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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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I'm really glad someone asked this, because I find it very annoying. I don't have particularly large fingers but a v narrow electric guitar neck makes some things really unnecessarily difficult- particularly fretting a string without affecting adjacent strings. I have a Fender Strat and a Telecaster. The Tele has a very slightly wider neck than the Strat and it makes it quite a lot easier to play ! why oh why.... – user2808054 Oct 31 '14 at 17:13
As someone who started learning on electric, I had the opposite question of why classical guitar necks are so wide! Of course when I tried to play classical guitar music on an electric I understood right away. – Todd Wilcox Mar 29 at 15:38
Extended range guitars regularly have massive necks. – Neil Meyer May 9 at 15:02
I believe it's because there are 6 strings and if it were any broader the musician would struggle fitting their hands around it – anonymous Oct 28 at 16:42

9 Answers 9

up vote 18 down vote accepted

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 '14 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 '14 at 12:10
Full barre chords on a wide fret board do test your hand strength for sure. – Neil Meyer Feb 18 '14 at 16:16

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 '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 '14 at 17:07

Here's my guess, since there seems to be no answer anywhere online. Martin Guitars has been around since 1833. They sell various nut widths up to 1 7/8. I am a hat maker. Virtually everyone used to wear a hat. You could get the same hat in various oval shapes to match your head shape, round, round oval, medium oval, medium long oval, long oval, extra long oval. There are zero hat manufacturers now that offer anything but a medium oval. My theory is guitars have gone the same way. Before recorded music and radio, people had to make their own music, and there was more amateur musicianship. My guess is wider necks were common. What's available now has to fit everyone from children to women to men. One size fits all. Good luck. This is why as a man I can't play a standard guitar neck, but can play my Warmoth 1 7/8 inch Strat replacement neck perfectly.

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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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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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Maybe this was already covered but nylon strings move a whole lot more than steel ones. They are slacker and therefore they vibrate with a much larger amplitude - which means you need higher action. And they also bend all over the place - I find it a struggle not to bend by accident - plus to bend by a semitone you need to physically bend the string much further so you need more space.

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also string spacing on electric guitars is impacted by the size of the pickup, with the string required to be over the pole of the pickup - fender type pickups are a set width which thus sets the width of the saddle.

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Pickup sizes are variable, and many guitar makers angle pickups in order to allow for different string spacing. – Dr Mayhem Oct 24 '14 at 10:48

Easier control when playing with distorted and/or high sustain tone. Other strings are close enough to be muted with left hand if required. You use both hands to mute unwanted strings while playing on electric. I usually just let it ring out on an acoustic, on electric it would sound horrible. The other reason is that it would be much faster when you have enough skill to precisely put your fingers where you should. Less finger movement required makes it faster to play when you are more advanced, more error prone for an intermediate/beginner.

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Responding to above, not only do classical guitarists frequently play barre chords, they'll play relatively complex barred positions, and even run single note scales from a fixed barre position. The polyphonic nature of classical/solo guitar music requiring the guitarist to play different bass and treble lines simultaneously makes barred playing more necessary than with styles where the guitar is one of many instruments in an ensemble setting and/or is mostly playing single notes or conventional chords with other accompanying musicians.

To answer the actual question, in my opinion neck width is really more about right/picking hand movement than anything else. Having a narrower neck greatly facilitates single note runs with a pick as well as strumming chords. Closer strings = less pick movement = faster cleaner playing.

In contrast, wider string spacing is helpful for fingerpicking to allow extra space for the (fatter than a flatpick!) picking hand fingers to articulate individual strings. If you're playing on a nylon string instrument using the fingernails as classical and flamenco players do, there needs to be extra space for the fingers to move. EG, its much harder to execute tremolos and certain other classical/flamenco techniques on a narrower neck instrument.

Obviously personal preference and individual anatomy come into play, but speaking in general, fingerpickers tend to prefer wider necks and bridges, hybrid/country and jazz guys who use pick and fingers typically like intermediate width necks, and the fast "shredder" rock types generally prefer narrower necks, with the instruments themselves built to take into account these preferences.

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Now, if you're taking about neck thickness (ie front/back) not width; that's mostly a question of personal preference. Yes, thin necks are "supposed" to be "faster" but the reality is there are plenty of great players who play super-fast on "conventional" width/shape necks, and plenty of players who can't play very fast on thin ones! – anonymous guitar guy May 8 at 19:01
With respect to neck thickness, I think evolution of design is at play. Before truss rods, acoustic guitar necks had to be a certain thickness just to handle the tension of steel strings. Nowadays with truss trods being standard on virtually all acoustic and electric guitars, and with ready availability of super light strings, necks simply "can" be much thinner! Again, low action, thin string players tend to want light "touch" and like think cross section necks. Higher action, thicker string players usually like a little more "meat" to grab onto and tend to like thicker necks. – anonymous guitar guy May 8 at 19:14

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