Guitar headstocks are almost like a signature. You see one, and you instantly know the brand behind it. Headstock designs have been the source of inspiration, contention, and even a few lawsuits. Yet some brands broke from tradition and went for designs all their own.
There are some major brands that you could pick out simply by the silhouette of their headstock. The edgy arcs of Paul Reed Smith, the classic bends of a Gibson, the epic angles of an Ibanez, or the vintage flare of a Fender are all instantly recognizable. As emerging brands seek to make an impression, the entire design and build matters. The headstock, however, is almost a microcosm of design that impresses upon a player what the guitar is all about. While there are endless headstock designs to consider, a few stand out as breaking free of all standards and doing so with success.
In 1993, Parker guitars showed up with a series of guitars that looked like they were ready to usher in the new millennium seven years ahead of time. While there are many design features that made Parker’s forward thinking — the bridge design and body shape are unreal — their headstock is unlike any others in the history of electric guitars. As the strings run up the neck toward the tuners, they terminate in a slender, angled headstock that leaves almost five of six strings stretched and lingering on thin air. While the whole instrument makes an impression, it’s arguable that unmistakable headstock that makes a Parker a Parker.
While Steinberger wasn’t the first and certainly won’t be the last to adopt the no-headstock design, they’re probably the ones who have done it best. The innovation of headstock-less guitars is how they reorient and rethink a fundamental aspect of luthiery. By snipping the headstock the tuning machines are set bridge side, giving the guitar an entirely different balance and feel. Of all their lineup, the NS Design series has become the standard for headstock-less builds. This lineup includes six-strings, bass guitars, and even a hybrid standup electric bass. Despite the tension of all these strings, Steinberger makes it all happen without a headstock.
I’m a fan of all guitar gear that’s made in Japan. For me, the most brilliant and bizarre guitar builds come from Teisco in the 1960s. While some of their instruments were clearly channeling Fender-esque qualities, some went in a direction entirely their own. This is nowhere more true than with the Teisco Del Rey Spectrum 5 from 1966. Everything about this guitar is bold: the pickup configuration is almost unthinkable, its onboard electronics are rainbow colored, and the bridge and whammy bar design look like they could be a chrome ashtray from a vintage Corvette. So how do you cap all this off with a headstock? First off, you go for a four plus two setup that is rare to say the least. Then you do a semi-matched paintjob complete with a white plastic cover to pair with the pickguard. And the shape? Perhaps to make a point that Tiesco was taking a shot at Fender, the headstock looks like a contorted Fender headstock with the rounded edge chopped and shaved. While a headstock has a certain function on a guitar, it is far from a utilitarian aspect of the build.
Next time you’re gazing up at the wall of guitars in store, keep an eye on the headstocks and try an interpret what the designer’s telling you. I’d argue that more than anywhere else, it’s up top that you get the clearest glimpse of a guitar’s design philosophy.