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One Size Fits All? (part 2)

Hello Troubadourians!

Last month we started a conversation about how well your guitar plays and what might be the “ideal” neck shape/width for you. I also mentioned the NAMM show but I didn’t have enough space to explain how it is significant to the discussion. Now I will. After reading the column and trying the “imaginary guitar” test, what do you do if you think your ideal guitar isn’t the one you have? Who makes that “right” guitar? And… what if you play electric guitar? Are there options for you, too? Well, here’s why all that matters to you.

While at NAMM, I interviewed several representatives of guitar companies ranging from expensive “boutique” builders to more affordable guitar builders. I also tried, whenever possible, to talk to companies that make both acoustic and electric guitars. I asked the same questions of all of them: “What are your ‘standard’ neck shapes/widths for your guitars?” and “What options to you offer that differ from the ‘standard?’” Surprisingly, acoustic players have more options for neck shape/width than electric players. And of the builders that offer “Custom Shop” services to prospective players, few, if any, of those options actually relate to how the neck shape/width of the guitar. Rather, most options are cosmetic or electronic. But don’t despair because I have filtered through all this and I’ll tell you where, how, and what to look for when you go looking for that ideal-feeling guitar.

First off, if you find you prefer a ‘C’ shape neck and a 11-1/16″ width, you have almost unlimited options. Whether you play acoustic or electric guitar, this shape/width combination has become the de-facto “standard” for guitar necks. Sure, there are subtle differences even within this generic pattern but most guitars are purposely built to be similar in shape/width to all other guitars with the same specifications. But suppose you find you prefer something different…

At the high-end of builders is Collings Guitars. Collings offers multiple shape/ width combinations in all models of their acoustic guitars, most of them a no-charge or low-charge option. Of course, when you’re in the $3,000 to $5,000 range, you should be able to get exactly what you want. I spoke with customer service manager Mark Althans about my research into the shape/width question and he confirmed that Collings does indeed make multiple sizes and shapes of necks for their acoustic guitar models. Collings also makes fine electric guitars as well but here we run into a problem of sorts. At this time, Collings offers one shape/width for all of their electric necks – a modified ‘D’ shape and 1-11/16″ in width. Althans explained that they hadn’t had enough demand for optional shapes/widths to offer optional sizes. Althans said that they are willing to entertain the idea of offering more shapes/widths in their electric models if the demand arises. (Full disclosure: Collings did build for me a one-of-a-kind electric guitar based on their CL model that has a slightly V-shaped neck and a 1-3/4″ width, but it took me over three years to get them to do it. It is stunningly beautiful and by far the most comfortably playing guitar I have ever owned.

Grosh Guitars, another high-quality, high-end builder of primarily electric guitars offer some excellent instruments that are variations of Fender and Gibson designs. While their necks are beautifully shaped and detailed as well as feeling “near perfect,” Grosh limits the shape/widths of their offerings to standard Fender and Gibson specs (C shape – 1-5/8″ width for Fender style guitars (1-11/16″ optional) and deep-C shape – 1-11/16″ width for Gibson style guitars). Grosh Guitars is reluctant to stray from those standards but when your guitars play that well, you probably don’t have to.

Likewise, mid-range builder Reverend Guitars stays within the Fender-Gibson standard for the necks on their guitars. Penny Haas from Reverend Guitars said, “That as a mid-range builder, they need to stay focused on the shape/widths that the majority of players expect to be able to provide quality instruments at reasonable prices. We don’t offer custom services at this time.” Reverend Guitars are indeed an excellent value for the price.

Eastman Guitars is mostly at the opposite end of the spectrum. Not opposite in quality to be sure, as Eastman offers near clones of practically every popular acoustic and electric guitar. Rather, Eastman offers these instruments at very reasonable prices while still maintaining high quality and craftsmanship. What is the trade-off? Well, I asked fretted instrument product specialist Mark Herring that very question. According to Herring, all Eastman guitars are handmade. That means they don’t use any CNC (Computer Numerically Controlled) machines. Eastman builds several models of acoustic and electric guitars – as I said earlier, they are near clones of popular Martins, Gibsons, and other brands. Replicas of vintage-style instruments such as D-18s and ES335s are both part of the Eastman offerings. Since they are inspired by the vintage models, the Eastman reproductions feature similar neck shapes/widths as their vintage counterparts. Additionally, since all guitars are built completely by skilled craftsmen, as a result there will be some slight variations among guitars of the same model. No custom shop instruments are offered by Eastman. This is a really “old-school” approach to guitar building, which is refreshing but also presents the potential buyer with the task of having to play several different guitars – even of the same model – to find the one that really works for them. Not a bad thing if you have the time and can find an adequate selection of guitars. And, they’re good guitars for relatively low prices.

So, what does all this mean to you and your quest for the ideal-feeling guitar? Well, for acoustic players, you can get just about any shape/size you want at just about any price range, electric players, not so much. You’d better like – or get used to – generic Fender-Gibson based necks or find a builder that is willing to make something custom for you, assuming you can afford it. Or, try building your own using components from a company such as Warmoth. There’s a story right there but I’ve run out of space for this month and I didn’t even get to talk about strings like I wanted to. Ah, well… there’s always next month. See you then…

Need to know? Just ask… Charlie (ask.charlie@hotmail.com)

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