Fingerboard

Fingerboard

[fing-ger-bawrd, -bohrd]

The fingerboard (also known as a fretboard on fretted instruments) is a part of most stringed instruments. It is a thin, long strip of wood that is laminated to the front of the neck of an instrument and above which the strings run. In the playing of such an instrument, a musician presses the strings down towards it in order to change their vibrating lengths, causing changes in pitch. This is called "stopping" the strings.

The word "fingerboard" in other languages sometimes occurs in musical directions. In Italian it is called either manico or tasto, the latter especially in the phrase sul tasto, a direction for bowed string instruments to play with the bow above the fingerboard.

Frets

A fingerboard may be fretted, having raised strips of hard material perpendicular to the strings against which the strings are stopped. Frets easily and consistently allow a musician to stop the string in the same place, and they allow for less damping of the vibrations than fingers alone. Frets may be fixed, as on a guitar or mandolin, or movable, as on a lute. Fingerboards may also be unfretted, as they usually are on bowed instruments, where damping is generally not a problem due to the prolonged stimulation of the strings. Unfretted fingerboards allow a musician more control over subtle changes in pitch than fretted boards, but are generally considered harder to master where intonation is concerned. Fingerboards may also be, though uncommon, a hybrid of these two. Such a construction is seen on the sitar, where arched frets attach at the edges of the fingerboard; unfretted strings run below the frets, while fretted ones run above. The frets are sufficiently high that pressing strings against the fingerboard is unnecessary for the frets to stop their vibrations so that the lower strings' sympathetic vibrations are uninterrupted.

Steel-string and electric guitars may have the 3rd, 5th, 7th, 9th or 10th, 12th, 15th, 17th, 19th and 21st frets marked by inlays, normally small dots but occasionally trapeziums or other shapes. These are normally repeated on the side of the neck where the player can more easily see them. The 12th fret, and 24th fret if present, are normally marked differently (e.g. two dots) to indicate the octave. Classical guitars do not have inlays or fret markers, but some players, especially beginners, like to add self-adhesive fret markers on the side of the neck.

Materials

On bowed string instruments, (such as violin, viola, cello, and double bass), the fingerboard is usually made of ebony, rosewood or some other hardwood. On some guitars a maple neck and fingerboard are made from one piece of wood. A few modern innovative luthiers have used lightweight, non-wood materials such as carbon-fiber in their fingerboards.

Parameters

Typically, the fingerboard is a long plank with a rectangular profile. On a guitar, mandolin, ukulele, or similar plucked instrument, the fingerboard appears flat and wide, but may be slightly curved to form a cylindrical or conical surface of relatively large radius compared to the fingerboard width. The radius quoted in the specification of a string instrument is the radius of curvature of the fingerboard at the head nut.

Many bowed string instruments use a visibly curved fingerboard, nut and bridge in order to gain bow clearance on each individual string.

The length, width, thickness and density of a fingerboard can affect the timbre of an instrument.

Most fingerboards can be fully described by the following parameters:

  • w1 — width at nut (close to headstock);
  • w2 — width at half of scale length (if fretted, usually the 12th fret);
  • h1 — profile height (thickness) at nut;
  • h2 — profile height (thickness) at half of scale length;
  • r — radius (may be non-constant);

Radius

Depending on values of radius r and their transition over the length of the fingerboard, all fingerboards usually fit into one of the following four categories:

1 Flat Both nut and bridge are flat. The strings are all in one plane, and the instrument does not have a radius (the radius is in a sense infinite). r = infty
2 Cylindrical The fingerboard has a constant radius, and the fingerboard, the nut and the bridge all have the same nominal radius (that of the fingerboard is strictly speaking a little smaller than that of nut and bridge). r = r_1 = r_2 = const
3 Conical The fingerboard has a varying radius, usually linearly progressing from r_1 to r_2. Sometimes it is also called a compound radius. The nut and bridge are both curved but the nut radius is smaller than that of the bridge. r(x) = r_1 + frac{x}{l}(r_2 - r_1)
4 Compound While not strictly conical, with a curved nut and linear bridge. All parts of the fingerboard will have some curvature, but the fingerboard shape is not strictly a cone. r(x) = f(x), usually r(l) = infty

Notes:

  • l is a scale.
  • x designates a place on fingerboard, changes from 0 (at nut) to l (at bridge).
  • r(x) describes radius depending on place on fingerboard.
  • f(x) is a non-linear function.

Classical guitars, some 12-string guitars and a few other steel stringed acoustic guitars have flat fingerboards. Almost all other guitars have at least some curvature. However some recent five and six string electric basses have flat fingerboards.

For guitars, smaller radii (9-10") are said to be more comfortable for chord and rhythm playing, while larger radii (12"-16" and up to infinite radius) are more appealing to fast soloing. Conical and compound radius fingerboards try to merge both of these features. The nut end of the fingerboard has a smaller radius towards the nut to ease in forming chords. The bridge end of the fingerboard has a larger radius to make soloing more comfortable and prevent "fretting out" (having the string press against a higher fret during a bend).

Bowed string instruments tend to have curved fingerboards, to allow double stopping of adjacent strings. Those of the modern violin family and the double bass are strongly curved. However those of some archaic bowed instruments are flat.

Examples

Examples of some instruments' fingerboard parameters:

Model r w1 w2
Modern Fender Stratocaster American guitar 9.5" (241 mm) 1 11/16" (42.8 mm)
Vintage Fender Stratocaster guitar 7.25" (184.1 mm)
Gibson Les Paul guitar 12" 1 11/16" (42.8 mm)
Ibanez guitars 12" (305 mm)
Jackson guitars 16" (406 mm) or compound, from 12" (nut) to 16" (heel). A compound radius is common on their newer models
Warmoth guitars Compound, from 10" (nut) to 16" (heel)
PRS Guitars Regular 10" (254 mm) 1 21/32" (42 mm) 2.25" (57.1 mm)
PRS Guitars Wide Fat and Wide Thin 1 11/16" (42.8 mm) 2.25" (57.1 mm)
PRS Guitars 513 1 43/64" (42.4 mm) 2 3/16" (55.5 mm)
PRS Guitars Hiland 1 21/32" (42 mm) 2 7/32" (56.3 mm)
PRS Guitars Santana 11 1/2" (292 mm) 1 21/32” (42 mm) 2.25" (57.1 mm)
PRS Guitars Custom 22/12 11 1/2" (292 mm) 1 47/64" (44 mm) 2 19/64" (58.3 mm)
Most electric guitars with LSR roller nuts 9.5" to 10" (241 mm to 254 mm)
Most electric guitars with Floyd Rose bridge 10" (254 mm)
Full size (4/4) violin 42 mm 24 mm 40 mm

Scalloping

A fretted fingerboard can be scalloped by "scooping out" the wood between each of the frets to create a shallow "U" shape. The result is a playing surface wherein the players' fingers come into contact with the strings only, and do not touch the fingerboard.

The process of "scalloping" a fingerboard well is tedious work, usually done by careful filing of wood between the frets, and requires a large investment of time. Consequently, it is somewhat expensive to have done. Thus, scalloped fingerboards are most often found on custom instruments and a few high-end guitar models. Scalloped fingerboards are most commonly used by shred guitarists, most notably, Yngwie Malmsteen, who, inspired by Ritchie Blackmore (of Deep Purple fame) in his use of scalloped fret boarded stratocasters, had a signature model of Yngwie Malmsteen Stratocaster developed with Fender. Ritchie Blackmore. The famous Ibanez JEM series guitars, designed and played by Steve Vai, come standard with the last 4 frets scalloped. In 2008 Ibanez made available their E-Gen model, a Herman Li signature, which includes four scalloped frets. Other examples of lutes with scalloped fretboards include the South Indian veena and Vietnamized guitar (called đàn ghi-ta, lục huyền cầm, or ghi-ta phím lõm).

Scalloping can be:

  • Full, i.e. all frets from the first to the last are scalloped.
  • Partial, when some of the top frets are scalloped for fast soloing. Popular examples include half scalloping (12th to the last fret) or few top frets scalloping (19–24, 17–22, etc), utilized by such guitarists as Steve Vai.

Note that filing the wood while scalloping also touches inlays, thus fingerboards with complex and intricate inlays usually aren't conducive to scalloping, as it would damage the artwork. Simple dot or block markers survive the procedure well.

Advantages and disadvantages

The "scooped out" nature of scalloped fingerboards creates a number of changes in the way the guitar plays.

Most obvious, is that the string only comes into contact with the frets and the fingertip with the string, not the fingerboard itself, creating less friction for bends and vibratos, which results in more overall control while playing.

However, that is also one of the main disadvantages. Many players, especially new players, may find a scalloped fingerboard to be too different to play easily. And it does take practice to play well on a scalloped fingerboard. The player has to first become accustomed to not actually touching the fingerboard, which may take a while in itself. Playing a scalloped fingerboard also requires a careful balance of pressure; because too much pressure can change the pitch of the fretted note, as during a bend, and too little pressure can cause fret buzz. As a result the majority of players choose to use a traditional fingerboard on their instruments.

Scoop of fretless bowed-string fingerboards

Fretless bowed-string fingerboards are usually scooped lengthwise in a smooth curve, so that if a straight edge is held next to the board parallel to a string, some daylight will show between them, towards the centre of the board. Usually the scoop is slightly greater on the bass side, less on the treble side of the fingerboard. Different string materials or different styles of playing may call for differing amounts of scoop; with gut strings requiring the most, and solid steel-core strings the least. A typical full-size (4/4) violin with synthetic-core G, D, and A strings will show 0.75 mm of scoop under the G string, and between 0.5 mm and zero scoop under the E, which generally has a solid steel core on instruments with modern set-up.

On guitars, specifically steel-string and electric guitars, the scoop (or "dip") is adjustable by altering the tension on the steel truss rod inside the neck. Relaxing the truss rod allows the pull of the strings to increase the dip, and vice-versa. Classical guitars do not need truss rods due to the lower tension of nylon strings, but should still exhibit some degree of dip.

See also

References

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