Inside-the-Shop are informative articles written by Kevin Smith, Luthier of The Violin Shop
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Neck Shapes Part 2
In the last issue we discussed the actual shape of your instruments’ neck. I threw a lot of dimensional information your way, and today I’m going to throw a little bit more. But from there we’ll take a look at a few things that will make a neck feel good without changing the actual shape.
But first, the dimensions.
To start with, there are 2 neck dimensions (and one more on the top that works with the neck dimensions) that are standard. And for a good reason.
—The first is the length of the neck from your upper nut (see Issue 11, Thursday’s Word) to the edge of the top. This distance, plus the distance from the edge to where the bridge sits, determines the string length. If the overall string length is longer than standard, your finger spacing will need to stretch a bit longer to play in tune. If it’s shorter you’ll have to get used to playing like you’re on a smaller instrument.
So if you get used to standard, you should be able to switch from your instrument to another instrument without too much trouble playing in tune.
—The second and final dimension is at the heel of the neck. When you shift to where your thumb hooks on the neck heel, if the curve isn’t in the right place you’ll either shift sharp or flat until you get used to it. After that you’ll have the same adjustments to make when you play any other instrument.
As you can see, these variables have the potential to make playing more difficult than it needs to be. It’s worth having a well-trained Luthier go over it all with you and discuss your options. If nothing else you can relax knowing that you’re muscle memory is adjusted to the right dimensions.
On to things a little less complicated. For instance, a varnished neck. If you look at your neck and see a high gloss on it, it’s varnished. Ideally you want a neck that’s sealed but not varnished. Here’s why. Normally your hands perspire a bit when you play. And the more you perspire, the more your hands will stick to a varnished neck when you shift. A sealed neck on the other hand will allow for the moisture of your skin without grabbing onto it. And your instruments neck will still be protected. The nice thing about a varnished neck is that it doesn’t cost very much to have it corrected.
Another easy fix is smoothing out the rough spots. Like the sealed neck, it just makes playing that much more pleasurable. One of the most noticeable rough spots is where the fingerboard is glued to the neck. If that joint is off, you’ll feel a step when you draw your thumb or finger across it. This is usually more than a rough spot though … it’s actually a sharp ridge. Depending on how severe it is, you can either have your fingerboard removed and re-glued correctly, or have the ridge removed (a hint: if you feel this ridge, most of the time you’ll feel a ridge on the other side of the neck where the alignment is equally displaced. This is best corrected by re-gluing the fingerboard).
Another rough spot easily fixed is when the grain is standing up a little here or there. The next time you have your instrument in for a check you can get those rough grains smoothed out — usually while you wait.
I hope you take the time to get familiar with the different aspects of an instruments neck. It really can make the difference between frustration and excellence.