What Everybody Must Know About Guitar InlaysWhat are guitar inlays?

Gui­tar inlays are dec­o­ra­tive ele­ments which are set in the exte­ri­or wood of both acoustic gui­tars and elec­tric gui­tars. A beau­ti­ful inlay gives each gui­tar its own unique look, mak­ing it more per­son­al and visu­al­ly appeal­ing. Gui­tar inlays can also serve to sup­port the phys­i­cal struc­ture of the gui­tar (although this kind of inlay is not what most peo­ple think of when you say “gui­tar inlays”). While inlay can be done on any part of the instru­ment, gui­tar inlays are usu­al­ly found in the neck (aka fret­board or fin­ger­board) and head­stock, and also around the sound­hole on acoustic guitars.


What designs are popular on a fretboard?

Fret­board inlays are a type of gui­tar inlay that serve a def­i­nite pur­pose. These inlays are installed both for orna­men­ta­tion as well as for posi­tion­ing, to help inex­pe­ri­enced gui­tar play­ers nav­i­gate the fret­board. They are com­mon­ly installed between every oth­er fret in the shape of small dots, large blocks, par­al­lel­o­grams, or dia­monds; although shapes and sizes tend to vary by man­u­fac­tur­er. Fret­board inlays usu­al­ly mark odd-num­bered frets and skip the 11th fret in favor of the 12th (the octave). There are two main com­mon pat­terns, out­lined below.

  1. The most pop­u­lar fret­board inlay pat­tern involves sin­gle inlays on the 3rd, 5th, 7th, 9th, 15th, 17th, 19th, and 21st frets with a dou­ble inlay on the 12th and 24th fret (if there is a 24th fret). This pat­tern is quite sym­met­ri­cal with dou­ble inlays on the 12th and 24th frets.
  2. The less pop­u­lar pat­tern includes inlays on 3rd, 5th, 7th, 10th, 15th, 17th, 19th, and 22nd frets, and again with the 12th and 24th fret inlays dou­bled. Play­ing these inlayed frets gives you a per­fect minor pen­ta­ton­ic scale. This pat­tern is also quite sim­i­lar to the lay­out of a piano’s key­board, beg­ging the ques­tion, why is this inlay pat­tern less pop­u­lar for gui­tar fretboards?

What designs are popular on the headstock and soundhole?

Man­u­fac­tur­ers often inlay their name and/or logo on the head­stock. Rosette designs are often found around the sound­hole of acoustics and can vary from sim­ple con­cen­tric cir­cles to the intri­cate fret­work that mim­ics his­toric lutes. These are aes­thet­ic inlays.

What about structural inlays?

The neck of many gui­tars, as well as the body of hol­low-body gui­tars, will often have a stringer installed (more com­mon­ly known as a “skunk stripe”). A stringer is a term used in surf­board design which is basi­cal­ly a long, nar­row, struc­tur­al inlay. For the gui­tar, a neck stringer serves to fill in the hole where the truss rod is installed. Many acoustic and hol­low-body gui­tars have stringers (skunk stripes) installed along the length of the body of the gui­tar as well.

Bind­ing and pur­fling are oth­er types of struc­tur­al inlays. Bind­ing and per­fling are the nar­row bind­ings along the out­side edges of hol­low-body and semi-hol­low-body gui­tars. This bind­ing serves to keep the body pieces glued togeth­er, rein­force each sec­tion, and pre­vent crack­ing and warp­ing along the edges. Bind­ing or pur­fling found on sol­id body gui­tars is a pure­ly cos­met­ic inlay.

What are guitar inlays made from?

Cheap­er mate­ri­als include plas­tic or some­times even just paint for fret mark­ers. There are also stick­er and decal kits that can be pur­chased and installed for aes­thet­ics. High­er end and old­er gui­tars will most often have inlays made from moth­er of pearl, abalone, ivory, exot­ic woods, and oth­er mate­ri­als. Some very high end gui­tars don’t have fret­board inlays at all, assum­ing that a well trained play­er does­n’t need fret markers.

In Summary

Gui­tar inlays serve sev­er­al pur­pos­es, includ­ing aes­thet­ics, fret­board mark­ing, and archi­tec­tur­al sup­port. More elab­o­rate inlays are an aes­thet­ic com­po­nent of many lim­it­ed edi­tion, high-end, and cus­tom-made gui­tars. A good rule of thumb to fol­low is the more elab­o­rate and intri­cate the inlay work is, the high­er the price will be!

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