Curved vs. Flat Fingerboards on Bass

Bass Fretboard

Q: Why are some fingerboards curved and some flat? Is there any benefit to one over the other?

A: The curve in the fretboard is called a radius, and there are varying arguments I’ve found for the reason. Many people agree that a radiused fretboard works best with the natural curvature of the hand. This is especially geared towards guitarists and using bar chords as there are those who argue that it is easier to keep the middle strings barred with a radiused fretboard.

That said, many classical guitars have flat fretboards, while most electric basses and guitars have radiused fretboards.

I had never thought about it until I bought a used Modulus 6-string a few lifetimes ago. That was my main touring bass for quite a few years. It was the first bass I had ever owned with a flat fretboard. I felt like it was easier to play technical lines on the flat fretboard, and my right (plucking) hand also appreciated it because the bass had flat pickups.

This is something many builders seem to ignore. I have a pet peeve about the radius of my pickups matching the radius of my fretboard. I can’t count the number of fantastic basses I have played with radiused fretboards and flat pickups which, to me, seems like an oversight. There are two issues here:

  1. The middle strings will always be further from the pickups than the top and bottom strings (this is much more apparent on extended range basses), meaning that we will have an uneven response between the magnets in the pickups and our strings.
  2. If you are a player who tends to pluck over the pickups, this means that the depth changes under your fingers depending on what string you are playing on. This doesn’t bother many bassists I know, but it drove me nuts on a few basses I’ve had.

Many pickup companies out there make radiused soap-bar style pickups these days however, so it’s an easy fix if you don’t mind and can afford to swap out some parts.

I personally think that the radiused fretboard is a carry over from acoustic, bowed instruments – upright basses, violins, cellos, etc. All of them needed to have a radiused fretboard to facilitate bowing and the ability to play on one string at a time without having them all ring out. In my estimation, it’s just a habit that never got broken. I think flat fretboards facilitate speed and dexterity while radiused fretboards may – possibly – be easier to play when you are starting out.

Personally, it doesn’t make a huge difference to me. My Skjold basses all have radiused fretboards and I’ve never thought it worth having Pete go through the trouble of making flat fretboards just for me. My only real requirement is that the radius, bridge setup and pickup shape all work in concert for a unified feel.

I know that many of you readers have had to experience this and have your thoughts and preferences. What’s your take on the “radiused vs. flat fretboard” thing? Please share in the comments.

Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to [email protected]. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

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  1. johnnybrock

    I think that fingerboards with a radius to them are more ergonomically correct because we access the strings from the bottom side of the neck. (G) of course, being the easiest to access. Then, the strings get further away, making you have to bend your wrist more, especially on the lowest notes. So, however slight, having a radiused board brings the strings a little closer, thus making them just a bit easier to access. On a five string, this is great for (A) and (D) , but then you have (B) and (E) which radiusses back the other way. That’s okay because although the benefit of having a radiused board is in fact slight, the radius going back the other way on those lower strings are compensated ergonomically by them being thicker.
    Overall, mine are all radiused, mostly because it’s what I started with and that’s what I’ve always been most comfortable playing on, I guess. I’ve never really given it much thought until now. I do however, agree with the symmetrically equal string, neck, pickup, bridge concept. That’s makes a lot of sense. Choosing between radius or flat is what I believe to be a personal preference, but it will change the way your Bass playing feels which will in turn change the way you play… just slightly.