I previously discussed headstock designs as a major component of a guitar but ‘ignored’ the piece that attaches the headstock to the body. In this article I wish to explore necks: how they’re constructed and the various ways they connect with the body. Simply put, there are three things worth mentioning when it comes to the neck itself: How is the neck-to-body connection made? What is the construction method of the neck shaft? And how does the neck shaft transition to the headstock? The choice for any method can be inspired by tonal reasons, but costs (labor and material), tradition and nostalgia play a huge part in the final choice. Let’s work our way up from the body to the headstock in describing the various design choices.
The neck-body connection can be divided in two major styles: a mechanical bond (aka: screws) or a chemical bond (aka: glue). Some guitars are traditionally screwed, and others are glued. Having a guitar with a glued neck instead of screws is often considered a luxury, while screwed connection is considered a cheaper construction method, even though making a tight neck joint for a screwed neck is more difficult than for a glued neck. Gluing a neck makes it easier to cover up gaps, not to mention the ease of making the proper angle of the neck in relation to the body. Screwed neck designs have gotten a poor reputation over the years because its also easier, if done sloppy, which was the necessary trade-off for cheaper guitars. The more luxurious screw neck designs don’t even use screws anymore, but have threaded inserts in the heel of the neck and use bolts to bolt down the neck to the body.
Most guitars that use a glued neck (also called a set neck) have a tenon that stops near the end of the fretboard. There are more expensive guitars that use a neck that goes deeper in the body. These necks protrude as deep as the cavity of the neck pickup. This style is usually referred to as a long neck tenon. If the neck goes even deeper in the body, sometimes even as far as below the bridge, the name changes again. This style is called a deep set neck.
A luthier might choose any of these styles for economic reasons, but a good luthier will make his decision based upon the tonal needs the guitar has to fulfill. Generally speaking, a screwed neck will provide a brighter, twangier sound with the emphases on the upper mids. A glued neck generally has a warmer sound with more sustain.
Choosing a deep set neck over a regular glued joint might be spawned by the desire to differentiate. This style is considered a more difficult construction and a bit more luxurious. It also offers possibilities to carve the heel (the spot where the neck leaves the body) to a less obtrusive shape than with a regular set neck. This is because if you carve a so-called heelless joint on a set neck guitar, the neck won’t have enough grip and might give troubles over the course of its life. Presumed tonal benefits such as more sustain and better harmonics have little evidence. It is unclear whether it really is the design that is so beneficial or that the woods that are being used on these guitars make all the difference, because deep set neck designs are generally found on guitars in the higher end (which in turn use woods of a higher quality than other guitars).
If the neck is elongated even further, so much that it runs through the entire length of the body, the method is called, simply neck through. This style offers the same benefits as the deep set neck, but is substantially easier to construct. Unfortunately because this construction uses so much wood, it is deemed a luxury construction too. But because the neck is an actual part of the body, with all the hardware attached to this part of the guitar, it makes it easier to build an odd shaped guitar, such as the Rhoads V, or the BC Rich Bich.
The neck itself can be made out of a single piece of wood, with the headstock cut from the same billet, out with the headstock glued on. The later is only being done if the headstock is at an angle with the neck, as many guitars have. The shaft can also be constructed out of several pieces. These laminated necks offer incredible sustain, stability and are considered by some extremely beautiful. The downside, according to some players, is that you loose some of the liveliness, but my multi lam necked guitars lack nothing in liveliness.
The neck eventually ends in the headstock. There are two ways the headstock and neck might be connected: either there’s a break angle between the headstock and neck, or the neck and headstock are in the same plane. If there’s an angle, the headstock and neck can be made out of a single piece of wood (or the same multilaminated billet that makes up the neck shaft in a laminated design), or the headstock is being glued on the neck shaft. The reason there’s an angle is that the angle creates a downward pressure on the string towards the nut. This pressure is needed, otherwise the string will slip out of the slot in the nut! In order to have this pressure on the nut, headstocks without an angle use string trees or similar designs to push the string down.
If the headstock is being glued on, the headstock is much stronger and much less prone to breaking if the guitar happens to fall on the headstock. But because this technique can also be used as a way to save wood and thus costs, this method is sometimes considered to be cheap, compared to the headstock from a single piece of wood. This is because the forces go down the entire length of the neck and are being fully transfered at the transition between headstock and neck.
If the wood has a short grain, such as mahogany, the short grain can’t handle all the additional stress of falling. A longer grain will help a bit, and adding more wood will help even more, but using a separate piece of wood for the headstock will dissipate all the stresses better. But the best thing you can do, of course, is to take good care of your guitar and make sure it never falls!