What's the Big Deal About Big Necks

June 27, 2014

If you want maximum tone out of an electric guitar, you have to have a big neck on it, right? That’s certainly what a lot of guitarists believe, and there would seem to be some logic to the premise that more wood means more resonance and better tone.

As with so many fine points of guitar construction, however, there is likely to be a lot more to it than that simple layman’s equation. So let’s canvass the opinions of a couple of the world’s best-respected guitar makers to hear what the have to say on the subject.

Scott Lentz, a luthier based in Southern California, has long used bigger-than-average necks on his highly respected S- and T-inspired bolt-necks, and on many of his original designs, too. Ask him why, though, and the reasons behind this build choice might almost be too instinctive to quantify.

“The big neck has a certain vibe to it when it fills your hand like it does,” says Lentz. “Does it make a guitar sound better? That’s for the people who buy the guitars to decide. A lot of people say big necks sound more ‘woody,’ but, from my perspective, I make a traditional guitar, and as they used big necks back in the day, that’s my style of building.”

Lentz’s perspective on the issue raises another interesting point: How can you separate sound from feel in a creation that makes its impression upon a player through a mystical intertwining of the two? Perhaps, ultimately, you can’t, but other more tone-focused assessments are still worth exploring.

“It is not a myth that neck size has an impact on tone,” remarks Gil Yaron, a guitar maker based in Israel. “A big neck is really a big part of the tone, harmonics, and behavior of the guitar. It’s not the shape or the depth— it’s the neck mass, and, usually, bigger necks have more material.”

Of course, it’s all far more complicated than that. Yaron elaborates that other factors include the strings’ anchors—the bridge, nut, headstock, and tuners, as well as the frets and fretboard as soon as you fret a string—and the wood mass into which those anchors are set. Sturdier anchors with great mass that don’t absorb much string vibration produce a stronger fundamental in the note. Lighter anchors, and a lot of string vibration passing into and through the wood, result in a higher proportion of harmonic overtones in the note.

“The bigger neck will give us a stronger anchor on the neck side, so this will help getting better string separation with a more defined center frequency,” says Yaron. “But the weakest point will determine the fundamental, so there’s no point in building a big, heavy body with a light wood for the neck. You will get a fluffy tone without good string separation. The relationship between the body and the neck needs to work in a way that they sing together. The string will not produce something that the body doesn’t have, and the body will not produce something that the neck doesn’t have. They need to have something in common.”

Harmonic overtones, on the other hand, are a big part of any guitar tone, and, without them, you’ve got a pure fundamental that sounds more like a tuning fork or a test frequency than an electric guitar.

“You can go too far the other way,” warns Yaron. “Construct a big neck and big body from heavy material, and your fundamental will be too big, and there will be no harmonics to add complexity.”

Ultimately, there’s a fine line between that balance of fundamental to harmonics, and going too far in either direction yields less-than-optimum results. In the hands of a skilled and experienced guitar maker, a big neck can undoubtedly be part of a formula for achieving big, multi-dimensional tone—as well as a great playing feel—but as a Band-Aid for a design that lacks integrity in other departments, a big neck is definitely no cure all.

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