There are many construction methods that manufacturers use to make guitars. These different methods affect the sound the instrument will make and how it feels when played.
The neck on a guitar is fastened in one of three ways. Bolt-on, set neck and neck-through. In this article, we are going to look at bolt-on and set neck guitars. Both have their pros and cons.
The set neck is glued into the body of the guitar, normally utilizing a dovetail or mortise-and-tenon joint. The advantage of this design is that it creates a more stable connection.
A bolt-on neck is just that, it’s bolted onto the body of the guitar. This type of joint is generally considered to be less stable but easier to replace.
So why is this important? Each neck type has a different look, feel and effect on the tone of the instrument. Not only that, but this will also determine how comfortable and easy to maintain the guitar will be as you use it. Let’s look at them in greater detail.
Bolt-On Vs Set Neck
The main difference between the bolt-on vs set neck guitars is that the joint is selected based on the intent of the model. Each joint has something different to offer in both tone and performance. The price of the instrument also plays a part in this choice, but is not always the deciding factor.
Leo Fender released the bolt-on neck in the 1950s on a model known as the Broadcaster electric guitar. Other builders were producing set neck guitars as standard practice. The mass production of guitars had commenced, and Fender was able to make them very quickly with this new design.
Not only were they easier to make and assemble, but the cost was lower as well. Players had no issues with the new design and appreciated the fact that a neck could be replaced much easier. Perhaps you are considering a guitar and want to know which style will best fit you.
Let’s take a look at a few things to consider when deciding on the bolt-on vs set neck guitar designs.
The bolt-on is less expensive to produce than the set neck guitar. This is primarily because it takes less time to manufacture and assemble.
While today CNC machines are used exclusively to cut out the wooden parts, there are still assembly methods that make a set neck guitar slightly more expensive.
Having to glue a joint requires more steps than a bolt-on neck. And while the costs are very close, the screw-on connection still comes in cheaper to produce.
And even though this is true, you will still find a few entry-level guitars with a set neck. So when it comes to cost, the difference isn’t worth considering anymore.
- Bolt-on neck guitars are less expensive to produce
- It takes less time to manufacture and assemble bolt-on neck guitars
While a bolt-on is a bit cheaper to make, this doesn’t mean that they are inferior to the set neck. Technology in guitar building today is quite robust. Bolt-on guitars that are designed right will apply threaded inserts into the body and high tensile strength bolts.
The combination of these mechanical parts and a good design means a tough connection! The set neck as well is a very rigid joint because of the type and glue used.
Once the glue is set, it is tough. But a poor design or improper assembly can make a set neck weak. Granted, this is rare, but it’s worth considering.
When the two joints are done right, they are each more than capable of providing a great quality connection.
Many people credit the connection joint types for particular sounds. Fender and Gibson were the two companies that were like apples and oranges in sound and build.
Because Gibson was set neck and Fender a bolt-on, these connections adopted a specific tone. And thus the bolt-on vs set neck myths began!
Fender is a more twangy attack, mid-punch sound, and Gibson has a warmer, rounder bass tone. And while there is a slight variation in sound between the two joints, there are also many other parts that help color the tone.
So it would be hard to say that one is better than the other or makes that big of a difference.
When it comes to the feel of a neck, that is a bit different, as the connection can improve play ability. A set neck will allow you to reach the upper frets easier, depending on the contour. While there are some great bolt-on shapes, the set design wins here. Just make sure your action is set right!
Bolt-On Guitar Neck
Bolt-on necks are a good choice for those who are looking for an easy-to-use, replaceable model. Because of the ease of removal and installation, this is the most common connection found on most guitars. The neck will normally fit into a cutaway on the guitar body and then get fastened using screws.
The combination of a snug neck pocket and the force of the screws, hold it in place fairly well. Trouble is, that it can move slightly when abrupt force is applied to the sides. This can cause the guitar to go out of tune more easily, and will require regular maintenance, especially if the wood shrinks.
Some manufacturers put a plate on the back of the neck to help strap it to the electric guitar body. This helps apply even tension to the connection as the force of the screws is shared across the plate. Not all bolt-on designs use this plate however and only have screws as fasteners.
The plate can make the neck joint harder to play around with, as the shape is more square than rounded.
The bolt-on design is also used on the acoustic guitar. Manufacturers are good at designing them so that the bolts remain on the inside of the guitar body. This means bolt-on designs are not seen and the neck joint is hard to identify.
Guitars That Use Bolt-On Necks
This guitar neck joint is the most common because it’s easy to put on and take off. If it’s ever damaged, or a player wants to experiment with different shapes and wood types, it’s easy to change.
To recognize the connection type on a guitar, simply flip it over and inspect the area where the neck meets the body. If you find screws on the heel, then it’s bolted. This is very apparent with electric guitars.
Some of the most expensive and cheapest guitars use this joint. You can even find them in some acoustic models. A few of these guitars include:
- PRS SE Silver Sky Series
- Fender American Professional 2 Series
- Fender Player Series
- Squier Classic Vibe Series
Acoustic guitars are harder to recognize as the bolts are normally inside the body.
Advantages Of Bolt-On
The bolt-on neck is considered to be a lower-quality construction method, but this simply isn’t true. While manufacturers use this joint for ease of assembly, they also do it for their customers.
If the neck ever gets damaged and needs to be replaced, it’s possible to do so without huge costs. Some advantages of a bolt-on:
- Easier to produce
- Easier to install and replace
- Allows for experimentation of different necks
- Easier to maintain
- Can be cheaper
- Has proven to have more sustain.
You read that right, the bolt-on offers more sustain! We did some digging on this one to find a study conducted on the different neck joint types and sustain. And it appears that the bolt-on offers more, as we will see below!
Disadvantages Of Bolt-On
While most players use a bolt-on and are familiar with them, there are a few things that are problems when compared to the set neck.
- Can create tuning issues with any flexibility
- Requires maintenance, especially if the wood shrinks
- Can move in the joint making noise
- Bulkier shape on the rear of the guitar
- Can get in the way when trying to access the upper frets
And while these are things that most players know to be true with this joint type, they are still disadvantages over a set neck. We just simply accept the fact that a bolt-on comes with a few quirks. Especially if there are no threaded inserts used in the guitar body.
Set Neck Guitars
The set guitar neck is a construction method that is favored by many high-end builders. It offers a tight, secure connection between the neck and the body of the instrument. This type of joint is often found on acoustic guitars and some electric models.
The set neck is normally a dovetail or mortise-and-tenon joint, glued into place with adhesive and then clamped for some time to ensure a solid fit. This method is normally used not only for a stronger connection, but also because of the way it looks.
It allows the builder to apply the same finish on both the body and the neck.
It also means the joint is more uniform and is not as bulky looking as a contour with screws and a plate. This also means it doesn’t get in the way when trying to access the frets higher up the neck.
Guitars That Use a Set Neck Joint
Because it costs more to offer an instrument with a set neck, you will normally only find them in mid to high range price points. Manufacturers that are more boutique are more likely to offer this joint type, but a few commercial builders have a few models available.
PRS and Gibson all have a set neck guitar in their lineup.
Some of the guitars that use this type of joint:
- Gibson Les Paul Traditional 2019
- PRS SE Custom 24
Advantages Of Set Neck
Some main advantages of a set neck are the look and play ability. This design is found on higher price point guitars because not only should they sound and feel better, but they need to also look the part.
This design also allows a player to get up into the upper frets without a stumbling block at the heel connection.
The rigidity is also a benefit because the neck joint will not change should the wood shrink, and so tuning is more rock-solid as a result.
Set neck guitars offers several advantages over the bolt-on joint:
- Tighter connection between the neck and body
- More secure against movement and vibration
- It is less likely to warp or twist
- Looks better and can be finished in the same color as the body
Now, while a set neck is less likely to warp, that doesn’t mean it cannot. And so it’s crucial to always make sure to keep your guitars in a suitable environment with proper humidity levels.
Set Neck Disadvantages
While the set neck is a rock-solid design and offers robust performance, it does have a few drawbacks. There is a reason that there are only a few guitar models that come with this design. The primary disadvantage is that it would cost a great deal of money to have it replaced.
There are a few disadvantages that set necks have when compared to a bolt-on.
- Glue can fail over time
- Extra steps in manufacturing means it costs more
- Possibility of the guitar not being able to be repaired or modified
- Can’t replace the neck with any other designs
A neck-through guitar has a single piece of wood that runs the length of the instrument from the headstock to the strap pins, making it one continuous piece.
This design provides more strength and stability than other types of guitars, and also allows manufacturers to shape the neck joint to a smoother contour.
Many high-end electric guitars are built this way, and it’s especially popular among metal and hard rock musicians. If you’re looking for a guitar that can handle some serious punishment, a neck-through design is definitely worth considering.
It is also very common on bass guitars because of the strength.
While neck-through guitars are not as common, it’s used and does have some advantages.
- Very strong
- Better stability
- Better upper fret Access
- Clean looking
While some players believe that the neck through offers better sustain, this isn’t exactly true, as we will see later in this article.
Disadvantages Of Neck-Through
Neck-through guitars are not as common, mostly because of their 2 main disadvantages.
- Can’t replace a worn neck
- More expensive to manufacture
If it ever gets damaged or wears out over time, it’s not possible to replace it. This is a hefty drawback. Neck-through guitars are also more expensive because of what is involved in manufacturing them.
Bolt-On vs Set Neck vs Neck-Through Sustain
If you ask any guitar player that knows about these joints, they will say the set neck has more sustain. That the string vibrations will travel through the whole body, thus providing more than a bolt-on.
And for a long time, this has been the belief and still is. Even I had bought into it because it made sense until I stumbled upon this scientific study. Bolt-on vs set neck, let the games begin!
The tests were done between all 3 different neck connection types. The assumption going into the test was that the bolt-on would come away with the least sustain.
Jigs were built that were made with the different connection types. Strings were then loaded onto the jigs and set up to be as similar as possible. The only difference is the neck joints.
As you will read in the study, the outcome was quite surprising. The set neck had less than the other two! The bolt-on was the winner here, with a slightly greater sustain. Now, when listening to the sound, it was not recognizable. But the measurements analyzed proved the case.
And so what we see here is that we have had it all wrong. The bolt-on neck is more than capable! Resonance too. And with all the other benefits that come with it, should be looked at in a different light.
So next time someone tells you this joint design doesn’t have much sustain, you will know it’s just a myth!
Now that we have touched on the Bolt-on vs set neck comparison, it should be quite clear that both have some great strengths.
There should be no debate over how much one is better than the other. Just focus on what feels the best and helps you play. If anything, the neck shape is a more important feature to consider and how it impacts your playing.
Below you will find answers to frequently asked questions about the neck joint types.
Are Bolt-on Guitar Necks Bad?
There is a lot of mythology around guitar necks, specifically around the two different types of connections: bolt-on and set. It’s often said that one connection joint type is inherently better than the other, but from all the information above, I believe we have a conclusion.
Screw-on guitar necks are a good design that can be very strong but also musical. Depending on the fastening method used, they can be just as strong as a set neck.
Sustain is also not an issue with a bolt-on, as they transfer vibration very well. In fact, in some designs, the screw-on has better sustain.
This might be because of the use of steel fasteners, transferring the string vibration energy into the body.
Is Set Neck Better than Bolt-on?
While a set neck has many advantages all its own, it’s not possible to say whether one is better than the other. Both types offer advantages and have much to offer guitarists. So bolt-on vs set neck is almost not worth considering.
To truly know if one is better than the other, it would have to be made up in your mind. This will be the result of trying many guitars and selecting the one that best fits you and your music. We all prefer something different for certain things.
Can I Bolt-on a Set Neck?
We all have favorite guitar necks that are more comfortable than others. Sometimes players would like to transfer them to other guitars.
We get it! But when it comes to bolting on a neck made to be glued in, this can be very tricky. While it’s possible, this task requires woodworking knowledge and the right tools.
For a person who doesn’t know much about woodworking, this will only end in ruin. But if you have great skill in the trade, yes, you can more than likely shape the neck to fit a bolt-up body.
There are a lot of measurements to take to verify that one specific neck will work if modified. But the right skilled person will know if it’s possible or not.