Many great musicians have made their way into the guitar history books by spending hundreds of thousands of hours making the neck and fret-board their best friend. Though this article’s perspective is not a lesson on using the neck and fingering the acoustic or electric guitar, it is an introduction to its construction and appreciation of simplicity.
Whether you are learning about guitars as a beginner, looking for the best beginner acoustic guitar to review, or are a more advanced player and enthusiast, learning more about the anatomy of the acoustic guitar can certainly bring more appreciation for this instrument.
It’s this amazing connection between the simplicity of design and the complexity of seemingly endless combinations of chording and fingering patterns which makes this part of the acoustic guitar such a marvel in the instrument world.
Starting at the top, near the headstock, you will not that on virtually all guitars, the neck and the headstock are made from one continuous piece of wood. Whether it is made from mahogany, maple, sapele, or some other kind of solid, straight grained wood, the precept in guitar necks wood stock is in choosing a wood that is strong, solid, and fairly straight-grained (longitudinally) for the longevity of the guitar.
On the border – the nut between the head and neck
At the head/ neck intersection you will always find what is called the “nut”. A funny and peculiar name for a piece of guitar anatomy, the nut has a pretty important job. First, it should be made of a material that does not absorb much vibration from the strings (in order not to deaden the vibrations). Hard materials such as ivory, bone, and now synthetic materials and hard polymers are used to craft the nut of the acoustic guitar (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guitar#Nut ).
One of the most popular materials now used in many top end guitars is called TUSQ. Being that ivory harvesting is illegal, and that natural bone can be out-performed by man-made polymers, manufacturers of TUSQ and other similar products have produced quite extensively for both low and high end guitars worldwide.
The nut is also important in that it sets the height of the guitar strings from the fingerboard, also known as the “set” of the strings. Additionally, the strings are spaced in correct intervals and held in place via slots that are cut through the nut at the correct depths, widths, and intervals. This is very important for consistent feel and playability of the guitar.
Getting just the right “set”
In most guitars, underneath the fret-board is a truss rod. This truss-rod is hidden under the fingerboard or fret-board and is essential in setting the relief of the guitar neck. The relief is a measure of the longitudinal curvature of the guitar neck and can affect the projection, playability and intonation of the guitar quite significantly. If the relief is set too high, the guitar will not play in tune when chorded, and strings will have a tendency to sound too sharp when moving up the neck while playing.
Additionally, the playability will be poor as pressing the strings will be quite difficult and hard on the fingers. However, if the relief is not set high enough, strings will mute, buzz and will not have enough clearance from the fret-board and fret bars when a player really digs in and jams on the strings.
The best string height is one in which the distance is just high enough to allow for strong strumming without causing the strings to be too high, causing intonation and playability issues. The truss rod can be adjusted at 1 end with a special wrench, usually an allen type wrench. Sometimes this is adjustable through the sound-hole of the body, or by removing a covering plate on the headstock.
The fretboard – where the magic happens
Glued on top of the neck stock is the fretboard, usually made of Rosewood, Ebony, Maple, some other solid wood or composite. The fretboard is divided by mathematical intervals called “frets”. When you read about different scale lengths, they will often refer to the scale length of the guitar fretboard. The frets refer to the wooden sections of the fretboard, divided by the fret bars (which are made from fret wire).
If you look at any guitar neck, whether it be an acoustic guitar or electric guitar, the frets will decrease in length as you move closer to the body of the guitar. This mathematical progression is true and allows the strings to vibrate at particular frequencies known as pitches. Each fret represents ½ step or pitch on a chromatic scale (if you have learned anything about music theory). In other words, if one is chording a “C” note, the next fret up (toward the body) would be a C# (C sharp), and the subsequent fret would be a “D”, making it relatively easy to learn the guitar notes on a string-by-string basis.
The fretboard usually has a very slight curvature from side to side, known as it’s radius. Additionally, the back of the neck usually has a different kind of curvature depending on the style, model, and guitar maker. In many classical models, the radius is flat. More modern guitars are usually standard about a 12 inch radius, whereas older models had a smaller radius equating to more noticeable curvature. Playability can be enhanced if one chooses the kind of radius and curvature that fits his or her hand and playing style best, and the only way to truly discover the best fit would be b y personal touch, review, playing and experience.
While the neck is an amazing and simple component of the acoustic guitar, the complexities of notes, songs, riffs, and compositions are virtually endless. Listening to a novice acoustic player versus a virtuoso like Phil Keaggy, one cannot help but realize that the possibilities are endless and magnificent, but dependent upon the skill, effort and persistence of the individual guitarist.