Pickguards, often seen adorning the bodies of guitars, basses, and other stringed instruments, are more than just decorative accessories. These components serve a range of functions, from protecting the instrument from potential damage to housing vital electronic components.
But are they really necessary? And do they affect the sound produced by the instrument?
What is the purpose of the pickguard on a guitar?
The purpose of a pickguard on a guitar is primarily to protect the body of the instrument from potential damage caused by the pick or strumming and secondarily to add aesthetic appeal. In some electric guitars, the pickguard also serves as a housing for certain electronic components.
In this article, we take a look at the purpose of pickguards, examining their contribution to both the aesthetic and functional aspects of stringed instruments.
What Is The Point Of A Pickguard?
A pickguard, also known as a scratchplate, serves a couple of primary purposes on a stringed instrument like a guitar or a bass:
- Protection: The main function of a pickguard is to protect the body of the instrument from being scratched or damaged by the pick.
When strumming or picking the strings, the pick can sometimes strike the body of the instrument, causing scratches or other damage. The pickguard shields the body of the instrument from this potential damage.
- Aesthetic Appeal: Pickguards also add to the visual appeal of an instrument. They come in various colors, materials, and designs and can add a unique touch to the instrument’s overall look.
- Electronics Housing: On some electric guitars, the pickguard is also used as a convenient place to house electronics such as volume and tone controls, as well as the pickups.
It’s worth noting that not all instruments have pickguards. Their use can depend on the design of the instrument, the playing style of the musician, and personal preference.
Are Pickguards Necessary?
Whether a pickguard is “necessary” can be subjective and depends largely on the player’s technique and the specific instrument in question. Here are a few considerations:
- Playing Technique: If a player often strums aggressively or tends to hit the body of the instrument with the pick, a pickguard can help prevent scratches and other damage. For players with a lighter touch or those who predominantly fingerpick, a pickguard might not be as necessary.
- Instrument Value: If the instrument is particularly valuable, either monetarily or sentimentally, a player might choose to use a pickguard to help protect it from any potential damage.
- Aesthetics: Some players might choose to use a pickguard purely for aesthetic reasons, as it can add a unique touch to the instrument’s overall look. Similarly, others might prefer the look of their instrument without a pickguard.
- Electronics Housing: On some electric guitars and basses, the pickguard also serves as a housing for certain electronic components. In these cases, the pickguard serves a functional purpose beyond just protection.
While pickguards can serve a useful purpose, they’re not “necessary” on all guitars. It comes down to the individual player’s needs and preferences.
Do Pickguards Affect Sound?
The impact of a pickguard on the sound of an instrument is a topic of some debate among musicians.
The consensus is that, for most practical purposes, the effect of a pickguard on the sound of an instrument is minimal, especially in comparison to other factors such as the type of strings, the construction of the instrument, and the playing technique.
The material of the pickguard (commonly plastic, but sometimes made of wood or other materials) is not typically involved in the creation or amplification of the sound in the same way that the body, top, or soundboard of an instrument is. Therefore, any acoustic effect it might have is likely to be very subtle.
For electric guitars and basses, the pickguard often serves as a housing for certain electronic components, like pickups and control knobs. In these cases, changes to the pickguard could potentially affect the positioning of these components, which could, in turn, subtly influence the sound.
In general, the primary functions of a pickguard are to protect the instrument from scratches and to provide a certain aesthetic look. Any impact on the sound is usually considered secondary or negligible.
What Happens If You Don’t Have A Pickguard?
If you don’t have a pickguard on your instrument, a few things might happen:
- Potential Damage: The most immediate effect of not having a pickguard is that the body of your instrument is more exposed to potential damage from the pick.
If you strum or pick aggressively, or if your playing style involves a lot of strumming near the body of the instrument, you may end up with scratches or dents on the instrument’s surface.
- Aesthetic Changes: Without a pickguard, the look of your instrument will be different. Some people prefer the sleek look of an instrument without a pickguard, while others might miss the visual flair that a pickguard can add.
- Possible Sound Differences: As discussed earlier, the impact of a pickguard on the sound of an instrument is usually minimal.
In the case of electric guitars, where the pickguard houses electronic components, not having a pickguard could necessitate a different arrangement of these components, which could potentially influence the sound in subtle ways.
- Comfort and Technique: Some players find that a pickguard provides a visual and tactile reference point for their strumming or picking hand, so not having one could require some adjustment in playing technique.
Not having a pickguard won’t render an instrument unplayable, and many players choose not to use one. It’s a matter of personal preference and playing style.
What Does A Pickguard Do On Bass?
On a bass guitar, a pickguard serves similar functions as it does on a regular guitar:
- Protection: The primary function of a pickguard on a bass is to protect the body of the instrument from potential damage caused by the pick or fingers.
If the player uses a pick or plays aggressively with their fingers, they can potentially scratch or dent the body of the bass. A pickguard helps prevent this.
- Aesthetics: Pickguards can add a unique visual element to a bass. They come in various colors, patterns, and materials, allowing musicians to personalize the look of their instrument.
- Housing for Electronics: On some bass guitars, the pickguard also serves as a housing for certain electronic components. Pickups, volume knobs, and tone knobs may be mounted to the pickguard.
In such cases, the pickguard is a part of the instrument’s design and functionality.
Just like with regular guitars, the use of a pickguard on a bass is largely a matter of personal preference and playing style. Some bassists prefer to use one, while others do not.
In the world of stringed instruments, pickguards play a role that combines aesthetics, protection, and, in some cases, functionality.
They safeguard the body of the instrument from potential damage caused by picks or aggressive playing, add a unique visual element, and sometimes even house essential electronic components.
While their influence on the sound of an instrument is often minimal, their impact on the instrument’s longevity and appearance can be significant.
The choice to use a pickguard is a personal one that each musician makes based on their playing style, the value of their instrument, and their aesthetic preferences.
As with many aspects of music, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer—only what works best for each unique player and instrument.