Does Neck Construction Affect Your Tone?
Updated: Jan 25
Opening Random Thoughts...
Hay there internet... I have a gripe to pick with you. It just blows my effing mind how much misinformation there is out there about guitars, and what makes me giggle is how butt-hurt some of you get when your opinion is challenged. In my mind, when you attack each other on social media about a particular guitar tone or piece of gear, it's like you're all just bragging about your masculinity insecurities in public - and well, that makes no sense to me at all... plus how is it helping you find your tone? One of my favorite topics to follow on social media post threads is the debate over neck-thru vs set vs bolt-on neck construction. I've spoken and written on this topic before, and it has become one of my favorite pastimes since it's more entertaining than bumping uglies with my six at 2 AM. So, let's have an adult conversation about the differences and what that means to us as players/artists.
What is a Guitar?
To start, we need an understanding of what a guitar is. To me, a guitar is a musical instrument that is built and set up to perform like a musical instrument (opposed to a novelty) that offers tonal proprieties based on the construction that relates to the "feel" and pliability via the player's perspective.
With the countless build options out there today, we as players/artists can really dial in our specs and create a dream piece that allows use shine. For example, I have large hands and feel most comfortable with a thick "50's" profile neck, but I really enjoy the tone some of my guitar heroes get from a modern guitar with a think neck. Up until recently I could not find a modern playing guitar with a thick neck, and I would trip over my fingers while playing making the experience not enjoyable for me, while leaving my tone somewhere between yuck and no thank you. So, I had two modern "T-shape" guitars built with a 50's (LP shape) neck at a 25' scale. One bolt-on and one set neck, and I could not be happier.
But while the neck construction does not translate into a "better" tone, it does alter the way I play, and I personally have my go-to for each style/genre.
I own a few examples of bolt-on and set neck construction, and one neck-thru . I use them to achieve different tonal proprieties to fit the project at hand.
My signal chain is: guitar + cable + Metal Pedal Black Gravity or Klon clone + reverb + Indigo Tone-O-Matic 3000 (50-watt blackface) amp, into a sealed 1x12 or ported 2x12.
I look at neck-thru construction as the king of compression. When I need a guitar that has a snappy-percussive and/or "tight" feel. I'll go with a neck-thru, epically with any drop tuning so I don't get that note sag mud, or for "chicken pickin" country. I know that most people think "Tele" (or "T-shape" so we don't offend) when it comes to that classic twang, but I find the neck-thru to have better note-to-note clarity... you know, "good separation". The only drawback I've had from a neck-thru is controlling the talking feedback between my guitar and amp. It just doesn't have the same charter that my set or bolt-on guitars have, and I'm sure it's due to how I play -- but that's why I do not use a neck-thru for my original music. However, it's a great tool to have if you are a for-hire or studio player/artist, and I think everyone should have at least one in their arsenal.
I use a stock Firebird: https://www.sweetwater.com/store/detail/DSFRCHRCH--gibson-firebird-cherry Talk to an expert! Contact Tylor Moore @ Sweetwater 800-222-4700 x1260
Set Neck vs Bolt-on
This is where you interneters (I made that word up) turn the heat up on the conversation. There has even been studies on this topic, and that makes me LSHIF (laugh so hard I fart). Like why waist the time on a study? Just grab her by the neck, pluck her G-string, and if you feel her voice in your gut when she sings to you, take her home and make her scream. Give her that fill 1/4-inch tip/sleeve and wake the dead! I may need a cold shower now. But anyway... most people like to compare an "F" style guitar to a traditional shape guitar when talking about the sustain between the two, and I get it. We all want that note to carry - but the shocker is that they are about the same. Scale length is just as important to the transfer of energy from the nut to the bridge, and comparing a 25.5 to a 24.75 and getting the same result, is like asking me to slam on Shaq -- it will never happen... I don't even play hockey. The most important piece to the puzzle to archive maximum sustain is if the guitar is built correctly. If you have a set neck vs a bolt-on comparison, and both guitars are built by the same hands, with the same attention to detail, at the same specs (besides the neck construction joint) - the sustain will be the same to human ears. If you are AI or just not human -- this article is not meant for you. Please move along...
My go-to set and bolt-on guitars at the moment are the following...
Off-the-shelf with mods - Reverend Six Gunn with Lindy Fralin pick ups and FU Tone big block.
Boutique - Chili Custom Guitars "Jac Caster" (was my signature guitar in 2013). Mojotone bucker and a Zexcoil Neck. Yellow "T-shape" in the 1st image in this article.
Off-the-shelf with mods - D'Angelico EX-SS with Mojotone pick ups.
Boutique - Beardly Custom Six - with Lindy Fralin pick ups and a Zexcoil in the middle. Natural "T-shape" in the 1st image in this article.
I also have a few vintage pieces from both categories, but they're more like family at this point. They're temperamental, unpracticable and they smell like a bar - but I love them anyway. So, back to my rant...
What makes a guitar have more sustain is the grain in the wood. The tighter the grain, the more she screams. When your tight grain hardwood wood neck meets the body, the harmonic resident frequency will amplify at the point where they meet. This makes us feel the note more in the body of the guitar. If you need a visual-aid, take your solid-body guitar and place it on a wood table or desk and strum, you can hear the amplification of sound. A tighter woodgrain will result in more energy transferred, equaling more note sustain.
The perfect example of this is a Stradivarius. The wood that was used for construction grew during the little ice age, making the rings very tight from the slow growth. In a Discover Magazine article published on July 2, 2008, by Eliza Strickland, labeled "Did a "Little Ice Age" Create Special Wood for Great Violins?" She states the following...
"After running a batch of 300-year-old Stradivarius violins through a sophisticated medical scanner, researchers say they may have figured out why the aged instruments are revered for their tone, clarity, and power: The wood used for the ancient violins shows a more consistent density than that found in modern violins, and researchers argue that this difference may affect how vibrations travel through the wood. In particular, the old wood shows less variation in density within growth rings, researchers say. Tree rings are comprised of a lighter, spongier portion that is produced during rapid spring growth and a darker, denser portion produced later in the year; in the Stradivarius wood, these differences are less pronounced.
Other researchers who have studied the activity of the Sun have pointed to a mini-Ice Age that occurred in the early 1700s. Experts say that this reduced solar activity, called the Maunder Minimum, could have hampered the regular growth of trees [BBC News].
The study, which was published in the journal PLoS ONE, was just the latest inquiry into the word's most famous instruments, which sell for millions."
My Final Thoughts...
With all that said, does neck construction affect your tone? Well, tone is subjective to the player/artist and his/her/they ability from their perspective, so maybe? Just have fun, experiment with your tone, and share ideas instead of ostracizing others for their thoughts. Imagine if Clapton, Hendrix, Slash, SRV, or EVH (to name a few of the greats) were influenced by people giving them misinformation and/or belittling them in public for asking for advice and/or taking a chance with their tone. The best part about all of this is that the audience can't tell the difference, so it's all in our head anyway. Here's a thought, go practice, start a band with friends... do something positive and make art, then let us know how you did it.