Let’s discuss the unsung hero of your guitar – the fingerboard. While guitars are typically described by body shape and finish, your guitar’s fingerboard is the most engineered component. I personally perform over 95 operations to ensure the fingerboard is properly intonated (plays the proper notes) and allows the player to easily fret the desired notes. If you have your eye on a particular guitar, here is some information you can use to ensure that the flashy beauty you bring home will play properly.
Fingerboards are constructed as part of 2 styles of neck: 1 piece or 2 piece. In a 1 piece neck, the entire neck is constructed from a single piece of wood, with fret slots cut in the top for the fretwire. In a two piece neck, a thin fretboard is slotted for frets and attached to the neck. The difference in construction affects only the luthier’s process and the aesthetics of the guitar, with no real affect on playability.
The distance between the nut and the bridge (where the string can vibrate) is referred to as the scale of the guitar. Most modern guitars have a scale length between 24.5 and 25.5 inches and each major manufacturer typically uses the same scale for all their guitars. The spacing of the frets is such that each fret will raise the note 1/2 step. I won’t bore you with the mathematics behind fret spacing, so here’s what you need to know:
Long scale guitars
On a long scale guitar, like the 25 1/2″ Brantley Classic, the distance between the bridge and the nut is longer, so more tension is required on the strings to tune to the proper notes. While this tension makes it slightly more difficult to execute string bends, it does give each note more power and clarity.
Short scale guitars
On a short scale guitar, like the 24 5/8″ scale Brantley Artist or Enforcer, the distance between the bridge and nut is shorter and therefore does not need as much tension to tune to the proper notes. While the lower tension will produce a “muddier” tone with more mid-range emphasis, string-bends are easier and the frets are closer, resulting in a guitar that can be easier to play, especially for those with shorter fingers.
Fretwire is made in varying thicknesses and heights. Guitars typically use medium or wide fretwire. Frets should be rounded across their cross-section so the string makes contact with a singular point at the apex instead of a flat section of fret to ensure proper intonation. Taller fretwire provides the opportunity to redress the frets once they become worn from use, but may cause tuning issues if the player prefers to touch the string to the fretboard when fretting notes.
The number of frets on a typical electric guitar ranges from 21 to 24, depending on the player’s preference to hit stratospheric notes. Since the 24th fret is a node on the string that provides a pure tone, placing a fret there causes a tradeoff since a pickup will not be placed at that location.
Most guitars are decorated for easy reference at frets 3, 5, 7, 9, 12, 15, 17, 19, 21, and 24 (if so equipped). Typically, these decorations are dots, with double-dots at the octave frets (12 and 24), made of plastic, clay, contrasting wood, or mother of pearl. Some guitars may use different shapes for markers, intricate vine inlays with leaves at the marked frets, designs that do not mark the frets, or nothing at all. Guitar builders can also place small markers on the side of the fingerboard for ease of visibility while playing.
I hope this information can help you understand the differences in guitars, especially the effects of the scale on the tone and playability of the guitar. Feel free to respond with any questions or further comments in our forum and check out the next installment for a discussion on the neck of the guitar.