When we talk about the various types of guitar necks there are concepts that can be confusing at times, and reading the spec sheet on a guitar can really leave us guessing. Getting acquainted with what’s what, and why, is an essential tool for any player. So, let’s dive into the world of guitar necks and get to the bottom of everything. Once and for all!
When getting clear about the anatomy of this legendary guitar part, what better place to start than the joint? Yup, the way the neck connects to the body plays a big role in both tone as well as feel.
This is by far the most common type of neck joint, and is easily recognizable. Bolts are not used to attach them however, as the name implies. They are instead screwed onto the body.
Sometimes the screws are visible, sometimes a metal plate is used to cover them up, as shown above.
Despite a bit of a bad rep, these joints are actually very sturdy. Some people, when in search of a new guitar, will flip the guitar over and when they see the screws, or the plate, they’ll think of it as a cheap guitar. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Many of the finest guitar manufacturers in the world use bolt-on necks, even for their most premium models.
They are cheaper to manufacture, and bring the price of the guitar down, which is probably why bolt-on neck joints are so common.
By design they are also very easy to replace should they be damaged, or if you simply want to try a new neck for the sake of curiosity.
Admittedly, they do look a bit cheaper than other joint types, and it’s also a design that interferes with upper fret access and might feel uncomfortable at the joint.
Next up are set necks. This means the neck is glued into place for a seamless fit, which is a very traditional way to mount a guitar neck on an acoustic guitar. For electric guitars these types of neck joints are less common than bolt-ons.
They are very sturdy and durable, with great playability and often better access to the upper frets. But not always. While some of these necks have a very ergonomic feel, others share the same problems as the bolt-ons.
What you’ll often see is that the neck and body of these guitars have the same finish or paint, contrary to the bolt-on.
However, even though they might look better, or more professional, and also provide better ergonomics in some cases, there is one glaring problem. They are very difficult to repair or replace.
Neck through joints are a different beast altogether. Here the neck is actually a part of the guitar’s body, and extends the whole length of the instrument. A piece of wood is added to both sides of the neck to form the ‘wings’ of the guitar’s body, and it is a far more expensive and labor intensive way of building guitars. You’ll often find guitars with neck through designs on the less budget-friendly side, often afforded to more premium models.
Even though these necks offer amazing stability, the major benefit of a neck-through guitar is the freedom for the manufacturer to shape and contour the neck in ways that aren’t possible with a bolt-on neck. This means that neck-through designs offer the best upper access and comfort out of all the neck joints.
Just don’t break them, cause you might just have to get a new guitar.
Tone and Sustain Myths
I’m sure you’ve heard all the myths surrounding these different guitar joints. That bolt-on necks don’t sustain as well as set necks and neck-through designs, or that they sound brighter and snappier? It’s not really that easy. Nothing in the world of guitars is ever that straightforward.
Often when people read about comparisons, like a Stratocaster (bolt-on neck) vs a Les Paul (set neck), they’ll sometimes attribute differences to tone and sustain to the different types of neck joints. In reality, there are a ton of other variables affecting both tone and sustain, that far outweigh the effects of neck joints.
In fact, when measuring sustain, a lot of testing has found very little difference between the various joint types. I’ve even seen pictograms where bolt-on neck guitars outperform both set necks and neck-throughs when it comes to sustain. Now, I’m the first to point out that these tests shouldn’t be treated as evidence for this or the other. Do keep in mind that it pretty much comes down to how well built the guitar is. At the higher range, both set necks and bolt-on necks can have impressive quality joints. It all depends on the manufacturer.
So while neck joints do impact sound and sustain, there are so many other things to consider before making any decisions.
The shape of the neck, or the profile as it’s called, is probably one of the most talked about parts on the guitar. It’s also where we as guitarists have the most different opinions. And for good reason.
The profile is the back of the guitar neck that your fretting hand grabs on to, and has to do with the curve and thickness of the neck. Some of them are chunky as hell, others really slim. In short, the neck shape has everything to do with how comfortable a guitar feels to play, and its importance cannot be overstated. There is no shape to rule them all, and it really comes down to trial and and error in order to find the one for you. Let’s check out the most common shapes.
Often the chunkiest of them all. I use the word “often” here, because after all we’re talking about the profile of the neck, not the thickness, and all the different profiles will vary in thickness. Although rounded as the C and D shapes, the U shape feels a lot deeper. It’s a profile favored by guitar players with big hands, or those who like to rest their thumbs on the back of the neck.
Many players refer to this neck shape as the “baseball neck”, although there are indeed thinner U shapes on some guitars like Schecter and Gretsch. Thicker U profiles are often found on vintage guitars from the 50’s, like early versions of Telecasters and Les Pauls.
Another shape that more belongs to the vintage line of guitars, and is not often found on modern guitars. With a few exceptions of course.
Instead of a smooth curve, there is a sharper edge in the middle. There are both “hard” and “soft” V shapes, and they both provide great grip, especially if you like to play with your thumb in the mix. It’s definitely a profile that takes a little getting used to.
C shaped guitar necks have a smooth curve all the way around, and can be found on a huge chunk of modern guitars today. Although they can vary in thickness, they are not quite as deep as U-shapes.
I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that a lot of guitar players feel at home with a C shaped neck, and that many find them very comfortable to play. The thinner C shape profiles are called “modern C”.
Although curved, there is less curvature than with a C-shape. Like a flatter version of the C if you will. Many of the thinner, faster necks use the D profile, and you can find them on some Ibanez and Jackson guitars. Even Epiphone and Gibson have a D profile called “60’s slim taper”.
What Is Considered Thick Or Thin?
Glad you asked. A neck that’s between 0,670” and 0,748” across (that would be 17-19 mm for my European friends) is considered thin. Think Wizard necks on Ibanez guitars. Anything from 0,905” (23 mm) or higher is considered thick.
Also, there are necks that don’t fall into any of the above categories, what we call an asymmetrical shape. Asymmetrical guitar necks can shift the curve and change the location of the curve as you move up or down the neck.
Equally important for comfort is the width of the neck. The difference in width can make a huge impact on whether a guitar feels comfortable to play, or if the neck makes your hand tense up easily. So, you could end up with a neck profile that suits your hand perfectly, but with a fretboard that is either too wide for comfort or not wide enough.
Standard width (electric and acoustic)
First off, width is always measured at the nut of the guitar, in case you want to check out your own guitar. There is no absolute standard to talk about here, but electric guitars tend to hover around 1,650” to 1670” ( 41,9 mm to 42,5 mm) and acoustics a little higher, somewhere around 1,73” (44 mm). Nylon string acoustic necks (Spanish guitars) are as wide as 47-51 mm (up to 2”)
So, what is considered a wide electric guitar neck then? Anything from 1,680” ( 42,6 mm) or more is definitely considered wide, not counting 7 or 8 string guitars of course. There are many brands of guitar with wide neck models, but three that stand out are Gibson, PRS and of course Ibanez.
Will I even be able to tell the difference?
Oh yes, most definitely. Although these differences appear to be minute and almost insignificant, you will absolutely feel a difference. The spacing between strings is greater on a wider neck, which is usually a good thing for those with bigger hands. Or the other way around. If you have smaller hands a wider neck might increase tension in your hand, as reaching all areas of the fretboard could be more demanding.
Most guitarists feel instantly if they bond with a guitar neck or not, and the width of the neck is one of clearest indicators.
Understanding Guitar Neck Radius
Over to the next fiercely talked about spec on a guitar neck. The radius. What is it exactly, and how does it affect your playing?
Well, it’s actually the curvature of the fretboard. Yes, fretboards are not entirely flat, they all have a slight (or in some cases not so slight) curve to them. So if profiles are the shape of the back of the neck, radius is the shape of the front of the neck, the fretboard.
I’m sure you’ve read the specs on guitar and seen 7,25” radius, 9,5” radius or even 12” and 16” radius and wondered what the hell it is.
This number describes the size of the circle you would create if you extended the curve of the fretboard as shown in the diagram below.
In short; the smaller the radius is (7,25”), the more curvature the fretboard has. And the higher radius ( like 14” or even 16″) shows an almost flat fretboard. These variations in shape are not as clear and obvious as the neck profiles, but they still add to the feel of the fretboard, and you will notice a difference.
How Fretboard Radius Impacts Playability
The radius definitely impacts playability, but in a much more subtle way than width, profile and scale length do.
It is often said that the more curvature on the fretboard the easier it is to play chords. And the flatter it is the easier it is to play fast shreddy stuff and bends. The idea here of course is that bends would fret out easier on a steeper curve, which in theory doesn’t sound all that crazy.
But I have actually never experienced that in my own playing. Bending notes on a 7,25” radius neck has never been a problem, and I don’t really subscribe to that notion. But I do agree that chords feel easier with more curvature. They just do, and it feels more natural to the fingers to lean up against a curved fretboard.
I also definitely agree with fast playing on flatter fretboards. If you’re into shreddy stuff with a lot of alternate picking and super fast legato runs, I think you’d agree that a low action is preferable. On an almost flat 16” radius you can achieve a ridiculously low action without strings fretting out or buzzing. And that’s not happening on a 7,25” as you would have to compensate for the bump in the middle.
Some guitar manufacturers have models in all different radiuses (or is it radii??), and others are more distinctly synonymous with a certain radius. To give you a rough idea, here are some examples:
- Vintage Fenders (or pretty much all of them up to the 80’s) come with a 7,25” radius, and the modern Fenders all have a 9,5”.
- 10”-11,5” is pretty common for PRS guitars
- 12” radius has been consistently used by Gibson and Epiphone.
- 12”-17” has been used with several manufacturers over the years, but perhaps most notably by Ibanez.
So what is a compound radius neck, or fretboard? Some say it’s the best of both worlds, others that they just make things more complicated.
They have a smaller radius at the nut and a larger radius at the neck and body joint This to make chords more comfortable, and as you move up the neck playability for solos will increase.
So if you check the specs on a guitar and see a 12”-16” compound radius neck, you know exactly what that means.
Now, I can’t argue whether compound radius necks are great or not. As with many other things guitar, it comes down to personal preference. For me personally, they don’t do much to sway me one way or the other.
I bet you’ve heard this term many times. But what is it exactly? It’s the distance between the nut and the bridge, as shown below. It can also be measured as the distance from the nut to the 12th fret multiplied by two.
Although there is no standard scale length to talk about, there are of course some that are more frequently used than others. Below should give you a rough idea of what you can expect in the specs sheet.
24” (610 mm) Fender Jaguar, Fender Mustang
24,5” (622 mm) PRS Santana Signature Series
24,75” (628 mm) pretty much all Gibson and Epiphone models
25” (635 mm) most PRS models
25,5” (648 mm) most Fender, Ibanez, Charvel, Schecter, Jackson and Kramer models
Now, there are longer scale lengths available, especially for 7 and 8 string guitars and baritone guitars, but we’ll leave them for now.
How scale length affects playability
We have already concluded how different necks and their different features affect our playing. The scale length is one of those things. It plays a huge role in a guitar’s playability, and can definitely be a game changer or deal breaker. Let’s take a closer look.
So basically, the longer the scale length the higher the tension needs to be in order to bring the string up to pitch. And of course in contrast to that, a shorter scale length requires less tension. So imagine you play a Les Paul (24,75”) and a Charvel (25,5”) using the same gauge strings. The strings would feel more loose on the Les Paul, making bends and vibratos easier. On the Charvel the strings would feel a lot tighter. And that brings me to the next point, guitar action.
Strings on a neck with a looser tension require more room to vibrate, and that means it’s harder to get a really low action without fret buzz. Compare that to the longer necks with more tension. Getting a low action on a 25,5” Ibanez is much easier.
Space between frets
Another thing about scale length, that will affect how a guitar feels to play, is the difference in fret spacing.
As scale length increases, so does the spacing between frets. You will absolutely feel the difference between a 22 fret Fender Jaguar (24”) and 22 fret Fender Stratocaster (25,5”). The Strat will favor bigger hands, and players with smaller hands will experience bigger stretches
Truss Rod Access
This has nothing to do with playability, but it’s good to know that some necks have easy truss rod access, others a little more complex. Now, most players will not be adjusting their truss rods very often. But if or when you need to do it it’s definitely a relief if it’s an easy process. Feel free to check out our guide on how to do it.
On most models you can access the truss rod at the headstock, but there are some vintage guitars, Fender guitars and various custom guitars where truss access is located at the neck joint. Yes, to adjust it you need to actually remove the entire neck, something most guitarists will do their utmost to avoid.
Now that size, shape and the way it’s constructed is out of the way let’s just briefly touch on something that is perhaps more visual, but that also adds to the feel of a neck.
There are of course a lot of different finishes on guitar necks, but we won’t go into detail about all of them. Instead let’s focus on the two most common ones, satin and gloss.
I know this is highly personal, and will differ from one guitarist to another, but gloss finishes are often regarded as more premium looking, with its thick layer of shiny paint and polish that often will match the body. Like a Les Paul for instance. They are also better suited for changes in humidity and are easy to clean.
A satin (or matte) finish may not be considered premium looking, but some guitarists actually prefer the more rugged look of the unfinished wood. Moreover, satin necks are also considered faster to play with their smoother surface, and many players choose satin necks for the sake of performance over a gloss finish.
Finally, let’s just be done with the topic of tonewood of necks and fretboards. It is more an honorable mention rather than an actual variable to consider when buying a guitar.
I personally cannot hear any difference between say, a rosewood fretboard and a maple fretboard, especially not when you add all your effects. And even less so when playing with other musicians. However, if you play using very little effects, and play the different necks side by side, you can actually hear a difference, as demonstrated in the video below.
But in all honesty, the difference is so minute that it fails to make any real impact. I’d say the feel of the fretboard far outweighs any tonal differences.
As you might have already deduced, finding the right neck for you requires trying many different guitars, and takes a bit of time. There are so many variables to weigh in, that the only way to find out for sure is to try as many as you can and make a note of the specs. That way you’ll start to know where your preferences lie.
Some necks fit your hands like a dream, and will be incredibly enjoyable and comfortable to play. Others you will just never bond with, and that’s the way it is. And now you know why that is.