GUARDING YOUR GUITAR BY JOL DANTZIG
Pickguards are an easy way to customize your
guitar, but different materials may slightly affect
your instrument’s sound.
If you’ve ever wondered why some guitars port a pickguard and others do not, you’re
probably not alone. They come in all sizes
and shapes, and can be made from almost
any material. These ubiquitous appendages
answer to many names like scratchplate,
finger rest, and scratchguard—just to name
a few. Some guitars see fit to exclude them,
while others cannot operate without their
help. But beyond protecting against a player’s
savage scratch, what do they do?
The scratchplate’s origins can be most
likely traced back to the Andalucian instruments of the 19th century that were played
in the flamenco style of the region. Flamenco
employs a fierce and percussive attack, so
a pickguard would have been essential to
protect the top. Later on, when steel strings
eventually became the norm and strumming
took on an even bolder dimension, the pickguard really began earning its keep.
Many players rest their fingers on the top of
their instrument, either for support or as a
reference point. As fretted instruments began
to use arched tops (mimicking orchestral
instruments) there became a need to elevate
the guard to facilitate this technique. Gibson
received a patent for this type of raised guard
in 1909, calling it a finger rest, and they
were open to stylistic flourish as long as the
underlying purpose was served. Additionally,
it turns out that there are sonic advantages
with this floating arrangement, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
As guitars became electrified, the pickguard
was increasingly used as a mounting device
for pickups. It was at this point that the shape
and design began to be an integral part of the
guitar’s overall form. Leo Fender expanded on
this with the Telecaster, and then took it to a
new level with the Stratocaster. The pickguard
had become a major structural and graphic
element of the guitar.
Vibration and Absorption
It’s easy to understand why gluing a plastic
plate directly to the top of an acoustic guitar might have some tonal repercussions.
Loading up the major resonating component
of an instrument that relies solely on vibration for its amplitude has to be taken into
account. The best luthiers know this and
factor it into their construction choices. But
what about electric guitars? Can a pickguard
change the way a solidbody sounds? The
answer is yes, but it turns out to be more
complex than the reason for an acoustic.
The more resonant or “alive” a guitar is,
the more a pickguard can affect its natural
tone, and thus, the amplified sound. This
is another reason why jazz-box builders like
the floating pickguards. The theory is that
if the guard is isolated, the top can vibrate
more boldly and deeply, and this will, in
turn, be reflected in the amplified signal.
With the advent of the solidbody electric,
designers had different theories about the
role that the acoustic nature of the guitar
played in the final sound. While Gibson
chose to mimic the look of their big-box,
jazz guitars when designing the Les Paul,
Fender decided to reference the “Spanish”
form with their Broadcaster. These choices
are also evident in the size and shape of their
respective pickguards. In my opinion, these
companies were more focused on the electrical output of the instrument, not the acoustic ramifications of a small bit of plastic.
One of the most brilliant uses of the pick-
guard is seen on the Stratocaster. Its form
provides a strong graphic element to the
appearance of the instrument. While it wasn’t
universally applauded when it first arrived at
market, we celebrate its swooshing lines today.
My appreciation comes from another aspect
of the device—its utility. Besides protecting
the face of the guitar, the “Strat-o-guard”
doubles as the pickup-mounting bezel and as
a facade to hide the routing underneath. The
designer’s true genius can also be seen in the
fact that this plate allows the electronics to
be built as a complete sub-assembly, separate
from the guitar. One of the most costly (and
commonplace) mistakes in manufacturing a
guitar is to buff through the finish on a sharp
edge, like a pickup rout. The Fender-style
pickguard solves that problem by hiding all
the edges. Actually, you don’t even have to
buff the area underneath. Brilliant!
There are some who maintain that the scratchplate’s material can have an affect on sound.
In the case of an acoustic instrument, it’s clear
how this might be true. But why would a
solidbody guitar exhibit this? I’ve heard stories
about how the addition or changing of a pickguard has resulted in an audible difference.
Usually these tales are anecdotal and not controlled experiments. Certainly, if you remove
the pickguard from a Strat-style guitar and listen to it acoustically, you will hear a difference.
I’d point out that removing 18 strong magnets
from proximity to the strings might accomplish this. Still, I don’t think that the verdict
is in either way. I’d like to see some hard data
that’s produced from controlled circumstances
to get to the bottom of it.
The electrical and magnetic effects of metal
pickguards are real. The differences between
plastic, aluminum, and steel pickguards create changes that can be heard and measured.
Surrounding a pickup with a conductive or
ferrous material can alter its inductance and
distort its magnetic field. This is said to be
a major factor in the Telecaster’s sound. The
aluminum plates used on Zemaitis guitars
give those instruments a totally unique and
different sound as well. My personal experience with metal pickguards has led me to
proceed with caution, as I’ve found it necessary to select pickups that will match and
complement any change to the pickguard.
The Visual Appeal
Once again, we come back to styling.
Adding, removing, or customizing a guitar’s
pickguard is an easy way to personalize your
axe. It’s completely reversible, so there’s very
little downside to giving it a try. I’m not sure
how much luck you’ll have in fine-tuning
your sound with a pickguard change, but be
aware that it can make a difference.
JOL DANTZIG is a noted designer,
builder, and player who co-founded Hamer
Guitars, one of the first boutique guitar
brands, in 1973. Today, as the director of
Dantzig Guitar Design, he continues to
help define the art of custom guitar. To learn
more, visit guitardesigner.com.