Neck joints come in three basic varieties: The bolt-on joint popularized by Fender guitars and basses (top), the set-neck approach seen on this Jol Dantzig solidbody (bottom)—as well as most Gibson electrics, and the majority of acoustics—and the neck-through architecture of shred guitars like this Allen Eden 1987 (right).
Photo on bottom left taken by Jol Dantzig

Guitars

Bolt-on vs. set-neck vs. neck-through: For hundreds of years, all guitars had “set necks”—i.e., necks glued to the body using various methods of wood joinery. Fast-forward to modern times: One of Leo Fender’s most lasting legacies was popularizing the bolt-on neck. He went this route because he wanted necks to be easy to replace on the go, but the decision also ended up contributing to his instruments’ twangy tone.

In contrast to both set and bolt-on designs, “neck-through” instruments don’t really have neck joints at all: The block of wood forming the neck is extended to form the center of the body, which is usually fleshed out with adjoining “wing” segments. This approach can be found on both solid and semi-hollow guitars and basses.

Each neck-joint type contributes to tone in subtle but audible ways. In theory, set and “through” necks offer better coupling and therefore better overall resonance and sustain. Because neck-through guitars don’t require a bulky neck-body joint, they can also be made to facilitate easier access to high notes. Then again, bolt-on necks are not only replaceable in the event of a break (or if you want a different neck profile, or want to convert your guitar to, say, a baritone), but they can also be adjusted for optimal positioning with specialized hardware setups on the body. For instance, many Fender Jazzmaster players place a small shim in the neck-heel cavity to alter string angle and improve string stability at the bridge.


As depicted in this illustrated view of the heel end of a neck, fretboard radius refers to the side-to-side curve of the neck’s playing surface. It affects the feel and responsiveness of your guitar.

Fretboard radius refers to the curve of the fretboard under your fingertips. It determines how round or flat the fretboard feels (it might help to envision the entire fretboard as a strip on the outer surface of a large cylinder running from the nut to the final fret). The lower the radius number, the rounder the fretboard. Classic Fenders came with a very round 7 1/4" radius, while the company’s current standard is 9 1/2". Meanwhile, most Gibson electrics have a radius of 12". In the 1980s, the budding shred movement spurred the popularity of flatter fretboards, with radiuses of 14" to 16".

In theory, rounder fretboards (those with smaller radiuses) are easier to play in the first few frets, especially if your fingers aren’t that long. The disadvantages come as you move up the neck, especially if you like to bend strings in your solos, because the strings tend to bottom-out on the upward-arching frets in the middle of the fretboard (and thus stop ringing out) as you push them out of their normal position. Compound-radius fretboards aim to solve this with a radius that’s rounder near the nut, but then gradually increases to a larger measurement as you go higher up the neck. Compound-radius necks typically go from 10" to 16".


Although Fender’s original and modern vintage-style Stratocaster vibrato bridges have six fulcrum points, most modern fulcrum trems have two pivot points, like the bridge on this American Standard Strat HSS Shawbucker.

Fulcrum tremolo: A bridge that rests on two pivot points and enables the player to create a vibrato effect that alters pitch downward or (depending on how the bridge is set up) downward and upward. (Note: Thanks to Leo Fender’s original nomenclature, many players, retailers, and manufacturers refer to vibrato bridges as “tremolos,” but technically this is not the correct term, since tremolo refers to altering volume up and down.) One famous example of a fulcrum design is the Floyd Rose locking system used by many metal and shred players, but the design is also used in nonlocking versions, including those found on American Standard Stratocasters and many others.


Fretwire comes in a variety of sizes, from the narrow wire on early Fenders to the medium-jumbo wire on most Gibsons and the high-and-wide wire on some shred guitars.

Fretwire: Few things contribute to a guitar’s feel and note intonation as much as the frets. After all, this is where the strings actually make contact when you finger a note. The fretboard wood underneath is just a foundation for the frets—the strings aren’t necessarily supposed to touch it. Frets come in a variety of widths, heights, and shapes, ranging from the narrow 6230 (.080" wide x .037" high) of vintage Fenders to the wide-and-low “medium jumbo” 6130 (.106" x .036") used on classic Gibsons, to the high-and-wide 6100 (.118" x .058") popular with metal players. Generally speaking, thinner frets are thought to offer more accurate intonation because the string sits on a smaller surface. On the other hand, larger frets make bending easier, and many players think they feel “faster.”