In last month’s Frets feature, we addressed the basics of ordering a custom acoustic guitar. With that knowledge in hand, we’re primed to go down the rabbit hole this month and explore the finer details of the process for those acoustic zealots who seek to build a singular instrument. A modern custom shop’s order sheet offers oodles of options, and to help you make the right choices, we’re going to discuss the issues that matter most, such as getting a great-feeling neck that will help you play your best and keep your hands healthy over the long haul. Once again, our guide is Santa Cruz Guitar Company founder Richard Hoover, whose four-plus decades of custom acoustic guitar building gives him a crucial understanding of what you need to communicate to a builder, and what a good luthier can extrapolate from the information you provide.
“For the player, the ordering process is analogous to a restaurant menu,” Hoover says. “There’s the description of the dish, and then behind it is all the nutritional information, the places where the food came from and so on. Most people don’t need all that, but it’s available if they want it. At the very least, you want enough information about what’s on the menu to pick something you’re going to like.”
Having previously discussed the primary elements of custom guitar building and body sizes and styles, we’re ready for a deep dive into neck specifications, terminology and some common pitfalls to avoid when ordering a custom acoustic. We’ll also pick up a bit of history behind the acoustic’s evolution. (Our previous issue contained discussion of tonewoods, and if you head to page 86, we dig into the tonal characteristics of the various woods used for tops, backs and sides.)
What’s first thing to consider about neck customization?
Familiarity. If the neck you’re used to playing feels natural and comfortable, why risk going astray from that, unless you’re having problems such as pain or fatigue? If so, let’s take a look and consider: Is the neck too hard to reach around? Are the strings too far apart, or too close together?
What’s the most common misconception?
That narrow string spacing is better for smaller hands. That’s the phenomenon, and I’ll give you an anecdote: A lady was advised that since her fingers were short, she should have narrow string spacing, so she had such a guitar made. But when she played it, her hand would become fatigued, and she wondered, Why is this contrary to what people are telling me?
How can players avoid making a similar mistake?
Put your hand on the neck of your guitar and lay your fingers naturally into an easy major chord, such as C. Do you feel any pinch points, or is your hand nice and relaxed? If your hand falls down freely and you’re not feeling pinch points in your carpal tunnel, that’s a good shape for you, and you can play it without fatigue. But on a narrow neck, sometimes you’ll actually feel where you’re having to compromise and pinch to make a chord, and that’s where you’ll be fatigued. I like to use Muriel Anderson as an example. She plays the heck out of a classical-width neck, and she doesn’t have long fingers, so that’s not the real criteria. The real criteria is feel. If there’s an issue, let’s look at how you’re holding the neck to see if an accommodation can be built in. Far be it for the builder to tell somebody to change his or her playing style. A custom guitar should have string spacing that’s most natural for the player in order to give them pleasure and a long life of playing.
What are some common nut-width specs players should understand when considering string spacing?
Dreadnoughts are usually 1 11/16 inches, OMs go up a bit to 1 3/4 inches, and then fingerstyle guitars can go to 1 7/8 inches or even wider. We can use Martin guitars to track the history and development of nut width. Vintage Martin dreadnoughts were traditionally 1 11/16 inches, and Martin didn’t make OMs for many years, so that wasn’t relevant. But as players got more into fingerstyle, 1 3/4 inches and wider became more popular as it actually offers more facility. Your fingers don’t cramp up as much.
So fingerstyle players should go for wider string spacing?
That’s a pretty big generalization, but yes. Sometimes you can play faster with a bit more room, because we’re not talking about electric guitar, we’re talking acoustic.
How about neck thickness?
For years the trend was toward a skinnier neck. In fact, some companies touted that. The problem is, it’s not ergonomic. As players aged, they were having more and more problems compared to playing a more substantial neck, which didn’t pinch their hands as much. If you don’t have enough support material, your hand will cramp and eventually, this will lead to injury. If there is enough neck material to let your hand fall into a more natural position, it’ll automatically let you play well. So skinnier is not advantageous. It doesn’t make you play faster. It is initially gratifying, but in the long run it’s problematic.
What’s the deal with the terms and letters used in the descriptions of neck shapes?
Describing shapes is a funny business, but once again, it boils down to feel and familiarity. If you love the Gibson guitar you’ve been playing for years, a rounded neck shape, such as a D or a C, feels good to you. If you’re used to a Martin of a certain era, be it a vintage Martin, one from the ’60s or up to the present, you’re going to gravitate to necks with that feel. They’ve certainly changed a lot over time. The vintage Martin goes into a pretty severe V, as do a lot of very old guitars, and that was functionally great for playing in a classical position. Classical players put their thumb on the back of the neck so they can fan their fingers like a violin player, as opposed to clutching the neck with the thumb wrapped around it the way a folk player would play a cowboy chord. When you try to grab a vintage V-shaped neck that way, there’s less material, and you end up pinching. So if it’s not played properly, that neck is really dangerous for repetitive stress. A more rounded neck gives you more to hold onto. There’s not one neck shape that’s faster or sexier. It’s a personal preference.
How does radius factor into the neck equation?
Let’s start by considering the classical guitar, which doesn’t have a fingerboard radius. It’s flat. There’s a lot of stuff about the classical tradition that’s beyond me, including why they continue to make flat fingerboards, but that’s the tradition. Of course, things change and transmogrify. I used to be able to say that classical players didn’t bend notes or use capos; you learned how to do whatever you wanted without the aid of those things, and the flat fingerboard lent itself to that style. The radius fingerboard makes it a whole lot easier to barre chords and bend notes. A neck with a 14-inch radius is a happy medium that pleases most of the people most of the time. If the radius gets much higher, the neck will be pretty flat, and if it goes much lower, we enter the range of electric guitars. Again, you have to be careful. The more severe the radius, the more likely you’re going to have issues with repetitive stress.
What type of player should consider the short-scale option?
The reason someone should request a short scale is that it puts the frets closer together, so there’s less stretching of the fingers to play certain chords and scales, and less tension to bring the strings up to pitch, so it’s generally easier to play.
What are the crucial sonic differences in headstock options when considering a slotted peg head versus one that is solid?
A slotted peg head has less mass and delivers a more open, airy sound compared to the clearer projection of a solid headstock. However, we can negate that. It has to do with weight in the neck. Let’s say somebody wants a slotted peg because it’s retro and cool, but they don’t want an open, airy sound. Builders can make up for that loss of material in the slots by using a denser piece of wood for the neck, which is usually mahogany. We simply need to know that ahead of time. Then the headstock style is merely a cosmetic choice.
The tops on most acoustics have a natural look. Those that don’t tend to pay a sonic price and often look, well, cheap. Can you share a few thoughts on cosmetics, like colorization and finish?
If you add extra lacquer to get a cosmetic effect, it’s going to dampen the guitar’s resonance. It’s also an added process, so there’s an additional manufacturing cost. A clear finish can look expensive and elegant or gaudy, depending how thick it is and the optical quality. It’s the same with a shading or a sunburst: If done unartistically, it looks awful; if done artistically, it can look elegant.
The best way to do a sunburst or a color or finish isn’t to add more lacquer; it’s a process of shading some of the layers accordingly to provide depth. The transition is gradual, not abrupt, and it doesn’t change the sound of the guitar. But that’s the expensive way to do it. If you’re building guitars for a price target in a factory, there are much quicker ways, such as adding lacquer, but they don’t look so elegant, and it’s not promoted so much because it’s hard to do no matter what. It’s not a decal; it’s an operator applying the lacquer. And if they don’t do it in an artistic composition, it looks really crummy.
Once a player has had their custom-made instrument in hand for a while, is there a common comment along the lines of, “I wish I would have thought to do this or that”?
Actually, the most common comment is, “I didn’t realize what I was missing. I’m playing higher up the neck, because now there’s substance there. I’m writing songs that I couldn’t have before because there’s simply so much more to this instrument and its sound that I’ve never heard before. I’m inspired to do new stuff!”