. But this is an important factor on all instruments and I think on guitars and basses most present.
It really does matter how a guitar looks like. This is what creates a certain feeling when you playing it. And a different looking guitar makes you play different, simply because you feel different. If I play an explorer, I am instantly James Hetfield! I cannot help it, but I am hanging the guitar low on the strap and start playing some thrashy downstroke riffts. If I have a Fender Strat, I always like to play like Mark Knopfler (by the way another of my big heroes). And if you play a headless guitar it is the same. Every guitarist on earth has a picture of himself playing his guitar, and if you really dislike the look, the result is, that you do not feel comfortable and that you play worse then normal. I hate every Les Paul, and I know about how I my brain tricks myself, but it is again a thing I cannot change. I simply cannot play a Les Paul and not thinking it is a bad guitar. So even if I always recommend going with a headless guitar, if the customer really cannot see himself/herself with a headless instrument, then it is not the right one for him/her, and I am happy to make a headstock version!
I think this is very interesting, so please let me know in the comments of how you think about the correlation between looks and feeling of a guitar! Have you ever noticed something on yourself, of do you think always form follows function?
What you need to look for on a headless guitar
When you think about buying a headless guitar, of course you have to check for the wood and the pickups etc, but you also would do that on a guitar with headstock (did you notice how I constantly avoid the word „normal guitar“ 😉 ), so again for the sake of this blog, I am only talking about the features of headless instruments.
And there the most important thing you have to look for is the hardware!
Especially at this years NAMM show (2018) I saw a lot of companies now making headless instruments. The quality is totally ok, but hardware is not good and thats where you get into trouble. Since this is a very young movement and there is not so many years of try and error, there are lot of not completely thought through parts out there. Also if you find older instruments of myself sometimes you will find different hardware, because I was trying a a lot myself. If I get the chance to get an old instruments of myself back into my hands I also will change the hardware to the good ones I am using nowadays.
But this is something that you can hardly describe with words, you really should try to test it with your own hands. But there are a few main issues I found out with different headless hardware I want to point out.
- Tuning is extremely hard: Sometimes you almost cannot turn the knurl. This can have many reasons, but you really want it to be turned really easy. I could improve on this big time when I startet adding super tiny ball rings. But you cannot use ball rings on all kind of headless tuners. By the way, if you own a Claas Guitar which does not have ball rings yet, please contact me immediately, I will send them to you for free.
- The turning of the knurl is so hard because they rub against each other: it is easy to understand that a knurl with a bigger diameter is easier to turn. But a few manufacturers make them just as big as the body of the bridge and then they rub against each other, which makes them hard to grab, hard to turn and sometimes even scratch each other. This is something you can see directly.
- Sharp edges and too thin metal that bends: If you work with metal you need to smooth out all the edges which is a difficult job, and I had more than one company who made a bad job on this. But unfortunately the bridge is the part where you hand is sitting and this is really uncomfortable.
- String spacing: A few companies make a single bridge design that fixes only on on screw. And then it happens that if you try to tune, you can move the whole bridge on that one screw, resulting in that you variate the string spacing. So keep in mind that if your guitar has singe bridges you want them to be fixed with two screws.
- No single bridges: Bridges where all strings are mounted on one body are a lot easier to install, and most of the times also easier to set up. But in these days fanned frets are getting more and more popular and obviously you cannot choose all kinds of fanning. Kiesel Guitars builds very cool instruments and I think they really deserve their success! But if you order a custom build you can only choose one type of fanning, because they work with Hipshot, who make great hardware (I am using the normal tuners myself), but they only make these one-part-headless bridges which only work for one kind of fanning.
- Single headpieces for each string: This is something you really do not want! I tried it myself and I hear it from customers all the time. The tiny little single headpieces for each string cause trouble. Most times the problem is that, because they are only fixed with one screw, if you tighten the screw to fix the string, you are turning the whole piece, and then you change the string spacing. I know from one company which tried to solve this problem by adding a tiny pin, which sits in the wood, but I also know that this works on some woods better than on others and is also not a solution in the long term. I really recommend using a one part headpiece. This is super stable, and also sounds better!
- No double ball ends: it is getting less and less popular, you still see here and there headpieces on which you need double ball end strings. This might be a good idea when back in 1980. But you know it from yourself, you want to experiment with different tunings, different string gauges and different materials of strings. If you cannot you all kinds of normal strings, you are really too limited and will not be happy for very long.
I tried a lot of different hardware, and if I find something new I always order an example piece, but until now I did not find a better solution, than going with the extremely expensive German custom made hardware that I use. They are super stable, tune super easy and sound amazing!
I am almost at the end of this blog, and I think some of the the readers of this might be thinking, I am going way into detail, or am concerned about things, that never had been real problems, and the guitars existing worked for years anyway. And of course this is absolutely right! But we at Claas Guitars are looking for more then „working ok“! The musicians all over the world are getting technically better every day. And every generation is playing better, faster and more complicated then the generation before that. And there is definitely a request for instruments that get rid of small problems and support those musicians playing. That is why I am convinced that it is useful to think about and work on these details and to make every generation of guitars a tiny little better then what is on the market right now.
At this point I like to thank you very very much for reading over 3.500 words! I hope this blog to be helpful and now I am excited to read your opinion on headless guitars and basses. Are they worth it or overrated? Also please let me know any more questions or topics you like me to cover!
Very kind regards from Germany,