Photo by Andy Ellis

Whatever your choice of guitar at the moment, your ability to play it depends on an intimate physical relationship between your fretting hand and your guitar’s neck. How picky are you when entering into that relationship? You may be the type of player who demands a guitar neck with very specific details—anything else just isn’t right. It’s sort of a guitar-playing version of monogamy.

Or you may be into an open relationship: “Just give me a guitar and I’ll play it.” In either case—and before I extend this analogy too far for my own good—it can help to know why you like what you like, and maybe also glimpse what you might be missing.

The simple request I received to write an article about guitar-neck design quickly turned into an extensive list of topics I wanted to cover. Any attempt to sort these topics into categories—those that affect feel and playability, versus those that affect tone, versus those based on construction—is sure to cause controversy. In fact, many can’t be separated. To create some sort of organization, I’ll just loosely group them, cover the points one by one, and ask for forgiveness later.

Feel and Playability

Neck profile. When picking up a guitar, perhaps the first thought to hit you—at least in terms of playability—is the feel of its neck. There are two related factors to consider: the thickness of the neck and its profile shape.

Preferences vary widely. Before discussing neck shapes, it may help to ponder variations in hand sizes—a basic design consideration. A large male hand is approximately 27-percent bigger than a small female hand. A large guitar neck (such as a Fender U-shaped neck) is only about 17-percent thicker than Fender’s standard thin neck. Therefore, typical neck thicknesses don’t span a range as varied as players’ hand sizes.

Perhaps an even more pertinent measure concerns the curvature—the distance you feel as you wrap your hand around the back of the neck. (Picture a tape measure wrapping under from the 6th string to the 1st string.) On typical guitar necks, that distance varies by less than 10 percent. If you’re at either end of the hand-size spectrum, you may have a right to complain because you’ll be forced to adapt.

For a guitar to play properly, its neck needs to have a slight bow. This is called relief, and it allows the strings to vibrate over the fretboard without hitting the frets.

Something else to consider: While you’re playing, different parts of your thumb contact the back of the neck. With barre chords, your thumb may be flat against the center of the curve, the neck’s thickest part. When playing complex chords, your thumb’s tip may be in contact. When playing basic riffs, your thumb may rest at the edge of the fretboard. When flying up and down the neck, your thumb may not touch it at all. Or for replicating a Merle Travis/Chet Atkins style of playing, your thumb may be fully wrapped around the neck, fretting a thumping bass line on the low-E string.

Some necks are carved with an asymmetrical profile that’s intended to improve playability. It’s not a new idea. Among Gretsch’s “Seven Points of Supremacy” attributed to their 1939 Synchromatic was a “non-pressure” neck designed to relieve finger strain. This was referred to as the “Miracle Neck” in later years (Fig. 1).

Neck finish. Another factor that can elicit strong opinions is how a builder seals the back of a wooden neck to protect it from sweat, skin oils, and the elements. A glossy polyurethane or nitrocellulose finish will feel different from a satin or Tung oil finish. The latter two can allow your hand to more easily slide along the neck, especially on a hot and sticky day.

There’s no easy way to change your current guitar’s neck to a Tung-oil finish. It requires sanding the finish down to bare wood. Before taking that drastic measure, try sprinkling baby powder on your hand if you think your neck is slowing you down.

Fretwire. If you play violin, cello, or fretless bass, fret size is a non-issue. Guitarists, however, need to consider the fact that fretwire comes in various sizes. Frets are made from an alloy containing 18 percent nickel-silver (a misnomer, because there’s no actual silver—which is a good thing, or we’d probably see people melting down our precious vintage instruments).

In Gretsch’s 1951 catalog, the 6192 and 6193 models are described as having a patented “Miracle Neck.” This design o ered an asymmetrical pro le for enhanced playability.

Early Fender guitars used relatively narrow frets: approximately .080" inches wide and .043" tall. Gibson frets are typically wider and just microscopically shorter. Wide frets can be just over .100", and taller frets around .050". There are too many variables in playing styles and individual finger physiology to generalize about what fretwire may be more or less appropriate for different situations. Like many other guitar-related specs, it’s a matter of personal preference. Also, it can be difficult to A-B compare different fretwire sizes. You can try spending a few hours in a friendly guitar shop, but neck shapes and string gauges are likely to vary as well, which can confuse the issue.

Though less common, scalloped fretboards are related to fretwire height. On a scalloped fretboard, the space between frets is dished to keep the fingertips from touching the fretboard wood. These cylindrically concave shapes are great for certain techniques. Think of the incredible bends a sitar player produces. A sitar’s arched and elevated frets keep the player’s fingers off the fretboard and eliminate any friction against the wood. Scalloped fretboards replicate that for a guitar. With a height of .058", the largest size fretwire can approach a scalloped feel. To get a sense for this, try playing some Ibanez models that sport jumbo frets on this order.

Also, it surprises a few guitarists when I mention that a pressed string doesn’t contact the fretboard. Rather, it spans the frets. Unless you have woefully low frets or super-light strings, the string itself won’t contact the wood.

Scale length. The distance between the nut and the bridge determines the length of the strings, and this is known as scale length.That measurement won’t be entirely precise, however, because intonation adjustments or an angled bar bridge results in variations in the length of each string. A more accurate way to determine scale length: measure the distance from the nut to the 12th fret and multiply by two.

Scale lengths can vary considerably. John Lennon’s 325 Rickenbacker had a scale of just 20.75". A “3/4 size” guitar, such as the Guild M-65, has a scale of 22.5". Gibson’s Les Paul measures 24.75". A Fender Telecaster’s neck is longer at 25.5". Scale length for a baritone guitar can be much higher, like Danelectro’s 29.75" neck.

Given identical strings, longer necks require more tension to get into tune. Put another way, shorter scales allow heavier strings to be used with comparatively less tension. It’s something to consider if you think you’d like the effect of having more metal driving your pickups.