Guitar inlays do have an impact on guitar tone, but the tonal difference is negligible for human ears in most cases.
The worst thing about inlays is changing them because the whole process can damage the wood. You can play without guitar inlays, without a doubt.
When the inlays are present on the guitar, tonal difference is possible. But, there are many more important things the guitar tone depends on. A tiny amount of guitar inlays won’t affect the tone evidently.
Changing inlays is the main reason why some guitarists give up on putting inlays on their instruments. The first step of changing inlays is removing the previous ones, which is tricky and may be harmful.
Playing the guitar without inlays is not necessary – it’s just helpful and makes playing pretty easier for beginners.
I haven’t noticed any difference in my guitar sound after putting a small decoration on the guitar headstock and the fret. But, after removing the fret inlay, the wood was ruined. And it was my first guitar that had a sentimental value.
I have used fret inlays for orientation in a not-so-lighted room while gigs, but it’s just not letting the brain force and it’s not a must-have.
This article contains some information about guitar inlays that are really good to know. It will definitely solve your dilemma – put inlays on the guitar or not. We will discuss:
- What Are The Inlays For On Guitar?
- Is Playing Guitar Without Inlays Hard?
- Do Guitar Inlays Affect Tone?
- Can You Remove Guitar Inlays?
- Can You Damage Inlays On A Guitar?
What Are The Inlays For On Guitar?
Guitar inlays are used for personalising the instrument, making it unique, sentimental, and repelling the monotonous guitar appearance. Also, inlays can help the players to orientate on the fretboard and to memorise fingers’ positions.
Therefore, inlays have plenty of advantages and that’s why many guitarists decide to put them on their instruments.
Here are 3 benefits of guitar inlays:
1. Making The Guitar Unique And More Valued
No one will have a guitar like yours if you install custom guitar inlays. It will be unique and will express your affinities, interests, love for a person, and so on.
Besides being unique, a guitar with a love partner’s initials on the guitar headstock means more to a guitarist and starts to have a sentimental value and can motivate the player to play the guitar more.
2. Repelling The Monotonous Guitar Appearance
Guitar inlays are excellent if you want to change your guitar’s appearance and make it more interesting.
I have a friend who finds the Gibson ES-335 a guitar with a stunning appearance so he put inlays on the guitar to repel the monotony of his Ibanez fretboard.
3. A Learning Aid
Guitar fretboard inlays can help the guitar player while playing. There are guitar inlays across the guitar neck and it’s some kind of a visual help for a player to orientate better.
When the player looks at the guitar neck, he/she knows which fret they’re playing or they need to play. Also, there are inlays on some guitar fretboards, too. They help when it comes to the fingers’ positions.
Is Playing Guitar Without Inlays Hard?
Playing guitar without inlays can be hard, but you can get used to without them easily and in some period of time you’ll be comfortable with the situation.
Some people get used to the fret inlays’ presence and they find playing pretty painful without them, while others gain finger memory and easily orientate without any help.
Here are 2 main reasons why playing guitar without inlays can be hard. They may help you in the decision: Install fret inlays or not?
1. Getting Lost While Playing
Fretboard inlays help you to find any fretboard position easily. Without them, you’ll have to count the frets which slow down your practicing and playing.
Either beginners or more advanced guitar players find fret inlays really helpful when it comes to playing barre chords, scales, and so on.
Some guitars, such as classical and fretless guitars, have no inlays on the fretboard, but they have inlays on the guitar neck side. They correspond with those on the fretboard.
Many players say these dots are the most helpful thing ever. There are even LED inlays to help the guitarist see markers even in not-well-lighted rooms while live performances.
2. A Hard-To-Find 12th Position
The marker for the 12th fret is really important because it helps the guitarist find an octave higher position easily and really fast. Searching for the fret and counting is such a slow process.
The 12th fret actually splits up the whole fretboard and everything played below the 12th fret can be played above the 12th fret. So, transcribing phrases from one string to another, practicing and playing scales in two octaves will be pretty hard for a guitarist whose guitars don’t have inlays as a guide.
By knowing these facts, you become conscious of inlays’ useful purposes. But, inlays are not necessary for playing – you can get used to not having any inlays on the fretboard and still play correctly. You just need some time for your brain and fingers to memorize fingers’ positions.
There are so many stringed instruments without inlays or even frets, and people still play successfully.
Do Guitar Inlays Affect Tone?
Guitar inlays can affect the tone, but those tonal changes are negligible in most cases. This works when two different guitars made from the same wood are compared.
Actually, everything that becomes a part of the guitar affects the tone in some amount. A guitar has its own and natural resonance that can be changed by putting stickers, paints, inlays, and so on.
One guitarist said: “They affect the tone when the guitar has no inlays, and I play the wrong note”. This is both funny and true.
Here are some factors that determine the inlays’ effect on the guitar sound, and they actually make the tonal difference either audible or not.
1. Inlays’ Characteristics
Pretty massive and big inlays make the tonal difference perceptible because the more massive and bigger inlay is, the bigger amount of wood has to be eliminated.
That decreases the wood amount, which affects the resonance and therefore, the guitar sound.
So, putting smaller and thinner inlays makes the tonal difference less perceptible, and according to many guitarists, pretty impossible.
2. Guitar Type And Location
Guitar inlays affect the guitar sound, depending on the location where they have been installed.
Installing inlays on the guitar top of the acoustic or classical guitar will definitely affect the sound because that guitar part of the mentioned guitars has a role of a vibrating membrane – the soundboard accepts strings’ vibrations and sends them to other guitar parts and finally, through the sound hole.
Other guitar parts are safe to install inlays on, but I recommend you not to choose massive ones because I’ve already said the cons of that type of inlays.
Installing inlays on the electric guitar is quite frequent, especially on the headstock and the fretboard. The fretboard inlays may affect the tone if they’re massive and disturb the strings’ vibrations.
But, the most important thing to mention is that pickups, wood type, and amps have more impact on the guitar sound and changes of these things can affect the sound pretty much.
Pickups play a huge role in producing the electric guitar sound. So, unchanged pickups mean no perceptible tonal difference.
3. A Lot Of Inlays Installed
The smaller surface with no inlays installed is, the bigger chance is for the tonal difference to be perceptible.
Even though the installed inlays seem to be thin and small, if you install them too much and the percentage of the affected area gets bigger, you will hear the difference in the guitar sound, for sure.
Can You Remove Guitar Inlays?
Guitar inlays can be removed in different ways, but you can’t hide their traces.
Inlays are inlaid, so there is going to be a hole left that needs to be filled and sanded flat, which is a pretty expensive process. Some guitarists say it’s better to buy a new guitar than pay for removing inlays.
Even after the luthier’s help, traces can’t be hidden entirely. They are always going to be present but less noticeable than inlays used to be.
Here are some inlays removing methods described in more detail.
1. Using Heat Gun
Guitar inlays can be removed by using the heat gun, and it’s one of the most frequent methods. You can do it by yourself or ask a luthier for help.
Warm up the inlay area. Once the inlay begins to soften up, dig into the inlay with the chisel. Lift it out, fill the hole to be less visible. You can use clear epoxy and a block of wood to fill the hole. Use sandpaper.
This is a great (& short) YouTube video showing you how to remove inlays using heat gun:
2. Using Drill
Another method that can be used for removing inlays is the one using the drill. It is mostly used for removing the pearl inlays.
Simply take a drill and a small drill bit. Drill a small hole into the inlay. Then, take a small screw and screw it in about ⅛ inch so you can pull the inlay out. Fill the hole to be less visible. You can use clear epoxy and a block of wood to fill the hole. Use sandpaper.
Can You Change Inlays On A Guitar?
You can change inlays on a guitar, but the next inlay has to be in the same shape as the previous one, or maybe bigger in radius.
As I said, inlays leave holes after the removing process, and they are permanent. They can’t be fully hidden – they are mostly filled with wood and clear epoxy.
But, some people want another inlay instead of the previous one. In that case, the next inlay has to be shaped like the previous one or with a bigger radius.
The easiest situation to handle is replacing the inlay with the same one because the previous one got destroyed while playing. That can happen to fretboard inlays. Often changed inlays are exactly those on the fretboard, as they get destroyed over time during playing and practising.
I am going to describe this situation when it comes to the changing process. The process requires removing the old one with the methods I’ve mentioned above. Then, put the new inlay into the hole to make sure it fits.
After that, put a superglue drop into the hole and press the new inlay into place. Gently sand the inlays to make sure they’re at the same level as the rest of the fretboard. Use sandpaper or nail file. Clean and polish the fretboard in the end.
If you need to adjust the hole borders to the new inlay shape, the process is pretty challenging and requires a professional if you don’t want your fret to be destroyed.
Guitar inlays have an impact on the tone, but it is not perceptible unless inlays are massive or they cover a pretty big guitar surface. Also, the impact depends on the inlay location and the guitar type.
You shouldn’t eliminate the guitar wood and install the inlay on the guitar top as there is a soundboard that has the role of accepting the strings’ vibrations and sending them to the other guitar parts. Electric guitars are safer when it comes to this location as the pickups are their sound core.
You can change inlays but they leave holes that cannot be fully hidden. So, before you decide to install them, be sure you want them on your guitar forever.
So, they have a lot of pros and cons. One of the pros is the help during playing and the practice. Keep in mind it’s just help and not a necessary thing.
My recommendation is to think twice – you don’t want your favorite guitar to be destroyed. So, if you really want the inlay for life, install it. And don’t forget to keep it minimal.