Why headless when so many other guitars aren’t?

It’s not hard to find info on headless pros vs. cons, but none that are very complete. I wanted to go into detail for hardcores so they can see how our design decision was made.

Ergonomics

Ask anybody touring w/ a 10lb Les Paul, a very wide padded ergo-strap helps with pinched nerves and blood flow. Light weight equals a happy shoulder and back, without the body harness.

The total weight is reduced somewhat from a move to a much smaller headstock. We find our maple necks are 69g lighter with our headstock profile than a typical Fender Strat profile. Typical tuners weigh around 0.50lb. With our tuners, string locks, etc. considered, we lose a total of 0.47lb starting out, not bad. But on a typical 7.5lb guitar that’s only a 6% difference. Not anything to design a guitar around or write home about.

The bigger ergonomic issue is the mass effects of balance. Neckdive is when the overweight neck pulls on strap and shoulder as it proceeds towards the ground. If we

start with a center of gravity of the whole guitar at the 21st fret (like ours) the removed headstock mass is ~21.75” away, shown on the right. This torque (torq=dist*force, or moment of force) difference from the change to a headless is  13 in*lbs about our total center of gravity(CG). The body’s CG is 3.2” away from the 21st fret, show left of center. So, going headless let’s our guitar have a 4lb lighter body (13in*lb/3.2in) balanced without neckdive! Time to write home

Headstock removal alone reduces our total length 5 inches at the same scale length. Play it more places, it won’t hit mic stands, walls, mates, etc… nearly as often. Killer in tiny houses, small cramped studios, and on the road. Ergonomics not only include how well the guitar works with your body, it also includes how much freedom you and your guitar have in your environment.

Sound and Playability

Ned Steinberger brought the first popular headless guitars to market; and its unique graphite construction led some to believe this was the “headless sound”.  There really isn’t a “headless sound” per se, as the scale length, pickups, pickup locations, body construction, neck materials, etc. all have more significant roles to play in the sound. However, there still are quite a few small differences insound and playability.

The overhung mass of a headstock acts like a cantilever diving board vibrating sometimes with and sometimes against the neck. This occurs in all planes and torsional axis’s and puts energy into and out of the neck. This extraneous energy encourages partial ghost(dead) and wolf notes in various places on the fretboard. Helmut Fleischer (’99) showed how even different shaped headstocks (Les Paul and Strat) effected the vibrational modes of the neck. Less overhung mass and distance equals fewer odd notes/tones from outside influences.

The guitar’s resistance to rotation about the CG comes from the rotational inertia (mass*distance^2). With the headstock and tuner mass removed 22” from the CG, there is a significant reduction in the guitar’s ability to resist rotating. Many players describe playing on a Tau-6 as “effortless”. We think the reduced rotational inertia is a good part of that.

Sustain differences are minor but still significant. A wood damped cantilevered mass (headstock and tuners) moving in the air eats string energy and hurts sustain.

Also, as after-length string behind-the-nut moves during an open note, nut friction eats into string energy hurting sustain. The longer the unsung string the worse this is for open string notes. Not a problem for headless or standard headstocks with a string locking system near the nut (ala Floyd Rose).

Headless guitars and ones with locked down strings have slightly different playability. A crisper response is noted as less bending is required to change pitch. So, side and axial movements for finger and wrist vibrato is easier.

We believe our responsive pick attack and note to note clarity is more from overall rigidity and bridge construction, rather than string lock down benefits. The downside of all this is a guitar that is slightly less forgiving of slop.

Zero nuts are more common on headless guitars and effect open string tone, but they can be used on all guitars. We’ll go into pros/cons in a future blog on why we prefer a normal nut to a zero nut.

Behind-the-nut strings try and sing along with your playing with ringing errant noises.  Not good for recording or certain types of playing where this noise stands out. Headless guitars typically don’t need gym socks, scrunchies, or foam rubber dampeners, etc. Too much dampening leads to worse tuning problems from after length string friction, too little and the noise is still there.

Convenience

Headless guitars and lock-down string guitars keep in tune longer without the changing tension of afterlength strings (thru nut-stiction) affecting the tuned string tension. Clean lubricated roller ball nuts and lubricated graphite nuts help with this issue on typical headstocks. Headless have less total wood parallel with the entire string which helps with tuning changes due to humidity.

Some consider the tuner relocation from the headstock to the bridge a benefit, adjusting tune with the pick hand. While others prefer the headstock location, most get used to either without an issue. The lock-down Floyd Rose with standard headstock is tuned from the bridge side as well.

Fast string changes.  Most modern headless guitars use standard single ball strings and have far faster string changes than typical guitars. Headless guitars using double ball end or SpeedLoader strings are even faster but suffer from limited string availability and selection. Double ball end survives still, SpeedLoaders didn’t.

Headless have way less chance of broken necks in a fall, ouch $$!. Not having a whipping headstock-tuner mass helps during an impact. Also, the standard guitar has a high likelihood of contact with the furthest point out on the headstock, exercising more mechanical leverage against the nut area during a fall.

Travel friendly A typical headless will be a minimum of 5” shorter, ours is 9” shorter at the same scale length. Works great with overhead luggage, no gorilla handled check-in bag needed. A guitar that stays with you comfortably doesn’t require a hardcase. Losing even more travel weight.

The Tau-6 wasn’t designed to be a travel-guitar, otherwise we would make it with a foldable neck. It’s just travel-friendly, another side benefit of good ergonomics.

How we don’t fit the headless mold

We are one of the few(only?) headless manufacturers to have a small headstock piece remaining. This helps our customers use standard guitar wall hangers and a multitude of different standard hanging stands.

This feature also helps with the ergo feel of a natural hand stop for the quick no-look tactile location of the 1st fret.  And it just feels comfortable picking up any tapered end that has a nub-like feature on it, wanting to stay in your hand rather than sliding out and dropping.

Our string lock-down is milled from billet aluminum (not cast zinc-al pot metal). Our one-piece design won’t tear out of the neck. Others use tiny screws with their individual string locks.

We are also with the few to use the large under-head surface area of our lock-down screws to clamp the strings, just past the nut. This keeps the strings from failing early from a stress riser caused by a smaller locking setscrew.

Downsides

Yes, there are always tradeoffs.

Different strokes… Behind-the-nut strings can be fingertip pushed to raise pitch or a pulsing kind of one-sided vibrato. Headless and locked down string guitars can’t do this. Also, our body stiffness and neck joint don’t lend themselves to body-bending of notes.

Fingering techniques without any support from the rest of the hand (no thumb, palm, or thumb crook) will feel different with a headless’s lower rotational inertia. Whole arm vibrato with only fingertip to string contact would be more challenging.

Some feel headless tuning knobs are harder to turn; most are. This can be mitigated with higher tuner ratios, using a turner-key-tool, or a staggered design w/ a larger diameter.

A percentage of players think that headless guitars don’t look right, they belong in the back in the 80’s, they look like an arm with the hand amputated, and that it’s just another fashion that’s currently trending but soon will pass.

We feel that our miniature headstock not only adds function but it yin/yang’s with the body, completing the eye movement without a feeling of being chopped off, esthetically. The world has lots of room for “different” shapes, regardless of the years of Strat and LesPaul shape saturation. Form following function.

Summary

We think the sound, ergonomic, and convenience benefits of a headless design far outweigh the negatives. We’ve also added our own spin to further reduce the cons.  We will only make headless guitars.