It’s a very human tendency to try and come up with ways to reduce time and effort to produce a particular result, and this is no different when it comes to the average guitar player.
Guitarists often look for an edge, a particular way of setting up their instrument to make it either easier to play, or much better-sounding, and a scalloped guitar neck is just one of these tactics.
A scalloped guitar neck is when the wood between the frets has been carved out. The idea behind filing down the wood between the frets is to reduce the amount of pressure it takes to fret individual notes, thus, making it easier to produce vibrato and bends, but also easier to play out of tune.
A scalloped guitar neck has been around forever, and it’s not totally uncommon for guitarists to use this style of the neck, primarily because it allows for the player to reduce the amount of effort it takes to properly fret a note. While there are many perks of using a scalloped guitar neck, there are also some disadvantages, which we’ll explore in this article.
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Pros of Using a Scalloped Fretboard
1) Easier Bends and Vibrato
One of the primary advantages of using a scalloped guitar neck is that it’s much easier to bend the string because there is no wood underneath the string stopping you or slowing you down in any way. With a scalloped guitar fretboard, the player can really grab on to the string and bend it either upward or downward, depending on which way you want it to go.
If there is no wood underneath the string, there is less tension, and therefore it’s much easier to bend, pull, and vibrate the string as much as you want without having to worry about anything underneath it.
2) Forces You to Play with a Much Lighter Touch
This is an advantage or a con, depending on which way you look at it. Because there is no wood underneath the string, it takes much less pressure to actually fret the notes. Put simply, it takes a reduced amount of energy and effort to really play the instrument.
Additionally, some say that a scalloped fretboard, because it forces you to be more mindful of how you play the instrument, makes you a better and more focused player when you shift to a non-scalloped fretboard.
3) Easier Legato
Some guitarists also claim that legato is much easier with a scalloped fretboard, which makes sense because it needs a reduced amount of pressure to actually fret the notes. Put simply, you can do hammer-ons and pull-offs faster with less energy. Not everyone thinks this is the case, however.
4) Easier to Use the Tapping Technique
Additionally, because it takes less effort to fret notes, it’s not uncommon for guitarists to report that it’s much easier to use the tapping technique, which is where you use your right-hand or your picking hand, depending on whether you’re left or right-handed, to strike the notes while the left-hand frets them. Eddie Van Halen popularized this technique, and a scalloped fretboard can make it easier for some players to utilize it.
5) More Articulation and Clarity
A byproduct of the fretboard needing less pressure is increased articulation and clarity. This means that it’s actually much easier to hear how much pressure is being applied to the notes, and it’s no coincidence that many guitarists who use a scalloped fretboard prefer having very sensitive pick-ups that are going to pick up on all of those little details.
Depending on how you look at it though, this could also be a con, because if you’re insecure or self-conscious about your playing, you won’t want all of those little idiosyncrasies to be heard. One good way of looking at it, however, is that using a scalloped guitar neck is going to make you a better player for when you start using a regular guitar neck.
6) Microtonal Differences
Another cool aspect of using a scalloped fretboard has to do again, with the reduced amount of pressure to fret the note. Because the fretboard responds more to pressure, it’s more apt at producing microtonal differences, which means you can bend the string with more subtlety, effectively producing differences on the micro-level in terms of pitch. Put simply, you could actually play a note slightly above an ‘e’ note, for example.
Cons of a Scalloped Fretboard
1) Harder to Move Hands Across the Fretboard
The primary downside of using a scalloped fretboard is easy to imagine. Because the wood between the frets has literally been carved out so as to produce a more concave curve between them, it’s actually harder to shift your hands up and down the neck.
Explained another way, it’s almost like running your fingers up an old washing board where your fingers hit each ridge individually, which may actually slow you down in the beginning. In other words, many people who have used a scalloped fretboard report feeling “slowed down” rather than sped up, at least until they get used to it.
Because of the increased concave curve between the frets, a scalloped fretboard user will have to put less pressure on the fretboard when shifting their hands to different points on the neck, simply because the ridges will effectively act as speed bumps.
2) Easier to Pull Out of Tune
Another disadvantage of using a scalloped fretboard is also one of its advantages. Because it’s much easier to pull the strings in either direction, it’s also much easier to fret the notes to the point where they go completely out of tune, which is even more pronounced when playing chords.
In other words, if you’re the type of player who really presses hard on the notes, then a scalloped fretboard is probably not for you, because it’s very easy to apply too much pressure and therefore push the notes completely out of tune. Applying too much pressure to a note will cause it to go too sharp.
Additionally, it’s much easier to pull certain strings out of tune more than others because of the lack of wood underneath the string. Most guitarists tend to apply more pressure to one string over another simply because the average person’s fingers are different in thickness and strength. If you have a scalloped fretboard, you’ll have to almost relearn your fretting technique in order to compensate for the changes.
Important Things to Note About Scalloped Fretboards
1) Not All Frets Have to Be Scalloped
Not every fret has to be scalloped. Some guitars are actually built in such a way where certain frets are scalloped and others are not, kind of like the Steve Vai signature Jem model, from Ibanez, where the top five frets on the guitar are scalloped while the rest of them are not. This means the highest notes are easier to do bends and vibrato, and they take less pressure to actually play.
Many guitars are custom-built so that scalloped frets are used on one side of the neck and not the other. For instance, the scalloped frets might only be on a few strings and on a few frets, in comparison to just being the same right across the board.
Where Do Scalloped Guitar Necks Come From and Who Popularized Them?
Scalloped guitar necks have existed forever, according to Seymour Duncan’s website. Before the modern guitar that we know today was created in the 1800s, the lute was the defining instrument of the middle ages, and it wasn’t uncommon for lutes to also have scalloped frets.
However, one of the main myths surrounding scalloped fretboards is that they’re overall much easier to play, thus much faster. The myth that a scalloped guitar neck is much “faster,” likely first started to spread as a result of Ywngie Malmsteen, who is a neo-classical shredder who came to prominence for his fast playing in the 1980s.
Before Ywngie Malmsteen, Richie Blackmore was also noted for his use of the scalloped fretboard, and while he was arguably the first guitarist in modern music to utilize the scalloped fretboard, it wasn’t until Malmsteen began using it that it really started to pick up in steam and popularity.
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With all things considered, a scalloped fretboard is not for everyone, and it’s really up to you to try one before customizing your guitar in this way or buying one.
A scalloped fretboard is when the wood between the frets has been scooped out, effectively reducing the amount of pressure it takes to fret and bend the note. Some players claim it makes it easier to play, while others say it’s much harder.