When it comes to optimising playing ease and upping the speed, most guitarists will look for a model with a ‘fast neck’. But what exactly is a ‘fast neck’? And does ‘fast’ mean the same thing for everyone? In this blog, we look at the effect that the nut width, the fretboard radius, the scale length and even the finish, the frets and neck profile can have on the feel of an electric guitar, so you can fully arm yourself with the knowledge you need to take things up a few gears.
#1. The Nut Width
The significance of the nut width goes over the heads of a lot of guitarists, which is a shame, since it has a massive impact on the playability. A narrow neck, where the strings sit close together, is great for more advanced techniques like sweep picking during fast solos while a wide neck gives your fingers more room to move around the fretboard and supports some nice and smooth vibratos as well as more complex chords. Since the difference is a matter of millimetres, if you’re a beginner guitarist, you might not even notice it.
The nut width of most Fender and Squier guitars usually sits at around 42 millimetres, with the exception of some specific series. ESP Guitars and ESP LTD models usually have a relatively narrow neck, with the obvious exception of M-Series models, which normally have a 43 millimetre wide nut. Gibson, Epiphone, Jackson Guitars, Charvel and Ibanez models will usually have a 43 millimetre wide nut as well, but Gibson has also produced guitars with a 44.5 millimetre wide nut, so you can perform wide vibratos on the high-E string without it slipping off the fretboard. Guitars with a Floyd Rose tremolo bridge will often also have a special R2 or R3 nut, where the R2 is more narrow than the R3. It makes no sense to just make an endless spec list of every model here, but in most cases, you’ll be able to find the nut width listed under the Specifications tab on any of the product pages.
#2. The Radius
The fretboard radius indicates how rounded or flat the curve of the fretboard is width-wise (so from side to side rather than from end to end). The lower the number, the more rounded the fretboard and the higher the number, the flatter the fretboard. A rounder fretboard is great for playing chords while a flatter fretboard makes playing solos much easier. Of course, that doesn’t mean that you can’t play flying solos on a rounder fretboard or comfortably grab chords on a flatter fretboard. For more info on the subject, see our other, more in-depth blog: What Does ‘Fretboard Radius’ Mean?
Fretboard radiuses (source: Fender Guitars)
It’s important to note here that there’s no such thing as the ‘best’ radius. Whether you prefer a flatter or rounder fretboard is an entirely subjective thing. Anyone that’s just started playing an electric guitar made by Squier, Ephiphone or ESP LTD is likely to prefer a more rounded 9.5 inch or 12 inch radius, while beginners that started playing with a classical guitar are more likely to prefer a flatter fretboard, like the models made by Ibanez or Jackson.
#3. The Profile
The neck profile refers to the shape of the back of the neck. This is often indicated by a letter that literally looks a bit like the shape, so a C, V, D or U shape. If you look at the shape of a C-profile neck (again, width-wise) then it literally looks a bit like the letter C. There are some guitar makers like Ibanez who have given unique names to their own in-house developed profiles, like their extremely flat and thin Ibanez Wizard necks.
Below, you can see a rough illustration of what some of the most common neck profiles look like. The precise shape differs depending on the brand and there are countless variations. Fender, for example, mixes things up with a ‘Modern-C’ or ‘Deep-C’ profile. The super-thick necks from older Fender and Gibson models from the fifties were affectionately dubbed baseball bats.
Here, the same thing applies: there is no perfect neck profile. So, some blues guitarists, for example, might prefer a V-profile neck because it makes it easier to curl their thumb over the top of the fretboard. Guitarists with a need for speed tend to go for a thinner C profile, while thicker rhythm parts tend to have more control when supported by a more firm-feeling neck. Another thing to think about when it comes to the neck profile is the nut width (which we covered in part one), which also has an influence on how the profile of the neck actually feels. So a Fender model with a C-profile neck and 42 millimetre wide nut will feel a touch thinner and a Gibson model with a C-profile neck and a 43 millimetre wide nut.
#4. The Scale Length
The term ‘scale length’ refers to the string-length of a guitar, which is the distance between the nut and saddles of the bridge – the two points where the strings actually make contact with the guitar. Most electric guitars will have a 25.5 inch (648mm) scale length, like the classic Fender Telecaster and Stratocaster, but another popular option is the slightly shorter 24.75 inch scale length of a lot of the models made by brands like Gibson and Epiphone.
The scale length of a guitar also dictates the space between the frets. So, because of the slightly shorter scale length of most Gibson and Epiphone models, the frets are slightly closer together when compared to most Fender and Squier models, meaning that the setup of a short scale length can feel more comfortable for guitarists with smaller hands or shorter fingers. The scale length also affects the string tension, so a longer scale length gives the strings a tighter feel while a shorter scale length gives them a looser feel. But this isn’t the whole story.
As you may have guessed already, the quality of a neck rests on the sum of a few different factors. For example: a small Fender neck with a 25.5 inch scale length coupled with a thin set of .009 to .042 gauged strings will have a lighter playing feel than a wider Gibson neck with a 24.75 inch scale length coupled with a set of .010 to .046 gauged strings. So the scale length isn’t everything. On top of that, the strings don’t just have an influence on the playing feel, but also the sound – but that subject might need a blog post in itself.
#5. The Finish
Above you can see the two extremes: an ‘open pore’ neck at the front and a ‘high gloss’ neck at the back
The finish of the neck also has a big effect on the playing feel of a guitar. A neck with an ‘open pore’ finish with no extra coat of lacquer will have a different feel to a neck with a satin-gloss finish, and again, a satin-gloss finish feels very different to a neck with a high-gloss finish. These days, a lot of guitarists prefer the feel of a satin-gloss finished neck, since it gets less sticky as your palms get sweaty, so you can keep moving smoothly up and down the fretboard no matter how hot it gets under the stage lights. However, some guitarists still go for a high-gloss finish simply because it has a more deluxe look. Again, none of this means that a satin-gloss neck is always easier to play than a high-gloss neck.
#6. The Frets
A Jackson guitar with jumbo frets
The frets are another important feature, since they’re the point where the strings make contact when you change the pitch. So it’s no surprise that the frets also form a big part of the playability of a guitar. Frets don’t just vary in terms of material but in height and width. The frets of vintage models often have narrow and tall frets, while modern metal-monsters are more likely to have jumbo or extra-jumbo frets. The most common fret sizes are medium or medium jumbo.
It’s actually tough to say precisely what kind of influence the frets have on the playability, but higher and thicker frets generally provide more grip on the strings, making it easier to hold down notes and perform techniques like vibrato with your fret-hand.
#7. The Feeling
Is the definition of a ‘fast neck’ the same for everyone? Absolutely not. Ultimately, all of the features that go into a neck are better experienced than analysed on paper. As such, we highly recommend trying out as many different guitars as possible because the only way to really find out what a guitar will feel like is to pick it up and see how it actually feels in your hands. Only then can you know if it’s the right one for you.
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