Shimming for a Forward/Positive Neck-Angle

Since I wrote last week’s post on neck angles, I’ve received a number of emails with questions and thoughts. Good questions and thoughts. Ones that made me question and think about some stuff. It’s good when that happens.

Last time, I talked about why guitars might have neck angles in the first place and why we might want to shim to ‘fake’ a neck angle. All of the instruments I provided as examples had necks that angled (or ‘pitched’) back — that is, towards the player when holding the instrument.

The emails I received in response asked about forward neck angles.

Guitars with forward (positive) neck angles? Any benefit?

Forward neck angles

The majority of responses either asked if it was possible to use — or said they were already using — a ‘reversed’ shim to cause a bolt-on neck to pitch forwards (away from the player when holding the guitar).

Of course that’s possible. Normally, with a wedge-shaped shim, the thick end of the wedge goes right at the end of the neck (the bottom of the neck pocket) and this pitches the neck back. If you flip that wedge around, the thin end is at the bottom of the neck pocket and the neck is angled forward, away from the player.

But why would you do such a thing?

Well, you’d angle it the opposite way to correct the opposite problem. Most shimming is done to try get the action lower when the bridge saddles are bottomed-out and have no more downwards travel.

A less-common problem can see your bridge saddles raised way, way up high but the action is still too damn low. This doesn’t happen too often. You’ll probably be most likely to see it if you’re bolting together bits of different makers’ instruments, there can sometimes be enough of a mismatch where it occurs. If your saddles are teetering on the ends of their adjustment screws but your strings are still hugging the frets, a little forward neck-angle might be just the thing.

Forward or positive neck-pitch to improve playability?

So, the corrective actions above are done to address a specific ‘mismatch’. What about forward-pitching the neck to just make an instrument play better.

I chatted with someone who has shimmed necks forward to improve playability of the instrument. And I don’t think this is an unheard-of view. Over the years, I recall seeing opinions on various forum threads that Rickenbacker (in particular) built instruments with a forward neck-angle in order to make them play super-cleanly and buzz-free.

Now, regarding the Rickenbacker thing, I don’t think it’s true (at least not on purpose 😉) but is this forward-pitching actually able to change how cleanly a guitar plays?

Short answer: Yes.

So why aren’t we all doing it, then? Well, then you need to wait for the longer answer.

We could reverse a shim and angle the neck forwards. But should we?

If you angle your guitar neck forward, you’re also increasing the angle between the fretted note and the bridge. This means the string has more room to vibrate before it starts to buzz off any of the other frets below. And, yes, this can definitely make for a cleaner-playing instrument.

You know what else can increase the angle between the fretted note and the bridge?

Raising the action.

Hmmm. Raising the action makes things look very similar to the forward angled neck…

A higher bridge will have the same effect. It will increase the clearance between the fretted string and the frets beneath and make for a cleaner-playing instrument.

In the two images above, I’ve included a red triangle to indicate the angle between neck, string, and bridge. I copied and pasted the exact same triangle between both images. The relative angles are the same (although the triangle is just rotated slightly to account for the forward pitched neck). For my money, reverse-shimming for a forward neck angle achieves the same as raising the action.

Like I said, though, I’ve spent some time thinking about this. While I can’t see any major reason to reverse-shim rather than rising the bridge, I can (possibly, potentially, maybe) see another playability benefit: The higher bridge means strings are higher from the body and saddles are higher. That might not always be comfortable for some players. Pitching the neck forward doesn’t have this same drawback so, maybe a player who likes their hand lower, or who finds tall saddles uncomfortable, might find the shimmed guitar more comfortable than the same guitar with action raised.

Of course, the same player would have to be ok with the feel of a forward-angled neck. If you fall into both these categories, go for it. There's no right and wrong here.

Gerry’s disclosure

Well, actually, I could be wrong here.

Forward pitched necks to correct bridge mismatches: no problem there — that’s relatively rare but it’s a given. However, I may be wrong when I say I don’t see much benefit in forward neck-angles for playability or ‘clean-playing’ reasons.

I can’t see how it helps but maybe I’m missing something. If so, I’m happy to be educated. You're never too old to learn. Please feel free to email or comment if you’ve got something concrete*.

Likewise, if you’ve got some information on manufacturers making instruments with forward-neck angles. Do you have some documentation that shows Rickenbacker is in the pocket of Big Neck-Angle? Do you have photos of Adolph Rickenbacker receiving orders to build guitars with forward-pitched necks from a Bohemian Grove owl? Well, time to blow the whistle, then**.

*I do mean concrete. If you do it and it works for you, fantastic but I'd really love to know why that might be the case and what benefits are provided over raising the action.

**I want concrete stuff on the Rickenbacker thing too. Opinions on forums don't count. Photos of owls preferred. 😉

Last word (for now)

Patent No. US4873909

In 1987 Thomas Humphrey filed a patent for a guitar with a steeply forward-angled neck.

Chief among the list of supposed benefits is the claim that the strings approaching the soundboard at an angle would change its response. However, also mentioned, is the claim that a player extending their arms further to reach the neck would allow for “greatly reduced body tension”. Maybe this is a thing. I’m not medically trained and qualified to answer (I can’t speak to Thomas Humphrey’s medical credentials). But, I guess, it’s possible that this could account for things if you have a preference for a forward-pitched neck.

That’s it for now. If you have something concrete on this, please let me know. If I’m missing something, I’d appreciate being able to fill that gap. Thanks a lot.