If you talk to any guitarist who thinks they know their stuff, you’ll probably hear them say something along the lines of "bolt on necks are cheap and inferior to a glued set neck guitar." Most people we see complain about boutique brands is that a lot of them use bolt on necks, and how they just aren’t as good or worth the money. Well, we are here to spit some truth, and tell you the real story about the difference between set necks and bolt on necks.
Most people believe that a "bolt on neck" means the guitar was made fast and cheap, while a set neck is difficult and expensive. We are here to tell you that you're wrong! I mean, kind of. It is true that for the extreme budget guitars, bolt on is easier and cheaper to manufacture. However, the real truth is that making a mediocre set neck is incredibly easier and quicker to make than a truly great bolt on neck. Once you start to get to a higher priced guitar, the process to build levels out, and so do the differences. There are incredibly expensive boutique guitar brands that use bolt on necks on all their guitars, and they sound and play just as good as a competing expensive set neck guitar.
This is where the necks share the biggest differences. When Leo Fender created his guitars, he wanted something that would be easy for anyone to work on. Maybe you don’t like the neck angle; add a shim and your all set! If your guitar takes a tumble and the neck gets damaged (I know, it sounds scary to us too) just order a new one and slap it on yourself. All of this maintenance takes way less skill to achieve the feel that you want. Set necks are much more difficult to work with if you are not a professional guitar luthier. We all know the horrifying pictures of a broken Gibson headstock, and sometimes the expense to fix it is just too much to justify. It also is unrealistic to even try and adjust the neck position on set necks.
This is the part where most people claim their opinion is better, but it absolutely is personal preference. The bottom line is this, a well made guitar will have much less of a difference than you expect. Set necks, because it is forever glued to the guitar, tend to have better transmission of vibrations to the body. This gives the guitar a bit fuller and a bit more bass response. If you want something that is a bit more resonant and warm, a set neck might be worth trying. Bolt on necks sit in the neck pocket as tight as possible, and then screw into the body. Pretty easy. Because of that setup, the tone tends to sound more articulate notes and a bit more “twang.” Now bolt ons tends to transfer vibrations slower, but the attack is what these neck settings are known for. Think of a Strat neck sound, it is very warm and thick, but that initial snap and definition of the note is why people love it.
So Which is Better?
Well, we don’t think either one is better than the other. They are just different. They each act differently to your playing, as well as offer different perks for the guitar modding enthusiast. Do you want something a little more Swiss army knife, or something that is perfect in the one thing that it does. Ultimately, once you hit a more premium price point, all of the guitar necks will just be fantastic. We feel like there is not a big enough of difference for us to really say which is better.
As guitarists, we should spend time learning our craft, and finding out what we love the most. Some people might swear by set necks, while some hate everything about them. They are just 2 different approaches that will get the job done well. If you really want to find out which is better for you, play a whole bunch of guitars and see.