For starters, says Hamer Guitars cofounder Jol Dantzig, avoid stock typeface at all costs.
There was a time when the shape of an electric guitar was all you needed to see to know who made it. That seems quaint now, right? There are so many builders, and so many guitars that lean heavily on previous designs. I’m as guilty as anyone of synthesizing styles, but the sheer volume of entries into the marketplace can cloud your vision. This is nothing new for orchestral instruments whose forms have been practically identical for centuries. Usually, you’ve got to look at the logo to be sure if it’s a Yamaha or a Conn. (I have to do this with cars nowadays.) As the guitar industry gets increasingly crowded with “tribute” instruments, it becomes difficult to know exactly what you are looking at. Because of this, the brand logo becomes more important than ever.
In simple terms, a logo is a graphic design element that represents a product, brand, or organization. It can be a symbol, words, or a combination of both. Designers will tell you that a typeface is not a logo unless it is so specialized as to not be mistaken for anything else. Coca-Cola, Gibson, and Fender spring to mind. Over time, and with lots of advertising, typeface logos can become embedded in the public consciousness. Studies have shown that children recognize and associate symbol logos before they can read—think Pepsi or Apple—so those designs really hit us at a deep level. Logos are also a point of pride for customers of each product tribe, and it seems everyone is searching for that.
Other aspects a good designer will take into consideration is if a logo will readily adapt to different mediums. A full-color logo might not translate when cut out of steel in reverse, whereas a properly constructed symbol will. If you’re going to produce guitar logos of mother of pearl to be inlaid into a headstock, you have to be cognizant of the limits of your routing capabilities, as well as whether or not the logo will be a single or multiple-piece part. Just because you can draw it doesn’t mean it can be made easily. More parts equal more cost and effort. However, there are lots of companies that supply finished shell-inlay parts for big manufacturers and small shops, too. They can guide you with their decades of experience when refining your logo for production use.
Besides inlay, there are quite a few ways to apply a logo to an instrument. Centuries ago, instruments might have been signed in ink, or have a paper label decorated with the builder’s name. Eventually, names migrated to the headstock, where potential buyers could see them from a distance, such as in a shop window. This also allowed performing musicians to promote individual makers by merely appearing in public. As instruments moved towards being a commodity, the burden of identification fell more and more to the brand logo.
In the 20th century, factories started to build ever larger quantities of guitars, and handlettering became inefficient, and lacked consistency. The job was replaced by industrial processes, including cloisonné or printed metal tags which were glued, nailed, or screwed to the peghead. Another popular method was silkscreen. Like T-shirt screening, an operator placed the headstock into a fixture with a hinged-screen frame. The frame closed down on the headstock and the operator swiped screen ink with a squeegee. Gibson still uses this technique to replicate their golden age instruments. For costlier guitars, mechanical routers and pantographs were able to accomplish pearl inlay logos at a fraction of the cost of handwork. Today, computer automated routers do this work in even small shops.
The most ubiquitous method today is the waterslide decal. Invented in France in the 1700s, the printed decal—or décalcomanie—consisted of a printed image suspended in a thin film on a piece of paper. The image is released onto an object with water. Those who grew up building model airplanes will instantly recognize the process. These decal logos are inexpensive to make and can be applied quickly, making them perfect for mass production. Used by many guitar makers including Gibson, Fender, and Martin, they can be added over the finish or topcoated after application. You can even make them on a computer printer using decal paper.
When designing a logo for your band or brand of gear, you might want to avoid that stock typeface no matter what type of process you use. When we founded Hamer in 1973, graphic designer Max LeSueur chose a stock font (bookman bold italic) for our brand. I liked it because it was the font that Italian frame builder Colnago used on their world-beating racing bicycles, but now it looks like dozens of other dated 1970s examples. So, whether your logo is a painstakingly executed inlay, silkscreen, or decal, it is your call to action, your personal identity, and your tribal flag all rolled into one. Choose wisely.