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Author Topic: The effect of wood on an electric guitar  (Read 4252 times)
bacchus
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« on: February 14, 2012, 05:11:22 PM »

I am curious as to what effect wood actually has on an electric guitar.  Often, in other venues, when wood is discussed in regard to electric guitars the point is always brought up that electric guitars are not acoustic instruments so the vast majority of the tone is actually coming from the pickups and amplifier.  I have often seen the same oft cited study where it was determined (based on some dubious science, IMO) that the wood in an electric guitar makes almost no discernible difference when amplified.

While this argument intuitively makes some sense to me, it seems overly simplified, and seems to undermine much of the work done in electric guitar design.  I also can't get over the fact that changes in the acoustic properties of a guitar seem to genuinely have an impact i.e. hollow body guitars (like a Gibson 335).

Does wood make much difference?  If so, what is the explanation why?

Is there some formulation for an average outcome given certain types of wood?  For example, does the combination of maple and mahogany, on average, have any defined tonal attributes or notable resonant frequency ranges as opposed to just mahogany or something like basswood?

I understand that things like sustain must play into this, but is that all?

Sorry for the long winded question, I hope I am not treading down the path of tone-rite and bridge pin discussions here.

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Cameron

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« Reply #1 on: February 14, 2012, 07:09:06 PM »

I thought this was interesting...JCL told me that using maple or rosewood  for a fretboard does affect the sound of an electric.  So, going to a rosewood fretboard on a bakersfield will change the sound.  Who'd a thunk it.
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« Reply #2 on: February 14, 2012, 07:10:01 PM »

I can only surmise here, but I expect that wood does make some difference because after all the electrical signal produced by the pickups is generated by the vibration of the string, which in turn is affected by how the guitar absorbs this energy.  Different woods absorb string vibrations differently, so I would conclude the woods do make a difference.  Other factors might actually be more significant such as the bridge.  I have only ever heard one A/B listening test which compared an alder body versus a basswood body on a strat.  The only differences between the guitars was the body - in other words the neck and loaded pickguard were swapped between the two bodies.  There was a subtle but obvious difference between the two.  This wasn't completely scientific, but it was a much closer comparison than simply two complete guitars with different body woods.
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« Reply #3 on: February 14, 2012, 10:17:23 PM »

 I have also heard it said that fretboard material, particularly on electrics, makes a difference.  That suprises me as well.  It actually seems to me that there is more focus on fretboard materials in the electric sphere than there is on acoustics, though I might be wrong.

I would be interested to see a test like you mentioned GGBB.  Id love to hear the differences in species and, honestly, just between two different slabs of wood.
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Cameron

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« Reply #4 on: February 15, 2012, 01:56:06 AM »

I've built a bunch of guitars and the wood definitely has a big role.  If one were to boil it down to one attribute, I'd have to say the density.  I just finished a Bubinga guitar and it's very bright and articulate.  My Ibanez', OTOH are at the opposite end.  With same PUPs and amp, these basswood guitars are actually pretty 'smooth' sounding.  I definitely don't think there is a formula for this (at least not a simple one) although one could probably run a simulation that could be used to get the frequency response of the instrument.  This wouldn't be 100% since wood is natural and has much variability.

The fretboard is a contributor because it's in contact with the string waves for almost the whole scale length.  Softer woods should absorb more of these waves and reflect less while harder woods, or those with hard finishes, would reflect more.  Maple neck strats/teles sound brighter to me than their rosewood counterparts.  Again, nothing scientific here, just what I've noticed over the years.
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« Reply #5 on: February 15, 2012, 02:10:33 AM »

I'm certainly in the camp that believes wood makes a difference. I've also built around 8-10 electrics (most with parts from Warmoth), and I've changed necks around on those guitars quite a bit, so I've been able to compare and contrast.

My first Warmoth build had a walnut body and a mahogany neck. A number of years later, I decided to order another neck for it (a couple of the screw holes had started to strip in the mahogany - which is pretty soft to use for a bolt-on neck, in my experience). So I ordered a walnut neck to go with the walnut body. Both necks have ebony fingerboards, the same headstock, etc. The mahogany neck was warmer in tone, while the walnut had a harder, some might say harsher tone. The walnut neck was somewhat like maple, and with a walnut body (and ebony board) was almost too much of a good thing. My brother later refilled all the holes in the mahogany neck so I could redrill the holes, and that is the neck that is on the guitar to this day - it just sounds better.

I've also heard the difference between maple and rosewood fingerboards on my Warmoth Strats, but also on two American Series Fender Strats that I owned; they were identical except for the fingerboard (built about two years apart). The maple board provides a more focused tone that cuts through; a rosewood board sounds a little less focused; warmer and "airy" with more lows and highs.

Go to Warmoth's website and read their sonic descriptions of the different woods they use for bodies and necks. Other websites also have information about this. While there will always be tonal differences even within species, there are some general characteristics about different woods that can be made.
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« Reply #6 on: February 15, 2012, 02:39:29 AM »

This info is from the Suhr website:

Basswood – Strong in the midrange, Basswood has a balanced tone and is lightweight. Light in color with almost no grain patterns, Basswood is best suited for solid colors or is excellent as a backing wood for a Maple top. All types of neck wood combinations work on Basswood but Indian would be on the woollier and warmer side.


Mahogany – A popular wood used in set-neck guitars and acoustics, Mahogany is strong in the mid-mids with a good high-midrange bark. Contrary to popular belief, Mahogany is not dark – just strong in the mids that gives it the aural illusion that it's compressed. Mahogany body is best when mated with Mahogany neck.

Basswood Back / Quilt or Flame Maple Top – Okay, this may be the Holy Grail of tone. The Basswood response is extended by a 3/16" Maple top adding more clarity and grind to the fatness of the Basswood, this combination is our favorite! Usually colors chosen will be opaque on the back with transparent colors on the top – LP style. It's most excellent with a one-piece Maple neck.

Mahogany Back / Quilt or Flame Maple Top – This is another killer combination when mated with a Mahogany neck with various species of Rosewood for fingerboard material. Maple extends the range of Mahogany with more brilliance and punchy lows. The Mahogany back and neck combination works well in the bolt-on design and is highly recommended for those seeking a thick woody tone.

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« Reply #7 on: February 15, 2012, 03:27:39 PM »

Good descriptions guys, this stuff is pretty interesting to me.  My intuition says that wood matters simply because there are so many differences between individual guitars of the same build.  This is why it surprises me that people will argue so vehemently that wood just doesn't matter on an amplified guitar.  

I am generally a little unfairly skeptical when I read a manufacturer's description of tonewood properties, but I suppose that is not their fault, but simply that there is so much, for lack of a better word, 'magic' in the guitar industry.  By that I mean that there are a lot of aftermarket accessories and accoutrements designed to stoke the endless, perpetual quest for better and more perfect tone.  Moving into the electric sphere for me has been sifting through this stuff, hearing the voices of the skeptics, and trying to develop my own intuition as to what matters, and to what degree.

Great info, I appreciate the help.
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Cameron

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« Reply #8 on: February 15, 2012, 04:12:13 PM »

I shouldn't even comment on this thread having never played electric but from an observational standpoint it seems that in order to judge these instruments you have to have a common starting point. The amp, pick-ups, pedals etc. MUST be identical to judge the "acoustic" qualities. With all the computer and sound modeling add-ons it seems like the electronically modified sound can emulate just about any fretboard or wood sound you want. If better equipped electronic pianos can emulate any instrument in the orchestra I'm sure there is a set-up that can do the same for an electric guitar no matter what it's made of. The point is: if it's electric it ain't acoustic!


...imho blush
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« Reply #9 on: February 15, 2012, 05:24:55 PM »

I shouldn't even comment on this thread having never played electric but from an observational standpoint it seems that in order to judge these instruments you have to have a common starting point. The amp, pick-ups, pedals etc. MUST be identical to judge the "acoustic" qualities. With all the computer and sound modeling add-ons it seems like the electronically modified sound can emulate just about any fretboard or wood sound you want. If better equipped electronic pianos can emulate any instrument in the orchestra I'm sure there is a set-up that can do the same for an electric guitar no matter what it's made of. The point is: if it's electric it ain't acoustic!


...imho blush

Interesting perspective...  To me, just because a sound can be emulated or even obscured under amplification or heavy distortion, doesn't necessarily mean that there are not active acoustic properties of in an instrument's tone.  I actually like 'absorption of resonant frequencies' as an explanation for the importance of wood.  I kind of think that the acoustic properties of electric guitars are utilized in different ways than on an acoustic guitar, where the entirety of what you are hearing is the system of acoustic properties. 

All opinions are welcome.   
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Cameron

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« Reply #10 on: February 15, 2012, 06:29:22 PM »

This conversation can quickly turn into a murky pile o' poo ... because every piece of wood IS different. Some pieces are magical, and sometimes you get a mating between a neck and a body (whether bolt-on, set-neck or neck through) that just resonate beautifully together and have great sustain and the right frequency resonances for wonderful tone. Other times you end up with a neck with "dead spots" - no matter what you do, some notes just die out quickly. These are the guitars that end up getting sold off by musicians in the know.

Wood DOES make a difference on electrics. They are also "acoustic" instruments by nature, even though they're amplified.
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« Reply #11 on: February 16, 2012, 11:34:46 PM »

Places like the Gear Page, discussions like this get pretty heated.

Mahogany is dark. Maple is bright. Ash is twangy. Swamp ash is even twangier.

Things rapidly devolve into corksniffing.

 

Woods make a difference. Quantifying that is kind of tough.

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« Reply #12 on: February 17, 2012, 12:28:27 AM »

Places like the Gear Page, discussions like this get pretty heated.

Mahogany is dark. Maple is bright. Ash is twangy. Swamp ash is even twangier.

Things rapidly devolve into corksniffing.

 

Woods make a difference. Quantifying that is kind of tough.



Yeah, that is sort of the impression I got.  I figured I would run that by here since this tends to be a little more mellow, easy going forum.
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Cameron

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« Reply #13 on: February 19, 2012, 01:20:51 PM »

I have built a few electrics and my last project shed some light on my own questions about wood choice. I prefer a single coil strat sound but wanted something different from the usual flat slab of alder or ash. I built a carved solid mahogany body with a maple/rosewood neck and finished it with thin-skin nitrocellulose. I set it up with Don Mare Super Sport pickups after contacting him to see if the mahogany body would change the sound. He said it would not have much effect and he was right. It sounds like a strat with Don Mare pickups. My personal feeling is that about 90% of the tone from a particular type of solidbody guitar comes from the electronics. It is that last 10% that keeps us talking.

I agree that you can pick up 10 identical guitars in a store and one will be markedly superior. This could also be related to the pickups. I have checked the ohm readings on a number of 'identical' Fender custom shop pickups and the output varies a lot. I selected a set of Fat 50's for another guitar that were hotter than they should be. Love that guitar.

I almost hate to say these things because I am more of a woodworker than an electrician. Biology may also weigh into this debate. You may have heard of the super-tasters that tell us what we should eat. Perhaps it takes a super-listener to really appreciate the subtle qualities of wood choice.

Wood makes some difference in an electric, but spend your money on really good pickups if you want a big change in the sound. Try putting high-end pickups in a plywood Squire and you will see what I mean.

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« Reply #14 on: February 20, 2012, 12:01:26 AM »

Cool obervations ThirLake123.

When I built my Thinline parscaster, I selected a black korina top largely for aesthetic purposes. But I had the pickups wired by this guy who does really high end work and had him put in a switch that lets me run the pickups in series. Killer tone. Dimarzio Twang Kings are not expensive, but they give you that excellent Tele sound.

The thing sounds like a Tele that has an overdrive gear. Even if I went with all korina, I am not sure there would be that much of a difference.
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« Reply #15 on: February 20, 2012, 04:06:42 AM »

This is a difficult thing to truly make comparisons of because nobody will build a guitar with one wood, record it, then disassemble and build it with a different wood and then record it.  Thats the only way to make a real double blind comparison.  I wish i could find the guy online who makes tele gits from scrap pine.  Guess waht they sound like?

Edited:  

Thanks to YouTube - I found the guy:  Arlo West

http://www.pinecaster.com/
www.arlowest.com

Take a listen to any of his recordings on his pine teles that he makes.  Pine isn't supposed to be a 'tonewood' now is it?

IMO, the way that you play an electric, the pickups and hardware, the amplification, etc. will all make way more of a difference in how an electric guitar sounds than the wood that it's made from.  I realize that is 'against the grain' of most of the posts in this thread.

Case in point:  Ted Nugent vs. George Benson playing hollow body Gibsons of various flavors.  Nobody would ever listen to them and say; wait was that a rosewood or ebony fretboard?

There is something to be said for the fact that different woods will absorb some amount of the string vibration in different amounts, but as soon as you turn a tone control, or plug into different amplifiers, etc, the wood factor is swamped by any of the other factors.  Not saying that there isn't a difference in woods with electric guitars, but other factors in the signal chain are much larger contributors to the tone.
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« Reply #16 on: February 20, 2012, 09:50:35 PM »

Interesting discussion.  These are the sorts of things I see online when delving into this topic, there is a pretty firm separation of people who vehemently believe one way or another.  I really think both sides have a point.  What gets to me, in my limited experience, is how Gibsons generally sound like Gibsons, Strats like Strats, and even further, hollow body Gibsons sound like hollow body Gibsons.  I fully believe that the electronics are a major part of this system, but would it be true that a Strat with Les Paul HB's would sound like a Les Paul?  I mean this completely seriously.

Thanks for the opinions. 
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Cameron

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« Reply #17 on: February 21, 2012, 05:40:57 AM »

Interesting discussion.  These are the sorts of things I see online when delving into this topic, there is a pretty firm separation of people who vehemently believe one way or another.  I really think both sides have a point.  What gets to me, in my limited experience, is how Gibsons generally sound like Gibsons, Strats like Strats, and even further, hollow body Gibsons sound like hollow body Gibsons.  I fully believe that the electronics are a major part of this system, but would it be true that a Strat with Les Paul HB's would sound like a Les Paul?  I mean this completely seriously.

Thanks for the opinions. 

bacchus - a strat, with les Paul HBs, with the same scale length, and the same bridge, the same pickup placement along the length of the string, etc. would indeed sound like a Les Paul.  but then it wouldn't be a strat any longer.  Have you ever heard anyone play one of the strats with the two HBs in it in the bridge and neck positions?  Hardly sounds like a strat at all.

Where the pups are placed along the length of the string as a proportion of string length is no accident.  What pickups are used is no accident as well.  Take for example the 72 thinline telecaster with humbuckers in it.  That no more sounds like a tele than does a Les Paul.

As for hollow body gibsons sounding like hollow body gibsons; well - Both Ted Nugent and George Benson played them characteristically in their own special ways with their own signal processing and amping, and if you didn't know that's what they played, you would have had a VERY hard time identifying them as hollow body gibsons.

Or Yngwie Malmsteem playing a strat and Eric Clapton playing a strat.  They don't sound anything alike. 

To make this point somewhat, I'm going to link you to a couple of examples.  One is me singing one of the solos in Comfortably Numb by Pink Floyd.  I processed it with a similar effect chain as what David Gilmour did with his guitar - whatever was used while tracking.  I submit that this sounds more like his guitar solo, than if I had played it with a Gibson ES335 clean through a Roland JC120 amplifier.  http://rockstarnot.rekkerd.org/misc/demos/voice%20doing%20gilmour%20on%20comfortably%20numb.mp3

The voice by itself -remember this was really a demo to make a point, not to actually be serious.  http://rockstarnot.rekkerd.org/misc/demos/raw%20voice%20solo.mp3
And the effected voice solo'ed by itself:  http://rockstarnot.rekkerd.org/misc/demos/effected%20voice%20only.mp3
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« Reply #18 on: February 21, 2012, 03:35:56 PM »

Wow, you make a good point, and i appreciate you taking the time to provide an example for your argument.  I actually think that this is a pretty interesting topic, and I genuninely appreciate that it can play out on this forum without much hostility as I have seen elsewhere.

Thanks
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Cameron

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« Reply #19 on: April 01, 2012, 11:12:43 PM »

 

New to the forums, but not to guitars, been playing for almost 30 years, and I can say wood does make a difference in the sound, as does a set neck compared to a bolt on, a maple fretboard compared to rosewood compared to ebony, a maple neck compared to a mohogany neck,  even the thickness of the body, to way it is routed out for the pups, Stevie ray had a strat that was routed out for humbuckers and then put back to single coils and the fact that there was a large cavity the pups sat in it gave the guitar a natural reverb sound, because the pick ups are now chambered, a ton of stuff makes a difference in tone, like stated earlier pick ups, amps pick attack all contribute to sound, just like on an acoustic, but unlike an electric, the acoustic guitar relies on the wood to produce its originating tone, other than picking style and wood used the tone is what it is, and what a beautiful tone the acoustic makes.  you guys are a hungry bunch, more donuts
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