Any player who has had the opportunity to try a variety of instruments has almost certainly experienced at least one neck heavy guitar or bass. They are easy to spot: any time you let go of the neck the headstock rotates towards the ground, spinning the entire axe like a giant compass needle pointing to the Earth’s core. The nagging tug of the strap at the shoulder, combined with the insistent downward tendency of the neck in the fretting hand, can make the playing experience awkward and uncomfortable. This phenomenon is commonly known as “neck-dive”, and while it doesn’t seem to bother some players, it is a major annoyance for others.
Neck-dive occurs when an instrument’s center of gravity falls somewhere out along the length of the neck, rather than between the two points where the strap attaches at the body. Often, it’s because the body’s upper horn doesn’t extend far enough towards the headstock. If the horn isn’t reaching out to around the 12th or 14th fret (or if the body doesn’t even have an upper horn to begin with) your axe is a good candidate for neck-dive. Instruments with especially long necks, like basses and baritone guitars, are also more prone to being neck-heavy.
If you have an instrument with neck-dive and aren’t bothered by it, consider yourself lucky. For those of us who fall into the other camp, I have compiled a list of six possible solutions below.
#1: Live With It
To live with neck-dive, simply play your instrument until you become one of those people who isn’t bothered by it. This solution is completely free, and requires no modifications. Just make sure to support your neck with your fretting hand at all times. Downside: you have to support your neck with your fretting hand at all times. This includes while you are playing. You will also have a hard time letting go to make amp or pedal adjustments, take a drink, sign autographs, or high-five fans. Bummer.
#2: Get a Grip
You may be able to alleviate some of the symptoms of neck-dive by using a wide strap, or one with a grippy cotton or suede back. The idea is to increase the friction of the strap where it passes over your shoulder, thus reducing the neck’s propensity to drop. For some people, and some instruments, this simple fix is all that is needed. Downside: the neck still wants to drop, and when it does your strap is going to take your shirt with it, eventually resulting in your entire shirt sitting in an unsightly wad atop your shoulder. From the front you’ll look like Quasimodo. From the back…well…let’s just say it’s ugly.
#3: Hook In
One interesting solution I’ve seen is to attach a mountain-climber’s carabiner to the back of your guitar strap, near where it passes your waistline. With the guitar in playing position, hook the carabiner through a belt loop. This definitely works to hold the guitar in optimum playing position. Downside: Just as with the grippy strap, you haven’t actually changed the balance of your instrument. The neck will still want to drop, but now it’s your pants that will be going along for the ride. From the front, all looks good. From the back…still ugly.
#4: Add Some Ballast
Adding weight to an instrument’s lower bout is another common trick, and one that actually changes its balance. BB’s or lead fishing weights, stored in a nylon sock and tucked inside the control cavity, add ballast without changing the instrument’s outward appearance. If you try this be sure to insert a non-conductive barrier between the sock and your guitar’s electronics. Alternatively, you can try adding a weighted pouch (a wireless transmitter pouch works great for this) to the end of your strap nearest the bridge. Your audience will be able to see it, but you won’t risk damage to your instrument’s internal wiring, and you can easily remove it at any time. Downside: you increase the total weight you have to carry on your shoulder. This may not be a concern for you. However, if weight was a factor when you acquired the instrument in the first place, the last thing you want is to do is add more to get it to balance properly.
#5: Jettison Some Cargo
Rather than adding weight to the lower bout, you can try reducing weight at the headstock. The biggest culprit here is usually the tuners, especially locking tuners that incorporate bulky mechanisms. Many manufacturers sell a lightweight version of their tuners. Check their specs to compare. You can also choose tuners that use a pearloid button rather than metal a one to save a little weight. Some brands even sell replacement pearloid buttons for their tuners, making it possible to shave some weight off of the tuners you already have. Downside: you can’t use any tuner you want, and the weight you save is going to be very minimal. However, tuners do exert a lot of leverage by virtue of being located at the end of a long neck, and every little bit helps. Depending on the instrument in question, lighter tuners may be enough to tip the balance.
#6: Move the Buttons
In my experience the locations of the strap buttons – the balance points from which the instrument hangs – have the biggest effects on whether the neck dips. To improve the instrument’s balance, change the strap button positions. Downside: you may have to drill new holes in the guitar. Before making that commitment, use gaffer tape to experiment with placing your strap ends in alternate positions (being extremely careful to support the entire instrument as you do so). Many neck-heavy guitars and basses balance better when the strap button nearest to the neck is relocated from the upper horn to the heel. This is easier if your instrument is a set-neck or neck-through design. If yours is a bolt-on design that uses a metal heel-plate, this can be tricky. You have some options. To situate the button in the center of the heel, you will need to drill a hole in the heel-plate. If that isn’t your thing, you can also consider attaching the button to the end of the heel, rather than the back. A final solution, and one that doesn’t require drilling new holes, is to remove one of the neck screws, and replace it with one that is long enough to also accommodate a strap button. If you try this, be certain to measure carefully. A screw that is too long could come through your fretboard and ruin your day.
May the Gravitational Force Be With You
And there you have it: my best suggestions for rebalancing a neck-heavy guitar or bass. Hopefully one of them – or possibly a combination of them – will work for you. Results will vary greatly depending upon your instrument, your body, your tolerance level, and your playing style, so be prepared to experiment.
Have a suggestion I didn’t mention? By all means, let us know!