Pickguards can be a thorny issue with guitarists. On the one hand, you’ve got those who think they’re no more than fancy plates that don’t do much to protect your instrument. On the other, you have guitarists who find it practical to spend just a bit more to prevent the nips and scratches that build up over time. If you’re new to the craft, you’ll find guitars that come with pickguards and others where it’s optional. And truth be told, there’s really no straight answer—it has its good and bad sides, and it’s a matter of which factors outweigh the other.
A pickguard is a plate placed over the body of a guitar to prevent the pick from scratching the surface as you play. Since it’s in plain sight, it often serves a decorative purpose as well, and that’s where the issues come in. Some people like a “pristine” look and do away with the pickguard, while others prefer custom-made ones that better reflect their character.
One thing to consider is whether the pickguard interferes with sound quality and performance. This boils down to the material used. Early guitars came with plastic or celluloid pickguards, which were a little thick and tended to interfere with the vibrations. You may have seen pickguards that look like shells or mother-of-pearl; this is actually a material called pearloid, which was chosen more for its look than for durability. When hit by a pick, they would often make a scratching sound that distracted from the music.
Modern pickguards are made of hard plastic or acrylic, often made transparent so they don’t interfere with the look of the guitar. They are also much lighter and thinner, so they don’t get in the way of playing. High-end guitars sometimes come with exotic pickguards made with expensive wood or fancy synthetic materials. Despite claims that these materials enhance your performance, they often don’t—as long as they protect the surface, there’s really not much of a difference between ordinary plastic and imported wood.
If you’re installing a pickguard on your own, make sure to position it properly. It should go right on top of the sound hole, where pick scratches are most common. Use the right kind of adhesive; a mild but high-quality wood glue is usually appropriate. Most shops can usually install the pickguard for you when you buy it, or at least give you tips on what materials to use.