Start with the simple fact that the human hand comes in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. Because of this there is no perfect guitar neck shape for everyone. My hands are of average size and while I am blessed with fairly narrow fingers, alas, they are not terribly long. So after many decades of playing I think I’ve finally figured out what works best for me, i.e., what is the most comfortable and non-fatiguing neck shape. This is what is normally described as a “soft-C” shape. Martin calls it their Low Profile. I’ve also come to like the shape of the Gibson acoustic neck, which is closer to a subtle D-shape.
What I absolutely do not care for at all are the V-shape necks. It is curious to me that many custom and limited edition Martins (plus quite a few guitars from the boutique makers) are made with this neck profile. The reason I can’t stand that profile is quite simple. I play some tunes in first position using “cowboy chords” (G Major, C Major, D Major, A minor, E minor, a few 7ths…) but I’m often up the neck playing partial or complete barre chords. Correct technique demands the pad of the thumb be placed directly below the neck, centered beneath the barring finger and a V-neck is really uncomfortable when playing those chords. Add to that the fact that most V-necks are fairly deep/thick and my technique suffers, big time. One of my students has a beautiful custom Martin 00-28V with such a neck and in spite of its beauty and great sound I know that she will struggle when we get to songs that require a lot of barre chords. I will break the news to her gently!
On the other extreme are the necks found on most Taylor guitars, which are quite flat in the back. Sounds like a good thing for barre chords, right? Yes – to a degree. In Bob Taylor’s great book, “Guitar Lessons” he describes how he and his luthiers came up with that profile, wanting to make an acoustic guitar that would appeal to players who may have come from an electric guitar background where barre chords are the norm. The problem I have with Taylor necks comes back to the previously discussed question of nut width. Remember, I have fairly short fingers and with Taylor’s standard 1 ¾” nut plus that almost flat neck I have to make some fairly radical adjustments when playing a tune that combines first position open-string chords with barre chords. It can be done of course, and often Taylor’s come through with great action (string height above the neck) but the constant and somewhat radical repositioning of my hand and wrist when playing a Taylor is distracting at best.
Some manufacturers have tried taking the concept of the flat neck to the extreme. Back in the lat 1970s, Peavey (mostly known for their amps, not guitars) came out with a line of electrics that had necks so thin it was almost silly. Their fatal error was making those necks not only thin but also flat and wide. Barre chords where easier to play but chording in first position and fast lead playing where tough, to say the least. Those guitars pretty much faded away in a few short years when players discovered this.
Way back in the 19th century and well into the early 20th century most acoustic guitars had very thick C- or V-shaped necks. Guitars from Gibson, Martin, Epiphone, Washburn and others from those eras command high prices these days and some players profess to like those almost baseball bat size necks, but unless you have quite large hands I would advise staying away from those vintage instruments. They may sound and look spectacular but you want to be able to play thing, right?! (I know vintage guitar enthusiasts are rolling their eyes about now as they read this!) There are exceptions among vintage instruments of course. But I would certainly advise playing or at least getting an accurate measurement of neck depth and shape on any super expensive vintage guitar you’re considering.
One other small but important consideration is not just the depth and shape of the neck, but also its edges. Some guitars have very sharp edges on the fretboard and this can be downright painful on the inside of your hand. One of the reasons I’ve come to really like the Gibson acoustic necks is that they slightly round those edges, making for a very comfortable playing experience.
That’s really the take-away here. It’s important to consider the type of songs you’ll be playing (and not just what you’re playing now – what you hope to play in the future too) and your hand shape and size when selecting a new guitar. Many guitar companies claim to have “fast, easy action” and while that might be true for some players, it might not be for you.
Peace & good music,