Pretend for a second that you’re in an old Spaghetti Western....
It’s high-noon. A solitary gunslinger, a bearded Clint Eastwood type, appears in front of the local saloon. Two banditos take stand before him. Maybe he’s confronting them about their abuse of the locals, tells them to hightail it out of town before things get ugly. Maybe he’s upset that they insulted his horse and is demanding an apology. The details don’t matter as they reach for their weapons. But the gunslinger is too quick! He draws his weapon from its holster with a speed and grace rarely seen outside of the cinema. The pistol isn’t an object but an extension of the man himself as he fires on the outlaws and gives the town coffin maker a little extra business.
Now, after reading that your first instinct might be to say that I watched too many Sergio Leone films the weekend before writing this article and you’d be completely justified. However, there’s a point to all of this, I swear. In The Good, the Bad and the Ugly there is a scene where Tuco browses a shop for a new pistol. As he looks over the wares he’s like a man on a mission. He selects a gun without firing a shot. He’s interested in the weight and the action, the way it feels in his hand. He knows his tools intimately and knows exactly what he needs from them. For Tuco it’s a pistol. For us, it’s our guitars.
No matter how a guitar sounds or how pretty it looks, it’s all for naught if it doesn’t feel right so the neck can make or break it for a player. If it feels awkward or clunky to you then you’ll be constantly aware of it as you play. You’ll make mistakes because you’re either physically unable to work with the shape or because you’re too aware of it as you play and putting your attention towards the guitar you’re playing instead of the song you’re playing. But when the neck feels right everything seems to click. You move around it instinctively and it feels as natural to you as your own body. At that point you’re like a gunslinger. You don’t think about the neck because you don’t need to think about the neck. You can just draw and fire.
Martin Neck Profiles
This neck is probably the most common one found on Martin guitars and the majority of their Standard Series dreadnoughts feature it as well as a large portion of other body sizes in the Standard Series. Most often it will be paired with a 1-11/16” nut profile. I find this neck comfortable, if a little slim for my own personal tastes. It’s nowhere near being my favorite profile but I certainly wouldn’t disregard a guitar solely because it has a low profile neck. If you’ve been a Martin fan for any length of time chances are you’ve played a Low Profile neck before and possibly even owned a couple.
Performing Artist Profile
This is as thin as it gets folks! Probably Martin’s most contentious neck profile, players seem to only hold strong opinions about the Performing Artist necks. Definitely inspired by some of Martin’s competitors offerings, the Performing Artist neck is about as close as you can have an electric guitar neck slapped onto an acoustic body. When I end up talking to players about this neck it seems that they either love it or hate it and I honestly can’t remember anybody taking a middle of the road stance on it. The players who love it seem to appreciate how thin and fast it feels and how similar of an experience playing it is to playing their electric instruments. The players who dislike it tend to complain of cramped hands as their biggest problem with the profile. Personally, I fall into the latter camp. If you grew up playing only modern electric and are looking for a neck to replicate that feel then the Performing Artist profile may be right up your alley. However, if you grew up as primarily an acoustic player and cut your teeth on larger necks then stepping down to the PA profile may end up being an uncomfortable experience.
Modified Low Oval
If I had to pick one neck to recommend to a player without them being able to try it first, it would probably be the Modified Low Oval if only because I feel it to be a great compromise between the old and the new. It’s an easy neck to hold with large enough shoulders to keep the “vintage” guys happy while staying sleek and fast enough for the “modern” players to move around on. Over the last few years Martin has been introducing this profile to more models and, if it keeps going this way, it may end up that in a few years it’s as common as the Low Profile necks.
One other thing to note about the Mod Low Oval profile is that over the last few years Martin has been releasing more and more guitars that are listed as having a “Modified Low Profile with a Performing Artist taper”. This is not to be confused with the Performing Artist profile mentioned above. The taper of a guitar is simply how wide the fretboard gets as you near the body of the instrument. Traditionally on a Martin neck that has a 1-¾” nut, the fretboard will be 2-¼” wide at the 12th fret. A neck with a PA taper will only widen to 2-⅛” at the 12th fret. In practice, this means that if you’re playing close to the nut you probably won’t notice a difference but as you near the 12th fret the neck will remain more comfortable. This is especially useful for players who like to solo on the higher frets or for those who play with a capo a lot of the time.
Modified V Profile
This is the one common Martin neck that I would describe as truly “vintage” feeling. While the Majority of Martin necks have C or U shapes with soft rounded shoulders the Modified V has very flat shoulders giving the neck it’s titular V shape. Martin generally only brings this neck out for their Marquis level guitars* to give them a vintage feeling neck to match their vintage appointments and construction methods. If you haven’t played one before, your first playing of a Modified V neck can be a little tricky. Because of it’s flattened shoulders the player is going to have to slightly alter their grip, especially the position of their thumb on the back of the neck.
A lot of players who have had only passing experience with the Modified V profile will dislike it, which is a shame for two reasons. The first is that a ruling out the Mod V means that you’re now overlooking a lot of fantastic Martin guitars, including the HD-28V, D-18GE or D-28 Marquis. The other reason is that, if given the time, the Modified V can be not only comfortable but actually helpful to the player. I’ve found personally that once I learned how to position my hand on the neck that the flat shoulders actually provide a great point of leverage, making barre chords and other difficult chord shapes much easier to play with less pressure, allowing me to play longer before fatigue sits in. It took some work to get to this point but I’m certainly glad I did.
* There are a few exceptions to this rule, of which the CEO-7 and the HD-16R first spring to mind.
The Barrel & Heel Profile
Now we talk about the scary one. A lot has changed in guitar design since the 1930s and 40s, both technologically and aesthetically. This is especially apparent in guitar necks where today even the biggest 6 string necks look small when compared with actual Golden Era instruments. Martin’s Authentic series guitars are, for better or worse, as faithful of a reproduction of these Golden Era instruments as is possible today. This means that while all of the features that people love, such as their Hide Glue construction, their tucked bridge plates and their slotted bridges are there, so are their neck shapes.
It should be noted before continuing that while each Authentic has slight variations on their profile depending on what is correct for that year, I have found the differences to be minimal at best. I’ll notice if one guitar has a wider or narrower nut-width but beyond that if you’ve played one Authentic neck you’ve played them all.
The Barrel & Heel necks aren’t just vintage inspired, they are exact copies of the kinds of necks that you would have found on a Martin guitar if you walked into a music store 80 years ago. While there profile that has a U shape at the lower frets that transitions to a soft V as you get closer to the 12th fret. For anyone who hasn’t had much experience with actual vintage Martin’s (Including myself before the first time I played an Authentic) they can appear massive. Because of this a lot of players deem them unplayable without ever having seen one in person. I was guilty of this myself. And to be completely honest, when I first laid hands on it, I absolutely hated the Barrel & Heel profile. If I had just been a customer in a store I might have immediately put that guitar back on the wall and never given it a second thought. Luckily for my job is to inspect these instruments so I was forced to keep playing them. After a few passed through my hands I noticed myself warming up to it and then one day I found myself loving them. My preconceptions about what I liked and what was “too big” couldn’t have been more wrong and now, a few years later, I sometimes have days where I’d rather play a Barrel & Heel neck than anything else in the store.
Finding that perfect fit: It’s about more than what’s on paper
If there’s one point I hoped to make with my descriptions of the neck profiles, it’s that it’s easy to equate size to comfort with a guitar neck but that would be a mistake. Too many times I’ve talked to players, new and old alike, that will rule out a guitar because the profile seems “too big” without ever actually playing the guitar. They’re doing a disservice to themselves by potentially ignoring instruments that may have been perfect for them.
When it comes down to it, the only way to figure out what neck will work for you is to get your hands on it and play. Sure, looking at pictures or reading opinions like the ones I offered above may be able to give you a general idea, nothing is going to be as helpful as personal experience. Describing a neck profile in words is a lot like describing a piece of music. I may be able to say things like “Oh, the guitar part is really delicate and airy and the bassline is melodic” but at the end of the day you don’t really have a clue until you listen to it yourself.
A guitar’s neck is not defined by a single measurement but is a sum of all of it’s parts. It’s depth, nut width, shoulder size and a host of other variables all matter and the interplay of different variables can drastically affect how a neck sits in your hand. It goes beyond simply being subjective in that it’s almost impossible to imagine how a neck will feel without actually having played it. So go out and get some of these different necks in your hands and each for as long as you can. If at the end you still don’t like the guitar no harm was done. However you may end up surprised at how quickly an “awkward” neck shape turns into a favorite.
Thanks for reading! You can check out all of our Martin guitars sorted by Neck Profile here.
Be sure to use the comment form below to let us know what your favorite neck profiles are, or maybe just your favorite cowboy movie (I can’t speak for Maury, but I’d be interested in hearing it). And remember, you can always check out our previous Maury's Music Blog posts here.