Whether or not pickguards affect guitar tone is an interesting topic, and opinions vary in the field of guitar makers.
Q: How does a pickguard stuck to the top of the guitar affect its tone? I’m wondering if it restricts movement, causing that area of the soundboard to be less active.
A: I have always built my instruments without pickguards, but most of the guitars I repair have them. Pickguards are known culprits for a handful of issues, most notably the infamous B-string crack that is the all-too-frequent result of the plastic guard shrinking over time, and splitting the adjacent wood of the top. Guards have varied in thickness across different eras, makes, and models. I’ve worked on paper-thin Martin pickguards, and other guards that were almost comically thick.
I feel that the average factory guitar is not built lightly enough in the upper bout to be substantially affected by a fairly thin pickguard, though a carefully tuned luthier-built instrument could certainly be. Mass and stiffness would be the main factors contributing to a change in tone. In most cases, the thin plastic guards on most flattops are very light and quite flexible, and also usually glued on an area of the top that is braced quite heavily to reinforce the soundhole. In the case of the average Taylor or Martin, I cannot honestly say that I’ve noticed a meaningful difference in tone when the guard is removed for repair. A 1960s Gibson Hummingbird I worked on was a different story, but that guard was nearly 1/8-inch-thick flexible vinyl, and weighed quite a bit.
Unfortunately, most guitars do not permit an easy comparison with and without their pickguards, as they are usually glued on, and in many cases, painted in underneath the lacquer itself. Whatever their effect may be, it is part of the overall tonal picture that defines these classic models, and I’ve certainly never listened to a good prewar Martin that I thought would be improved by removing its pickguard!
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2023 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.