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Bolt-on, set-in and neck-through guitars: the differences explained

Nick Coyle

Bolt-on, set-in and neck-through guitars: the differences explained

When selecting an electric or bass guitar, there are many factors to keep in mind—one of which is the type of guitar construction that will best meet your needs. There are essentially three types of guitar construction: bolt-on neck, set-neck, and neck-through guitars. This post will look at the differences between all three types and examine the pros and cons of each, along with the differences in sound and reparability.

What are the differences between bolt-on, set-in and neck-through?

The main difference between these three guitar types is simple: a bolt-on neck is affixed to the guitar body using screws or bolts, while a set-in neck is joined with a woodworking joint (traditionally a dovetail or mortise-and-tenon joint) and secured with glue. Lastly, in a neck-through guitar, the neck piece extends through the entire length of the guitar’s body. While these differences are simple though, they’re important to consider when looking at guitars because they can make a big difference when it comes to how a guitar will sound and how easy it will be to repair and maintain.

The bolt-on method is used most commonly on solid body electric guitars—including nearly all of Fender’s electric guitars, such as Stratocasters and Telecasters—where the neck is inserted into a pocket in the top of the guitar body, then secured with screws or bolts. In this way, it’s easy to remove the neck if you want to change it out or take only the neck in for repairs. This makes repairs cheaper and easier for guitars with bolt-on necks.

A close-up view of a guitar with a bolt-on neck
This guitar features a metal screw-plate, typical of guitars with bolt-on necks.

The set-in method, on the other hand, is seen most commonly on acoustic guitars and—notably—on Gibson hollowbody and semi-hollowbody electric guitars, including the Les Paul, SG and ES-335. Set-in necks arguably allow for a more solid connection between the guitar’s neck and body, which in turn provides a warmer tone and more resonance. However, this comes at the expense of repairability and affordability, as it’s more difficult and costly to build and repair guitars with set-in necks.

A close-up view of a guitar with a set-in neck
A close-up view of a guitar with a set-in neck.

Lastly, the neck-through construction method is found on certain high-end, solid-body electric guitars. With this method, the neck is a unified part of the guitar body, with the frets, strings, and bridge all attached to this one piece. Neck-through guitars share most of the same advantages and disadvantages as set-in necks, but to an even more exaggerated degree. The seamless connection (or rather lack of connection, since they’re one solid piece) between the neck and the body provide for the richest tone and longest sustain, but as a result, through-neck guitars even more difficult (and thus costly) to build and repair.

An example of a through-neck guitar
An example of a guitar built with the neck-through construction method.

Bolt-On Necks

Pros:

  • Less expensive. Bolt-on guitars are without a doubt less expensive than set-in neck-through guitars. Bolt-ons are more easily mass-produced, and each part can be made separately, making them a great choice if price is a concern.
  • Easier to service and repair. You can easily repair or replace a bolt-on neck; by simply unscrewing the bolts and removing the neck, you can install a new neck while the original is being refinished or repaired. Removing the neck also makes it easy and convenient to work on the guitar body separately.
  • Easily adjustable for more control. Bolt-on necks are easily adjustable and can give you more control by allowing you to customize the action height by changing the angle of the neck. Many bolt-on guitars have an adjustable screw that allows you to make adjustments with no specialized tools or knowledge.
  • Bright and lively tone. Some say that the bolt-on neck gives the guitar a slightly brighter and snappier tone than set-in neck-through models.
  • Easily customizable. With a bolt-on guitar, you can “mix and match” the guitar body and neck. For example, you can play a light, resonant body with a hard neck—something that would be prohibitively difficult and expensive with a set-in neck (and impossible with a neck-through guitar).

Cons:

  • Harder to access top frets. Bolt-on necks require a screw plate where the neck and body meet. As a result you’ll have a more difficult time accessing the top frets on a solid-body electric guitar, especially if the screw plate is prominent.
  • Less sustain. Because bolt-on necks are not connected to the body quite as solidly as, guitars built in this way lack the sustain of their set-in and neck-through cousins.

Set-In Necks

Pros:

  • Easier access to upper frets. Set-in necks don’t have a screw-plate, and so the upper frets can be accessed more easily than on bolt-on guitars. However, set-in necks do still require a heel that can get in the way.
  • Warmer tone. The sturdier connection between the body and the neck provides for a warmer tone and greater sustain than in guitars with bolt-on necks.

Cons:

  • Price. Guitars built with a set-in neck construction aren’t as modular and aren’t as easy to mass-produce. As a result, they’re generally more expensive (but not nearly as expensive as through-necks).
  • Repairability. Unlike on a bolt-on guitar, a set-in neck cannot be simply swapped out for a new one. Instead, repairs to set-in necks usually require the skills of a luthier.
  • Adjustability. With a set-in neck, there is no screw to easily adjust the neck angle. Again, repairs and adjustments usually require the tools and expertise of an experienced luthier.

Neck-Through Guitars

Pros:

  • Easiest access to upper frets. Because through-neck guitars have neither a screw-plate nor a heel, they allow for the easiest access to the upper frets. This gives the guitarist the most freedom while playing.
  • Sturdy. Neck-throughs are often sturdier than bolt-on and set-in neck guitars, since the neck and body are made from one seamless piece.
  • Tone advantages. Many musicians find that neck-through guitars stay in tune longer, have a longer sustain and provide a stronger mid-tone than bolt-ons and set-ins.
  • Cleaner aesthetic. Because the neck and body of the guitar are one unified piece, the guitar has a cleaner aesthetic, free from a screw plate or heel on the neck.

Cons:

  • Expensive. Neck-through guitars are considerably more expensive and more difficult to mass-produce than bolt-ons and set-in necks. The neck and body are essentially carved from one piece of wood, and as a result, this type of neck construction is usually only found on the most high-end guitars.
  • More difficult to repair. Repairs to a neck-through neck are substantially more difficult and costly than with other types of guitar construction. They often require the entire guitar to be essentially rebuilt or even converted into a bolt-on or set-in neck guitar.
  • Non-adjustable. With a neck-through guitar, it is not possible to alter the angle between the body and neck the way you often can with a bolt-on neck.

So Which Guitar Should I Choose?

The guitar model you choose will depend on your personal preferences and needs as a musician. For example, if you’re looking for a snappy, country sound and you never go above the 15th fret, many of the advantages of a set-in or through-neck neck may be irrelevant to your needs. On the other hand, if you desire warm tones and long sustain but cost and repairability are of little concern, then a through-neck guitar may be your best option. Either way, it will depend on what you need and want from your guitar.

While the advice given here is intended to help you make an informed decision, the best approach is to get your hands on each model and see how they play and sound. This way, you’ll have a better idea of the way each construction method affects a guitar’s sound and playability, making it much easier to decide which type is right for you.



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