There are plenty of myths out there about scalloped fretboards. You know the rumors: They help you play fast. Or conversely, they slow you down. Or they can make you play out of tune. Or they’re hard to play. What’s the truth? And what on earth are they for?
A scalloped fretboard is one on which the wood is filed down between the frets. When viewed side-on it looks like the area has been scooped out. This effectively increases the height of each fret and removes the playing surface so that the player is virtually ‘playing the frets’ instead of the fretboard itself.
The scalloped fretboard stretches back beyond the history of the guitar, to instruments such as the lute. The first modern day guitarist to popularise the effect was Richie Blackmore (Deep Purple, Rainbow, Blackmore’s Night), and soon Yngwie Malmsteen followed suit. Both of these players are known for their classically-influenced rock virtuosity, but you don’t have to be a shredder to appreciate a scalloped fretboard. But you do have to have good ears, because it’s easier to squeeze a note out of tune if you’re not careful.
The main advantage of a scalloped fretboard is that it allows you to really grab onto each note. Does this make it easier to play fast? Nope! It can actually slow you down if you’re not used to it. And it can very quickly alert you if your callouses aren’t quite tough enough! But it also enhances the clarity and articulation of each note. This is why shredders sometimes prefer scalloped fretboards: because it shows off the work they’ve put into developing their technique, and the effort they’ve put into sculpting their tone. It’s no mistake that players who like scalloped fretboards tend to favor pickups which clearly translate the player’s articulation. Yngwie’s signature Fender Stratocaster (with Seymour Duncan YJM Fury pickups) has a fully scalloped fretboard, while the Richie Blackmore model with Quarter Pound Flat SSL-4 single coils features a graduated scallop which becomes deeper towards the higher frets. And the ESP Horizon FR-27 features 27 frets, with scalloping from the 12th to 27th frets to allow more soloing finesse while the 1st-11th fret positions remain unscalloped for easier chording. This guitar has a Custom 5 in the bridge position and a slanted Hot Rails in the neck.
So is a scalloped fretboard for you? That depends, but it’s certainly not just for those with Yngwie-like levels of virtuoso neoclassical technique. Blues and country players often feel right at home with scalloped fretboards because the feel is more consistent with the tall thin frets often found on the guitars used by such players. And indie guitarists might find a new level of note separation and clarity for lush middle-of-the-fretboard chords when playing a scalloped-fretboard guitar. As with most guitar mods, tweaks or design quirks, it’s hard to tell if you’ll like it until you try it!