In this installment, I’m focusing on the upper items that anchor the strings of your guitar and allow them to vibrate. The headstock and nut form the upper end of the system used to tighten the strings to the proper pitch, fix the strings to the scale length of the neck, and keep the strings spaced and properly aligned on the fingerboard. Let’s work down from the top.
The tuners are the geared posts fixed to the headstock that tighten the strings when wound. The most important aspect of the tuners is the ability to bring the string to proper pitch and hold it there. If the tuners slip or the posts wobble, you’ll spend more time tuning your guitar than playing it, so it’s best to ensure that the guitar is built with quality tuners. Tuners typically come in locking and non-locking varieties. The locking tuners hold the strings firmly to prevent them from slipping within the tuning posts when strings are bent or when used with a tremolo. Locking tuners also speed up your string changes by not requiring you to underwrap the strings when mounting them to the tuners.
The downward angle that the strings follow from the nut to the tuning posts is the break angle. This downward angle produces desired downward pressure on the nut to retain the strings in the nut slots and keep the strings from buzzing at the nut. The break angle can be achieved with an angled-back headstock, string retainers on the headstock, or with modern staggered-height tuners.
The nut on Brantley guitars is a piece of natural bone with slots to hold the strings in their proper positions. The quality of a properly cut nut is essential to proper string spacing and string height to prevent the strings from buzzing on the frets. I recently upgraded a factory-built guitar by replacing the hollow plastic nut with a new custom bone nut. The difference is staggering. Imagine dropping a piece of plastic on a table and then dropping a piece of bone on a table. The density of the bone will produce a much richer tone. To me, the nut is just not the area where a guitar builder should cut costs by utilizing plastic instead of time-tested bone.
Headstocks come in a variety of shapes and truly, they are the trademark of the manufacturer. In general, headstocks fall into general categories of break angle and tuner orientation. Flat headstocks are formed by carving down the front of the neck to create a break angle between the headstock and nut. Angled headstocks are formed by attaching a separate headstock at an angle using a very strong glue joint in order to keep the grain of the wood parallel to the strings along the line of the headstock and nut. See this video for a detailed view of an angled headstock:
Some headstocks align all 6 tuners along one side, while others align 3 tuners to each side.
I currently build necks with two different headstocks, a flat headstock with 6 tuners to a side on the Classic and an angled headstock with 3 tuners to a side on the Artist and Enforcer. Of course, other options are always available for custom builds.
In the next installment, I’ll focus on the lower part of the anchor system, the bridge and tailpiece. Until then, play your guitar!