Point of Contact Part III: The Fingerboard
You’ve got a good nut installed on your guitar and you’ve got a stable bridge and still dealing with intonation issues? You need to look fixing at the third string point of contact point: The Fingerboard!
Image by Lichty Guitars.
Hello fellow gear heads and guitar enthusiasts!
I wanted to add to another installment of my blog Tone Talk with a follow-up in the Point of Guitar Contact series. This third piece in the Point of Contact Trilogy is about understanding the importance your guitar’s fingerboard is to your overall guitar tone. You might be like I was when I started learning to play guitar and think that the fingerboard is just the place you exert pressure on the string to fret notes. I never gave much thought to the importance of the fingerboard materials, size and shape of the frets, where the string comes into contact with a fret, and all the physics in general that go on in making your fingerboard work the best for you. But it’s true, taking proper care of your fingerboard can dramatically help your playing sound more powerful and precise, and understanding why can help you in your quest for great guitar tone.
What’s Point of Contact Mean on a Guitar?
Point of contact is guitar tech slang for where your strings actually intersect physically with the instrument. There are three contact points where the string touches the instrument: The Bridge (where the string is strung through the instrument), The Nut (where the string passes through the carved slot on a nut on it’s way to the tuning post to be tied), and The Fingerboard (where in pushing down on a string your finger makes the string make contact with the fingerboard wood and create a pitch). By ensuring that each of these contact points are of superior quality materials, and mathematically allowing the string to have the proper tension, you will have great guitar tone! If any of these contact points on the instrument are out of whack, you are effectively robbing yourself of the tone your guitar can make when playing.
How Your Guitar’s Fingerboard Actually Works!
So, we know that your guitar’s fingerboard is a very important part of the instrument. Obviously, it’s where your left-hand switches between chords and single note intervals to make music. But what does this translate to in physics?
The fingerboard, or also known as the fretboard on fretted instruments, has typically become a thin, long strip of wooden material that is laminated to the front of the neck. While there are exceptions to this rule with plain maple necks or slab boards, many of todays modern instruments used a thin wooden veneer that is laminated to the front of the neck. The guitar strings run over the fingerboard between the guitar nut and bridge. To play the instrument, the player pushes down on the string which changes the vibrating length of the string, which then changes the pitch of the string. This is called “stopping the string”. Frets were added on the guitar fingerboard to make stopping the string more consistent from pitch to pitch changes.
Understanding the Tonal Differences Between Fingerboard Materials
Some guitars can have different fingerboard materials, and certain player seek out certain types for certain tonal responses and feeling under their fingers. Understanding the correct combination for you can aid in improving your playing technique.
Maple Fingerboard. Image by Talk Bass.
Maple is a dense, hard tonewood that produces a bright, snappy tone. In the context of your guitar’s fingerboard, this means your notes will be precise, articulate with a good amount of bite and low end. Maple fingerboard typically are made from the same piece of wood as the neck, and are constructed into the neck itself. You’ll find pairing the maple fingerboards works best with a brighter tonewood body like alder. Players like Eric Clapton prefer maple necks because they say that the fingerboard being the same piece of wood as the neck makes bending easier. Other notable players with maple necks include Jimi Hendrix, David Gilmour, Eric Johnson, Billy Corgan, Buddy Holly, Nile Rodgers and Eddie Van Halen!
Rosewood Fingerboard. Image by Fat Sound.
Rosewood on the other hand is a warm, sweet tonewood. When you compare the tonal differences with maple necks, rosewood softens up the brightness from a maple neck. I find that sometimes maple fingerboards can sound harsh and a hair too bright for what I’m playing and rosewood warms up the sound of my playing. Rosewood fingerboards are warmer, mellow out the brightness, have a looser low end. Due to the inherent nature of rosewood, you will need to condition the fingerboard to keep the grain healthy and feeling comfortable for playing. Notable rosewood players are Stevie Ray Vaughan, John Mayer, Gary Clark Jr, Doyle Bramhall ii, Rory Gallagher, George Harrison, Jeff Beck, amongst others.
Understanding How Your Frets Can Change Your Strings Point of Contact
Image by Premier Guitar.
The other major aspect of your fingerboard response to your playing is the frets. Fret wire is made out of nickel with a mixture of copper and zinc, or another more expensive option stainless steel. The frets are what help you consistently “stop the string” so you can change notes accurately. At their best, or on a new guitar, your guitar frets are shaped like a parabola and the string sits at the top of the parabola when you fret a note. When the frets are at a perfect parabola, the guitar string will consistently hit the note you fret perfectly in tune. However, as you play the instrument over time the metal on metal friction (remember your strings are made of metal) will wear out the fret material, causing divots, pits, or at their worst amount of wear completely wearing the parabola down to a flat surface.
Once the frets on your instrument have become worn, this changes the shape of the fret’s parabola and results in the point where your string touches the fret to move. This can result in intonation problems such as fretting a particular chord out of tune, or notes becoming unpredictably sharp or flat from note to note depending on the amount of damage. This will make playing with others incredibly difficult because you won’t be consistently in tune and always sound a “bit off” sound wise.
In order to remedy the problem, you will need a highly trained luthier or guitar technician to fret-mill, or reshape the frets back to a parabola. These guitar techs use highly specialized files to re-shape your flattened or damaged frets back to a parabola. This means they shave some amount of your fret wire off to bring the material back to where it should be, so eventually over enough time you will need to have your guitar re-fretted. However, having a fret mill is a bit like having an oil change on your car. Without the oil change the car won’t run correctly, and you risk having much more expensive work needing to be done on your vehicle by neglecting the regular maintenance. So yes, does a fret-mill cost some money? Yes, but it’s definitely cheaper than a re-fret, and if you don’t regular have your frets milled you will wear through the frets faster and end up with a much costlier bill. Plus, your guitar won’t play correctly and who wants that??
Understanding How a Truss Rod Adjustment Can Affect Your Fingerboard’s Contact Point
Image by Guitar Repair Bench.
One last thing that can change how your string contacts with your guitar’s fingerboard is if your instrument’s neck develops a bow. For the best pitch intonation, it’s best if your guitar neck is straight so strings are stopped equally throughout the neck. When they go out of alignment they make certain points of the neck, depending on the severity of the bow, go sharp or flat against the other points that are perfect.
Necks go out of straight alignment from changes in weather, humidity, or changes in altitude. When the weather changes anything made from wood. Humidity will cause the wood to contract or expand, and this causes the instrument to stray out of perfect intonation alignment. Most guitar necks have what’s called a truss rod inside the neck that can be adjusted by a professional guitar tech with specialized tools. By adjusting the truss rod, you can add relief from the tension on your guitar strings and bring the neck back to straight playing intonation. This should really only be done by a professional, as getting it wrong can permanently damage your instrument.
Closing Thoughts: In closing, you want your guitar’s neck to be as straight as possible, and have the frets rounded to a parabola so the string will sit perfectly on the fret’s intonation point when you stop a string. Keeping this aspect of your instrument in tip top shape, along with a proper cut and angled bone nut, and stable bridge will give you the best guitar tone possible because every place the string touches the guitar is at it’s absolute best. When used in this combination your guitar will sound better than anyone else’s I guarantee it!
KEEP ON PLAYING-AM