Guitar woods and tone

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Doug
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Guitar woods and tone

Post by Doug »

We hear a lot about body woods, neck woods, and tone. Over the years I've admired the musicians who refer to the tone quality they get from a type of wood, or from the age of the wood. When I was younger I'd think, "Man, I hope I develop an ear like that..." Over the years, I've become more skeptical and also more scientific about the tonal quality of the wood guitars are made of. So I thought I'd share my experience and see what other serious guitarists think.

My first guitar was a Harmony acoustic (55.00 USD in 1961). It was my guitar! What's "tone"? Later I got a 1963 Fender Mustang. Poplar. It's light and the tonal range through my Peavey Classic 30, as well as through my 1990s Danelectro Dirty Thirty, does not seem to be diminished by the soft wood. With 1963 pups and pots and wiring technology, the tonal range sounds pretty good, to my ear anyway. "Vintage tone". Amp tones can be adjusted as can pup tones, so there's always ample compensation for the effects of the wood on my tone. Which leads to my second point...

Second, the electric guitar tonal system has many variables. The pickups and the wiring network including pots are powerful variables. Then there's the amp which since the 1960s has become the most powerful variable in the electric tonal system. Never mind pedals which can transform any quitar & amp into a tone plethora. The minor variables are numerous. Cable, strings, nut & saddle, frets, wood, your pick.

The third point is about the wood variable. Here's what I've learned over 61 years of guitar playing and collecting: Within each species of tree, say Poplar, each individual tree has different qualities of the generic characteristics. This within-species variability is based on the different regions, climates, soil, rainfall, access to sun, age, history of illness or damage, etc. of the individual Poplar. The generic qualities of the species can be almost overridden by these highly individualized variables within the species.

I believe scientific studies have shown it's possible to identify the wood of an acoustic guitar when it's unamplified sound is analyzed, because the wood is a primary, powerful variable, and there are fewer variables in the purely acoustic tonal system. I haven't found any scientific analyses of solid-body electric guitars, through an amp, that detects the type of wood it's made of. If you have, I'm genuinely curious to know about that.

What does all this mean? To me, it means that amongst all these technical electric guitar & amp variables since the 1960s, our scientific measurement of electric guitar tones can not reliably detect the type of wood when you're playing any of your electric guitars. Now, if your ears can detect the influence of the wood, more power to ya. Even if that's placebo, it's real and it's important, especially to artists.

I'm curious what you think. -Doug Pratt, Atlanta, Georgia, USA
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Re: Guitar woods and tone

Post by plopswagon »

There is so much variance in the qualities of the wood even within the same species and so little impact (on electric guitars at least) on the overall sound. As long as you have decent pickups and the guitar sounds ok unplugged, you’ll get a good sound.

So many people play distorted and through effects anyways.

(also the tone is in your fingers*)



* this a running joke here, in case you haven’t seen it before
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Re: Guitar woods and tone

Post by Pens »

I haven't seen it in a while but there's some vids on youtube of a guy who went out and tried a bunch of different woods with an electric pickup, eventually even just straight bolting the strings across two separated wood pieces that were unconnected, and the difference is basically zero.

The only argument I've ever heard about it in an electric that made any sense at all, is that the strings form a resonance with the wood connecting between it, and the wood could in a very very very minute way affect the resonating frequencies, but it's again so tiny that your tone knob crushes any difference anyway.

For an electric, choose wood for it's looks, and it's weight, and it's durability/hardness. That's basically it. Forget the rest.

I used alder for the last two bodies I had made, because it's harder than poplar or basswood, and pretty easy to finish. That's it. This next one I'm doing mahogany, because I plan to do a tinted clear finish and mahogany looks nice. That's it.

The tone of the wood means nothing on an electric, only it's weight, looks, and hardness.
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Re: Guitar woods and tone

Post by NickD »

SG and LP with the same pickups sound different. Hardware, wood, mass, I don’t know, but I don’t think it’s as simplistic as the videos Pens is talking about makes out.
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Re: Guitar woods and tone

Post by Pens »

Two of the same model guitar will sound different given different pickup heights and pot/cap values. Comparing a LP to an SG has so many possible factors there.

I dug up the vid. Listen for yourself. I know most people won't sit for 20 minutes and watch the whole thing, so I set it to the end of it with the "no wood" guitar. Rewind if you want to watch the whole thing.

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Re: Guitar woods and tone

Post by plopswagon »

We’ve all seen that video and while I agree I still think mass will make a difference.
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ekwatts wrote: Wed Dec 21, 2022 12:53 pm The word "moisty" has made me irrationally angry.
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Re: Guitar woods and tone

Post by Pens »

Mass makes a difference in...what?

You literally can only hear the electrical system. Wood does not make any change to that electrical system, it is not conductive whatsoever, with the exception of mechanically absorbing some of the vibration, which I said in my first post.

However, it makes such a minute difference that is immediately crushed by a slight tweak of the tone knob, or pickup height.

I literally have two guitars both made from alder and the exact same pickup in them in the exact same spot, and I even measured the exact height of them to match the pickup distance. They are both wired with the same pot value, and have no tone control.

They sound 100% identical.

However, one weighs more as it's as thick as a Supersonic, vs the other which is as thin as a Mustang. They have quite a different mass, with the same wood. It makes zero difference in the sound at all.
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Re: Guitar woods and tone

Post by plopswagon »

I think mass will effect the sustain and string overtones, which if you think about it, is pretty much the core of tone. Pickups and all the other electronic bits are still the essential difference but as a whole this really is guitaristic navel gazing.

There’s also something to be said about the tonal characteristics of a guitar played in the same room as a loud amp.
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Re: Guitar woods and tone

Post by Pens »

Yeah, I said the same thing. The overtones are the results of the mass absorbing some of the vibration. It's basically a graphic EQ in wood. The actual, real difference in the electrical signal (because the strings are what create the signal) is less than a percent. You can just drop one side of a pickup and achieve more difference than getting a thicker body or using a different type of wood. That's the whole question, does different wood affect the tone, and the truth is technically, yes, but in such a minute way that it's completely irrelevant.

To the point that if you completely remove the wood entirely from the equation and match the electronics to the same parameters, there's really no difference in sound. Different wood does not matter to tone, like you literally have a surprisingly scientific test in front of you showing that it doesn't change the tone in any meaningful way.
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Re: Guitar woods and tone

Post by plopswagon »

plopswagon wrote: Sun Mar 26, 2023 2:12 am as a whole this really is guitaristic navel gazing.
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ekwatts wrote: Wed Dec 21, 2022 12:53 pm The word "moisty" has made me irrationally angry.
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Re: Guitar woods and tone

Post by NickD »

I've seen the video and I can't hear a difference, but then I'm listening through a phone so it's hardly conclusive.

All I know is my LP and SG are set up the same - including pickup heights. Is it a difference in mass, pickup position, construction, trem vs stop tail? No idea, but they don't sound the same.
plopswagon wrote: Sun Mar 26, 2023 5:43 am
plopswagon wrote: Sun Mar 26, 2023 2:12 am as a whole this really is guitaristic navel gazing.
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Re: Guitar woods and tone

Post by Doog »

Pens wrote: Sat Mar 25, 2023 10:09 pm Two of the same model guitar will sound different given different pickup heights and pot/cap values. Comparing a LP to an SG has so many possible factors there.

I dug up the vid. Listen for yourself. I know most people won't sit for 20 minutes and watch the whole thing, so I set it to the end of it with the "no wood" guitar. Rewind if you want to watch the whole thing.

I love this guy's approach; the video he did on amps and cabs is incredible too:



Anyone who that demystifies this whole area is doing THE LAWD'S work
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Re: Guitar woods and tone

Post by Bacchus »

It's all bullshit.

You don't even need pickups. I took mine out and it sounds just as good (possibly better). Try it. This is a cheap mod that guitar companies hate.
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Re: Guitar woods and tone

Post by Doug »

I hate you, Bacchus. -Lindy Fralin
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