Fretboard radius is an often overlooked and sometimes misunderstood part of the guitar selection process. There are more important factors in overall feel, like body shape and neck profile, but (depending on your playstyle and how picky you are, which we’ll discuss later) a guitar with a radius that doesn’t work for you simply never will. Ibanez traditionally have a flatter radius, while Fender have a rounder radius, for example. This leads to a lot of misinformation because Fender normally have thicker necks and Ibanez normally have thinner necks, and people tend to group that in with radius. So, what is a fretboard radius? Does fretboard radius make a difference to you?

Fretboard Radius Defined

Fretboard radius is the measure of the curvature of the guitar’s playing surface. A radius in general is the length of a line from the center of a circle to the edge of a circle, so the larger the radius, the larger the circle. A lot of people are often confused that a larger radius is flatter, but this is the reason for that. Your fingerboard is a section of that circle, and the larger the circle, the more stretched out and flat the board will be, and the smaller the circle, the more curved the board will be.

How Does Fretboard Radius Affect Your Playing?

We’re going to be speaking in a lot of broad strokes here, but what it really comes down to is action. A flatter fretboard allows for lower string height, which is generally considered easier to play. This is very desirable for metal playstyles, because it requires less effort to depress the strings, and large bends during soloing can be accomplished easily without fretting out. A more rounded fretboard makes playing barre chords much easier, at the expense of making bending more difficult. The higher action required requires more left hand effort to play, but in many instances is preferred by fingerstyle and slide players. It can also be helpful to have higher action if you’re particularly heavy handed to prevent your notes from being bent out of tune during fretting. These are the core principles at play, but they affect different guitarists in different ways.

Should You Care?

Different players are going to have different tolerances for fretboard radii. My favorite is 12”-16” compound radius, which is a radius that starts at 12” and flattens to 16” towards the higher frets. This is common on Jacksons, and is a great compromise for a lot of people. I’m not really bothered by normal Fender 9.5” radius, but their vintage 7.25” is just too round for me. I like Ibanez up to about 17”, but the 20” radius found on some EBMMs for example isn’t really my thing. It’s also worth noting that most classical guitars have a completely flat (infinite radius) fretboard. Remember how I said barring is more difficult? Obviously not a problem for classical players; overall technique level is a large factor.

In general I think you should gravitate towards a radius that allows the string height that you prefer, but at the end of the day unless it’s totally out of your comfort zone it won’t be a huge deal. If you’re a metal player that likes super flat boards I’d maybe avoid PRS, and if you’re a fingerstyle player I’d maybe avoid Ibanez. Rules are meant to be broken though, and you can see Ro Han from i built the sky rocking a PRS and it’s not as though Steve Vai has never fingerpicked on his JEM! Playing and feeling a guitar is the deciding factor.

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This article was written by Kyle Karich, our editor located in Florida.

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