Think of a scalloped fretboard and your mind will most likely jump to Yngwie Malmsteen or Ritchie Blackmore. But exactly what is a scalloped fretboard, and why would you want to use one?
This article will hopefully answer all of the questions you might have about these unique fretboards. We’ll look at what their purpose is, their pros and cons, how to buy a guitar with one, and even how to do it yourself at home!
What Is A Scalloped Fretboard?
A scalloped fretboard has had sections of the wood removed in order to create a concave shape between each fret. This has the effect of increasing the distance between the strings and the fretboard, thereby eliminating the friction between your finger and the fingerboard.
By doing this we are rewarded with easier string bends and vibrato, the ability to produce fast, microtonal variations, and many other benefits which we’ll look at in greater detail below.
It is unusual to find a guitar that comes with one of these fingerboards as standard as it is a fairly niche feature that isn’t for everyone. As a result, most guitars with scalloped fingerboards will have had the wood scooped out later on by a luthier. Various artist signature models are also available which come with these special fretboards as standard. I’ve listed a few of these further down in the article.
Guitars can have their entire fingerboards done (full-scallop), but it is also common to only have the higher frets done. For example, all frets from the 12th onwards is known as a half-scallop.
Some guitarists might choose to have even fewer scalloped frets (partial scalloping), for example, if you look at an Ibanez JEM or PIA, Steve Vai only has the four highest frets done.
How Do You Play A Scalloped Fretboard?
Fundamentally, there is no difference when comparing playing on a regular fingerboard versus one that has been scalloped. However, due to the increased space between the strings and the frets you will have to play with a lighter touch than you are probably used to.
Playing with too much pressure will cause a few issues which we will talk about below. The idea is that you play with enough pressure until the string touches the top of the fret – and no more!
But as long as you are able to adapt and play with a lighter touch you won’t have any problems.
Who Invented The Scalloped Fretboard?
The first use of a scalloped fretboard is often attributed to the 19th-century French luthier René François Lacôte. He has been referred to as ‘the Stradivarius of the guitar’, with many of his instruments featuring scalloped boards.
The earliest electric guitar player to utilize a scalloped board is John McLaughlin, followed by Deep Purple’s Ritchie Blackmore. However, it is probably Yngwie Malmsteen who is the player most closely associated with this unique fingerboard. He has undoubtedly played a huge role in popularizing scalloping.
Scalloped Fretboard Advantages
Easier To Perform Bends
As a result of the friction between fingers and the fretboard being eliminated, it is much easier to perform wild string bends on a fretboard that has been scalloped.
Your fingers will glide over the tops of the frets rather than partially dragging along the fretboard.
Easier To Perform Vibrato
For the same reason, your ability to perform vibrato should feel more effortless. In addition, you should gain more precise control over the small movements involved.
New Vibrato/Bending Techniques
Thanks to the additional spacing between the string and the fingerboard you will also be able to use interesting new techniques to perform unique vibrato and microtonal variations.
For example, you are now able to press down harder on a string in order to raise the pitch of a note. You won’t be performing any massive pitch shifts this way, but you’ll certainly be able to create a unique sounding and subtle vibrato. Go mad and try it out on entire chords!
This style of play is common in Indian music where, on a sitar, the strings are pressed straight down to perform bends.
Easier To Grab Notes
A big advantage to a scalloped neck is that you’ll have a much better hold on the strings. This is because your finger is touching only the strings, effectively floating above the fretboard.
Yngwie Malmsteen has stated that this is the main reason he plays scalloped fretboards.
Improved Note Clarity
You should find that notes should sound clearer and more lively across the fingerboard. On a regular guitar, rough spots on the wood can cause dead spots which can effectively suck the tone from notes being played.
A scalloped board will eliminate these dead spots as the wood has been removed, resulting in improved clarity and resonance.
Increased Finesse And Control
Through learning to play with a lighter touch you will really improve your playing technique by eliminating the tension that you would usually carry in your arms.
You should be able to play for longer, with no pain, with more ease, and with greater control. As long as you are willing to put in the work of course!
Scalloped Fretboard Disadvantages
Accidental Sharp Notes
Players trying a scooped fingerboard for the first time will likely use too much pressure as they subconsciously search for the familiar feeling of the fretboard under their finger. It is an alien feeling not being able to touch the fingerboard.
The increased space between the strings and the fretboard means that playing on a scalloped fretboard requires a lighter touch than on a regular guitar, a skill that will take some time to develop. It will be much easier to begin playing on a scalloped neck if you already play with a light touch.
Pressing too hard on a scalloped fretboard has the same effect as performing a tiny bend on the string, i.e. the note will be raised in pitch. So notes may sound slightly sharp until your fretting hand adapts. This won’t sound great for solo runs, and it will sound even worse when fingering chords!
You can eliminate the majority of issues with chords by opting only for a half or partial-scallop, but you will obviously still need to hone your technique when using those frets that are scalloped.
The good news is that the further up the fretboard you go, the harder it becomes to squeeze a note out of tune.
We’ve already mentioned above that a lighter touch is necessary when playing on a scalloped fretboard. But you also need to be careful not to reduce the pressure too much!
Fingering strings with too little force in an attempt to prevent sharp notes will only result in another issue – fret buzz. So it’s necessary to dial in just the right amount of pressure to ensure that notes ring out both in tune and loud and clear.
It’s definitely a delicate balancing act that will take some time to perfect!
You May Lose Inlays
Removing material from your fingerboard wood will also remove material from your inlays. Simple dot inlays should be easy enough to replace when the job is complete, but the design of intricate inlay patterns could be ruined.
Similarly, your side position markers could also disappear depending on how much material is removed, as well as their position.
In the worst-case scenario, you or your luthier may file too far into the wood and into the neck, or even the truss rod – eek!
It Is A Permanent Modification
If you decide that it isn’t for you, you cannot just fill in the scallops to return your guitar to normal. You will need to at the very least replace the fretboard, if not the entire neck.
This will not be a cheap job, so it’s important to really think things through before you have the scallop done.
A Loss Of Dynamics
Being forced to play with a lighter touch means that your sound may lose some of its expressiveness and dynamics.
If you prefer to play with a lot of enthusiasm and passion then a scalloped neck may not be a great fit for you.
As you don’t have a smooth fretboard side wall to run your hand along, you will notice a ‘bumpy’ sensation when playing on the high E side of the neck. However, again, you will soon overcome this issue as you adapt your playstyle.
Makes Your Guitar Harder To Sell
As we’ve already touched on above, a guitar with a fretboard scallop is a fairly niche instrument. So having this process applied to your instrument could potentially make it harder to sell if you decide to part ways with it further down the line.
This should go without saying, but please don’t scallop your vintage or collectable guitars!
Does A Scalloped Fretboard Make You Faster?
Many players believe that getting their fretboard scalloped will give them an instant boost in speed. But unfortunately, that is simply not the case! In fact, a scalloped fretboard may actually slow you down until you adapt your technique as required.
It is simply a tool that will help to increase your speed over time by making it more obvious where your weaknesses lie.
A scalloped fretboard will help you to develop a more refined and efficient technique, but only if you are willing to put in the work. Give it time and the speed will come, eventually.
How To Get Started
Next up we’ll look at the main ways that you can get a scalloped guitar into your hands! These guitars are obviously fairly niche and difficult to come by, so if you cannot borrow or gain access to one to test out then you’ll need to spend some money…
I mean, there are only so many times your local guitar store will allow you to ‘try out’ that Yngwie Stratocaster again, right?
Guitars With Scalloped Fretboards
A small number of guitars and basses are available from stock with full or partially scalloped necks. Here are a few well-known examples.
- Fender Yngwie Malmsteen Stratocaster (Full)
- Fender Ritchie Blackmore Stratocaster (Full – Graduated)
- Ibanez Steve Vai JEM/PIA (Frets 21-24)
- Ibanez Herman Li EGEN18 (Frets 21-24)
- Ibanez Kiko Loureiro KIKO100 (Frets 19-24)
- Yamaha Billy Sheehan Bass (Frets 17-21)
- ESP Kirk Hammett KH-2 (Frets 17-24)
- ESP Alexi Laiho (Frets 19-24)
Unfortunately, I am not aware of any production left-handed models which come fully scalloped from stock. So us southpaws will need to resort to modifying a current guitar – we’ll look at this next…
How Much Does It Cost To Scallop A Fretboard?
If you don’t want to pick up one of the artist instruments listed above, then a great option is to have a luthier at your local music store scallop the fretboard from one of your current guitars. If you do not live near a store you can easily send a neck to a reputable luthier via the mail.
But how much does this cost? To find out, I contacted several well-known USA-based guitar stores to obtain quotes and averaged them out.
The average cost to scallop a fretboard is $399 for a full scallop, or $20 per fret for a partial job. In addition, you will probably also want to have your guitar setup after the job is complete to ensure the best playability.
You can find out more about setting up a guitar in my guitar setup guide.
Buy A Scalloped Neck
As we’ve seen above, getting a luthier to scallop your current guitar is not cheap as it is a job that involves a lot of time and finesse.
An alternative (and safer!) option is to buy a whole new neck! For example, Warmoth will do you a full or half-scalloped left handed or right handed neck from around $350. The big benefit here is that you can specify the neck to your exact requirements. Plus you’ll still have the original guitar neck in case you decide to go back to it further down the line.
If you’d like to take a risk on a more affordable option, there are several scalloped necks available on sites like Amazon and eBay for well under $100. I cannot speak to the quality of these products, however!
How To Scallop A Fretboard
If you’re feeling brave, and are handy when it comes to DIY then you might be interested in attempting the job yourself! This is not the hardest project in the world, but proceed with caution as you don’t want to end up ruining your guitar in an attempt to save a little money!
It would be advisable to practice on some scrap wood before committing to irreversibly modifying your prize axe! Related post – why is a guitar called an axe?
Ready to try? At a bare minimum you will need the following items:
- Round File or Rasp
- Masking Tape
- Steel Wool
- Fretboard Finish
- Dremel (Optional For Speed)
I won’t explain the full process in this article, but check out the video below for an overview of the process!
Who Uses A Scalloped Fretboard?
Well-known guitarists who use or have used scalloped fretboards include:
- Yngwie Malmsteen
- Ritchie Blackmore
- Steve Vai
- Kiko Loureiro
- Kirk Hammett
- Alexi Laiho
- Herman Li
- John McLaughlin
- Billy Sheehan
- Karl Sanders
- Matthew Montfort
- John Schmersal
How Do Jumbo Frets Compare?
You can achieve a similar effect to a scalloped fretboard with jumbo frets. These much taller frets will also increase the spacing between the strings and the fretboard, thereby giving a similar feel. Bending and vibrato will be easier, but you will not be able to push the strings down as far.
A popular jumbo fret wire is the Dunlop 6100 which measures 0.110″ x 0.055″.
Keep in mind that frets will wear down, so you will lose more and more of the benefits as time goes by.
If you’ve made it this far in the article then hopefully you now know everything you could possibly want to learn about scalloped fingerboards.
So, is it right for you?
Perhaps some of the disadvantages or costs involved have dissuaded you, or perhaps the idea of developing a finely honed playstyle with an ultra-light touch will have inspired you to go for it.
If you do decide to jump in, please make sure to give yourself a few weeks to get used to the new setup before making any hasty decisions. Good luck!
Articles You’ll Also Love