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.
Jol Dantzig is a noted designer, builder, and player who co-founded Hamer Guitars, 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.