SCALLOPED NECK GUITARS

scalloped neck Stratocaster Malmsteen

I've long been intrigued by guitars with scalloped necks. No, this doesn't have anything to do with seafood (as my wife first thought): A scalloped neck has a fretboard with depressions ("scallops") between the fret wire. It's like having super tall frets, but much more jumbo-ish than the jumbo-est fret wire installed in any production guitar. If you don't like jumbo frets, then scalloped necks probably aren't for you.

Long ago when Ritchie Blackmore was one of my main guitar idols, I read that he scalloped his guitars' necks. I reasoned that this modification must impart some special advantage in playability because at the time, he was one of the hottest rock guitarists around. The basic premise seems sound: Fingertips rubbing against the fretboard isn't a good thing when you're bending notes.

scalloped neck fretboardFretboard "stubbing" wasn't something that I'd ever thought much about. Basically, you play what you've got and accept it as being the way things should be. Fret heights vary, fretboard surfaces vary, and the condition of fingertips vary. That variability is something you get used to and accept. The fact is, there hasn't been a huge amount of interest in or attention paid to the subject. If fretboard scalloping were universally recognized as an unequivocally positive modification, everyone would be doing it, and that's what all the manufacturers would be making. That's clearly not the case. As it is, only a few famous guitarists are associated with scalloped necks, and the most prominent one is probably Yngwie J. Malmsteen.

Fender's YJM "Signature" Strats have been around for a long time, although they haven't been casually available (first series were from Japan in the '80s). Even with the current production model, I've yet to run across one at a showroom floor. That makes it hard to test drive a guitar with a scalloped neck, to see if it's for you.

That may be a smart move on the part of the stores. For most people, a brief test drive would probably convince them that they hated scalloped necks because they feel weird and different. I believe that it takes longer than a showroom test to acclimate to the feel, and then start appreciating the benefits. It also takes a somewhat open mind, and guitarists are pretty notorious for being stubborn traditionalists.

That meant that if I wanted to explore this territory, I'd have to spend money and risk discovering that I hated the feel. There were a few options: The Malmsteen Strat neck shows up parted-out on eBay periodically, but they're outrageously overpriced. Ebay is also a conduit for no-brand necks from no-name folks and neck scalloping services-- it's a lower-cost way to go, but too much of a crap-shoot for me. Warmoth sells scalloped necks, but they target a discriminating audience that knows precisely what they want-- all their options are just overkill for someone like me who simply wanted a neck to try out. Besides, they're not Fender Stratocaster logo'd and that's something that I value. As a show of determined faith, I opted for getting a complete & new YJM guitar on eBay since I'd get more bang for the buck, even though I really didn't need another guitar. For less than double the price of the neck I was eyeballing, I got the neck and a brand new body with hardware, noise-cancelling pickups and a high-quality hardshell case. I'm not a rabid fan of YJM's music, but I can enjoy his stuff in medium-sized doses and am in absolute awe of his technical prowess.

2007 Malmsteen Stratocaster headstockTHE YJM SIGNATURE STRAT (2007)
The 2007 YJM Strat is an interesting guitar, and has some unique features in addition to the neck scalloping. The neck is fastened to the body by 4 machine screws (not wood screws, for a theoretically stiffer neck/body join), and has a brass nut (which were a big aftermarket mod during the '70s, "to increase sustain"). As a matter of personal nostalgia, I do like the larger '70s style peghead with its late '60s/early '70s decals ("with synchronized tremolo") and "F"-logo tuners; Yngwie claims that the larger peghead improves resonance, or something like that (?).

The body is late '60s vintage style, with the full-sized bridge; 2-3/16" 6-screw tremolo mounting holes. A 3-position pickup selector is installed (Yngwie only uses the bridge & neck pickup), and the lower tone pot is wired to the bridge & middle pickups. The pickups are relatively low-powered, noise-cancelling DiMarzios (a popular '70s Strat mod was to install full-sized DiMarzio humbuckers). For my tastes, the color choices weren't great - Antique white (yellow), pastel blue, or red. I chose the Antique white with a rosewood fretboard (although maple would have looked better, I was considering an eventual body change for some future mods).

2007 Malmsteen Stratocaster

Since it's my guitar now (not Yngwie's), I made a few simple modifications:

  • Replaced the 3-position pickup selector with a 5-position switch. (I like the quack of positions # 2 & 5)
  • Replaced the full-sized tremolo bridge with a hybrid 2-1/16" string spacing + 2-3/16" mounting screw spacing tremolo bridge (as found on a 2007 Highway 1 Strat). The narrower string spacing helps me keep the high E from falling off the fretboard.
  • Replaced the whammy bar with a shorter, lower profile one. (Went to 6 guitar stores with a sample, and no one knew what it was, although it was an official Fender replacement part)
  • Installed a Hipshot Tremsetter. No tremolo system gives you everything: The Tremsetter gives you a (stiff) floating tremolo that lets you do double stop bends & doesn't drive you mad when tuning & changing strings.
  • Replaced the neckplate with an F-stamped one with serial# (for shits & grins, as an homage to my long-lost 4-bolt '71 Strat).
  • Replaced the saddles with eBay fake "Pat Pend." & narrowed them to fit the narrower string spacing (again, for shits & grins).

    F.Y.I.- Fake "Pat Pend." saddles on left, real 1971 saddles on right (except for D string; cleaned up & gold plated). Besides the fake's somewhat shitty job of stamping, the "PAT PEND." impression is longer and extends past the cutout. The impression is also more centered than the real one, which is very close to the cutout. I'm no expert though, so I don't know if this difference represents an actual production difference in earlier Strats. On the other hand, this could just be a not-quite-there fake job.

    That's not to say that there aren't dead-on fakes out there. The popularity of relic-ing and the high prices vintage guitars fetch should make you very wary if you're contemplating buying a guitar that's represented as being a vintage Strat.

    Do your homework, get expert advice, and buyer beware...

ADAPTING TO A SCALLOPED NECK
There's no doubt about it-- the first time you play a scalloped neck, it feels weird-- somewhat like a sitar but with a skinny neck and low action... I'm sure that's something everyone can relate to? It doesn't take long to adapt though, and you don't give up speed, or anything that you already know how to do. It just feels different, and bends are noticeably easier without your finger stubbing against the fretboard. It's also easier to dig under and mute adjacent strings when bending. Note bending is the main reason for using a scalloped neck.

There are a few misconceptions about scalloped necks:

  • You have to have a very light touch with your fretting hand
  • They're not good for rhythm playing & chords
  • It's easy to bend chords sharp

    These misconceptions are based on the seemingly commonsense notion that with all the space under the string, you'll press the string further, and thus sharper. However, unless you've got incredible, uncontrollable grip strength and steel-tipped fingers, you're unlikely to push the string any farther then you'd do when you fret a normal fretboard. On a normal fretboard, how often does the string contact the wood of the neck? It's pretty hard to do. Strings, even light gauge .009s, are easy to push side-to-side across a fret, but difficult to push downwards over a fret. If you have problems with pushing strings sharp on a normal fretboard, you'll have the same problem on a scalloped fretboard... but that problem shouldn't be any worse (unless you've got incredible, uncontrollable grip strength).

  • Scalloped fretboards are for shredding
  • Scalloped fretboards are faster playing

    You can play any style of music on a scalloped fretboard that you can play on a normal fretboard: Classical, Chicken Pickin', Mel-Bay chords. Scalloped fretboards don't make it easier to play faster; practice does that. However, if you're playing a YJM Strat, you may be inclined to emulate him and learn some of his speedy licks.

    That's not to say that there aren't differences that you have to adapt to. I found it easier to "fall off" the fretboard with my high E, simply because the notes bent easier, and I was unaccustomed to dealing with that before.

In my experience, the most difficult thing about acclimating to a scalloped neck is going back to your other guitars without scalloped necks. The first thing I noticed after my intense couple of days of acclimation was how low the action looked on my regular guitars. This was purely a visual illusion. Seeing the fretboard so close to the strings makes the action look closer, but it's actually the fret-to-string gap that determines the setup's action.

For my Highway 1 Strat with its biggish frets, the re-acclimation wasn't too jarring. The jumbo frets do have a hint of the scalloped neck feel, but it's not the same. The eye-opener was when I tried to play my favorite, a Frankenstrat with a maple neck from a Strat Plus Deluxe, which had low action and fairly low frets: I felt frustrated and slightly fatigued playing it. I couldn't let this go-- Not my favorite Strat! I either had to give up the YJM Strat before it spoiled me or do something about it.

scalloped neck Stratocaster QUICKIE HOMEBREW NECK SCALLOP JOB
I'd already gone through the Quest for the Scalloped Neck, so I knew that buying a neck or another YJM Strat wasn't the cost-effective solution I sought. My guitars already had the raw materials for a scalloped neck, so it seemed reasonable to save the bucks and see if I could do the job. Google provided some great how-to articles, and I even had the recommended tool for the job, a Dremel Contour Sander.

The hardest part was working up the courage to get started. I was a little anxious about this since my only safety net was the fact that the bolt-on neck could be replaced if things went seriously awry. Gulp. It seemed do-able though, so I snipped the strings, unbolted the neck and put masking tape over a few of the highest frets. Then, I bravely put the contour sander between the highest frets. Bzzzzzzzz.

Ugh. I didn't like the way it felt. The sander was less controllable than I felt comfortable with, even at the lowest settings. I'm much more at home with a regular old Dremel-style rotary tool, and I instinctively felt that it was the right tool for the job, for me. Furthermore, I felt that I could do it without protecting the frets and save lots of time. According to the online directions I'd read, repeatedly masking off the frets was the most time-consuming and tedious part of the job. Yep, I'm an impatient (and overconfident) guy and I didn't want to spend a week on this project-- Maybe half a day? So I gave up on the directions and decided to wing it. I wasn't after perfection or beauty, I just wanted a playable scalloped neck. Once I started, I was very anxious to be finished so I could string up the guitar and see if I'd just wasted a neck. (This article was an after-thought, so I didn't take in-progress pictures.)

I started at the heel end with a nicely broken-in (worn) oval-shaped cutting bit. The oval cutting bit has a rounded cutting surface, so you're in less danger of creating a sharp notch/gouge on the surface, as you might if you were to use a barrel shaped cutting bit. Another feature of rounded bits is that they cut at different rates depending on how the bit is angled against the wood: Cutting is fastest along the sides, and slowest at the tip.

Dremel Bits- I don't remember if I actually used the top cutter, but if I did, it was only for the heel end fret(s) which have very little space. The 2nd cutter (oval) was used throughout the neck to cut in near the fret wire. The edges of the sanding drums are "soft" enough to not cause the gouging problems that a barrel-shaped steel cutter would, as long as you keep moving. The bottom one is a very worn "abrasive buff", a spongy thing that softly levels out roughness and high spots. It's less abrasive than a sanding drum and a little more abrasive than steel wool, but doesn't hurt frets (as long as you don't dwell in one spot).

The good thing about a rotary tool is that you know exactly which way the bit is likely to wander, so it's easy to keep it on track and guide it where it needs to be. I positioned the bit so that it was rotating parallel to the grain of the wood (or so that the rotating axis was perpendicular to the neck). The cutting bit is small enough to fit in the small space between frets near the heel, and the bit was guided back and forth across the fret space, with light pressure to create the central channel. Light pressure and high speed are important because you don't want the bit to bind in the wood and begin deep cutting, or get flung into the fret wire. A slightly dull bit is good because it cuts gradually and is easy to control, like sanding with a very fine grit sandpaper. Speed plays a part too-- high speed makes it easy to cut without imparting much downward pressure, but you don't want it so high that it starts scorching wood!

After grinding the central channel (which establishes the maximum depth), the sides were grinded out to form a more gradual slope up to the fret wire. (At the highest frets, there's not much call for this since the frets are so closely spaced.) As the fret spacing gets wider, you'll find that you can get the contour pretty close to the fret wire, but there's still a gap at the base of the fret that you can't get to -- which is probably a good thing. If your guitar needs to be re-fretted, it's probably better if there's support wood around the base of the frets.

As you grind out the slope up to the fret wire, there's a good chance that you'll grind against the edge of the fret wire: Not to worry. The strings don't care about the sides of the frets. (It's probably not a good idea to dwell there though.) HOWEVER... it's very important that you don't lose control or get careless and let the bit grind the TOP of the fret! If you do that, your string will notice. If it's a minor scuff, steel wool or bending notes across the fret will probably fix it without any problems. If you put a deep gouge there, the fret may be ruined and need to be replaced. So be careful! If you want insurance, use double layers of masking tape on your fret wire to protect them from this kind of damage.

As I worked my way down the fretboard and the spaces got wider, the cutting bit seemed less appropriate for the job; it grinded such a small area at a time, which made it difficult to grind the whole surface to the same flatness and smoothness. It was also too slow for my level of impatience. I swapped it for a small diameter sanding drum, and as I worked down the neck, swapped that for the large diameter sanding drum. The sanding drums were considerably coarser, but worked well for grinding out balanced scallops. I actually had two rotary tools on hand for the job-- a Dremel with the cutting bit for cutting in near the fret wire, and a foot-controlled Foredom with the sanding drums for the overall shaping. That convenience just made the job go a little faster.

After I was satisfied with the rough shaping, I went over the neck with medium grit sandpaper, an abrasive buff, and steel wool. This leveled things out a little better and gave a finer finish. With a maple fretboard, I don't think you have to be as concerned about the quality of finish, since it has to be drowned in a sealant (preferably thick) so the wood doesn't rot or do other nasty things. For that, I used Krylon "Crystal Clear" acrylic spray-- probably not the first choice of someone who knows what they're doing --but I had it on hand, and the stuff dries super fast. I put on several wet, thick coats in fairly quick succession and shortly thereafter it was dry enough to handle and rebuild the guitar without any problems whatsoever. Less than four hours after starting, my guitar was restrung and I was basking in the warm glow of success...

There are a couple of "gotchas" to be aware of. I tried to do an asymmetric "Blackmore"-style scallop, wherein the scallop depth is greater for the higher strings, and shallower for the bass strings. Basically, I did it this way because I didn't want to cut any deeper than the side position markers on the bass side of the fretboard. If you grind into those markers, you'll see a cross section of what's left of them from the top of the fretboard. I've seen a guitar on eBay with this "mod". Very ugly, even by my low-brow standards.

Another "gotcha" is pretty much unavoidable: Fretboard position marker "dots". You can't avoid grinding them, but it's impossible to tell in advance how deep they are. Not that that would make any difference... I'd scalloped through 4 of them with no problems until I hit the octave's double dots. They just completely sanded away before I'd gone barely deep enough. The same thing happened to one dot marker lower on the fretboard, but that one had a screw underneath it. It's pretty stressful to see this happen, but there's really not much you can do about it. However, I did use a trick mentioned in the Googled how-to instructions: Cut the dots out of electrical tape with a hole punch. They're a little bigger than the originals, but I didn't care. I'm just glad I was doing a maple neck with black dots.

One final note-- I spoke of the ultimate "safety net" earlier, but there's a secondary one as long as you don't totally botch the job and structurally screw up the neck. I rushed through the finishing steps knowing that it would be easy to revisit that-- strip the coating off, fine tune the scallops, buy and install real position markers, and seal it with a traditional nitro lacquer... but as long as it plays well and I'm not trying to sell the thing, it's good 'nuff for me.

--05/24/08

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