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Beginner's guide to everything you wanted to know about electric guitar necks

Certain guitars "feel like a Fender" while others "feel like a Gibson", but why? What separates those two guitars as to the way they feel?

There are basically five things that determine how a guitar feels.

  1. Weight of the instrument when standing
  2. Body shape
  3. Neck fingerboard radius
  4. Neck scale length
  5. Nut width

As for weight, that's easy to figure out. Either the guitar is heavy, light or just right depending on what you want. The true test of a guitar's weight is how it feels when you have it strapped on and standing with it for at least 15 minutes. Either it will feel right or it won't.

As for shape, a number of factors come into play here. Stratocaster guitars have a cut on the back of the body to better fit your shape while the Les Paul and the Telecaster do not. Shape also counts for positioning, such as where things like the bridge, switchgear, volume and tone controls are.

Aside from weight and shape, most players judge a guitar on how the neck feels, which has a lot to do with scale length, fingerboard radius and nut width.

Scale Length

A scale length is defined as "the maximum vibrating length of the strings to produce the sound". On an electric guitar, this measurement starts at the bridge saddle and ends at the nut, also known as the zero fret.

On a Fender Stratocaster, the standard scale length is 25.5 inches.

On a Gibson Les Paul Standard, the standard scale length is 24.75 inches.

Fingerboard Radius

Guitar players get really confused as to what fingerboard radius is and how it matters concerning how a guitar neck feels.

The fingerboard radius is the arc of the fingerboard. A lower number means the board is rounder where the frets are. A higher number means the board is flatter.

Typical modern-spec Fender neck: 9.5-inch radius

Typical vintage-spec Fender neck: 7.25-inch radius

Typical Gibson neck: 12-inch radius

The radius is the biggest reason why Fender guitar necks feel so much different compared to a Gibson.

What does the radius mean to you as a player?

This is very easy to understand.

Flatter radius fingerboards are better for soloing. If you want a guitar with the "fastest" neck that allows your fingers to go from fret to fret in the easiest way possible, flatter is better.

Rounder radius fingerboards are better for chord playing. The tradeoff to a flat fingerboard is that it makes it more difficult to play full-handed chords on. When you play a full-handed barre chord for example, the neck will dig into your fret hand at the pinky area when you play, and you might even experience some hand strain. On a guitar with a rounder fingerboard, like a Fender guitar, there's much less strain on the hand with full-handed chord playing.

"I like to solo. Does that mean I need a guitar with a flatter-radius fingerboard?"

Not necessarily. You may find that you can perform solos just fine on a neck with a rounder fingerboard.

You will know if you need a guitar with a flatter radius fingerboard if you keep "fretting out" (string bends end up 'squeaking' on the higher frets) even after setting up and intonating the guitar properly.

Nut width

The nut width is literally the width of the nut, as in the part of the guitar where the neck ends, the strings sit, and before the headstock begins.

Modern-spec Fenders and Gibsons have almost the same nut width. The modern-spec Strat is 1.685-inch and the Gibson 1.695-inch. Barely a difference, but the Gibson is slightly wider.

Vintage-spec electric guitars usually have skinnier nuts. On a Fender for example, vintage-spec nut width is usually 1.650-inch, and that's a significant difference compared to modern-spec. When you play a vintage-spec guitar, the strings are literally closer together and you'll notice it. And no, that's not always necessarily a good thing because depending on how you play, your fingers may "bunch up" on strings from time to time when playing chords or soloing.

Only Fender and Squier truly "feel like Fender"

Not even G&L who makes the Legacy guitar (as well as the Comanche) truly feels like a Fender because that model uses a 12-inch radius fingerboard. Yes, it looks almost identical to a Fender Stratocaster, but you'll instantly notice the 12-inch radius fingerboard the moment you start playing one, and you may not like it if you were expecting that Fender feel. This is not to say G&L makes a bad guitar, as they do make fantastic stuff, but they do have the 12-inch radius on the fingerboard and that's important to know.

When you want the real Fender feel, you have to go Fender or Squier and that's the only real way to get it.

Your only other option is to custom order a neck (such as from Warmoth) where you can get that 9.5-inch or 7.25-inch fingerboard radius neck. Otherwise, the vast majority of electrics are 12-inch radius on the fingerboard or greater.

So there you go. I think that covers everything you would ever want to know about electric guitar necks, or at least enough to know what to buy and more importantly what not to buy.

Published 2012 Jan 25

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