This is part of the guitar buyers guide series, everything you could possibly need to know about the neck of your guitar, talking about the Scale Length, Guitar Neck Profile, Guitar Fretboard Radius, and your Frets. For proper guitar neck care be sure to check out the best fretboard oils and how to use them!
Scale length of a guitar is twice the length from the nut of the guitar to the 12th fret, it should not be confused with Guitar neck length, which is the length of the neck. Guitar scale length ranges hugely through electric guitars from 22.5” on Junior guitars right up to 30” and more on an 8 string guitar. Bass guitar scale length is bigger still, where shorter scale basses start around 30” and longer scale guitar go as high as 35”, It does go higher than this but they tend to be custom made or are just up and beyond the reach of most players. Now what does scale length do and why should you care? Read on.
String tension is perhaps the most obvious thing that gets affected by the scale length. If you had the same strings and the same tuning on two guitars, one that has a 25” scale and the other a 27” scale, the strings on the 27” scale guitar are going to be much tighter. But, once you start tuning down your guitar you are giving the strings more slack reducing the tension. So if you want to down tune your guitar but still have good tension you want to have a longer scale length
However, string gauge also affects the string tension, with thicker strings resulting in less tension. It’s easier to pull a thin string tight than it is to pull a thick string. So if you up the scale length and find your strings are far too tight then you can get some thicker strings and use them instead. But, thicker strings will again feel, act and sound differently to thinner strings.
But why do you want to have enough tension on the strings? Well if strings become too slack a few different things can happen. First strings that don’t have enough tension will go out of tune more easily. This happens because fretting looser strings is easier so you press down harder causing the strings to stretch and fall out of tune.
Second, strings that are too loose are more likely to produce dreaded fret buzz. Fret buzz occurs when you fret down on one string and the string then touches another fret along the guitar neck. If your strings are looser, then they will sit slightly closer to the fretboard. On more expensive guitars this is unlikely to happen but it’s something to be aware of.
Basically, if you love tuning it down you should consider trying out a longer scale length guitar. String tension does, of course, affect playability but I’ll talk about that later. If you are looking for some new strings I cannot recommend the D’Addario NYXLs enough, you can read a full review of them here.
Many people argue over whether or not scale length has any great effect on the sound of the guitar. It’s understandable since there are so many parts do affect the sound it’s hard to narrow down to what happens specifically because of each change. But I think the scale length has a huge impact on the sound of the guitar and is massively underrated when it comes to describing it.
Basically, the tighter the string the higher the overtones it produces, this will lead to a brighter sound with more definition while looser string sound round and warm. This then directly correlates with the scale length. I said before how the same set of strings a guitar with a larger scale length will have higher tension in the strings.
Think of the difference between a Fender Stratocaster, with a 25.5” Scale, and a Les Paul, with a scale length of 24.75”. The Les Paul has a much warmer bluesy sound, completely different to that of a Stratocaster. Now with 7 and 8 strings guitars, the scale can vary by as much as 4” so it’s important to try out a few different ones before you commit because there will be a HUGE difference. Think of the difference if you were talking about a 4” in any other subject,*cough cough*…
Now you might be thinking to yourself that a bass has a much bigger scale length than most guitars but sounds far warmer, well string gauge also affects the string tension like I said before. Basses have much, much thicker strings which reduce the tension making them sound warmer.
You should also know that there are many harmonics that occur along the guitar string, more so than at the 5th, 7th, and 12th fret. These affect the very essence of how a guitar will sound. On a guitar with a longer scale length these harmonics are more spaced out which leads to a nice and clear low E (or B or F# depending how many string you have!) whereas a shorter length will have more clarity at the high E. This is why if you have more strings on your guitar you generally use a guitar with a higher scale length. With basses, you absolutely need this clarity on the lower strings so you need to have a much longer scale length.
Guitar scale length does affect how the guitar feels when you play it. It’s quite logical really if the scale length is longer then there is higher tension and so the guitar feels harder to play. I mean that in the sense that the frets become tougher to press and stuff like barre chords become more difficult. But the sound is different and you might like the way it sounds and need to adjust your playing to fit the new style.
The longer the scale the further apart the frets are, so if you play a lot of technical leads you might need a longer scale length to stop your fingers tripping over each other. That’s what a lot of the great guitarists have done in the past, meanwhile, largely rhythm guitarists have stuck to a shorter scale for ease of play and nice warm sounds.
Then again you might simply have small hands and short fingers and cannot reach over the whole guitar. In that case, you want to get a shorter scale, even a ¾ size guitar that allows you to play comfortably.
Finally, if you have far too little string tension then the strings will just be floppy and the sound will be horrible. This is why, in my opinion, the 6 string bass is not quite there yet. 6 String basses just don’t have the scale length required to hold the lowest string in place. They obviously don’t sound horrible, otherwise, no one would buy them! But I think more work needs to be done working on the right neck setup and varying string tensions to really perfect the 6 string bass.
All in all, I think it is fair to say that guitar scale length is an important factor in a guitar. The string tension gets directly affected which then leads to a different sound and a different feel in how it plays. The playability is all about personal preference, some people like firm strings, other people like looser strings. If you want a warmer sound you opt for a shorter scale length and if you want a sharper sound you want to go for a longer scale length, but thicker strings will also make the sound warmer. This is why you want to go down to a guitar store and try out a load of various guitars before you buy!
Fretboard radius is a measure of the curve of the wood on the fretboard, i.e. where the fretboards are as opposed to the neck profile curve which is on the back of the guitar. The radius is the full circle that the fretboard curve is taken from. A lower radius means the fretboard is more curved whereas a higher radius makes the fretboard flatter. Fretboard radius comes in a huge variety of sizes depending on make and model of your guitar, a few of the more common fretboard radii are 7.5”, 9.5”, 10”, 12”, 16”.
It is generally accepted that a rounder fingerboard (one with a lower radius) will be easier to play if you stick to rhythm guitar and chord work. This is because a rounder fingerboard will follow the curve of your hand for chords, especially barre chords making it more comfortable to play. Now lead guitar players tend to favor a flatter fingerboard (one with a higher radius) because it is thought to be easier to move around and you can bend the strings further without experiencing fret-out.
Fret-out is what happens when you are bending a string higher up the fretboard and it suddenly goes dead. This happens on shorter bends on lower radius fretboards because the strings are put on the guitar flat, not curved like the fretboard is. So as you bend the string higher it moves in a straight line, if you move a straight line across a curve it is going to reach a point where it no longer touches the curve and so the string stops sounding. Now if you have a higher radius, the fretboard is flatter and so the string can be bent further before it loses contact with the fretboard and no longer sounds.
But what do you do if you like playing both lead and rhythm guitar? Well, there are a couple of answers, first, go for a radius that is roughly in the middle, say 10-12” or if you can it is well worth getting a custom compound guitar neck. This is a neck that starts with a lower radius at the nut of the guitar and increases in radius as you move up the fretboard. Genius! If you can afford it Warmoth guitar necks are the best available, they have compound guitar necks that vary from as much as 10” at the nut to 16” at the base which is an insane shift in size. Now as with most things in guitar it is all about personal preference, I’m sure some of you will have no problems playing barre chords on a 16” radius fretboard and others will be
Now as with most things in guitar it is all about personal preference, I’m sure some of you will have no problems playing barre chords on a 16” radius fretboard and others will be playing leads easily on 7.5” fretboard, it’s important to know what you prefer. And if you honestly have no idea what you prefer then get down to a guitar store and try a bunch of different guitars out!
Guitar neck profiles come in a huge variety of styles, but the most common shapes are C, V, and U, these letters represent the actual shape of the back of the neck. You get more varied profiles and all sorts of alterations on these shapes but these are the heart of all guitar neck profiles.
Most of the difference of the guitar neck profile lie in personal preference, if you play a lot of rhythm guitar, and have enormous hands, you might like a nice thick U-shaped neck. This makes for a really solid neck you can grip and added sustain.
Now all you shredders out there probably don’t want a big heavy neck so will opt for a thin neck, a thin neck is much easier to navigate and move your hand around if you’re racing around the fretboard.
If you’re not fortunate enough to be born with hands like a basketball player then a V-neck Profile will allow you easy reach over the whole fretboard which could make playing a lot more comfortable.
Aside from these differences, it’s really all about what feels comfortable for you. So again you need to get yourself down to a guitar store and ask to try guitars with a few different styles of neck profile. That way you can find out what feels the most comfortable for you!
The main difference in the frets along the guitar neck is whether they are small medium or jumbo size, but what is that referring to? That is the actual size of the fret in terms of height and width, jumbo frets are taller and wider while small ones are smaller. Simple.
Well, it’s generally accepted that jumbo frets make the guitar easier to play because they are so much bigger you don’t have to press down as hard to get the same sound and there is more fret for the string to grip to making bends easier. But, because the frets are bigger the string has further to go before hitting the wood so if you press down too hard you will cause the note to sound sharp. So if you have smaller frets this won’t happen and you can get a really defined and crisp sound.
Most 7 and 8 string guitars come with jumbo or extra jumbo frets because they are most commonly used by metalheads. That said it doesn’t mean that medium frets will suddenly feel difficult to play were you to try them, it’s all about the personal preference.
Fret wear occurs when the frets begin to show signs of damage, most commonly they get little grooves appearing in them.
You can get this resolved by getting a fret plane and polish but depending on your guitar this may cost more than the guitar is worth! If the gouges get too deep then you will need to have a complete re-fret of the guitar neck which I can tell you is not a cheap procedure.
It is much easier to try and prevent than it is to solve, however! Fret wear happens because your strings are wearing out the metal, you can stop it happening by not pressing as hard against the strings and making sure you are fretting in the middle of the frets, not on top of them. You can also make sure to change your strings regularly, old strings have all sorts of sharp bits on them and if your strings are rusty then you definitely need to get them off!
So there you have it, everything you need to know about the guitar neck. The most common theme is that you need to try out a bunch of different types to decide what’s right for you but now at least you can know what the hell they are talking about! If you want to know anything further or feel like I’ve missed anything don’t hesitate to leave a comment below!