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It seems that electric guitars (and possibly also acoustic steel-string) have narrower necks than nylon-string ones. The strings are more close together (not sure whether this is the cause or a consequence).

Why is this so?

Are there many exceptions from this rule?

(Here are some guesses:

  • Require less finger movement to make fretting more precise
  • Make it possible to use the thumb for fretting
  • Tradition (no rational explanation)
  • Make it possible to bend several strings at once

Nothing here seems convincing enough)

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4 Answers 4

up vote 10 down vote accepted

There are several reasons why electric guitars have thinner necks than acoustic guitars.

Part of it is just convention, primarily relating to the styles of music for which a guitar is designed. Classical guitar playing requires a wider string spacing to facilitate easy access to each string.

Even within steel-string acoustic guitars, there is considerable variation in neck styles. This page at Martin's site has a good overview:


Electric guitar neck styles have changed significantly over the years. Early electric guitar necks were essentially indistinguishable from acoustic guitar necks, but necks changed as playing styles changed.

String bending, for example, is much easier with with a thinner neck. Most electric guitar necks are designed to facilitate string bending.

A few other things worth noting:

  1. Electric guitars are designed for lighter gauge strings than acoustic guitars. This allows for a thinner neck
  2. Electric guitar necks almost invariably have adjustable truss rods, which allows for a thinner neck
  3. The mass of a neck has a significant impact on an instrument's tone. This is much more noticeable on an acoustic instrument than an electric instrument
  4. Neck styles are influenced by the market. People who buy electric guitars generally prefer a thinner neck
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The question is why electric necks are narrow (ie. the distance between outermost strings is close), not why are they thin (ie. distance between fretboard and back of the neck is close). –  el.pescado Feb 14 at 9:49
In that respect, electric guitar necks have a narrow string spacing because that is what is most useful in the styles of music for which they were designed. Classical guitar necks are considerably wider because they need to accommodate classical finger picking. A narrower spacing facilitates chordal playing and string bending. –  kiprainey Feb 14 at 17:07

For styles of music that predominantly depend upon playing solos and melodies with a pick, guitarist prefer guitars with narrow necks.

For styles of music that predominantly depend on strumming chords with a pick, and using lots of barré chords, guitarists prefer instruments with necks of intermediate width.

For styles of music that involve intricate counterpoint (more than one musical line being played on the guitar at the same time) and playing with several fingers rather than with a pick, guitarists prefer very wide necks.

enter image description here

Traditional classical, nylon string guitars have a nut width of 52mm, the widest width you can usually find, because classical guitar music requires very intricate fingering work for both hands. You need the extra space between strings to play that style of music, and classical guitar music rarely involves things like barré chords.

Various options are available among different kinds of guitars. Neck widths at the nut (the end of the neck near the headstock) for six-string guitars vary between about 39mm and 54mm, which, to a guitarist, is a huge variation.

Also, guitars vary in the width of the string spacing at the opposite end, at the bridge. Generally a guitar with a wider nut will have a proportionally wider bridge spacing, but there are variations among the many types of guitars on the market.

Selecting a guitar with a nut width and string spacing that suits your style of playing is something worth thinking about, at least for an intermediate or advanced guitarist.

More information:

There's another factor that varies with different kinds of guitars, the fingerboard radius.

enter image description here

Classical guitars have a completely flat fingerboard (no radius at all), which works well for that style of music -- intricate fingering, where you don't strum chords much at all. (I find that trying to play barré chords on a classical guitar is quite uncomfortable and fatiguing to the hand.)

Fender electric guitars, traditionally, have a pronounced curve to the fingerboard (7-1/2 inches or 190mm) that makes it really comfortable to play barré chords.

Most Gibson electric guitars traditionally had less curvature to the fingerboard, with a radius of 12 inches or 300mm, which seems to be more comfortable for playing solos and for bending strings.

Acoustic steel-string guitars usually have even less curvature to the fingerboard (around 15 inches or 380mm).

A recent development in electric guitars is the compound radius, where the surface of the fingerboard is a section of a cone, to use the geometrical term. At the nut end of the neck, the curve is prounounced, but the curve of the fingerboard gradually flattens to less of a curve as you move up the neck. The idea behind this is to have the "best of all worlds" to make it a bit more comfortable to play many styles of guitar on one instrument.

enter image description here

(In this illustration the amount of curvature is greatly exaggerated for effect)

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On guitars with thin necks, it's easier to fret 2/3 adjacent strings with one finger. One wouldn't use a technique such as this on a classical guitar. I don't know, though, whether necks are thinner to facilitate this, or we just do it because the necks ARE thinner... –  Tim Feb 12 at 10:29
As above, I'm not thinking of barres or half-barres, but along the lines of a fingertip or pad across 2/3 strings. –  Tim Feb 12 at 12:10
Full barre chords on a wide fret board do test your hand strength for sure. –  Neil Meyer Feb 18 at 16:16

Actually in this day and age, electric guitar neck width is due to music genres and techniques that serve them, markets, personal preferences by star players and company design decisions based on all of that.

Your list really accents playing style trends and I agree that was the changing point for differences in various neck designs.

Case in point, some of the earliest electrics were Fender guitars which were known for more narrow necks/fingerboards. Early Rickenbackers were also narrow. In fact, the "vintage" series available with these manufacturers still have narrow necks.

Fast forward to the 90's when there was an accent on flashy guitar solos ("shredding") and manufacturers like Charvel introduced Fender-style guitars with wide "almost classical" widths. So this was based on player preferences and music styles. Then of course Fender followed suit with updating their product lines to have wider necks, so you can now purchase their guitars with MULTIPLE widths based on model.

So to address your points:

  • Require less finger movement to make fretting more precise If you have larger fingers or wish to do "tap" techniques, the wider neck could be more precise.

  • Make it possible to use the thumb for fretting This is true (Hendrix video references, certain country techniques, etc.) except if one has larger hands they can do this on other neck sizes. And of course this usually comes up only for rock/country/blues. So again, it was a genre change that helped encourage the neck requirement.

  • Tradition (no rational explanation) Earliest guitars had no specific reference point of electric player preferences so they just built what seemed right to themselves and a small group of players. They was no tradition, except later what they created became a tradition for those growing up with those neck styles.

  • Make it possible to bend several strings at once Actually this can be easier on a guitar with a wider neck as there is more neck to bend across.

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It is also worth noting that there is some variance in approaches to neck design among the different brands of electric guitars.

For instance you Ibanez and ESP guitars will generally have the slimmest, fastest neck. For players who put a premium on playing fast these neck designs are great.

If you want to play Brian Setzer type of folk music then a Gretsch with a relatively wider neck will be good for three and four string chords.

And when I think about telecaster and Strat necks I think about C and D shape necks which again is geared towards the type of music that they are most often used for.

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