Guitars are made up of many parts and pieces. Fingerboards, soundboards, strings, headstocks-all of these components are essential to a guitar and all have an affect on the instrument's music. Yet there is at least one piece of the guitar that has absolutely no influence on the sound of the instrument: the pickguard. This piece of laminated material resides under the guitar's strings on the instrument's body. Its purpose is to prevent the guitar's finish from being scratched or otherwise damaged by the guitar pick. So while the pickguard may serve a very important purpose, especially to someone who just paid several thousand dollars for a shiny new toy, it nonetheless has no musical application.
Although pickguards can come in an array of designs, guitar designers usually try to match the styles of a guitar's headstock and pickguard. This is true of both acoustic and electric instruments. On acoustic guitars, pickguards are usually made of thin plastic and attached just below the sound hole. However, many acoustic guitars are meant to be played with the fingers; they therefore have no pickguards as none are needed. Electric guitars, on the other hand, are always played with picks, often quite aggressively. Pickguards on these instruments often cover large surface areas, the better to protect the instrument.
The ubiquitous use of the pickguard is, perhaps, a testament to the social status of the guitar; or rather, the social status it can accord its musician. Guitarists, especially those who front for certain rock or country bands, are often considered sex symbols. It is from this appeal that a great deal of their popularity and consequent wealth is generated. Therefore, it makes sense that a professional guitarists would want to keep his instrument as attractive as possible. After all, he is much more likely to be taken seriously when playing a flawless-looking guitar than one that is scratched and beaten up. And pickguards, of course, are designed to prevent precisely that.
Pickguards have also, over the years, become an additional source of guitar ornamentation. Inlay, of course, is the most traditional manner of decorating a guitar. However, pickguards are also useful in that they can easily be made from a material that contrasts with the guitar's body: a black pickguard will "pop" on a white guitar, for instance. While most pickguards are plastic, there is a long list of other interesting and sometimes exotic materials that may be used: acrylic glass, glass, plywood, fabrics, metal, mother of pearl, fur, rawhide and even precious stones.
Finally, just in case you need more proof of the pickguard's association with fame and beauty, these guitar parts are common locations for autographs. Autographed guitars are very popular collectors items and can fetch ridiculous amounts of money, depending on whose signature is being bid upon. Pickguards have the advantage of being easily detached, which means that an autographed one can be moved to another guitar or even sold separately as an instant piece of memorabilia. Additionally, pickguards serve as a convenient place for guitar manufacturers to place their logos-and so much the better if a famous name ends up being right next to it.