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There are a myriad of top brace configurations with bolt-on and dovetail neck joints. Heck you can move the X forward, leave off the 1x1/8 Popsicle brace, cut through this brace to accommodate some styles of truss rods, leave off some of the finger braces and it goes on. There will be listeners of any or all of these guitars --- each will hear some different tonal quality and each listener will have an opinion of which one sounds best --- not to mention the basic fact that the skill of the player is what really makes the most difference.
So when this subject comes up I like to have people read Frank Ford’s take on Bolt-on vs. Dovetail neck joints.
Kenneth Michael Guitars est. 1978
OK, so which is better, a traditional glued dovetail like a Martin, or a bolted neck like a Taylor?
I’m amazed that any builder, whether an individual or a large factory, would make flat top guitars without considering the eventuality of needing or desiring to remove the neck. It’s a little like the cigarette industry and cancer. How much evidence do we need before everyone admits it?
I hope by now it’s obvious that virtually all steel string guitars (including lightly built archtops, too) undergo a body shape change that results in a neck angle problem. These days, we correct the neck angle by removing the neck and resetting it to approximate the original angle with respect to the top and the bridge. How many solid top imported guitars will be thrown away because the necks cannot be removed? How many “high end” guitars will need really serious and expensive modification because they were made with a Spanish heel, epoxied dovetail, or other nonremovable system.
A glued dovetail neck is a removable neck, as long as the glue can be softened reasonably easily. But, in what way is it superior to a bolted mortise? It is traditional, to be sure, and I do respect tradition. In fact, I really like tradition. So, how long did those old time builders think we’d try to keep their instruments “on the road?” Especially for the early builders and gut stringing, how significant was “low action” up the neck?
Today’s players are far more sophisticated in their needs for good playability and intonation, and we need to take that into account. When I first started in lutherie, more than 30 years ago, it was commonly held that necks needed to be reset only on really old instruments and/or poorly built ones. Now, we accept that it’s only a matter of time before any flat top guitar will need the operation, and many of them will need that job repeated at regular intervals. With that in mind, why not simply go with the flow? Why not make a guitar with a neck that can come off with minimal damage to the finish or structure of the instrument?
If there’s one piece of “reasoning” I don’t trust it’s that bit about the neck joint contributing to the tone. Particularly on Internet forums, I've heard any number of folks state that the neck joint is the logical reason that Taylor guitars sound bright, and Martins tend to be more full in their bass response. That's a real case of comparing apples and oranges. In the dreadnought size, for example, Taylor instruments have different, and heavier top bracing, which clearly makes for a stiffer top, emphasizing treble response, while Martins have lighter bracing, and similar thickness tops and backs, so they are more flexible, allowing for a fuller bass.
As a further illustration, I offer this little scene:
Not long ago I was visiting a guitar factory, where thousands of guitars have been made over the last few decades. One member of our little tour group asked the guide a question.
“As we went through the factory, I noticed that some of the workers were out to lunch and I didn't see how you attach the neck to the body. What kind of joint do you use?” We've always used a glued tapered dovetail joint because it’s important for our special tone. Other kinds of joints would not transmit vibrations as well.” Another member of the group asked, “Have you ever tried another kind of joint, even as an experiment?”
What I heard was a defense of the “way we do things” rather than even a tiny bit of reasoning on the subject. Meanwhile, others build guitars that consistently sound GREAT using a joint that this sort of fellow disparages as “not transmitting vibrations.”
From time to time, I've been called upon to convert a guitar from a solid, nonremovable neck to a bolted construction. In no case have either I or the owner of the guitar experienced a loss of tone.
Now, it seems that classical and flamenco builders often aim for a rather low bridge and saddle height. It’s a matter of tone, and that’s all well and good. BUT, wouldn't we have a much easier time if those guys also made their instruments with removable necks? I've met a number of really angry owners of high end Spanish classical guitars who were disappointed by the fact that their necks couldn't be removed and reset like many steel string guitar necks.
As a guitar mechanic, I've gotten good at disassembling Martin and other dovetail neck joints. The process involves steam, and some risk, especially to the finish. Personally, I have enough work to keep me really busy, so I wouldn't mind a bit if Martin would switch to a bolted mortise. My customers would like it, too, because neck resetting would cost less. With Bob Taylor’s help, the “stigma” of a bolt-on neck is now pretty much a thing of the past, so, why not let the dovetail be a thing of the past, too? FF, 2/11/01
Nov 28, 09 | 11:01 am
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Total Posts: 2262
I believe that the work has been done, I've did some Internets searches -- indications are that there are far more perfect mating MT neck joints than DT necks, it the nature of the beast due to the vast number of contacting surfaces on the DT and the fact that a tiny error on any one surface throws off the others. Just because it looks good along the heel cheeks does not mean the DT has solid perfect fit.
Also the Internet search will reveal that many big time boutique builders now use and prefer the bolt on systems. I think, like Frank Ford indicates the "ear to ear" comparisons cannot detect any sound quality differences.
Note that Martin changed all the brace patterns for its bolt-on neck models. Just my opinion, but I believe, Martin marketing knows full well if compared the MT and DT versions no matter what brace pattern would sound the same -- so how could the myth (extra $$$$$) continue?
That said -- fitting a DT in a very cool puzzle for the wood worker, I have some gadgets designed that make the job easier --- hopefully I can get those off the back burner and available to the public.
Kenneth Michael Guitars est. 1978
Nov 29, 09 | 4:19 am
Total Topics: 158
Total Posts: 3584
I'm of the opinion that a perfectly made Dovetail can sound as good as a well made Mortise & Tenon. But with the difficulty of making all those angles fit tightly, it's less likely that a dovetail can be made perfectly. On the other hand, an M&T neck joint can be well made by a beginner.
I believe the neck joint is -- must be -- an inert, solid part of the guitar. The very goal of a dovetail joint is to make it so solid and perfectly mated that it could be used on the guitar without any glue. Frank Ford has said that elsewhere in his writings. Also Dan Erlewine. If a joint is that solid, it might be transmitting some sound, but it would probably be from the body to the neck, not the other way 'round (since it is the body that creates the sound). But the point is, the neck joint's purpose is not to be an active part of the guitar's sonic system, but to be an immovable structural element, as solid as possible, like the neck itself. If the neck and the joint aren't solid, they will deaden sound transmission, and there are probably more solid MT joints around than dovetail, if you don't count the epoxied jobs some builders to which some builders have to resort.
So, if a builder can make a more solid neck joint by using a bolt-on system, he should do so, imho. If he can make a perfectly fitting joint with a dovetail, then that's great for him -- but how many of us can do it? And then, there's that pesky neck resetting that requires that the neck joint be completely redone if it's a dovetail, but only a little trimming of the cheeks if it's a bolt-on. And if the fretboard extension is also bolted, not glued, then the whole reset operation can be very easy.
All just my personal opinions, naturally!
Nov 29, 09 | 4:59 am