Does the whole neck joint debate hold any weight?
When it comes to selecting a guitar, there’s the standard checklist we all have:
- Body (Shape, fit and feel, weight)
- Neck (Playing feel, scale length, gloss vs satin finish)
- Pickups (Active vs Passive, switching capabilities, push/pull pots, coil-split vs coil-tap)
- Paint job or finish
- Does it go well with my other gear? (does it go well with my shoes…)
- Do I really need another guitar (yes, always)
*All of the points on this list are interchangeable
**This list is not exhaustive
But where does neck joint come into play? Does it make a difference? Is it like the whole electric guitar tonewood debate? (I know right, sometimes I just like to watch the world burn)
Seriously though, I know people that won’t go near a guitar with a bolt-on due to alleged downsides, and there are plenty who haven’t a clue about the differences between a set-in, set-thru, and neck-thru. So, let’s try and clear some stuff up.
What is the neck joint’s purpose?
Put in the most basic terms, the neck joint is the connection between the neck and the body. Without it, you’d be holding two pieces of (most likely) wood in each hand and looking at a more percussive instrument than anything else.
Beyond the mere physical connection there are many other factors going on such as transient transference between the neck wood and vibrating strings to the body and pickups. Anything and everything from low to high frequencies including fundamentals and harmonics, can either be retained and passed on or dropped and forgotten. Sustain can also be significantly affected by the type of neck joint employed, with bolt-ons wavering compared to the more pronounced neck-thru.
Set-in neck joints
Starting with set-in neck joints, this is a design that luthiers borrow from traditional violin craftsmanship. The neck and body marry together via – most commonly – mortise and tenon or dovetail joints, with reinforcement coming from glue. The flush, tight connection promotes a steadfast hold for superb resonant transfer. Commonly seen on acoustic guitars, e.g. Martin, and still employed to this day in the construction of Gibson Les Pauls with a mortise and tenon joint reinforced using Franklin Titebond adhesive or hot hide glue. The set-in neck design has also been adopted by many other manufacturers including ESP and PRS.
A variation on the set-in design is the set-thru neck design by McNaught guitars, which creates a thicker neck butt for improved tonal transfer.
Advantages of the set-in neck joint
Sustain and tonal transfer is said to be warmer and well-rounded, which is great for those who want a roaring low to midrange grunt (we’re looking at the metallers here). Pair this setup with some pickups for a beefy output and you can palm-mute your way to main stage glory in no time.
In many cases the shallower neck heel results in a shallower body depth, which makes it a more comfortable prospect for some players. Due to the lack of bolts the guitar can feel lighter, but this is very much dependent on other factors such as the density of wood used in the construction of the body and neck.
Disadvantages of the set-in neck joint
If you snap a set-in or set-thru neck, then you’re snookered. You’ve got the option of a nigh-on impossible and undoubtedly costly repair and/or replacement to salvage your instrument. Chances are you’ll be saying bye-bye to your beloved axe, so do yourself a favour and don’t try to re-enact that ‘spinning the guitar round your head’ effort that we’ve seen so many fail to pull off. I don’t care if you’ve got straplocks on, just say no.
So, if the set-in design extends the neck into the body via a flush joint, the neck-thru design takes things even further. You could best describe it as a neck with a pair of wings fitted on either side to create body shape. Rather the residing on the body, the bridge, string, nut, and tuners all make their home on the neck. By having a long continuous length of wood(s) to resonate along, the strings can resonate to their fullest potential for enduring sustain. I say woods as many neck-thrus are made of several laminated woods – in some cases reinforced – to uphold structural integrity and prevent warping or twisting over time.
Most notable examples of models that feature neck-thru construction are Gibson and Epiphone’s Firebird and Thunderbird, but many manufacturers such as BC Rich, Parker Guitars, Rickenbacker, Warwick, and Yamaha embrace the design in their high-end and custom shop guitars and basses.
Advantages of the neck-thru joint
A hearty tonal offering delivered with gusto met with thunderous mid to low-end energy, yet also courting an aggressive attack. It’s no wonder why so many metallers and rockers turn to the likes of the Firebird and Thunderbird to deliver their ferocious sonic assaults (also see the RGRT models above).
Disadvantages of the neck-thru joint
As far as construction goes, neck-thrus require significant effort and precision to ensure that everything fit just so. The high degree of expertise and additional construction time nudges up production costs, making it a somewhat unaffordable proposition for some. Also, as with the set-in neck, if you drop this and the neck goes crack, it is game over my friend. You’ll be up that proverbial creek with nowt but a broken dream as a paddle, assuming you’ve chucked the guitar into said creek.
Bolt-on neck joints
When Leo Fender came onto the scene, bolt-on joints proliferated throughout the guitar manufacturing world. Though there are many variations on the theme nowadays, the original sentiment still applies. At the intersection between neck and body, ensure that the two pieces fit as smoothly as possible, screw in some bolts – job done. Owing to the easier construction process many manufacturers of affordable models choose to adopt the bolt-on method.
However, it is far from an inferior option. For example, the Ibanez utilise it across many of their RG and S Series guitars, their AZ Series, and even the signature models of Nita Strauss and Tom Quayle. If you’re about to sit there and tell me they’re in any way inferior, then I’m not having it. I’m taking my ball and going home.
Advantages of the bolt-on joint
As noted above, the cost of construction can be less expensive and translate into a more affordable model, but that’s not always the case (I refer you to many a signature model).
One tonal distinction bolt-on has over set-in and neck-thru is the tendency toward a pronounced spank. A deliberate drop in mid to low-end resonance ensures that the brighter character shines through, giving rise to the classic “twang” in the case of the Telecaster.
A massive bonus on the side of bolt-on is that should you break the neck at any point from joint to headstock, simply undo those bolts, fit a new one, re-string and carry on. Whether you play in your pants at home or to adoring fans on stage (in pants or otherwise), we all appreciate the ease of repair and replacement.
Disadvantages of the bolt-on joint
Loss of mid to low-end frequency and potential drop in sustain can put a dampener on things for those who are seeking a roaring mass of tone at high volume.
The perception of a less “luxurious” construction method compared to those of set-in/set-thru/neck-thru options can give rise to the idea that it is somehow inferior (again, see many a signature model and tell me that’s the case).
Decisions, decisions, decisions
When it comes down to it, it really is all about personal preference. I’ve played everything from a bog-standard Tele-rip-off to a guitar that had no right being in my hands, and it all boils down to what feels and sounds good to you. The distinction between them all is much of a muchness when you consider the differences with regard to pickup selection, effects, amp models, etc.
However, there are some things that are intangible like those personal preferences that we all have. When it comes to kicking back and practising or noodling away at home, I always reach for a heavily dinged Squier Strat that is years old but plays like a dream.
But, if I am stepping into a practise setting with a band or playing on stage, I will opt for another model that I have with a set-in neck. Although both guitars feel just as good in my hands, I feel more at ease with the LTD on stage and in its ability to hold up throughout the gig. Sure, that could be down to its component parts like the tuning machines, bridge, setup, etc., but the set-in neck plays a part in it. That being said I wouldn’t complain if I had a Tom Quayle signature model in my hands (or his skills).
Go with what feels right to you and don’t let the neck joint alone dictate what you go for. Maybe add it to that ever-growing list instead.
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Jon is a multi-instrumentalist with a passion for inspiring others to get involved in making music. After spending many years playing venues here, there and – pretty much – everywhere, he joined the Dawsons’ Music Web Team before progressing into his current role managing the Dawsons Blog.