How the neck joins the body of a guitar has a major impact on its sound.
Traditionally, guitars were built with glued, set-in necks similarly to other stringed instruments such as the violin. The neck was carefully fitted to a pocket in the guitar body—a process calling for considerable time and skill. In the early 1950s, seeking simpler production and a more easily repaired and adjusted neck, Fender began producing solidbody electric guitars with bolt-on maple necks that were, as the name suggests, bolted to the body.
As guitarists soon found, guitars and basses with bolt-on necks were very distinct in how they sounded and played. Let’s take a look at some of the characteristics of the two types.
These Gibson Custom Les Pauls have traditionally glued-in, set mahogany necks.
The two most common methods used in set guitar necks are the mortise and tenon joint and the dovetail joint. These fastening techniques have been around for more than a thousand years, providing a strong, tight-fitting neck joint.
Even if you’ve never taken a guitar apart, you already know what a mortise and tenon joint looks like. They’re commonly used to join wood fence rails with their posts. The mortise is the square pocket that accepts the tenon or tongue of the fence rail. The tenon is made slightly smaller than the rail itself, creating a snug fit.
Dovetail joints are often used to join the sides of a drawer to the drawer front. They consist of a fan-shaped pin which slides into a tail recess. The dovetail joint is prized for its tensile strength and resistance to being pulled apart.
The two most common joints used on set-neck guitars.
Gibson uses set necks on nearly every guitar the company builds. Thanks to better transfer of resonance between the neck and body, these guitars tend to produce a warmer, fatter tone than those with bolt-on necks. Set necks are great for warm jazz tones and beefy rhythm guitar.
It thus makes sense that these guitars would pair well with humbuckers that share the tendency to produce warmer, rounder tones. Humbucker-equipped Les Pauls and hollow/semi-hollow guitars such as the ES-335 and ES-175 produce that fatter sound many guitarists prefer.
Set necks are generally made of mahogany but can also be carved from maple. It’s fairly rare to find an unfinished set neck. The Gibson Custom Historic Les Paul reissues at Musician’s Friend Private Reserve have a long neck tenon secured with hide glue for even greater vibration transfer from neck to body. Other popular set-neck guitars come from brands such as PRS, Gretsch and Rickenbacker.
A closeup look at the set neck on a Gibson guitar.
Fender Custom Shop Strats and Teles with their bolt-on maple necks.
Fender introduced the first widely available electric solid body guitar with a bolt on neck in 1950. The Broadcaster, which would soon be renamed the Telecaster, had more in common with the Hawaiian lap steels the company was then making than the acoustic guitars of the day.
Bolt-on guitar neck construction consists of a rectangular neck heel which fits into the neck pocket of the body. The two pieces are usually joined together by four screws and a metal neck plate. A good, tight-fitting neck pocket is essential to getting the best tone possible. Over-tightening the neck screws will not increase sustain and can actually produce finish cracks around the neck pocket. These cracks are somewhat common and don’t affect the tone or stability of your guitar.
Most bolt-on necks are made of maple and produce a brighter sound with more attack than a set neck. It makes sense that this neck joint would pair nicely with the single-coil pickups used on Stratocasters and Telecasters, given their their inherently bright sound.
Being able to swap out necks or readily replace a broken one is a decided advantage where bolt-on necks are concerned. It’s also more common to see unfinished or satin-finished necks on bolt-on models.
Other guitar companies that use bolt-on construction include Ibanez, ESP, Music Man and Jackson. (ESP and Jackson also offer neck-thru body instruments—a design in which the neck extends through the body, which is composed two “wings” glued to the neck).
Bolt-on guitars are excellent for styles that require a bright, twangy tone full of attack, such as country, blues and funky rhythms. Adding a humbucker to a bolt-on guitar, which became popular in the 1980s, takes the edge off bolt-on brightness, resulting in a great rhythm and lead guitar.
Music Man guitars have a 5-bolt neck plate that’s rounded for comfort. This one has a nicely oil-finished flame maple neck.
Which neck construction is right for you and your music? There’s probably no single answer; there are going to be times when you’ll want the sound of both. Set or bolt-on neck, both are fun to play and create a strong bond between neck and body.
Until next time keep playing!
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Visit www.privatereserveguitars.com or contact Derek White directly at 866-926-1923. He can get you the absolute lowest price on your dream guitar. Connect with Private Reserve Guitars on Facebook and Instagram.
Brian Baggett is Video Presenter for Musician’s Friend Private Reserve Guitars. He curates the Private Reserve guitar collection on video, visits guitar factories and works closely with luthiers and signature artists to gain insight into the greatest guitars being built today. He is also a professional guitarist playing several nights a week in the legendary Kansas City jazz scene. A former jazz guitar professor, Brian continues to teach and has a book and DVD titled Keys To Unlocking the Fretboard. Find Brian on Facebook and twitter.