Four-bolt neck attachment design with engraved steel neck plate clearly visible on the back of a Stratocaster (above), and ’70s-style three-bolt neck attachment design (below).
There are three ways to attach a neck to a guitar. The methods are called neck-through (or through-body), set-neck and bolt-on and they do affect the sound and playability of an instrument. They also affect the look, strength, price and ease with which related problems can be corrected. Since you’ll run into these terms all the time when guitar researching and shopping, here are some details:
Neck-through. More fully, it’s neck-through-body. This is the fanciest design, in which the piece of wood used for the neck extends the entire length of the body. In effect, the neck isn’t attached to the body; the neck is the body, and the fingerboard, pickups, bridge and strings are all affixed to it. The sides of the body are glued to this central core.This attachment method is inherently attractive looking, and it’s a common feature of high-end instruments, especially bass guitars. It’s remarkably sturdy since it’s basically one-piece construction (great for sustain and intonation), and it allows easier access to the upper frets since there’s no need for a neck heel.
Neck-through guitars are more difficult to mass-produce than their set-neck and bolt-on brothers, however, which can make them considerably more expensive. And one-piece construction means that if the neck suffers serious damage, the entire instrument is probably a goner unless you can afford major repairs (and even then it’s unlikely to be as good as it was before).
Set-neck. A two-piece construction in which the neck is glued to the body in a tight-fitting joint. Used for many acoustic guitars and for many electric guitars by makers other than Fender. Not as fancy as neck-through, but not as expensive, either.The strong neck-body connection allows good sustain, warm tone and good access to upper frets, but it’s difficult to service and repair. And good luck changing the neck-to-body angle, over which there is no control unless you pay an experienced luthier a small fortune to disassemble and re-glue it.
Bolt-on. Easiest to mass-produce, the least expensive and the most convenient to adjust, repair or replace, which is what made the method so innovative and attractive back in the late 1940s to Leo Fender, the Henry Ford of the electric guitar. The bolt-on neck design—which is exactly what the name says it is—is that on which the Fender empire is built.Properly done, the neck-body connection is as strong and tonally efficient as that provided by the set-neck design. Routine adjustments are accomplished with remarkable ease, and if the neck gets really trashed, it can simply be removed and another one bolted on in its place.
Fender instruments have almost always used a four-bolt neck attachment design with a tight-fitting joint (the neck “pocket”) and a steel neck plate to distribute the bolt pressure evenly. In the 1970s, several Fender instrument models used a three-bolt design. Although all Fender instruments had reverted back to the four-bolt design by 1981, the three-bolt design was resurrected for several current Fender reissue models, including a handful of Classic and Classic Player series Telecaster® guitar models, and the American Vintage series ’70s Stratocaster® and ’75 Jazz Bass® guitars.