Greetings, Blog-Buddies! We hear it every day, a fat or thin neck for my guitar? Preferences are often etched in stone, and that is great! Helping people who know what they are looking for is easy. Experienced players who fall into that category may find this article less helpful as the intention is to help those earlier in the process understand the pros and cons of different-sized necks.
As a speed-focused, progressive-metalhead-turned-country-finger-picker, I went from the Ibanez Wizard Neck Profile or a Slim Taper to a Fat U Profile. These neck profiles are complete opposites. So, I feel comfortable discussing this subject as I have extensively explored a variety of neck sizes. Despite over 30 years of playing numerous genres and the privilege of having thousands of top-notch guitars pass through my hands, most of this post is made up of opinions. Albeit they formed through playing experience and observations based on 20+ years of helping folks in Guitar Boutiques.
Terms and Definitions
We will focus on Depth since that is the critical spec in the thin vs. fat conversation. Depth is measured from the face of the fingerboard to the deepest part on the back of the neck. This area provides the deepest measurable part of a neck to accurately assess its size. We measure neck depth using a digital caliper with the strings either removed or pulled to the side. Including the strings in this measurement will bloat depth measurements considerably.
Taper is a term worth mentioning early in the conversation. Most necks get thicker as the frets climb and most manufacturers call this taper. The amount of taper can vary. Taper is not a universally agreed upon number, and preferences have changed throughout the eras. Sometimes a lot! However, if a neck is an inch deep at the nut, like a Fender Nocaster or some early Gibson necks, it won't taper at all, as an inch seems to be about the most depth players can handle. Helpful online guitars listings will often have the 1st-fret and 12th-fret depth measurements listed so those who can't try a guitar can at least get an idea of how a neck feels.
Ahh, the quintessential, slim 60s Strat dimensions!
Manufacturers often use a letter to describe a neck shape, like C-shaped, D-shaped, or U-shaped. These letters refer to the shape, carve, or profile of a neck, not its depth. The shoulders heavily influence the feel of a neck but are not a true part of the depth conversation. Depth is derived from a simple measurement while the shoulders present us with a shape (or a letter) or feel. While all neck shapes could be thin, medium, or fat, C's are generally thinner than U's and V's. In other words, a profile is not always indicative or dependent on depth, that's why those aforementioned depth measurements of depth are crucial!
What Dimensions Make a Neck Fat or Thin?
At the 1st fret, a thin neck measures around .800" - .810" and less in depth. Finding a neck thinner than .780" is not common but they do exist. I just measured a 1966 ES-345 that came in at .730" in the 1st position!
A neck with medium depth starts around .820"-830" in the 1st position and then gets fat around .880"-.900".
From around .880" to 1" qualifies as fat to my hands. Generally, necks aren't thicker than an inch. An inch feels huge for most, is unplayable for some, and is a must-have for a others.
Obviously, we all have different-sized hands, and flexibility will often influence preference. More on that later.
Some Well-Known Examples...
Thin Necks: Most Ibanez, Jackson, Charvel, ESP, Parker, etc. The Gibson Slim Taper Neck, mid 60s-era Gibsons, PRS Wide-Thin, many modern Strat necks, and Squiers.
Medium Necks: Late 60s Fenders, the Gibson 50s Profile, many modern Teles, Taylor, Gretsch, and numerous PRS profiles.
Fat Necks: Fender Nocaster, 54-55 Strats, 1950s era Gibsons, Vintage Martin and Gibson Acoustics.
Here come the opinions...
I played thin necks from when I started playing at 11 years old until I dropped the pick in my early 30s. That was when a fat neck started making sense. Early on, I was playing scales and riffs that, by and large, were in a 7-fret span on the low 4-strings. A thinner neck allowed me easy, fast access to those lower strings.
After getting into Chet Atkins and Jerry Reed, movable chord shapes became my thing, and a deeper neck just felt right. I learned the CAGED system to transition styles, and my fretting hand experienced less fatigue than with the thin neck on my old shredder. I started thinking across the strings (or string to string) instead of within a box, scale, or pattern. The added depth also made holding bass notes while letting the high strings ring considerably easier. Know what the extra depth made harder? Shredding.
I wondered what it was about different-sized necks that made certain things easier or harder. By noticing which muscles I was straining while playing the same song on different guitars, I learned which guitar worked best for the song. With my Personal Preferences set aside, it was obvious to me that neck size not only influenced how I played but in some cases actually allowed or granted access to certain techniques.
I realized the thinner the neck, the closer the tip of my thumb and fingertips had to be. In playing position on my fretting hand, I feel this as greater tension in (what I think is my) ABDUCTOR POLLICIS LONGUS, the tendon that connects the thumb to the forearm. By increasing the distance between the thumb and fingers tips, my APL relaxes. A fatter neck provides this extra distance by design and I experience less fatigue when playing the chordal style I referenced earlier. However, I simply CANNOT play the shredder stuff on a Fat Neck due to the more vertical approach it requires. I NEED a thin neck for those fast, in-a-box, or scalar riffs. So which is best? IMHO, it entirely depends on the song and the techniques required to play it.
For me, it is this simple. I have also observed these preferences while working in shops for the last 20+ years. Most often, our customers reinforce what I have written here. Shredders prefer a thin neck. More chord-based players gravitate towards medium to fat necks. Strat players often prefer thin necks. Tele players often prefer medium-to-fat necks. Of course, some great players can play anything on any guitar and muddy these already dirty waters. Must be nice for them, huh? For the rest of us, neck shape and size matter, perhaps more than any other aspect of a guitar.
A Little Advice...
People often begin this conversation by saying, "I have X-sized hands, so I need an X-sized neck." Well, this drastically limits your choices and... it is simply not true. My hands are not large, and my fingers are not long, but I prefer a Medium-Fat neck because of how I play. Steve Vai and Paul Gilbert have very long, slender fingers and prefer just about the thinnest neck available. Danny Gatton did not have long slender fingers and preferred the full 1" neck profile known as The Nocaster. So, unless you have unusually sized hands, or physical limitations, I'd suggest not limiting/filtering your choices through perceived limitations tied to your hand size. Remember: a great sounding guitar cares not about what size neck is attached to it!
Speaking of unusual hands...
Around 2001, I taught Bill Cartwright, the 7' 1" former Chicago Bulls Center, a couple of guitar lessons. His hands were HUGE, and his fingers were so long and thick that I had a hard time telling him what to do, other than playing bass instead! I also taught a girl in high-school at the time, whose hands were much smaller than average. Through consistent practice, stretching, and awareness of her limitation, she was able to master bar chords faster than many with average-sized hands. My point? I would rather have small hands and work on stretching than have hands so big that I can't fret one string at a time!
Wrap it up, already!
I have thin necks in my collection but prefer to play rock or metal on them with a pick. For me, bigger necks are more comfortable for chord-based material. Both are personal preferences discovered through getting my hands dirty and over-analyzing the whole thing. And that is the most important part: get to a shop and experience these things yourself! Then you can lay some nagging questions to rest, call me a hack, or validate my findings! You, nor anyone else for that matter, can be wrong in matters concerning personal preference. Ultimately, you should go with whatever will help you achieve your goals with as little frustration as possible. At the end of the day, only you need to be comfortable with the neck on your guitar.
I would love to know your thoughts on this. Please leave me a comment and do-tell! Some civilized discussion could help everyone be better educated! Thanks for taking the time, and I look forward to hearing some other opinions!
Written by Mathew Jenkins.
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