Any less learned guitar enthusiasts might instantly be thinking that a scalloped fretboard means that we will be serving up a platter of fish alongside our guitar – bon appetit! Oh contraire, though you would be forgiven for making such a rookie error.
In fact, many have scarcely ever come across the scalloped fretboard despite how many iconic and dearly beloved guitar icons have used them in some form or another to great effect on classic and hallowed recordings. You name it! Everyone from Deep Purple’s Ritchie Blackmore, The Mahavishnu Orchestra’s John McLaughlin, Yngwie Malmsteen, Steve Vai, and a whole host of others.
These are, importantly, guitarist’s guitarists, meaning that these are the kind of guitarists that your favourite guitarist likely cherishes dearly. These are guitarists who think like technicians, constantly tinkering in their lab to get their instruments to sound precisely how they want, to be able to deliver unto them the results that they so seek out of their music.
A scalloped fretboard is the route to follow for the guitarist who is also an audiophile, for the guitarist who is constantly seeking to perfect their tone, their sound, and reinvent themselves, always tinkering with the minute details and able to hear all these details in the music they hear all around them.
What Exactly is a Scalloped Fretboard?
At its most simple a scalloped fretboard is a fretboard that has had wood removed from in between the fret bars to create extra jumbo sized frets, almost like trenches for the troops of your fingers to seek shelter in. The typical technique involves the sanding down of the wood on the fretboard in between the fret bars, utilising a ‘U’ shape instead of the typical flat shape of the wooden fretboard.
This is a well established technique in making stringed musical instruments, throughout the world in fact. The Veena, a South Asian classical instrument was built way before Western ideologues got involved and started experimenting with the usual kinds of fretboard that guitar companies offer straight out of the factory. The Sitar, originating in India, followed suite, with raised and curved frets and strings that operate above and below these mechanisms like some sort of metropolis!
In many traditional Asian and Indian music forms, notes are bent by pushing straight down into the neck, into the frets raised for precisely this purpose, rather than bending side to side or up and down as on a western rendering of the guitar. This facilitates the very wild bending and alterations in pitch heard in traditional South Asian classical and popular music. Since this music tends to focus on solo instruments playing runs of notes over a drone accompaniment, these instruments are perfectly suited for such musical peregrinations.
Likely influenced by these Eastern instruments, early versions of the lute in Europe were likewise built with scalloped fretboards. From what historians can understand of the lute music itself, it seems that the scallops on these fretboards was merely ornamental, something about the wild bends of the Eastern musical philosophy not agreeing with those of the West. Hence why you no longer see the scalloped fretboard in more regular use in the West.
20th Century Scalloped Fretboard
Many contend that the first electric guitarist to use a scalloped fretboard was the great and mighty John McLaughlin, famous for his involvement in the The Mahavishnu Orchestra, as well as on several of Miles Davis’ classic fusion recordings e.g. In a Silent Way, Bitches Brew, On the Corner, Jack Johnson etc etc.
There is a clear South Asian influence throughout his work and his playing style, whether theoretically or philosophically. The scalloped fretboard was used to devastating effect on his classic album with the Mahavishnu Orchestra, including The Inner Mounting Flame, as well as on those of his more traditional Indian influenced band Shakti. Once you hear the influence of more Eastern modes of playing, you can’t unhear it, and it is impossible to miss.
Ritchie Blackmore, who knew John McLaughlin, was inspired to do similar things in his own playing, though more influenced by traditional folk and lute music of the British Isles. His exciting style used mostly single notes played very fast, mixed in with wild bluesy bends. His scallops were a little different as they were deeper towards the next higher fret and virtually nonexistent under the larger strings. These asymmetrical scallops helped Ritchie achieve his big bends and wild vibrato like a cello.
In turn, players like Yngwie Malmsteen were inspired by the exploits of Ritchie Blackmore and John McLaughlin, though in his own coming at it more from the angle of Baroque violin and cello playing, and other string sections of classical music, the scalloped fretboard helping him to achieve a similar style of vibrato as these string sections.
Why Use a Scalloped Fretboard?
If you are still not at least a little intrigued in the scalloped fretboard, then perhaps laying out all the pros in one helpful, handy, and comprehensive list might at least get you scratching your head a little bit. This is certainly not going to be for everyone; even aesthetically it looks and can feel a little weird, at least at first. Proceed with an open mind, but hold dear your true feelings and intentions, so as to make a wise and informed decision based on your own needs and circumstances.
Frets are Easier to Grasp
Since only a light touch is required to sound out the notes that you desire, a scalloped fretboard can make fretting easier and more comfortable. This will be of particular use to those who find grasping the fretboard of the guitar and fretting notes particularly tough, perhaps as a result of a condition like arthritis.
The strings glide along the top of the frets, meaning there is an added smoothness to playing which can feel almost like shredding on a spool of silk. You only have to press the string to the fret for the corresponding note to sound, meaning the hand can withstand more playing for longer as well, seeing as it is exerting itself less than it might otherwise with a more traditional electric guitar fretboard.
Less effort is, overall, physically required of the guitarist who chooses to use a scalloped fretboard, even though more effort and attention will need to be paid to the sensitivity of the fingers against the frets so as to stay in pitch etc.
As a result of the reduction in the amount of effort required to sound out the notes of the guitar, a more relaxed posture can be adopted by the guitarist in question. This can translate to a more relaxed fretting hand or even a more relaxed posture throughout the body, as all of these muscles and tendons are in some way connected to each other.
Increased Vibrato and Bending Control
As previously elucidated, the scalloped fretboard makes vibrato and other bending manoeuvres far easier, offering more control and more options for directions to take it. In the same way that fretboards designed and manufactured in a similar way in the East would have been built to specifically cater for wild and unpredictable alterations on pitch in single note runs, so too is the scalloped fretboard on the electric guitar.
The reason for the appeal for so many guitarists is quite simply having so much freedom to bend or not bend – far more so than on a normal electric guitar with a flatter fretboard. As a result of the sanding process there is in fact less wood on the fretboard. Depending on how scalloped the fretboard has been, there will a considerable amount missing from the fretboard, and this will doubtlessly have an effect on the resonance and overall sound of the guitar.
Some guitarists, in fact, believe that the removal of this wood lends itself more to Eastern styles of playing, even just in terms of the resonance of the notes when travelling on long peregrinations of single note runs, the removal of the wood in some way translating to a difference in tone that is perceived as desirable.
Nevertheless, with such an increase in control of pitch that a scalloped fretboard provides, the area is ripe for opportunity, particular with regards to more microtonal music, music that uses notes and harmonies that operate inbetween the traditional western classical notion of what notes there are, occupying the liminal boundaries between temperaments and beyond.
Clearer Separation of Notes
Oft touted as something that more expensive guitar pickups can help with, a scalloped fretboard is also very effective in this area. The advantage of a scalloped fretboard over forking out a bunch of money on more expensive guitar pickups is the fact of it being an acoustic solution to a spiritual problem.
The fact of the strings only really coming into contact means that there are less obstructions to the right tone and to the proper sounding of the note. Fret buzz is utterly eradicated thanks to this technological innovation, the sound of each note rendered crystalline and clear so long as it is being fretted correctly. And since the notes no longer take very much pressure to sound right, you are more or less good to go.
You will, of course, need to get used to applying a far lighter touch to the frets in order to make the notes sound out. As already elucidated above, the string only need come into contact with the fret for the corresponding note to resonate, so applying too much pressure will simply have the note you intend to play completely augmented. This is all well and good if this was your intention, but if not, lay off the pressure a bit.
This improvement in note clarity with a scalloped fretboard translates all the way to hammer on’s and pull off’s as well as using legato technique – each and every note that you play will be rendered more clear if fretted and plucked through a scalloped fretboard. With the right know how you can even do this on your own at home, though I would not recommend jumping straight into it without cluing yourself up on all the relevant information first.
Why Not to Use a Scalloped Fretboard?
As with all decisions you will be making as an aspiring guitarist tinkering away in your relentless search for audiophilic perfection, there will be pros and cons to every decision. Just so with the implementation of a scalloped fretboard! This is by no means going to be for everyone, and so it is well worth weighing all the possible positives and negatives before proceeding and sanding down whole chunks of your fretboard. This will not only effect the feel of the guitar as played, but also how the guitar sounds, the removal of such large amounts of the fretboard affecting audibly the resonance of the sounds through the guitar.
Increases Difficulty of Playing
Yes, it is well worth noting that, at least initially and especially if you are more used to playing on a flat guitar fretboard, playing is going to be that much more difficult as you accustom yourself to this new scalloped fretboard. Thus, it is the belief of many that a move towards a scalloped fretboard on the guitar is reserved for those guitarists who have already accrued more experience.
An extra light touch is required, or else the tuning is knocked straight out of whack, undesirable if you are indeed trying to conform to western classical temperament. Seeing as most guitarists learn in this tradition and are taught at least to apply more pressure than that required on a scalloped fretboard, this can be a pretty steep learning curve, all the more steep if the prospective scalloper is more experienced with a flat fretboard.
Even simple open chords are notoriously hard to play on a scalloped fretboard, no doubt because the guitarist who wishes to play them is having to think about and feel for the sweet spot on each individual string, applying just the right amount of pressure so that each note is just in tune. If you are more inclined toward noisier and less conventionally attractive music then this could be precisely the direction you need, or even if you are looking to experiment more with microtones and such.
There is a way to have both, however, and that comes in the form of the partially scalloped fretboard, with a varying split between parts of the fretboard that are scalloped and those that are more aligned with a regular flat fretboard. This gives you the best of both worlds: the first 12 frets are normal, allowing you to play chords with no sweat, with the higher notes of the fretboard scalloped to give you extra control.
A One Way Road
Needless to say, once you opt in for a scalloped fretboard and saw and file a whole bunch of it away there is not really any going back, so stopping at this stage and assessing the situation seems like the most sound advice you could receive.
How much do you really want a scalloped fretboard? How much do you want to play in the style that it encourages? How interested are you in the various styles of music that this specific technique tends to lend itself to? What would you do differently in these genres? If you already have answers to these questions in the positive and feel like you would be doing something original and your own with a scalloped fretboard then it seems likely that you should take the plunge, if circumstances allow you.
If you are going to scallop the fretboard yourself, it is well worth stopping to considering how serious a step this is in developing your sound. It is all too easy to file a little too much away or even, if you are not paying close enough attention, to reach the truss rod! At that point there really is no going back!
If you are really serious about having a scalloped fretboard and you are serious about doing it yourself under your own steam, then at least consult a local and registered professional before you do so. They might have some advice or some guidance from their own experiences with scalloping fretboards in the past, or they might know someone who does and who they can recommend you talk to instead.
Holistically, however, my advice would be to find someone who is willing to do the whole procedure, willing to customise totally the scalloping of the fretboard based on your own specifications. I certainly would not want that amount of responsibility hanging over my head – it makes me nervous even just thinking about it!
Value of the Guitar
If the guitar whose fretboard you intend to scallop is indeed one of value, whether vintage or not, it would be advisable to either not rush into making a decision to scallop the fretboard or simply to avoid scalloping the fretboard altogether. This is a choice area of the guitar world, not everyone is as is into the scalloped fretboard as you might be. Thus, any vintage guitar worth a considerable amount will instantly go down in value if the fretboard were to be scalloped.
If, however, you are set on doing so and intend to keep this guitar for a while then I would encourage you to go for it! There might even be a potential buyer out there in the future who is into the scalloped fretboard for precisely the reasons you are, and who might fall in love with your particular guitar with the scalloped fretboard when you eventually see fit to sell it on for whatever reason.
Though I am not so inclined, I would not personally blame you for worrying about the price of a guitar, especially if you are already paying a professional to scallop the fretboard itself. It might even seem almost nonsensical to pay someone to devalue the guitar and its adjoining fretboard. Certainly it does, when it is put in such stark terms. Not accounted for, however, is the amount of joy and freedom of musical expression the addition of a scalloped fretboard might bring an aspiring professional guitarist.
So, there you have it, the end to this comprehensive categorising of the pros and cons of the scalloped fretboard. Scalloping your fretboard is not immediately going to make you a better player, but will, with diligent and intelligent practise, have you thinking more deeply about your technique, paying more attention all the while. If, indeed, you are tired of regular guitar, experienced enough, and are looking for something to shake up your habits and technique, then I suppose look no further.
How can you really quantify this pure joy, this comfortability on an instrument that is so cherished that it becomes humanised, and ends up personifying all of the emotions a human being can feel and then some! An instrument is a means for a person to communicate with the word without saying a thing.
This can be especially important for those who struggle to express themselves normally or those who, like me, who believe in an inherent language of the subconscious that language often only muddies or confuses, even if it is trying to bridge the barriers between the minds of oneself and others. Music, played and enjoyed, is a means to bridge that gap without words.
FAQs Scalloped Fretboard
This really depends, on the specifications and who is working to these specifications. If, for example, the specifications are relatively simple and are being performed by a professional luthier who knows what they are doing, then this procedure should not take very long at all, though I have no doubt they will want to take their time in such a delicate procedure. If, inversely, the specifications are very specific and the luthier is in fact merely a hobbyist, then the procedure ought to take a considerable amount of time, allowing for deliberations and doubts to mar the progression of the process.