Explore the mysteries of headstock angle and learn what subtle details a luthier has to consider when designing a new model.
A difference of a few degrees in headstock angle can have a significant effect on a neck’s production cost and structural integrity. Photo by Tony Molina.
In 2005, I was asked to create a series of limited-edition instruments to be sold exclusively through a trio of high-end shops. These guitars were to be somewhat unique and would contain some features not normally associated with the Hamer brand. The owners of the three shops were well versed in the vintage trade. Each had enjoyed great success marketing limited editions from a number of manufacturers based upon vintage aesthetics from the so-called golden age of electrics, which of course, means before 1965. Because my career had included being a vintage dealer, I was eager to get started.
The first feature was the 1950s-style ABR-1 Tune-o-matic bridge, paired with an aluminum stop tailpiece. Fair enough. Nobody is going to dismiss the sound of a vintage Les Paul so equipped, right? This is something I still use because I love the added zing of a lightweight tailpiece. On my current builds, I secure them down with 1018 steel anchors with fine-pitch threads to boot. I feel that the vibration is transferred to the body more efficiently this way, and if I had this stuff then, I would have suggested it.
The second request was for the neck to be made from a single piece of Honduran mahogany and capped with a Brazilian-rosewood fretboard. This was a bit of a departure for me, as I had developed an extremely stable and good-sounding 3-piece neck system that used pieces with opposing grain, though still matched from the same board. This technique, which I dubbed the “stressed-neck system,” had virtually eradicated any neck warp or twisting for several decades of production. Still, I understood where the guys were coming from, so a single-piece neck it was.
The theory behind a single-piece neck is that it will resonate like, well, one piece. Though I felt that in some ways it was a step backward, it wasn’t a big risk if we were diligent, and people could point to something unique about the model. We selected very nice, flatsawn pieces of 16/4 mahogany that were turned sideways to allow for the depth of the headstock. Single-piece necks are problematic if rushed to final shape, so we took our time during production and allowed the necks to rest for a few weeks at several stages along the way to prevent post-manufacture movement. The results were quite good.
The third called-for specification was to establish a peghead angle of 17 degrees. This was the detail that I found the most puzzling from a design standpoint. As I reported in a previous column (“Keeping Your Head on Straight,” July 2012), increased headstock pitch adds downward pressure and consequently holds the strings more securely in the nut slots. Some feel that this additional pressure results in better transfer of vibration to the guitar’s neck, and others swear that it adds sustain. My feeling is that it’s certainly a factor in an instrument’s overall sonic signature, but exactly how much and whether or not I could tell the difference is debatable.
One downside is the added friction can induce tuning instability by not allowing the strings to move as freely when bent, or even while being tuned. Once again, this is a marginal difference compared to, say, a guitar with a 10-degree headstock or a Fender-style instrument.
I do know for certain that a steep headstock angle represents two major things from a manufacturing standpoint. The first is that it costs more to make. As I outlined earlier, a single-piece neck requires a thicker stock, which is more expensive to obtain. But a steeper headstock costs more even when a neck is constructed from multiple boards that are laminated together. The driving force behind Leo Fender’s 1", flatsawn maple neck with effectively a zero-angle headstock was undoubtedly lowered cost.
Another factor—no doubt understood by Fender—is that the steeper the angle, the more fragile the peghead becomes. In fact, it’s said that when Gibson reduced their guitars’ headstock pitch from 17 degrees to 14 degrees in 1965, it was for just these reasons. Our shop was a Gibson service center before we became a guitar manufacturer, so my observations are not purely anecdotal. My original designs called for 14 degrees in hopes of avoiding the breakage and subsequent warranty nightmares we’d seen on Gibsons built prior to 1965. (The fact that our neck-carving machinery and tooling were bought from Gibson’s Kalamazoo factory also made this ideal.)
Still, Gibson collectors and purists who favor the 1950s-era guitars regard the steep headstock as a necessary ingredient. So even though I regarded reverting to the 17-degree angle as a bit of marketing voodoo, we all had to put food on the table and it’s sometimes hard to argue with the tidal forces of customer perceptions. My retail partners were experts in their market and I ultimately respected that. Choosing my battles wisely, the model dubbed “Triple Threat” went ahead as specified.
Looking back on this exercise, it was the collaboration with the three wise men that really made the project special for me. Working with great people and creating something memorable that will live on after we’re gone is what makes what I do worthwhile. And if you’re wondering how all the detail changes affected the sound, let’s just say that the end customers were very satisfied and leave it at that.
Looking for more great gear for the guitar player in your life (yourself included!)? Check out this year's Holiday Gear Finds!
D'Addario XPND Pedalboard
DR-05X Stereo Handheld Recorder
Wampler Pedals Ratsbane
Flare is a dual-function pedal with a tube-like booster and a 1970s-style ring modulator effect that can be played separately or together.
Flare’s ring modulator is based on the iconic tone of the original Dan Armstrong Green Ringer. This vintage classic was made famous by Frank Zappa who loved the unusual modulations created by generating a harmonic octave over notes. Messiah’s version offers two control knobs: a “Sparkle” tone attenuator and output Level control. Its taupe-gold body, purple and green knobs and stick-figure rock ’n’ roller holding up a flame convey an appropriately rockin’70s vibe.
In a unique twist, Messiah’s Flare pairs the ringer with a warm tube-style boost instead of a fuzz. Flare feeds the booster into the ringer for an extra punch, while preserving the Green Ringerspirit. The ringer side also turns any fuzz into an octafuzz, and it has the ability to quiet signal background noise fed through it.
The booster side features a single Boost knob to control the MOSFET circuit, making it very tube-amp-friendly with a warm, organic boost and gain of up to 32dB.
The pedal is a distinct improvement over the 1970s pedal that inspired it. “Most ringer pedals don’t track well,” Tom Hejda, owner of Messiah Guitars. “The player can’t rely on repeating the same effect even with the most consistently played notes. We carefully matched the components, so our ringer follows your every move, producing that slightly dirty octave you expect on demand.”
Messiah developed this vintage octave pedal with flexible features so that people who love that messy, dirty Zappa-esque sound can get there with ease but there’s also something for those who have not fallen in love with fuzz or the Green Ringer alone. Flare offers an array of sonic options while retaining simplicity in the controls.
Each Flair Pedal Includes:
- 3 control knobs: Boost, Sparkle, and Level
- Two effects – Ring Modulator and Boost – can be used together or separately
- Space-saving top side jacks
- Durable, cast aluminum alloy 125B enclosure with fun artwork
- Easy to see, illuminated True-bypass foot switch
- Standard 9V pedal power input
Flare Pedal Demo
Messiah Guitars pedals are designed with an explorative player in mind. Like their custom guitars and amplifiers, Messiah’s pedals are hand-crafted in Los Angeles for a long life with guaranteed quality.
Flare retails for $199.00 and can be purchased directly at Messiah Guitars or you can hear it in person at Impulse Music Co. in Canyon Country, CA.
For more information, please visit messiahguitars.com.
This feathery little guy is a joy to play because of its incredibly quick response to your right hand - much faster and more expressive than your typical auto-wah pedal.
If it looks like a duck, acts like a duck, and QUACKS like a duck, then it must be a duck. That's how we came up with the name for our new envelope filter. This feathery little guy is a joy to play because of its incredibly quick response to your right hand - much faster and more expressive than your typical auto-wah pedal. Trevor explains how this is possible in the launch video, as well as gives a demo on Le Canard’s operation.
The attack control determines how quickly the filter responds to the envelope, and the decay sets how quickly the filter releases afterward. The range controls which frequency spectrum the filter does its magic on. Add to this relay-based full-bypass switching with failsafe, and you've got one crazy little quacky beast. It is so expressive that you'll want to give up on your rocker-wah forever.
The MayFly Le Canard envelope filter features:
- Super fast responding envelope follower. Touch it and it jumps!
- Range control to dial in the character of the filter
- Attack control to control how fast the filter moves on that first touch
- Release control to control how slowly the filter slides back to baseline
- Full bypass using relays with Fail SafeTM (automatically switches to bypass if the pedal loses power)
- Cast aluminum enclosure with groovy artwork
- MSRP $149 USD ($199 CAD)
Introducing the MayFly Le Canard Envelope Filter
All MayFly pedals are hand-made in Canada.
For more information, please visit mayflyaudio.com.
Outlaw Effects introduces their next generation of NOMAD rechargeable battery-powered pedal boards.
Available in two sizes, NOMAD ISO is a compact, versatile tool that offers the convenience of a fully powered board plus the additional freedom of not having to plug into an outlet. NOMAD ISO is ideal for stages with limited outlet availability, quick changeovers, busking outdoors, temporary rehearsal locations, and more.
NOMAD ISO builds upon the legacy of the ultra-convenient and reliable NOMAD rechargeable pedalboard line originally launched in 2018. The brand new NOMAD ISO editions feature eight isolated outputs (1 x 9V DC, and 1 switchable 9V/12V DC) for even more versatility and clean, quiet power. With an integrated lithium-ion battery pack boasting 12800mAh capacity, NOMAD ISO can fuel a wide array of pedals, and will last over 10 hours* on a single charge.
Each NOMAD ISO pedal board includes adhesive hook & loop pedal-mounting tape, eight (8) standard DC connector cables, and one (1) reverse polarity DC cable, giving you everything you need to build your ultimate "off-the-grid" rig. A rugged, road-ready padded gig bag with shoulder strap is also included, to safely protect your gear while you're on the move.
NOMAD ISO S
NOMAD ISO S: MSRP $309 / MAP: $249
Dimensions: 19 ¼" x 5 ¼"
NOMAD ISO M
NOMAD ISO M: MSRP $349 / MAP $279
Dimensions: 19 ¼" x 11"
More info: https://www.outlawguitareffects.com.