Unleashing The Mysteries Of A Scalloped Fingerboard
Over the years there have been many modifications to the electric and acoustic guitar. One of the more radical ones is the use of a scalloped fingerboard. This is an irreversible modification that ‘scoops out’ the wood between the frets. This article will explain exactly why someone might do this, the benefits and drawbacks of scalloping and why this became popular in electric guitar playing.
The idea of having little or no wood between the frets of a fretted instrument isn’t new in music. The South Indian veena (or vina) has been built this way long before Yngwie travelled beyond the sun. The Indian sitar (which came many years after the veena) has raised, curved frets with strings running above and below these frets. In many traditional Asian and Indian music forms, notes are bent by pushing straight down into the neck, rather than bent side to side as on a traditional guitar. This facilitates very wild bending that you hear in this music. However, this music is based in single notes played over sustained drones, and traditional Western harmony (music based on diatonic chords) is not used.
In Europe, early lutes were built with scalloped fretboards, probably as influence from the Eastern instruments. Traditional lute music, however, rarely took influence from the East, as wild bending techniques were not used. This suggests that the scalloping was merely ornamental, rather than something used to achieve a certain sound.
OK, not that far back. What about electric guitar?
The first electric guitarist to use a scalloped fretboard on a popular recording is someone Jeff Beck called ‘the best guitarist alive’: John Mclaughlin. John used a scalloped fretboard on his groundbreaking albums with the fusion band Mahavishnu Orchestra (a Gibson ES-345) as well as his Indian-influenced band Shakti (an Abe Wechter-built 13 string built from a Gibson J-200). Mclaughlin used the scalloped fretboard for those unique Eastern bends straight down towards the fingerboard wood.
The next big player who used one was the great Ritchie Blackmore, from Deep Purple and later, Rainbow. Ritchie, who knew Mclaughlin, was influenced by the lute music of the British Isles. His exciting style used mostly single notes played very fast, mixed in with wild bluesy bends. His scallops were a little different as they were deeper towards the next higher fret and virtually nonexistent under the larger strings. These asymmetrical scallops helped Ritchie achieve his big bends and wild cello-like vibrato.
Yngwie Malmsteen is the one many guitarists today associate with a scalloped fretboard. His playing was influenced by Baroque violin and cello playing, and helps him obtain a similar vibrato. Being a big fan of Ritchie Blackmore helped too.
Why would anyone choose to play such a thing?
On a traditional guitar, you press the string down right behind the fret, and you feel the wood underneath your finger. The sounding length of the string is between the top of the fret and the bridge. On a scalloped fingerboard, you do press until the string contacts the top of the fret and no more. You don’t feel wood under your finger, and if you pressed any more, the note would go sharp. As a result, it requires a light touch. With less effort on the fretting hand, your arm can be more relaxed, and it causes less pain. Traditional bends are especially easy, as the strings glide along the tops of the frets easier, and your fingers don’t drag along the fingerboard. You can position your finger so you can get a little under the string as well. Vibrato is enhanced the same way- the string glides along the tops of the frets and your finger doesn’t drag along the wood. Bends can happen straight down too, although that is a little more difficult as the tension of the strings causes them to dig into the fingers. It is easy to add vibrato to entire chords this way, which is a neat effect.
Some guitars are offered with just the last few frets scalloped, for ease of bending- especially if the guitar has 24 frets.
All this sounds great, but what are the drawbacks?
The first drawback is that it is an irreversible modification. Modern luthiers scallop a fingerboard by using round or conical files between the frets. Go too deep and you will see the side position markers. You might go through the fingerboard into the neck, or worse, hit the truss rod. People inexperienced with files can chip or gouge the frets too.
Maple fingerboards have to be refinished afterwards, and if the fingerboard is an exotic wood, realize that scalloping will eat most of that away.
It isn’t something to do on an investment-quality instrument unless you never intend to sell it and make your money back.
The good news is that there are good luthiers out there who do scalloping so you don’t have to. Warmoth Guitar & Bass Parts sells necks that are pre-scalloped and finished for the most popular guitar styles. Fender’s Ritchie Blackmore Signature Stratocaster features scallops as well as two Seymour Duncan Quarter Pound Flats. Yngwie’s signature Fender guitar features deep scallops and three Seymour Duncan YJM Fury pickups.
Playing-wise, there is a lot to consider as well. You must either must have or develop a very light touch with the fretting hand, otherwise it can easily sound like every note is out of tune. Chords are especially problematic, and if it is difficult to keep one note in tune, simple open chords can become a nightmare as the fretted notes can easily pushed too hard, sounding sharp against the open strings. A scalloped fingerboard feels completely different, as differences in neck radius have less of an impact, and a part of the neck is simply gone.
Isn’t just having tall frets the same thing?
In my opinion, it doesn’t feel the same at all. It feels like tall frets, not like a scalloped fingerboard. Tall frets also wear over time, so the differences become greater as time goes on. Personally, I find it much harder to adjust to tall frets than a scalloped board. You get the ease of bending of a scalloped board, but you can’t bend notes by pressing down very far, and bending individual notes in chords (a very cool effect) doesn’t work at all.
My journey with a scalloped fingerboard
I was always a Blackmore and Mclaughlin fan, and got into Yngwie later. I loved their wild bends and vibrato, and one thing they had in common was the scalloped board. I tried the first version of the Yngwie Strat in the early 90s, and from that time, I vowed I would own a guitar with a scalloped board one day.
I bought a Music Man Silhouette Special in the early 2000s with the intent of having the fingerboard scalloped. Not trusting my skills, I sent it to a luthier who had done it many times. This is, and has been, my favorite and main guitar for many years. It is also the only one I had scalloped (so far). I have always had a light touch with both hands, letting the pickups and amp work harder than I do. The scallops suit my playing style very well, and when I play this guitar, my left hand is certainly more relaxed. I have noticed this carrying over to my other guitars too- it helped a lot with the tension I hold in the left hand. Now, I only press down (on any guitar) just enough for the strings to contact the top of the frets and no more. This relaxation has allowed longer playing times, and dare I say it, a bit of a speed increase without all of that energy expended.