Guarding Your Guitar
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 sport 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 pickguard 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.