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All About Bolt-on and Set Necks

October 4, 2007
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This fictional exchange highlights a common misconception that many beginning guitarists carry with them as they enter the fray: bolt-on neck = easy and cheap. Set, or glued-in neck = difficult and expensive.

Certainly, if you’re trying to manufacture the simplest and most economical electric-guitar design that will yield a functioning instrument, it’s easier to attach a neck to a slab body with screws or bolts. The untold remainder of that truth, however, is that it’s also a lot cheaper and easier to make a functional, but mediocre set-neck guitar than it is to make a truly outstanding bolt-neck model. When done right in both instances, these neck-construction approaches offer quite different sounds, as well as different maintenance considerations.

Question: If you spend $5,000 on a bolt-neck guitar, and $5,000 on a set-neck guitar, which will be the better instrument?

Answer: It’s an invalid question. Let’s find out why.

While these two distinct design formats are used by a wide range of guitar manufacturers today, at the very midpoint of the previous century, they were distinguished as follows: Bolt-on neck guitars were made by Fender, and set-neck guitars were made by everyone else. Putting a name on “everyone else” most prominently means Gibson, Gretsch, Epiphone, and a handful of more affordable Chicago manufacturers that had entered the electric guitar business by 1950. That’s the year Leo Fender released the Broadcaster, which was not only the first mass-manufactured solidbody, but also the first with a bolt-on neck.

Very generally speaking, a set neck transfers the resonance between neck and body more freely and immediately than does a bolt-on neck. The result is usually heard as a little more warmth and fullness in the set-neck guitar, and a little more snap and twang in the bolt-on guitar.

The main reasons for these basic tonal differences are that the lesser, slower transference of acoustic energy from the non-glued neck yields a little more pop and attack from the string—in essence, it decouples the strings from the body and neck—whereas the more thorough transference of energy through the various parts of the set-neck guitar yields a thicker, juicier voice. The set neck’s tight coupling between all that resonant tonewood facilitates ripples of vibrational energy that round out, thicken, and slightly fuzz up the note, blurring it in a way that fattens the body of the note—all desirable if you’re going for a warm, resonant voice with girth and sustain.

On the other hand, the snap and pop of the bolt-on guitar emphasizes note definition, and a sharpness and firmness that contribute to a cutting tone. It’s what we often call “twang.” Although the slower transference of the bolt-neck guitar’s resonance might imply a slower response—and less detail in the tone—the opposite can often be heard. For example, while the note’s body might develop more slowly, its attack jumps out from the instrument with less of the woody decoration more immediately apparent in the classic set-neck guitar. The thickness and warmth builds just behind the initial perception of the note, by which time that sharp, twangy attack has already made its mark. Think of the classic Stratocaster neck-pickup tone. There’s thickness, warmth, and resonance around that note, but when you hit it with conviction using a medium or firm pick, there’s also plenty of snap and definition.

A lot of the efficiency—or lack of efficiency—of energy transference has to do with the quality of the neck joint on bolt-on guitars. There are makers who believe a well-executed bolt-on neck can achieve the vibrational coupling, and therefore much of the resonance, of a set neck. Among the critical elements of this type of construction are an extremely tight neck-in-pocket fit, and, very often, the exclusion of any finish in the neck pocket itself.

On the other hand, not all guitarists want their bolt-on guitars to sound like set-neck guitars, and the cut and twang introduced by that slight decoupling of neck and body—which remains inevitable when there’s no glue physically binding the two together—is a desirable and positive element for certain styles of playing. Players seeking round, fluid lead sounds; chunky, fat rhythm tones; or warm, woody jazz stylings tend to favor set-neck guitars—although there are certainly no universals of style and tone.

Just as there are differences in the virtues of the way different bolt-on neck joints are constructed, there is certainly more than just one standard of glued-neck joint design. Gibson has used a number of different types of glued-neck joints over the years. Most lauded is a mortise-and-tenon joint known as the “long-tenon,”—which was used on the early Les Pauls. This design had a long extension—or tenon—at the end of the neck that sat tightly in the long neck pocket (mortise) into which it was glued. Around the time Gibson moved general Les Paul production from Kalamazoo, Michigan, to Nashville, Tennessee, in the mid 1970s, the model’s neck joint was changed to a short-tenon design. This is also referred to as a “rocker joint,” because the underside of the tenon is carved out to allow the neck to be rocked into the pocket to set the correct angle. This also means a large portion of the underside is not glued into the body, and the neck/body joint comprises less surface area overall. While no one debates the glory of an original 1959 Les Paul—or a great Gibson Custom Shop reproduction of the same—plenty of short-tenon Les Pauls sound fantastic. Gibson uses other joints on different models, as well. For example, there’s a block joint on the toneful single-cutaway Les Paul Junior, with a block as wide as the neck itself that extends no further than the end of the fretboard. Other makers of set-neck electrics use a dovetail joint, with a neck block that fans out into a pocket with angled sides.

As with tonal comparisons between bolt-neck and set-neck guitars, comparisons between different types of set-neck joints don’t always yield a bad-better-best equation. Of course, many other constructional aspects besides neck design serve to emphasize the fat/warm, bright/snappy dichotomy of the classic Gibson versus Fender voice. The Les Paul’s mahogany body and neck with a back-angled headstock, Tune-o-matic bridge, 24e" scale length, and humbucking pickups (or even P-90s to some extent) all contribute to a round, full sound. The Strat’s ash or alder body, maple neck, string-through bridge block and floating vibrato tailpiece (or a semi-floating, steel Tele bridge plate with through-body stringing), 252" scale length, and single-coil pickups collaborate to produce a bright, cutting sound.

Tonal considerations aside, bolt-on necks—as per Leo Fender’s original intention—do offer an ease of maintenance that many players and techs enjoy. Poor neck angle? Pull the neck, slip a shim under it, and bolt it up again. Neck badly damaged in a fall? Order a new one, and slap it back on yourself. Such work still takes a little skill, but it’s infinitely easier than achieving similar adjustments or repairs with a glued-neck joint.

It all comes down to this: If you are searching for a new guitar, you still need to try as many instruments of all types in your desired price range as you can get your hands on, and let your ears and fingers make the final decision—regardless of specs and unseen “magic ingredients.” Different neck joints definitely contribute to different-sounding guitars, but the neck design you choose should depend entirely upon what is right for you and your music.

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