Why Use A SCALLOPED Fretboard When You Can Have TALLER FRETS?

Why Use A SCALLOPED Fretboard When You Can Have TALLER FRETS?

Tommaso Zillio

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scalloped frets guitar

Have you ever heard the term ‘scalloping’ and wondered what that is? Or maybe you question why some guitar players use scalloped fretboards?

First off, scalloping is when a (hopefully professional) guitar luthier removes a small amount of wood in between the frets of a guitar in a shallow semi-circle shape.

Allow me to reiterate that this should be a professional luthier that does this to your guitar…

… and before you ask, no, your distant uncle Dennis who was a shop hand at a carpentry shop for 2 weeks in college, is not a ‘professional,’ no matter how much he insists that he is.

With that out of the way, the question now becomes:

Why don’t guitar players just use taller frets instead of cutting into their poor, innocent fretboard?

And this is the question because many guitarists, including yours truly, have described scalloped fretboards as “feeling like you have ginormous frets on your guitar” (*)

( (*) I love how Grammarly is correcting “yours truly” but does not bats an eye at “ginormous.” Maybe I should find myself a human proofreader…)

Well, first of all, the biggest size I’ve seen for fret wire is called ‘jumbo’, which is not even close to being large enough to simulate the feeling of a scalloped fretboard…

… so - inquiring minds want to know - what would a fret, large enough to feel like a scalloped fretboard, be called? “Super mega jumbo wumbo”? Now that just sounds plain stupid.

But even assuming that one day somebody will produce frets as thick as your fingers, they would still not work the same as a scalloped fretboard.


Well, check out the video that has been conveniently linked below to find out.

Scallops may be a healthy and tasty treat, but do you know what else is a healthy and tasty treat? Pentatonic guitar solos. Check out this free eBook on how to make your pentatonic solos sound professional, so you can make your pentatonic solos sound not only tastier but healthier too.

Video Transcription

Hello internet; so nice to see you! I have a great question I received on the topic of guitars with scalloped necks. And since I have one, and since I love it, I want to answer this question.

I wonder why people don’t simply use thicker fret wire and raise the action instead of cutting into the neck.

This is a very intelligent question because the point of having a scalloped neck, and I don’t know if you can see from that distance, is simply we removed some of the wood from in between the different frets so on the fret, there is a small amount of wood, but in between, we just cut a little bit of wood away on the fretboard.

The point of these is to have the feeling of super tall frets. And to the point that when you fret your note, your fingers touch only the string and they don’t touch the wood under it. Okay, and that’s kind of the point of the scalloped frets, is that you don’t want to have that contact with the wood so that when you do a bend or vibrato, there is no friction of your finger with the wood of the fretboard. That’s the point of it.

And so essentially, bends and vibrato become much easier. As a side effect, since there is no friction with the wood, you need a very light hand, as otherwise, you risk bending your string out of tune because there is no friction laterally. Okay, so if you don’t fret your notes exactly vertically on the fretboard, you’re going to slip on the side. That’s how it feels at least.

Okay, so the question is, why don’t we just use super tall frets? And in principle that looks correct, right? I mean, we just need to have giant mega super tall frets, and these will feel the same. But that’s not true for a couple of reasons.

Well, the first reason is that nobody’s making frets this tall. Okay, you can go anywhere you want, the super mega jumbo super tall, fantastically, okay, the Empire State Building tall frets don’t exist. Okay. The tallest fret that Dunlop makes, or the tallest fret that other people make are simply not as tall. And so your fingers are still feeling the wood of the fretboard. Okay, maybe less than having the vintage, super tiny, nearly invisible frets. But still, that’s the problem.

And I think there is a technical reason for that, which is that if you make frets this tall, then it’s harder to bend them to follow the curvature of the neck. Okay, now all the frets typically come slightly pre-bent, but you still need to adapt them to the curvature of the neck because the neck is not straight, it’s slightly curved. And the radius of the neck is different from guitar to guitar. So this guitar is 7.5 I think, the vintage curvature, which means that if I do a circle with the center, seven inches and a half away from here, then the circle will be tangent on the frets.

But some of the modern guitars have a radius of 12 or 14 or 16. Like the Ibanez, so super flat, because some people like that, personally, I prefer more of a curve, but again, totally depends on your hands. My hand curves a little bit more than other hands. Other people prefer to have them super flat because they say that it’s easier to bend without the not choking, which is true technically, I’d rather have a slightly higher action and more curvature more comfortable for me, but again, totally depends on what you like. But the thing is the curvature of different guitars is different. So, if the fret is that tall, it becomes simply harder to bend, okay. And that will be the first reason.

But the second reason is that if you have super tall frets, you will put the guitar out of alignment. Let me show you. Because the strings are suspended between those two points. So you have the body of the guitar here, okay? And then you have the neck of the guitar here. Okay. And the strings are suspended between the bridge and the nut. Okay? Here’s your headstock, whatever you want, okay, and so the string is suspended here. Okay. So let me shade these so you understand that this is solid, fantastic. Okay. Make sense?

And with normal frets, the normal fret is not as tall as between the bridge and the nut, okay, so that I can press this thing on it. Fantastic. Everything works. If I put super tall frets though, the super tall fret will touch the string. Now, you will say ‘but why don’t we start raising things? We can raise the bridge and we can raise the nut?’ Yes, we can. But if the nut is too tall, it will not stay in its slot, and every little disturbance will just flip the nut out of the slot. If you can glue it, definitely, at the same time though, you cannot raise the bridge too much, otherwise, it will just be very uncomfortable to play. Okay? Make sense.

So the only solution will be at this point to increase the curvature of the neck. So make the neck slightly curved. Okay, so just the strings will be taller, and these things would be a bit further away, okay, of course, I’m exaggerating here just to show what I mean. Okay, and now you can have super tall frets here. And I mean, these can be done. But the thing is, the whole design of the instrument is made for frets that have a normal height, okay? And you don’t have that much tolerance in between super tall, and super low. Otherwise, you say you set the whole instrument out of alignment.

Would it be possible to build a guitar that works with super, super, super tall frets? Yes, it will be easy even, we just need to have to build the bridge higher, put a little bit more curvature on the neck, put a slightly wider slot here to put a bigger nut, and change the proportion of a few elements of the guitar. It will be easy. The point is; nobody’s doing it. Okay, simple as that.

So the solution you have right now in this moment in time we know the guitar builders building whatever they’re building right now is, if you don’t want to have to touch the wood on the fretboard, so you want the scalloped feeling, the only way is to do violence to your guitar and remove that wood. No more, no less, which is what I did, you take a big file and file away.

By the way, don’t do this yourself. I didn’t do it myself. I asked a luthier to do it. Okay, I disclaim any responsibility if you destroy your instrument, okay, have somebody who knows what they’re doing, actually doing it.

But the point is, if you want this feeling, you either buy a guitar that’s already been scalloped or you scallop an existing guitar, this was not scalloped to begin with, it’s a custom job. Okay? That’s the reason why okay?

And the problem here, and the problem with many other things in guitar building is that changing one element will change everything else in the instrument because everything in this instrument is built the way it’s built so that it works together. Okay, it’s set up in a specific way, not just this guitar, every guitar, it’s built in that specific way so that every element works together. But at least that’s the best of the possible words because some guitars are not built this way and they suck.

Okay, but if this instrument is built properly, it’s made so everything works together. That’s why the design of the Stratocaster is for instance, it’s timeless, and we are still using it because the shape and the position of every single control, the straight headstock with the trees, etc, etc. Everything is made to work together for a specific result, you change one of the things, you have to change everything to have a coherent instrument that does something different, okay?

You cannot just change one element and expect everything to work. So, in this case, we just did what is at the end of the day, the smallest possible change you eliminate the wood but don’t change the alignment of all the elements like the nut, the fret, the bridge that make your guitar work.

Okay, so that’s the long answer to a very simple question. But it’s important to understand is that when you look at your guitar, whenever you want to change something, it’s important to know that those elements are put together to work all together. So don’t just change stuff randomly, otherwise, it may not work anymore. This is Tommaso Zillio for MusicTheoryForGuitar.com, and until next time, enjoy.

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