Five Surprising Benefits of Headless Guitars

Think headless guitars are only for super-nerds? I'm willing to bet you're selling yourself short.

Five Surprising Benefits of Headless Guitars
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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 a musical 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. It's 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.
  • Either hold your guitar neck up with your fretting hand while you play it (which tremendously compromises your playing freedom).
  • 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.

Final Words

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.

Do you have any experience with headless guitars? What do you think?

About the Author:
Jonathan Boyd is a professional musician, guitar teacher, blogger, and luthier in Birmingham, Alabama. Take guitar lessons with Jonathan at www.GuitarLessonsInBirmingham.com

40 comments sorted by best / new / date

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    Arby911
    #1 is utter psycho-babble bullshit, #3 and #5 are so trifling as to be immaterial. That leaves weight and balance, both important items but hardly critical. And they are still butt-ugly.
    tali_pusat66
    i agreed
    Big Bang
    I agree that number one is horseshit, especially if you don't look at your hands when you play. With regard to balance, headless guitars balance TERRIBLY when played standing up. Unless you happen to like you're fretboard constantly seeking the ceiling. The rest (with the possible point about overall weight,) is to minimal to make a difference (save for perhaps the placebo effect). And one drawback he conveniently forgets to mention is that you can't rest your thumb behind the head stock. This is annoying when fretting chords and ever worse when playing any sort of lead on the first couple of frets. It really feels like this guy is getting ready to put his headless up for sale in a few days and is hoping to generate some interest beforehand. *SOURCE: I owned a Steinberger for about six months. Never again. NEVER. AGAIN.
    Big Bang
    *your, not you're. Why can't I edit my post, dammit?!? EDIT: Of course, I can edit THIS post...
    K33nbl4d3
    The balance advantage of headless designs is most obvious with extended range guitars, but on 6 strings it's pretty pointless unless you've got an SG (which would definitely look ugly with no headstock...)
    staceap
    This just reads as a headless guitar snob who sniffs his guitar's farts like no other.
    Shadow-Michel
    As a psychology student I'd say 1 is complete bull. Your brain doesn't focus on the headstock, you focus your visual focus mostly on the foveal area of your eyes; this is the FOCUSSED area of your visual field. Less weight is hardly a pro, since a headstock doesn't weigh much. Nobody gives a damn about #3. And 4 is true, yet just a minor pro. Somehow when I leave my 7-string hanging by the strap only or when I am playing it stays perfectly balanced and doesn't slide down. So I don't have to pull it down, ever. This entire point doesn't apply to my guitar. But yeah, Ibanez headstocks aren't that big, maybe that's why. Less string tension isn't always a pro, I hate it when my strings are too loose. Beside it won't make that much of a difference, it's probably like you are playing in D-tuning tension-wise. You forgot one big advantage of headless guitars: you can shove them up your *ss more easily, which is clearly where you left yours while writing this column.
    henrihell
    I've encountered very few neck heavy guitars. To me the bigger problem is that on many guitars the body weighs tons and you have to actually pull down on the neck, in which case holding the neck up would be a lot easier imo.
    Lord_Doku
    My BC Rich Mockingbird NJ Classic is pretty balanced, though it tends to lean at a 36 degree angle or something like that, and the Gibson SG guitars (and the copies obviously) are infamous for their weight distribution. Someone at my school brought his SG every once in a while, and I found it impractical to play without holding up the neck no matter how the strap was set up.
    Ottmeister
    Yeah, i can confirm the SG weight thing. My first guitar was an SG copy and it was impossible to play standing up. The neck kept tilting down and i had to hold it up awkwardly with my left hand which crippled my developing playing ability even more. I could start playing normally when i got a new guitar, yes it was that bad.
    esky15
    1. First off, I think it looks horrid, but I believe the visual energy jargon is 100% theoretical but does not actually have any bearing on playing or focus. 2. I doubt most head stocks weigh more than one pound or so. 3. Open notes do sound better with a zero fret, but you can easily install one on a regular guitar. 4. Body shape does come into play a bit as well as neck length and that darn 3 lbs headstock. 5. If you have trouble fretting a slightly longer scaled neck, you better start doing some exercises.
    MrZEDO
    Okay; a lot of people have mentioned problems with benefit #1, but no one has brought up the first thing I thought of when I read it: what if the headstock was blocking things that would distract you? What if there was a topless girl riding a giant dog behind your headstock? What if Jackie Chan was fighting 100 ninjas behind your headstock? I think either of those things would be WAY more distracting than some wood and tuning pegs, so I'll stick with my regular guitar, and stay focused on what matters. ^.^
    Damaged Roses
    #1 is complete horsecrap. The brain focuses on whatever is important at a particular time, so it automatically filters anything that isn´t critical for the action that is taking place. That´s why people don´t notice when they are pickpocketed or when someone notices something you never imagined. So the "free visual energy" is just completely stupid.
    MaggaraMarine
    I would actually focus more on the lack of the headstock than on the headstock. So if anything, it would most likely be the opposite of what the article suggests.
    ruipalmeira
    #1 is bullshit. know why? Your ****ing nose, that's right, it's there, you can see it if you try hard enough but your brain just ignores it. just like your brain ignores pretty much EVERYTHING but the fret-board when you're playing guitar.
    plarles
    I don't think most of it comes off as BS. In particular, I like argument that "open" and fretted notes sound the same on the headless. However, they're bucking fugly. So nah bruh.
    joeyreece
    I have a headless bass and agree with the weight aspect. But as an occasional headless player, #1 in just not a positive. That subconscious awareness of a head guitarists usually have is gone. Too often I find myself playing 2 frets up due to that neural pattern in my mind telling me there's a few inches at the end of the neck before the first fret. I've also found that when going down that part of the neck - you don't have the "stop" that a head usually gives your hand. I also want to question #5; do people actually strive for looser tension? Is that a problem people have? Cause I'm looking at new guitars simply to add on neck length/string tension right now
    rain_grunge
    There are a few pretty good point in the article, but the rest feels pretty redundant and pointless, I actually kinda like the way headless guitars look, but the points you make do little to sell me on actually buying one
    Silly_Man
    These points are just silly, but I do think that the strandberg guitars are much smarter design than a traditional guitar.
    Phoenix V
    I didnt read past point #1 because it was lost already. If you are going to state your case your opening salvo needs to be filled with cred. Visual energy on a headstock? Seriously? I don't even look at my guitar when I'm playing let alone the headstock.
    ppiluk
    Before I read this article I didn't have an opinion about these guitars. I just chalked it up to personal taste. After reading this column and the author's really weak reasoning...I have come to the conclusion that some people love these guitars and have really weak reasons for that love. Thank you for clearing this up!
    MaggaraMarine
    I have never had any problems with balance on guitars with a headstock, other than on my Thunderbird bass which has some neck dive. Removing the headstock from a Thunderbird could solve the balance problem, but on most guitars it would just create balance problems.
    ModestM
    Definitely, some of these just sound weak as arguments for headless guitars... He could have mentioned that the lack of extra string distance just makes it easier to maintain your tuning and also, some guitars, like a lot of Les Pauls have extra string length beyond the nut and the bridge as well (with like a TOM bridge), which can make freakin' awful noises when you're recording with a high gain sound for example. Some people use a hairband or Fretwraps for that reason, but there's no need for that with a headless. So basically, if you're a recording artist, a headless can make your life easier. Even if you're playing live. Ah and also, it's not that rare to bump your headstock into the wall/your amp/whatever, so that just won't ever happen with headless instruments. End of story.
    esky15
    Isn't the purpose of fret wrap to dampen the strings to get unwanted vibrations and sometimes sloppy playing?
    st-even
    #5 is just plain wrong , the scale length determines the tension of a string at pitch, not how long the string is in total.When you bend a string you will feel it to be stiffer, but that is because there is less string to stretch past the nut.The main benefit of a headless guitar is not needing a locking nut for your tremolo .