We’ve probably all heard
“where the rubber meets
the road”—the expression that
references the most important
place, point, or moment in
time. For a guitarist, that time
and place is when the hand is
on the fretboard. That’s where
the magic happens. You could
have the most righteous setup,
awesome tone, and killer effects,
but if your fingers feel restricted,
you’re not going to feel it.
You want an instrument to feel
comfortable and ready to go to
work with you. And because
everyone’s physiology is somewhat
unique, the ideal design
is going to be different for each
player. Luckily, there are quite
a few fretboard parameters that
can be tweaked to achieve a
wide variety of outcomes.
Scale length. Beyond its effect
on string tension and tone, scale
length—the distance between
the nut and the bridge saddles—
determines string length, as well
as the distance between each
fret. Builders often refer to this
specification in general ranges like
long, medium, or short. For our
purposes, I consider 22" to 25"
as short, and 25" to 27" as long.
Although I generally choose
scale length based on sonic criteria
for a build, its contribution
to feel is sometimes a more critical
factor for a player.
Shorter scales allow for
easier note bending and give
the strings a “softer” feel.
Oftentimes, higher action can
be used on shorter-scale instruments
without hindering the
effort required to fret notes. The
higher action is also helpful for
multi-tone note stretches and
in achieving a “wide” vibrato.
The downside is that fingering
can become cramped while
working the higher regions of
the fretboard, because of the
reduced space between frets.
But if you have small hands, the
tightness of space with a short
scale can actually be a blessing.
Conversely, a longer scale allows
precise note selection and provides
comfort for players with
larger hands when moving up
the neck. Hendrix had large
hands, so his attraction to long-scale
instruments may have been
for feel as much as anything else.
Fretboard width is the primary factor in how open or closed your hand is while playing. Specifying a nut-width dimension is only part of the equation, since it interacts with the positioning of the strings as determined by the bridge. The resulting path is referred to as “string taper.”
Fretboard width. Width and
taper of the fretboard contributes
to feel because of several things.
First, it determines the distance
between strings and their proximity
to the fretboard’s edges. It’s
also the primary factor in how
open or closed your hand is while
playing. Similar to the way a
longer scale allows more room
lengthwise, a wider ’board opens
up the space between notes when
playing chords. Fretboard taper is
usually determined by the width
of the nut and the spread of the
bridge saddles, with the resulting
path of the strings referred to as
“string taper.” Generally, a builder
will taper the fretboard to mimic
the spread of the strings, though
there are exceptions. As you study
the geometry of this little puzzle,
you will see that specifying a nut-width
dimension is only part of
the equation, since it interacts
with the positioning of the strings
as determined by the bridge.
String spacing. One of the
most overlooked elements of feel
by far is the actual spacing of
strings, both relative to each other
and in relation to the fretboard.
There are various schools of
thought when determining spacing,
because there are two points
to adjust it. Usually, the strings
fan out as they approach the
bridge, which allows more picking
room over the body of the
guitar. The amount of angle varies
from design to design, which
in turn, changes the feel from
guitar to guitar.
Another aspect of spacing
choice is the distance from string
to string. Each string can be
placed an equal distance from the
one next to it, based on either the
center of the string or its outside
edge. The change in feel is dramatic—
and neither is right or
wrong—just different. When an
instrument is set up with equal
spacing based on edge distance,
the two centermost strings are
not equal distance from the centerline
of the neck. This results
in an “offset” look relative to any
centered inlays, though most
people probably won’t notice.
Of course, you can also create
hybrid spacing by mixing these
parameters from string to string,
or from nut to bridge. The final
consideration for string spacing is
how close they are to the edge of
the fretboard. Too close, and they
run the risk of slipping off during
enthusiastic fingering. Too far, and
it may compromise the overall
feel—especially on the 1st string.
Fretboard radius. Though
the subject of much debate, the
radius of the fretboard may be
the least important in relation to
all the other factors. In the ’80s, a
trend toward flatter fretboards was
spurred on by a wave of interest
in “neo-classical-style” shredding.
These players were actually
looking to the flat fretboards of
classical guitars for inspiration.
And while classical guitars have
featured totally flat fretboards
for centuries, the reasons are not
completely understood. Some
attribute it to ease of manufacture,
while others say the design
enables more accurate fingerpicking.
My guess is the former.
From a physical standpoint,
a flatter fretboard allows a player
to bend a string farther without
it hitting the next fret. A curved
board is more comfortable for
chording (though not a shredder’s
first love), and it allows a cleaner
approach from the bending side.
On and on goes the debate, but
either way, you can probably get
used to most anything. The key is
to find what works best for your
style and physical makeup.
The final setup. Most of us are
happy with a store-bought, production
guitar once the setup has
been customized to our taste. Even
so-called “custom shop” instruments
can benefit from a tailoring
by an astute tech. There are really
only a few parameters that can be
massaged—with string spacing,
height, and truss-rod adjustments
being the easiest. Beyond that,
you’re in the realm of a bespoke
instrument. When picking out a
guitar in a shop, it’s a matter of
feel. But when commissioning a
custom-built guitar, it’s of utmost
importance to think things
through carefully while discussing
options with your builder.
noted designer, builder,
and player who co-founded
one of the first boutique
guitar brands, in 1973.
Today, as the director of
Dantzig Guitar Design, he continues to
help define the art of custom guitar. To
learn more, visit guitardesigner.com