Recently a friend and client of mine started talking about what he calls my “secret sauce” .He was talking about the neck of the instrument and especially the way I build and also approach repairing a neck. it got me thinking about it and some recent examples where Ive had the opportunity to repair some very high end instruments and the result of these repairs . It also gave me the chance to reflect on the recent custom builds and the feedback from these.
You know what? I think he’s right. Ive been thinking about the “secret sauce’ that makes a great playing neck and in this post I am just briefly go through some of the steps that I have put in place that allow me to build the best neck that I can make. So, what are some of the elements of this “secret sauce’? Well, it’s this.
- Good timbers selected for straightness, the most quartersawn fingerboards available,
- Stiffness for fast and accurate response
- No air in the neck. The best fret seating I can possibly do.
- Finish this off with a top-quality setup and there it is.
It doesn’t seem like a lot does it? But these actions can take many, many months to complete, particularly in case of fretwork, where I spend up to 12 hours, maybe more making sure it is correct before I even put it into the slots. Often with my necks I will use a wedge shape layout as opposed to just straight up & down laminates. The wedge shapes prevent torsional twisting issues, it also looks damn good. Having a flat sawn and quartersawn pieces mix will also prevent more of this twisting and bowing in the timber. I spend quite a bit of time at the local timber yard selecting the pieces and making sure they are true with out too many faults. I will allow for extra meat when cutting so the wood can move and shift and still be workable, remember wood is not 100% stable not even the really old stuff.
As you build a neck, you need to allow time between each stage. For the neck to settle. And become used to its position. This will eliminate any nasty surprises at the end It allows you time to identify bad woods that is not of neck quality so you can eliminate it before the glue up. This stage cannot be rushed. It is the point in the build that should have the most amount of time spent on it. The neck for me takes up 70% of the total build time. I see a lot of videos and blogs talking about the “lack” of difference between a $500 bass and a $10,000 bass, But I have always though it would be better to forget the price and focus on the difference between a factory built and a master built.
Why does the neck have to be stiffened? The stiffness creates more speed, allows for more fretted note accuracy, and a faster response especially in denser chords. This is simple physics. Having said that, you do not want it to be too stiff so it cannot be adjusted. Just enough, it is a bit of a balancing act. Therefore, I use two 6mm protruded carbon rods. they have a little bit of flex. But overall are quite taught in all directions. The rest is in the quarter sawn pieces.
What does air do in a neck? all kinds of things. It creates inconsistencies, dead notes, slower response times and many other issues, you may not notice this at first until you have spent some time with the instrument when it will become more apparent. This can be fixed buy a pro luthier/repairer but better if it was done at the beginning. Right? In my builds the tubes and truss rod are completely sealed in with no gaps or voids including under the nut area. The frets are seated almost down to the slot base and a bead line of glue to finish off. A solid fitted nut with no gap’s underneath will remove the potential for frequency loss or a dull open string. You may read this and say, seems like overkill, but the neck is where we spend most of our time sculpting chords and tones so the more attention paid to this part the better that experience will be. Not to mention if you are heading to another repair shop for work to be done, it makes their life so much easier and who wouldn’t want to keep the luthier happy.