Electric Guitar Neck Construction Techniques

There are several books and websites dedicated to building electric guitars (see below), each with its own perspective of the three widely accepted methods of attaching a guitar’s neck to its body. These three techniques for neck attachment are as follows: 1) the bolt-on neck, 2) the tenon and mortise glued neck and 3) the neck-through design. Each of these techniques has advantages and disadvantages.

The bolt-on neck is the simplest method of attachment and also the cheapest. Leo Fender is responsible for developing this type of guitar and was motivated primarily by the reduction of manufacturing cost and a desire to mass produce the guitars. Rickenbacker’s Bakelite guitar was probably the first instrument line with detachable necks and likely the inspiration for Fender’s early guitars. His first model, the Broadcaster, was released to the public in 1950 under the name The Esquire and spawned the two-pickup version that was to become known as the famous Telecaster. The advantages of the bolt on neck include are non-destructive neck replacement and faster manufacturing because glue-time is eliminated. The primary disadvantage is that the bolt on connection is often not as rigid as that of the set-neck or the neck through designs, which are said to have increased sustain due to improved mechanical connection between the body and the neck. The vast majority of bolt-on necks use Fender’s original measurements for the neck pocket, 2 3/16” wide, 3” long and 5/8” deep. This pocket is routed out of the body with the wall furthest into the neck being slightly rounded.

The bolt on neck is parallel to the top of the body. This makes construction easier, but also introduces some problems. String tension is decreased from the nut (on the headstock) to the bridge of the instrument which also reduces sustain. This can be compensated for by running the strings through the body of the guitar to the bridge, creating a sharper angle which increases the pressure from the string to the bridge. To complicate matters further, most bolt-on necks have headstocks that are also parallel to the neck and the body of the guitar. This creates a problem as the strings run over the nut to the tuning machines. The angle creates problems with the string wraps around the tuning machine spindle. This angle is compensated for with string tree retainers which hold the strings down to maintain the correct string angle against the tuning machine.

The second type of neck joint is the mortise and tenon, also known as the set neck. In short, this is a glued neck joint that uses increased surface area to create a stronger connection between the neck and the body. The mortise is the neck pocket and the tenon is inserted into the mortise. Great care is taken to ensure that the joint has a high tolerance and that the joint will hold simply with pressure before the joint is glued. This particular style of join has been used to connect necks on string instrument bodies for hundreds of years. Instruments in the viol, violin, and classical guitar families all share the same neck join, which also includes the subset dove-tail neck joint. The classical guitars have a neck that is parallel to the top of the body, while the violin family has necks that tilt back from the face of the instrument. This angle increases the pressure on the bridge of the instrument and thus increases the sustain of the instrument. The back angle of the neck requires a taller bridge to prevent the string action from being too low. In addition to the neck angle, often this style of guitar includes a headstock angle back as well. The serves to increase the pressure of the strings on the nuts and prevents the need for a string tree to hold the strings down and into position to work well with the tuning machines. A great example of this type of guitar in the Gibson Les Paul, which is a solid body guitar that borrows heavily from the look of arch topped hollow body instruments like violins and arch topped guitars.

The third style of guitar neck joint is the neck through style. This construction technique actually isn’t a neck joint at all. The wood of the neck continues through the body of the guitar in one continuous piece. This type of design was originally found more often in electric basses than in guitars, but now many models of both are available. Body wings are attached to the neck core to obtain the traditional shape of the guitar. The pickup and bridge are all mounted into the neck piece which contributes to increased sustain. Most neck through instruments do not have the angled back neck that requires a higher bridge. This may counteract the improved sustain of the neck-through design by decreasing pressure on the bridge and not of the instrument. The neck-through body design is more complicated to build and manufacture than either the bolt-on or set neck styles. As a result most neck-through designs come from higher-end instrument manufacturers and small custom lutherie shops.

These three basic design styles all have advantages and disadvantages that appeal to different players and different builders. The bolt-on neck, popularized by Fender in its Telecaster and Stratocaster lines, is the easiest to mass produce and the easiest to repair. The set-neck or tenon and mortise style of join is harder to make, but offers superior sustain and tone. The neck-through style is the most difficult to make and repair, but offers the benefits of a single piece of wood connecting the nut, the bridge and all of the pickups.

Works Cited

Erlewine, Dan. Guitar Player Repair Guide : How to Set up, Maintain and Repair Electrics and Acoustics. 3rd ed. New York: Backbeat Books, 2007.

Hiscock, Melvyn. Make Your Own Electric Guitar. 2nd ed. Hampshire, UK: NBS, 1998.

Koch, Martin. Building Electric Guitars : How to Make Solid-Body, Hollow-Body and Semi-Acoustic Electric Guitars and Bass Guitars. New York: Branch Line Video, 2001.

Koch, Martin. “Guitar building resources.” Guitar building books and guitar making resources. 23 Nov. 2008 <http://buildyourguitar.com/>.

“Neck Through.” Wikipedia.com. 23 Nov. 2008 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/neck-thru>.

“Will It Fit My Guitar?” Warmoth Direct. Warmoth Direct. 23 Nov. 2008 <http://www.warmoth.com/guitar/necks/necks.cfm?fuseaction=faq2>.

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