If I am to be completely honest about fretboard radius, in my early days, I never even considered it. I heard it mentioned, of course, but I was always confused about what it meant and how it was measured.
Never once did anyone in a shop anywhere in London talk about fretboard radius and neck profiles. In the case of the now-defunct Fender Soundhouse in London, I doubt they could spell it, let alone know what it was. Another story.
It’s A Six-String Guitar Thing
I played bass guitar, and it didn’t seem an issue. It was just something that was there. “It’s probably a guitar thing,” I thought to myself.
For many years, I played a 1963 Precision. It had a ‘C’ neck profile and a fretboard radius of 7.25 inches. It was only when I started to use other bass guitars I noticed the difference in how it felt and played.
It was only then I started to realize there was a difference, and that difference was the fretboard radius. I had been fortunate in that I had picked up a guitar that suited me. But I could have got it wrong, and that would certainly have hampered my playing style.
What Is Fretboard Radius?
The fretboard radius is sometimes also called the fingerboard radius. It is an important part of the makeup of the guitar, and while it won’t affect how it sounds, it will affect how it plays. And I will look at the playability a bit later.
Where guitar manufacturing is concerned, there will be differences between manufacturers. There is not going to be a convenient one-size-fits-all situation. Even within the product ranges of manufacturers, you can get differences.
Take a Look At Your Fingerboard
Hold up the guitar and look down the fingerboard from the nut. You will notice that it is not flat, and even the frets have a slight ‘curve’ on them. You will see that there is an arc across the width of the playing surface down the neck from the nut to the body of the guitar.
I would say that it runs the full length of the neck, but that is not exactly true for all guitars. These days some guitarists prefer what is known as a “compound radius guitar neck.” I will take a look at that option a bit later as well.
That arc across the width of the playing surface is the fretboard or fingerboard radius. Measuring the radius of the guitar fretboard is how we can tell how much curve or arc there is on the fingerboard. And that curve, or arc, can affect the playability and has implications.
Why Is It Important?
There are a couple of reasons why the guitar fretboard radius is important and how it, therefore, has an impact.
How Comfortable Is The Guitar To Play?
There are many issues involved here, including obvious things like the length of your fingers and the size of your hand. The fretboard radius will have a direct impact on how comfortable you feel.
You can recognize flatter fretboards because they have a higher inch number. For example, a 9-inch radius is flatter than a 7.25-inch. A flatter radius will allow you to have a lower action for your strings. A rounder radius will require a higher string setup from the fingerboard.
Can It Have Genre Impact?
That sounds like a silly question. It might not affect what genre you choose. After all, you can play rock n roll on just about anything. But it could affect how well you play it. And that is important.
If the only reason that you learn about the radius of guitar fretboards is one of those two issues, then it will be worth taking a closer look.
We have just seen how a flatter fretboard radius offers you a lower action if you want it. This, as I mentioned, affects the genre. And as always, there are pros and cons.
- A lower string action means it is easier to fret and bend notes.
- A lower action requires you to have a relatively light touch. With the intonation suffering if you are too heavy-handed.
A rounded fretboard with a lower fretboard radius achieves exactly the opposite results.
At the end of the day, that is what it all comes down to – what you prefer. If you play a lot of bar-chords, then the rounder radius will probably be better for you than a flatter radius.
But don’t take opinions and technical matters to be the sole deciding factor. Try a few out and see what suits you best. You will soon recognize which suits your playing style.
The Compound Radius Neck
I mentioned earlier about the compound radius neck, and it’s worth taking a quick look at what it is. With a standard straight neck, there is a consistent radius that exists along the complete length.
With the compound neck, there is a decrease in the width of the fretboard as you travel from body to nut. Therefore, you get a much more rounded shape neck at the nut. But, where the neck meets the body, the fingerboard is also flatter and wider.
This design has become very popular amongst some guitarists today who appreciate the difference in playing style.
How Is It Measured?
As you know, the term ‘radius’ applies to a mathematical explanation. That is the distance from the center of a circle to the circumference or outer edge.
The fretboard radius is measured by putting the fretboard at the top but inside the circle. The arc from one edge of the circumference to the other side is the radius size.
Or, put another way, the size of the fretboard radius is the radius of a circle that has had a small part taken out of its circumference. That small part of the circumference taken is equal to the width of the fretboard.
How To Tell the Difference
The greater the inch size of the radius, that is the number, the flatter the fingerboard will be. The smaller the number, the more rounded it will be.
Of all the sizes used today, 9.5 inches is probably the most common guitar fretboard radius. After that, probably the 7.25-inch. You will often find guitars going up to a size 12 or even a 16-inch fretboard.
The increments in the smaller sizes, can themselves be quite small. As I said, it is best to try them out to see which is best for you.
While We Are Talking About Which Is Best
By now, you will have realized that the fretboard radius has an impact. Choosing the right size suddenly becomes very important to make the most of how, and in some cases, what you play.
Is Bigger Better?
The decision isn’t that simple. Bigger is not better and vice versa. It depends very much on how you play and what you want to get out of the guitar. There are also some other considerations, which I have already touched upon. The size of your hands, length of your fingers, your handspan, and dexterity will all play a part.
There is a range of different guitar fretboard sizes, but the most common you will find are 7.25 inches, 9.25 inches, and 12 inches. Let’s just consider those three briefly.
The 7.25-inch Smaller Radius
This was probably the most popular size for many years on several brands, and today it is one of the important features of the Fender Vintage collection. A smaller radius means a more rounded fingerboard.
Many feel that is a better match for the natural curves that exist in your fingers. It’s especially friendly when you play a lot of bar-chords and in the lower neck areas.
There is a reason why it was such a popular fretboard size from the 1950s right through to the late 70s and early 80s. During that period, guitarists were using a lot of chords, which you could describe as rhythm guitarists. This size of fretboard radius suited that style.
The 9.25-inch Radius
More popular today and more in line with those who play solos. There is less of a ‘hump’ in the middle of the fretboard due to the round shape. That hump can cause notes to ‘choke-out’ if you are bending them.
The slightly larger flatter radius then moves away from the rhythm style and more towards a lead guitar soloing style. The flatter surface provides a flatter playing surface which is better for moving around the fingerboard. And this applies especially the higher you go up the neck.
The 12-inch Radius
Some will go for the theory that the bigger the fretboard radius, the better it is for playing lead guitar these days. There is a certain truth to that. One guitar that proves the point is the Gibson Les Paul. It is fitted with a 12-inch fretboard as standard.
It is the chosen instrument of Jimmy Page and many others. Players known for their speed around the fingerboard and their bending of notes.
Does the 12-inch Radius Make You A Better Lead Guitarist?
Some say it does. The extra flatness produces width and the possibility of a lower action. But if you are a Rock guitarist thinking along those lines, be careful.
Some would argue, myself included, that the best rock guitarists the world has ever seen didn’t use the 12 inches but usually prefer a vintage 7.5-inch or a few with the 9-inch. They played Fender Strats rather than the 12-inch Les Paul. That was their predominant instrument of choice.
We are talking, Jeff Beck, Dave Gilmour, Richie Blackmore, Rory Gallagher, and that is before we even get to Jimi Hendrix. All subjective to opinions, of course. But my point is, don’t automatically assume “bigger is best.” It isn’t necessarily.
One More Consideration
Depending on the environment in which you play, there could be a day when you have to start playing long sessions. In studios, perhaps. Therefore, strange as it may sound, fatigue can become a factor.
Therefore, choosing the correct guitar fretboard size can have an effect. Some may make you work harder than others and make your fingers tired. The level of comfort is important. That is why the 9.5-inch is so popular. It is a “master of all trades,” if you like to put it that way.
In other words…
You can do a bit of everything. And for most people, the size makes it very relaxed and comfortable. A lot of the Fender range is 9.5 inches these days. Apart from their efforts to recreate “Vintage” guitars, they have long forgotten how to make.
But there will be nothing like trying them out yourself. I have attached some options for you to have a look at.
Don’t Overlook The Fretboard Radius
You might be lucky as I was, but it is best not to overlook this important feature. You could argue that it may not be so important on a bass, for bending strings, etc. But comfort is definitely an issue on any guitar. Getting the right radius is only going to be good for your guitar playing.
Until next time, let your music play.