The Guitar Neck Joint

You might not be aware of the different options available to you with regards to the guitar neck joint if you are primarily an acoustic guitar player. If you have been toying with the idea of getting an electric and have been trying out guitars, you may have noticed some differences.

The guitar neck joint is, very simply, the point where the body and the neck meet.

There are essentially three ways the neck is connected to the body:

  • Bolted on, or the bolt-on neck
  • Glued on, or set neck
  • Neck-through the body

The bolt-on is probably the earliest example of an electric guitar neck joint. Leo Fender is credited with the first electric guitar - the Fender Broadcaster - and it featured a bolt-on neck. Well, not actually bolts, but screws to keep the joint tight.

The design is certainly effective. Fender's Stratocaster and Telecaster models are among the most popular guitars worldwide. Many manufacturers rely on this design with their guitars as well. Fender has remained with the bolt-on neck design for all their major models - the Stratocaster, Telecaster, Mustang, Jaguar and Jazzmaster. The Fender Bass lines - The Precision and Jazz basses - also feature bolt-on necks.

Here are Fender guitars being made:

On the plus side, a bolt-on neck allows for relatively easy replacement if for some reason you want to try a different neck profile, or God forbid, you break the neck. Guitars get dropped, fall over and sometimes have other unfortunate accidents.

What it comes down to is you need to determine for yourself what the best option is for you. Personally, I have always preferred a neck-through design, followed closely by the set neck. For myself, the Fender bolt-on guitar neck joint feels blocky and uncomfortable, and not very pleasing aesthetically in my mind. Doesn't seem to be a deterrent to some of the most famous guitar players in the world, though. Guys like Eric Clapton, Yngwie Malmsteen, Eric Johnson, David Gilmour and the list goes on…

I'm not saying I would never play one of these, just that I don't prefer them. And other bolt-on designs have taken that blockiness into consideration by creating more contoured neck joints. Often in a recording or performing situation, you choose the right tool for the job. Because each type of guitar has different tonal qualities, you might use a Fender Strat or Ibanez in one situation and a Les Paul in another.

Speaking of Les Pauls, these are probably the most well-known guitars that have a set neck. The guitar neck joint is designed to allow more comfortable access to the upper frets on the neck. The neck blank (block of wood used to craft the neck) starts at least as thick as the guitar body and is tooled down to a smooth, rounded. This video shows much of the process of building the necks.

While it is a much more difficult process, you can change out a set neck. This can entail a pretty extensive amount of downtime, as you'll most likely have to have the guitar repainted in addition to the neck replacement.

With the neck-through guitar, the entire length of the guitar from the top of the headstock down to the end of the guitar body is an uncut length. The body wings are then glued to the length. The tuners and bridge unit are attached to the neck length. Here's a video of a Carvin Jason Becker Signature model guitar being made.

One of the reasons this design came about is the belief that having the entire string mechanism attached to a single length of wood increases the sustain (how long a note rings out after being played) of the guitar. Another thought is that with a bolt-on or glued neck, you open up to the possibility of introducing a buzz between the neck and body from the guitar neck joint that isn't perfectly tooled.

I like the smooth neck joint of a neck-through design. This is one of my main reasons for liking BC Rich guitars. They were my first real exposure to a neck-through design, as well as the fact that nearly all the early models had a twenty-four fret neck. I remember going through a catalog of guitar gear and reading about the 24 fret neck-through design and thinking that two full octaves of frets is a good thing.

I was pretty well convinced after having the opportunity to play a BC Rich and eventually bought a Mockingbird model. Since then I've had the opportunity to play the Eagle and the Bich models, and my opinion has never changed. I just like 'em!

You are potentially in a world of hurt if you break the guitar with a neck-through design. I know about this from personal experience. My first BC Rich got knocked off its stand and cracked the neck at the headstock. Fortunately, the shop I took it to had a master craftsman/luthier on staff. He was able to insert wood block reinforcements to strengthen the neck at the break. Once he had it put back together and repainted, the crack was almost imperceptible.

Guitar Player Magazine had a great article discussing the tonal differences between the guitar neck joints. These considerations, as well as trying out a number of different styles to determine which neck joint works for you, should help you decide. At the end of the day, the more comfortable you are playing your guitar, the more you will play it and the better you will become.