Published On: Tue, Feb 19th, 2013

Hooked On Classics: All Hands On Neck

You can switch your strings, buy new pedals, tweak the settings on your amp and change your sound in many ways, but one thing you can’t easily escape is the feel of a guitar’s neck. Phil Harris ponders this all-important factor

I think we can all agree that playing a guitar with a great neck is a truly marvellous thing. And this is one of those instances where it’s not about vintage as opposed to new; it’s about good versus bad. A lot of companies are now producing guitars with the right (in my opinion) kind of retro necks. You don’t have to have any knowledge of vintage guitars to appreciate the feel of a good guitar neck – we’re talking about what’s right for the human hand.
 
What do I call a great neck? Well, a lot of it is down to feel, and for me it all depends on the guitar I’m using and what I want out of it. If I’m playing lead on a Gibson Les Paul then I’ll want something different than if I’m playing rhythm on a Tele. As a player who came of age in the 1960s, the guitars of the ’30s and ’40s seem like real tree trunks to me, but if you’ve been brought up on modern, super-slim speed metal necks then the guitars I grew up on will seem like trying to get your hand around an elephant’s backside. 
 
If you’ve got a preference for really thin necks, that’s entirely up to you. However, I’ve got no time for those who think a player with small hands can’t get on with a thicker neck. There are plenty of great players, including people like Peter Green, who have got small hands and done alright on old-style necks.

If you aren’t willing to suffer for your passion, then you don’t want it badly enough. 

Back in the ’80s I once took an Eggle guitar down to Jeff Beck at the recording studio he was using. I showed him the guitar, and after a short time he put down the Eggle and picked up the Fender Strat he was using at the time. ‘I like a man’s neck,’ was the way he put it.

You might gain some speed by having a slimmer neck, but I think you lose the emotion and feel as a consequence. I don’t think players such as Paul Kossoff or Leslie West would have been so mind-blowing if they hadn’t been able to wrestle and dig in as much as they did when they were playing.
 

While you’re contemplating your neck profiles, you should also give some thought to what kind of fingerboard is right for you. For example, if you’re looking for a late-period Hendrix sound then must be maple all the way to get that toppy, open kind of sound. However, if you’re on the lookout for that SRV tone with all its mid-punch and dark growl then you need a rosewood fretboard-equipped Strat of the type that Fender brought in from 1959 onwards.

A ’56 maple neck Strat might be a great guitar, but the idea of Stevie Ray Vaughan playing one wouldn’t made sense – it would have been like Reg Varney from On The Buses driving a Ferrari home.
 

The ’50s and the ’60s are considered by many to be the golden decades for guitar necks. However, as I said earlier, plenty of reissues really do capture that vintage feel. Fender do reissues with early baseball, slightly V-style necks that are just the right dimensions; Gibson, while going a bit OTT with a couple of models, also boast some fine reissues that really capture that ’59 spec. Good luck with finding the right one for you…

1963 Gretsch Country Gentleman


 

Once you get to ’68 and ’69 Gretsch necks begin to get a bit narrow, almost as if they were trying to cut costs or had a shortage of wood. But between ’57 and ’64 you get Gretsches with a D-shaped neck. These guitars are the Rolls-Royce of middle-of-the-road tone – and I mean that in a good way. Even though they weren’t my cup of tea during my professional days, I can appreciate just how right they are for the guitar

1963 Burns Vibra Artist

 
I learned to play guitar properly on a Burns Vibra Artist and, although I didn’t know it at the time, it provided me with the perfect all-round education when it came to guitar necks. Play up at the nut, and you got a real Strat feel. At around the seventh to ninth fret, you got the feel of a ’59 Les Paul ‘baseball neck’. By the time you were up around the 12th and 13th fret if felt like you were playing Guy The Gorilla’s personal guitar. After learning on one of these, I was pretty much ready for anything 
 
1969 Fender Telecaster

 
As I see Teles as being more for rhythm work rather than for lead playing, I lean more to zingy’n’toppy maple necks. This maple-necked, blonde beauty perfectly delivers what I’m looking for. I once said that there was more chance of seeing Jesus walking down Chiswick High Road with a spliff in his hand than me selling this guitar, and the feel of the neck is just one important aspect of its continuing appeal   
 
1963 Fender Stratocaster

 
When it comes to Strat necks you can’t get better than the spec they had in 1963, in my opinion. You get input from both the maple as well as the rosewood fingerboard, and it comes together brilliantly. Whether you’re playing rhythm or lead it’ll do the job for you. It can cut through like a switchblade and is stable enough to anchor the QE2. If you come across a reissue with this neck specification, be sure to check it out
 
1980 Gibson Les Paul


 
This Heritage guitar is one of the first Gibson reissues, and is living proof that you don’t need to spend big sums on a ’59 or ’68 Gibson Les Paul to get a great-feeling neck. In fact, some of Gibson’s general spec models feature this kind of profile. As a Les Paul fanatic, my favourite is a rosewood neck with a ’59 type profile, and this Heritage is up there with the best of them – it’s a real joy to play

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