Hi – welcome back! Today we’re gonna go “neck and neck”…
The wealth of instrument options for guitarists these days is just incredible. Just in terms of new guitars (ignoring all second-hand and vintage options) we are seriously spoiled for choice.
But this can be massively overwhelming for new players, even those who have made the seemingly simple choice between an electric or acoustic instrument. The options run much deeper than that basic decision – will that be acoustic or electro-acoustic, with or without a cutaway, parlor or super-jumbo size, regular or bowl-back, the list just goes on.
And as for electric guitar choice, are you a humbucker or single-coil fan, will you be having a tremolo with that, super or regular Strat, which exact shade of Peruvian mocha coffee-burst paint job (I made that last one up, although it’s probably an option somewhere) – you get the idea.
A matter of opinion?
To make things harder for the newbie entering this minefield of variety, there’s already a crazy amount of strongly-held opinion about what’s right and what’s wrong. A total rookie discussing instrument choice with a group of experienced guitarists could be forgiven for thinking they’d accidentally wandered into a contest between fans of McDonalds, BK and Wendy’s – you just know the argument’s not gonna end any time soon…
Most of this opinion is clearly going to be rubbish – people use all sorts of different guitars to play all sorts of different music. And – certain instruments will naturally suit certain styles more than others. It’s unlikely that James Hetfield will perform the next Metallica concert using a nylon-string classical acoustic for example.
But some debates about particular guitar features have become almost clichés. And one old chestnut that seemingly refuses to go away is the fixed vs bolt-on neck debate. Or rather some long-standing myths about these two main methods of constructing a guitar.
The most common myths seem to be;
‘Fixed’ or ‘Set’ neck = more expensive, higher-quality, better sustain, warmer tone, harder to repair
‘Bolt-on’ neck = cheaper, lower quality, less sustain, twangier tone, easier to repair
Are these myths? Or are there any shreds of truth here?
Well first let’s explain the basics with a little bit of back story.
The way that luthiers attached instrument necks to instrument bodies was pretty much standard for centuries. Everything from violins to the earliest guitars tended to feature a neck with a heel that was jointed and glued directly to the top end of the instrument body, providing a strong bond that could bear the string tension. This technique didn’t even change much during the earliest experiments with making solid-body electric guitars – Les Paul’s infamous prototype instrument “The Log” (first laughed at by Gibson in 1941) still featured a set neck of sorts.
Then in 1950 a man called Leo Fender introduced a new guitar called the Broadcaster, (subsequently renamed the Telecaster). Fender had refined his vision of an instrument designed primarily to be plugged in and amplified electrically; the simple solid body and bolt-on neck could be easily mass-produced, keeping down costs. These same principles were used just one year later on the Fender Precision – the world’s first real bass guitar. One completely new instrument construction method followed by one completely new instrument type in the space of two years. Not bad going!
With the arrival of the Gibson Les Paul and Fender Stratocaster, it was clear by 1955 that solid-body electric guitars were very definitely here to stay. And so was the idea of the bolt-on neck, although at first this was very much a feature associated with Fender – other manufacturers (most notably Gibson) generally stuck to the set neck design.
So, you have more choices. Is that a good thing?
Oh absolutely. But guitarists are more conservative than you’d think. And very predictably, certain trends and opinions quickly emerged surrounding the use of these instruments. Some people favored the Fender style, others preferred set-necks, and many from both camps insisted that their choice was the right choice! This is how myths are created.
Are they myths? Well, let’s take a more detailed look at the ones we mentioned earlier…
Cheaper mass-production techniques were one of the reasons why Fender developed the bolt-on neck idea, and this method definitely lowers costs. Far-Eastern manufacturers were quick to cotton-on with their own even-cheaper reproductions, shortly followed by completely original new instruments using bolt-on necks.
So, in general terms, this might not be a myth. Although ‘cheaper’ is a relative term – Ibanez, Paul Reed Smith and ESP all currently offer bolt-on models at 4-figure prices. And you can pick up budget beginner guitars with set necks for less than $200.
A dangerously subjective term! The Gibson Les Paul mostly features mahogany in its many-layered body construction, whilst the Fender Stratocaster was originally machine-carved from a chunk of swamp ash. Some might think that makes the Gibson a higher-quality instrument. But I once witnessed a friend drop his ’56 Strat off a 4-foot stage during a gig. It just bounced off the concrete floor, and hardly picked up a dent. When he plugged it back in the thing didn’t even need re-tuning. Try THAT with a Les Paul if you dare…
From an engineering standpoint, a tightly glued-in neck will theoretically do a better job of transferring vibrational energy through the entire instrument. Although a very tightly-fitted bolt-on neck, perhaps without any kind of lacquer or other finish applied to the physical joint sections of the body and neck (another common Fender feature) can achieve a similar effect. So can heavier strings. And a heavier bridge.
You could perhaps mix this with the engineering thoughts discussed above – the vibrational energy transfer may result in the ‘warmer tone’ that fixed-neck fanatics constantly bang on about. But a guitars quality of tone comes from many factors – wood choice, electrics, even position and weight of hardware.
Don’t forget that, back in the early days of solid-body electrics, the lightweight ash-bodied Fender guitars were almost exclusively fitted with single-coil pickups, whilst the heavyweight mahogany Gibson instruments usually had humbuckers (or the wonderfully thick-sounding P90’s). It’s not surprising that the Les Paul sound was seen as ‘rounder’ and the Tele/Strat sound as ‘snappier’. And don’t these stereotypes just hang around!
Ease of repair
No contest here; you can have the strings and neck removed from a Fender in under a minute. And you can also swap between necks – there’s a huge amount of choice in the Fender catalogue, enabling a player to have precisely the contour and feel that suits them. Ungluing and removing a Les Paul neck is a lengthy and tricky business, not to mention having to re-do the paint work once you’ve got a new neck in place.
Although most repair work to Les Paul’s fortunately just involves gluing smashed-off headstocks back into position (a very common job for guitar techs), and you don’t have to remove the entire neck to sort that issue out. Hooray.
Phew – that’s it for neck choice then. Isn’t it…?
Not quite. Fenders main innovations were nearly 70 years ago, remember. And while fixed and bolt-on necks remain the two most common methods for building guitars, there are other ways…
This simply involves a neck that runs the entire length of the guitar, from head to tail. Pickups and all bridge hardware get attached to the section that runs through the guitar ‘body’, which is basically wings that are attached to the top and bottom side. Amazing levels of sustain can be achieved with this kind of design, although removing the neck obviously isn’t an option! This kind of construction has always been more common in bass guitars, although Paul Bigsby and Merle Travis collaborated on an experimental solid-body 6-string built this way as far back as the late 1940s.
Basically, building an entire guitar, neck, AND body, out of one single piece of material. This tends to result in some fantastically space-age designs – Steinberger and Bond both produced instruments in the 1980s formed from a single molded piece of carbon-fiber. And Rickenbacker built a wooden prototype electric back in 1931 which featured a tiny circular body at the end of the neck to anchor the strings and mount the pickup. To imagine what that looked like, just consider its nickname – the ‘frying pan’.
In terms of experimental alternative methods? Too many to list here. And lots of them involving solid metal – do a Google search for ‘Travis Bean’ if you’ve got time – one of the coolest examples (Slash is a big fan!)
Wrapping it up
So, you may wonder – is there a logical and defensible conclusion that determines whether one style of neck joint is better than the other?
Nope – or if there is then I’m not fanning the flames of what I feel is a pointless argument. With the right control settings, amplifier and playing style, you could make a Les Paul sound like a Telecaster, or a Strat sound like a Rickenbacker (although you’d be hard pushed to make ANYTHING sound quite like a Gretsch, but that’s a different story…)
That’s just my opinion of course.
I’ve rambled on enough for this week. As usual, keep your eyes peeled on your inbox for next week’s article. Until then…