There are two main ways in which a guitar’s neck can be attached to the body: Fixed and bolt on. Each of them affects guitar sound and playability in its own unique way, but which one should you choose?
Let’s see how the two compare in this detailed guide into the main guitar neck types (fixed vs bolt on) and styles.
The Fixed-Neck Guitar Format in Detail
You can call it set-in neck, set-neck or just fixed-neck — it doesn’t really matter. All these terms refer to the same thing; a guitar assembly method that employs standard wood joints and some sort of adhesive. Fixed-neck construction calls for the two to be manufactured separately before being prepared for assembly.
Preparation involves carving out dovetail joinery on the areas where the two will join up. Mortise-and-tenon joinery can also be used, but dovetail is more common. Either way, the joint is usually reinforced with an adhesive (hide glue, PVA or epoxy) to create a formidable bond. And it’s this tight fit that gives set-neck guitars an edge in the sound department. The tightly glued-in guitar neck does a better job of conveying energy throughout the instrument. Set necks also offer better access to top frets, like the 12th fret, compared to their bolt-on counterparts.
It goes without saying that these benefits come at a price. The wood joinery or type of neck joints requires a lot of craftsmanship, so set-necks with a truss rod are inherently difficult to manufacture. They also don’t offer any room to adjust the neck-to-body angle to suit your preferences. Only an experienced guitar luthier can help you achieve that, and that’ll cost you a pretty penny. Don’t even get started on modern guitar repairs — you might be better off replacing a broken guitar or bass guitar than have it fixed.
The Bolt-on Neck Type In Detail
The bolt on neck attachment method uses mechanical fasteners like screws and bolts to join a guitar’s neck with the main body. As with the set-in method, the guitar body and neck are crafted separately within the production line, usually from different woods. A ‘neck pocket’ is then carved out for the neck on the part of the body where the two will meet, after which they’re joined up using 3-5 screws/bolts.
As you know, a tight-fitting guitar neck is essential in ensuring the best possible tone. It’s here that bolt-on guitars suffer an Achilles’s heel; tightening the screws/bolts will inevitably exert too much stress on the wood and cause cracks. While cracks don’t affect the tone per se, they still present a weak point from a structural perspective. They could even spread to the main body if the stress isn’t distributed evenly across the joint.
To solve the problem, manufacturers or even builders often employ a metallic plate to help with pressure distribution. This improves the integrity of the joint somehow, but a slight gap still remains between the neck and body, slowing the sustain compared to a set-neck. Also, the plate has a tendency to get in the way when you want to access the top frets. Most guitars have their plates beveled along the edges to avoid that.
At this point, it’s clear why popular opinion suggests that a bolt-on neck is an inherently-bad idea. That, of course, isn’t the case — the design has its fair share of weaknesses, but it can still yield an awesome guitar. A few manufacturers have proved that it’s possible to overcome the challenge posed by the guitar neck-body joinery. And because the format doesn’t require as much craftsmanship, it allows for quicker, cheaper production. Bolt-on construction also allows you to vary the neck-body angle as you see fit. You could even swap out the neck if there’s need; this can prove helpful if your guitar breaks.
So, Fixed Neck or Bolt-On?
There used to be a time when you could just pick up an guitar and enjoy playing it without caring too much for its construction. But that gradually changed as you learned more about the instrument. And now you want to be able to pick between the two designs with confidence. Let’s compare them in various respects while dispelling a few myths in the process:
- Price: We’ve just highlighted that bolt-on construction isn’t as demanding as the fixed-neck format. The method allows manufacturers to mass-produce guitars at lower per-unit costs, and the savings eventually trickle down to the consumer. However, you will also find bolt-on models retailing in the 4-figure range, and fixed necks priced in the lower hundreds. So it’s not always true that bolt-on guitars are cheaper than set neck guitars.
- Tone: It’s true that fixed-necks have the upper hand in sound quality, but a few manufacturers have proved that a bolt-on coupling can be just as effective if properly built. Not to mention that there are other elements that affect tone besides neck design. In essence, it’s the mediocre entry-level models that give bolt-on guitars a bad rap.
- Style: Now this is where the lines get really blurred. Fixed-neck has been the method of choice for traditional acoustic guitar, but a few manufacturers have adopted bolt-on construction for their models. Likewise, you will find set-neck electrics and acoustic flattops, a couple of segments where bolt-on dominates.
All in all, it behooves you to try out as many instruments as you can when shopping for a new guitar. Don’t fall for the notion that a particular neck design is better than the other. Each kind of joint will contribute differently in terms of handling and guitar sound quality, but both can be highly effective if done right.