Profiles, scale lengths, fingerboard cambers, lacquer choices – all part of the myriad subtleties that dictate how a guitar neck feels to the player. We put the microscope on the finer details of neck design.
One of the most important aspects of any guitar, not surprisingly, is how easy the instrument is to play – and it’s universally agreed that this is mainly determined by the shape and feel of the neck and fingerboard. The rest of the instrument – pickups, bridge and body timber – though important, can only perform at their best once the neck is playable. In a nutshell, everything starts at the neck.
Neck and neck
Styles of neck construction can vary considerably between guitar makers. Most necks are built from a combination of two types of hardwood: one for the bulk or back of the neck, the other for the playing surface that holds the frets, aka the fingerboard (Fender’s one-piece maple neck with integral fretboard is an obvious exception).
The rear section of a neck is shaped from a hardwood blank with long, straight grain to ensure that the neck can be slim but still able to withstand the pull of the strings. Some luthiers use a single piece of maple or mahogany; others laminate three or more pieces together longitudinally with the grain direction of the outer pieces opposing in order to balance stress and reduce the chances of future twisting. Laminating the timber this way is cost-effective and structurally sensible: the laminate is very strong and stable. This consideration ensures maximum strength, especially where the headstock joins the top of the neck, the thinnest and weakest point (particularly if the headstock is back-angled, Gibson-style).
While Fender and Gibson have habitually plumped for one-piece necks and headstocks (on the Strat, Tele and Les Paul), numerous makers today – especially those using pointed, dropped headstocks – splice the headstock to the neck. Done properly, this can save timber, but such a joint is only as strong as the glue and the ‘flushness’ of the two surfaces.
Fingerboards are usually rosewood or ebony, two extremely hard timbers that do not require a lacquer finish to protect them from the environment and you, the player. Both timbers are also suited to accept decorative inlays. Maple is used successfully for fingerboards, though being a naturally ‘white’ timber it requires a finish to protect it from dirt. This has caused some controversy, not least due to Fender’s ultra-thick ’70s finish that gave maple fingerboards a bad reputation for being ‘sticky’ and ‘slow’, especially when the player’s hands began to sweat.
Modem, thinner satin finishes and higher frets tend to equalise the feel of a maple fingerboard, but where the finish is applied over the frets – as on ’70s Fenders – a re-fret can become a bit of a nightmare. Usually the only solution is to remove both the frets and the fingerboard finish, which then has to be reapplied, adding to the repair cost.
Ideally, the combined shape of both the fingerboard and the rear section of the neck should complement one another, helping to make complex fingerings more comfortable. There are many factors at play here: the neck’s width and depth, the shape of the back of the neck, the fingerboard radius, the frets, the guitar’s scale length and, of course, the action. That’s why, at G&B, we list these specs in reviews so give you the best chance of deciding whether a guitar might suit you.
To simplify matters, it could be said that there are three basic styles of neck shape: the C, the D, and the V shape. The C shape describes most Gibson-type guitar necks, a smooth oval in section. The D describes many Fender-style profiles with fatter, squarer ‘shoulders’ (the sides of the neck). The V shape has shoulders that are often quite steep, and although usually attributed to Martin, the style was also adopted by Fender at times in the ’50s and has been frequently reapplied to reissues and signature models. Of course, these categories are broad and the variations manifold, but this should help you to understand the most commonly-used terminology. In essence, the shape of the rear section of the neck dictates how the neck feels in the palm of your hand. What’s comfortable is obviously very personal: some players like the big, deep D-shaped necks of old ’50s Les Pauls, others will rave about the super-thin C ‘Wizard’ shapes of contemporary lbanez necks.
Scale length is important here too, as it directly relates to the distance between the frets. Players with big hands may feel happier playing on the longer 25.5″ Fender scale than the shorter Gibson 24.75″ scale. More and more companies, such as PRS, are using a halfway 25″ scale length. The best of both worlds? Maybe.
Apart from the physical size of your hand, the way you fret will affect how the neck feels. If you grab the neck with your thumb around the bass strings, a bigger D shape may be preferable; if you fret in the classical ‘thumb behind’ position then a thinner neck, often with a flatter back, might suit you best. If you’re trying instruments in a shop, the sales assistant should be able to help you pick C and D shaped necks to compare, and a well-stocked store should be able to produce a V neck too, like the one Fender’s Eric Clapton Strat. Ask to try instruments with different scale lengths so that you can gain some idea of the neck shape and string length combination that suits your hands best.
Of course, you may find a great neck on a not-so-great sounding guitar, or vice versa… that’s life. If you’re rich, your answer may lie in a custom-built guitar: the rest of us will likely have to get used to a dodgy neck on a great-sounding guitar. After all, if your sound is poor, who’s going to notice those solos?
On the subject of tone, the materials used for the neck and fingerboard also contribute greatly to the sound of the instrument, although – surprise, surprise – opinions on the effect run in all directions. Whatever anyone tells you, the tone of a guitar is the sum of its parts and your hands, and just because you have a rosewood fingerboard it won’t make a guitar ‘warmer’ than another instrument with a ‘brighter’ maple fingerboard. Even highly experienced guitar makers hesitate to be drawn into any precise judgements on the sound of wood. Let your ears and hands make the decision. You may simply like the look of a nice piece of rosewood; it’s a valuable resource, so enjoy it.
The camber never lies
The cross-sectional shape of the fingerboard – aka the ‘radius’ or ‘camber’ – is very relevant to a guitar’s playability. Consider, for instance, the plight of players of vintage-spec Strats or Teles who find it difficult to make first, second and third string high-fret bends ring clean and true. Beyond the 10th fret, bending more than a semitone – especially with a low action – can cause the strings to choke out on the upper frets, the sound becoming throttled and buzzy as they approach or pass the centre of the fingerboard.
Most guitars have a ‘regular’ radius that is the same at the nut as at the highest fret. Older vintage and many reissue Fenders have a relatively small radius of 7.25″ inch. Such necks feel great to play on; barre chords feel good and first position riffing is easy. However, the small radius causes upper fret choking. Loads of players learn to live with it, while others can’t abide it.
Curing the choking on a 7.25″ radius fingerboard involves a cunning re-radiusing of the frets so that the perceived radius increases as you travel up the board. Though this appears to ‘flatten out’ the board, it is actually only the frets which take on the new shape; honed this way, the strings are less likely to collide with them and choke out.
The trick is turned by subtle re-cambering of the frets with carborundum or a grindstone so that the top (or crown) becomes gradually lower on the higher frets, the radius at the last fret being anywhere between 12″ and 14″. This modification works very well but requires extra dressing and reshaping of the low-to-middle sections of the higher frets, which is difficult and expensive. The size or gauge of the frets also has a large bearing on the potential success of the job. Many repairers see this repair as a compromise, since the height of the frets is progressively reduced; you may ‘cure’ the choking but you now have lower frets, and string bends are likely to be harder to execute. However, on valuable instruments it may be the only option.
The ultimate repair is to change the fingerboard radius itself, work which involves removing the frets then ‘shooting the board’ with a plane to flatten the radius. Once the neck has been re-fretted, the new frets retain a regular height from one end of the neck to the other (bear in mind that on Fenders with veneer fingerboards, like L-series Strats, there’s often not enough fingerboard material to reshape). If any refinishing is involved, as there will be if your fingerboard is maple, the repair is going to be costly, though it’s justifiable since the guitar will play and feel much better.
Fender has taken notice of this and have, for example, altered the fingerboard radius on the American Standard Series, swapping the vintage 7.25″ for a gentler 9.5″. Incidentally, this specific choking problem never afflicted Gibson guitars as their radius was, and still is, typically 12″, their fretboards being much flatter in comparison. PRS generally employ a halfway radius of 10″ to match their halfway scale length. Fig 1 shows the four common radiuses: 7.25″, 10″, 12″ and 16″. Notice how curvy the Fender 7.25″ seems next to Gibson’s 12″.
Re-working the neck is one solution for your favourite guitar, but a much more elegant way out is to swap the neck for one built deliberately with a ‘compound’ radiused fingerboard and to stash the old neck out of harm’s way, original and untouched. This swap could also involve fitting the new neck with a set of locking machineheads and a graphite nut, a good move for both fixed-bridge and tremolo-bridge guitars.
The compound radius idea is far from new – it crops up on certain classical instruments – but Warmoth in the USA were one of the first to offer a compound radius on a retro-fit neck to suit, for example, a Stratocaster. The Warmoth compound radius shapes the fingerboard so that it takes on the contour of a section of a cone – unlike a normally radiused fingerboard which takes on the contour of a tube (see Fig 2, above). A typical Warmoth ‘compound neck’ will start with a radius of 10″ at the nut and end with a radius of 16″ at the last fret. Many other companies employ compound radii, from Jackson to UK makers Overwater. Still, as we stated earlier, neck shapes and fingerboard cambers are only part of the playability story. Before you start thinking of refrets, new necks or whatever, get your guitar professionally set up – you’ll be surprised what a difference it makes.