Buying Your First Electric Guitar – Necks & Tremolos on a Strat Style Guitar

Hello again. So you’ve picked your guitar based on your favourite colour (as I’ve said previously it doesn’t affect how it plays but it has to look cool!) and it feels good – comfortable to hold and a nice weight (not too heavy). You and your guitar playing buddy have done all the previous checks I’ve suggested so now it time to look at the neck, fingerboard and frets.

Well you have checked that the neck is essentially straight (with just a small under bow – called the neck relief) so now it’s time to take a closer look at the neck. Most manufacturers use maple as the wood of choice for their necks on Strat styled guitars and profile their neck shapes to be a medium depth “C” shape as this is considered by most folks to be a comfortable and manageable shape. Other shapes can be found such as “V” shapes, shinny “C” shapes – all sorts in fact so check out a range and see what you like. Experience has taught me that whilst a “skinny” neck might initially appear the right choice a slightly thicker neck is often more comfortable  over extended playing times but again I stress that the neck has to feel right for you – let it “speak to you!”

Now the next choice is fingerboard material. The two common options are rosewood (dark coloured wood)or maple (light coloured). A rosewood fingerboard is glued on to the underlying maple of the neck. With a maple fingerboard is can be a separate glued on fingerboard or it can be part of the neck (a so called “one piece” neck). Apart from how they look does the fingerboard wood make any difference to the sound? Well common belief says is that it does. From my own experiences, particularly playing live and at a reasonable volume, rosewood necks tend to sound a bit warmer with more mid range. Maple necks have a little more brightness and “snap” – it can be quite subtle but these are the general rules. That said I saw in a video put out by Fender that pointed out that if the rosewood is actually very thin (more like a veneer) and the fret goes right the way through to maple underneath then the sound will be more “maple like”. The earlier Fenders (and a number of the re-issues) have what is called a slab rosewood fingerboard which is quite thick and the fret never gets to touch the underlying maple of the actual neck. These necks to my ears sound warmer when compared to a one piece maple neck viagra efficace. You can spot a slab board by looking at the area just above the nut – if the rosewood curves away in a “hump” then it’s a slab board. So which is best? Over the life of a guitar rosewood fingerboards are easier to maintain (you simply rub in some lemon oil from time to time) and they don’t show fingernail marks as much but once again I come back to the point that it’s all about how the guitar sounds and looks like to you.

Another point to consider is the fingerboard radius. What’s that? Well it’s how curved the fingerboard is. Classical guitars have a virtually flat fingerboard whilst Fenders from the 1950’s and 1960’s had a curved fingerboard with a radius of 7.25″. The general rule is, the lower the radius number the more curved is the fingerboard. Typical ranges are from 7.25″ to around 14″ – with the 14″ radius fingerboard feeling very much flatter than the 7.25″. Which is best? It all depends on what style you play really – a curved 7.25″ radius is very comfortable for playing barre chords and a flatter radius is easier to string bend on (and to get a lower action – the distance between the bottom of the string and the fret that determines the ease of fretting). A good compromise is a radius of between 9.5″ and 12″. Now you know what I’m going to say – try out a number of different necks and see what feels right for you.

Moving on to frets – most “traditional” style necks have 21 small to medium height frets. Most “modern” Strat style necks have 22 medium height frets (very occasionally a “super Strat” may have 24 frets).  Is the fret height important? Well with a smaller fret (say 0.025″ to 0.030″ tall) the action will feel lower – as the string is closer to the fingerboard (this of course is not the “true” action as that’s the height of the string from the fret). The net effect is that it feels easier to hold down chords. The downside is that it can be more difficult to bend strings.  A high fret height could be around 0.050″ and at this height string bending is a lot easier (simply because your fingers have less contact. and therefore less drag, with the actual wood of the fingerboard). Of course the ease of string bending is also affected by string gauge – the thinner the string the less tension is needed to bring it up to pitch so the easier it is to bend. One down side of high frets is that beginners often squeeze hard on the string to fret it and tend to pull the note sharp – making chords sound out of tune. On entry level guitars manufacturers generally offer necks and frets that are a good practical compromise and feel fine to most people so again it’s down to what suits you.

I just mentioned string gauge – what’s the best string gauge to use? Well there’s no right or wrong answer but here are a few things to consider. The traditional scale length on a Strat style guitar is 25.5″ and the laws of physics tell us that the longer the scale length the more tension is required to bring a given string gauge up to pitch. So a set of 10 to 46 gauge strings will feel “tighter” on a 25.5″ scale length than on a shorter scale length (say around 24.75″ as found on many Gibson style guitars). As a teacher my philosophy is simple – anything that makes playing the guitar easier for a beginner has to be a good thing so I would say fit 9 – 42 gauge strings initially on a Strat style guitar. Now as your hands get stronger at some point in the future you may want to switch over to 10 – 46 gauge strings (generally taken to be the “standard” gauge – if there is such a thing!) as thicker strings give a “thicker” the tone but it’s all about personal choice.

Moving on to the Tremolo – this is a great device on a Strat style guitar and can give hours of fun (or perhaps I’m just easily pleased!). You can produce 60’s type Surf “wobbles” right through to “dive bomber” squeals. Now with all pleasure there is usually a price to pay and for a trem fitted guitar that usually means a loss of tuning stability compared to a “hard tailed” non-trem guitar. If a traditional six-screw Fender style trem is properly set up (now that’s another article for another day) the tuning in my experience is acceptable – as long as you don’t do massive drive bomb effects. The original recommended Fender set up was to have the bridge plate “floating” about 3/32″ above the body of the guitar so as to give up & down movement. A lot of manufacturers ship guitars with the bridge plate “flat” to the body – this only gives downwards movement but does aid tuning stability so it’s a good compromise. Once again your local music store should be able to adjust the trem to how you want it but my advice is to initially leave the bridge plate set flat t to the body – you can always try it “floating” later. One point to mention is that a number of guitars have re- designed tremolo units fitted with two pivot points (not six screws) that help iron out tuning stability issues. Trem units from Wilkinson and Floyd Rose are names to look out for.

Well in my next article I’ll tie up all the loose ends and give you a summary of what to look for in choosing your first electric guitar.

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