The Music Farm created this guitar buyers guide to help clarify the parts that make a guitar. Knowing what attributes to look for will make the entire process of purchasing a guitar much easier. Using this guide you will be able to look at the features of a prospective guitar, and decide if it fits you. Make the right decision about your next guitar!
The most important aspect of any stringed instrument is the neck. All hardware and electronics etc. can upgraded, but the neck is the “feel” of the instrument.
Neck material is the wood or other material that the neck is constructed from. The most common woods used for guitar necks are maple and mahogany. Nato and Sapele are also sometimes used. Synthetics such as carbon fiber are selected less often than natural wood, and Martin’s uses a multi-layered birch composite known as Stratabond in some guitars.
Neck shape refers to the profile of the back of the neck as it fits into the player’s hand. Usually “letters” are used to describe the profile such as a "Hard V", a “V” shape profile to the back of the neck. "Soft V" – a little more rounded out on the sides . “C” the most common profile, slightly rolled over on the edges, not too thick- similar to Gibson’s 60’s neck profile. D - which is a thicker neck profile, ie: Gibson’s 50’s neck profile. And U – very thick, also referred to as “baseball bat” thickness profile.
Scale Length – the distance from the back of the nut to the top of the bridge. Standard Fender length is 25.5 Inches. Gibson usually uses a shorter 24.75 inch scale length. Fender Jaguars measure in at 24”, Mustangs- short scale at 22 “. Basses usually run at 34 “ – long scale, 35” extra long scale and 30” short scale. There are many other options that are usable- PRS is popularizing using 25”-even scale as are many acoustic builders and 32” is being flirted with on some bass designs.
Radius – the curvature or profile of the finger board. Given in inches of radius. Vintage Fenders had a good curve on the top measuring 7.25”. This makes chording easy, but strings will “fret out” – lose vibration when they are bent. A flatter radius makes for bigger bends. Fender and others have moved to a 9.5” radius on fret boards. Charvel popularized the compound radius board, cut from a cone, where radius starts at 12” and goes to a much flatter 16” radius to ease bending.
Neck Set Type
How the neck is attached to the body. A bolt on neck is bolted on with screws. A set neck is glued to the body. A neck-through the neck material continues to run back through the back, becoming part of the body unit.
Different fret board materials will have different tones and qualities. Maple makes for a bright sound, hard feel, with a quick decay. Rosewood is a warm sounding, softer feeling, with more sustain. Ebony makes for a very crisper sound with complexity. Some synthetics have been used with great success such as Martin‘s Richlite, or Ebonal – synthetic imitation ebony, seen on many fretless basses.
Nut Width – how wide the neck is at the nut. Given in inches, 1- 11/16 is industry standard width for acoustic guitars. 1- 5/8 is standard for electric guitars. The number of frets tells how long the fret-board has been extended for playability but has little to do with actual scale length.
Body shape defines the look of a instrument, but also defines the tone characteristics and comfortability of the instrument. Body type shapes such as the single and double cuts define conventional styles. Newer shapes such as the V, Explorer ,Warlock , and others push the bounds of the imagination. Building options such as Hollow-body (completely acoustic), Solid bodies and semi-hollow body variants offer differing complex tonal signatures and characteristics. Body material, both natural woods, and synthetic material, will heavily influence tonal response.
Bridge Types also define tonal response and string feel and offering tonal options such as tremolo effects.
Pick-ups turn the vibrations from the guitar into a electrical signal and heavily influence the tone and attitude of a instrument. Allowing it to be amplified in a variety of manners.
Orientation refers to if the instrument was designed to be played right or left handed. Guitars like boys and girls equally.