Howdy again! Now let’s take a break from reviewing gear and take some time to have a look at the somewhat controversial subject of Tone Woods!
I don’t know about you, but I am not easily convinced about people’s theories and ideals, just because someone else believes in something, such as the notion that a particular Wood can make a big difference to the sound of an electric guitar.
I like to ask questions and find out myself the truth of a matter (God created us to investigate and make up our own minds didn’t he??).
So, this article isn’t about me saying that I know all there is to know about Tonewoods, or even that the notion of Tonewoods is a load of rubbish, I just wanted to take a look at the debate raging at the moment on how timber used in making an electric guitar effects its tone, because there is always at least 2 sides to every story.
There are some very good points to be made, depending on your perspective, and (cough cough) financial status!! LOL, Which is what we will be looking at today!
This article is aimed at looking at all sides of the Tonewood debate. Do Tonewoods really make a difference to the sound of your electric guitar, or is it all just marketing hype?
I will express my views later in the article, and I will preface by saying that I am not a professional Luther, Sound engineer, Player, I only play guitar at home, I have however bought and sold a lot of guitars over the years and have formed an educated opinion based on my own personal experience of buying and selling the odd guitar or two!
Okay, lets get started!!!
From what I can gather, there are three main groups in the Tonewood debate.
The first group of people say that the wood used in building your guitar is the most important factor as far as the tone is concerned, because it becomes THE tone itself.
The second group claim that it doesn’t really matter what wood is used in the building of your guitar, because once amplified, your guitars hardware and amp are what will ultimately determine the tone.
The third group are those that say your guitar doesn’t have to be made of wood at all!
Tonewood, What is it and What Does This Mean?
A Tonewood is a wood used in building guitars known for exactly that, it’s TONE! Wood, such as Ash, Alder, Mahogany, Korina, Maple etc… are known for ideal patterns of resonance, sustain and clarity so your signal is enhanced and leaves your instrument with a distinct and quality tone.
Each type of wood produces its own particular accent or characteristic, for example, mahogany supposedly produces a tone that is warm and somewhat soft, but well-balanced with good grind and bite, whereas Ash does the opposite, producing a brighter, harder sounding tone.
Ok, so assuming that Tonewoods produce a specific sound, what sounds do each of the most popular ToneWoods sound like?
Lets take a quick look at the characteristics found in the most common tonewoods! Now for this next section I am using the information found in an article published on GuitarPlayer.com http://www.guitarplayer.com/article/all-about-tonewoods/6502#sthash.37vGUwju.dpuf
There is a lot of info found in the article linked too above regarding the characteristics of each of the different Tonewoods, where the wood comes from, it’s grain and texture, hardness, weight etc… I recommend you check it out. I have just taken what I think is relevant to this article.
Alder. Alder has a strong, clear, full-bodied sound, with beefy mids and excellent lows. Its highs sizzle slightly, but are rarely harsh, and it offers a decent amount of sustain.
Ash. The swamp-ash sound is twangy, airy, and sweet. It offers firm lows, pleasant highs, a slightly scooped midrange, and good sustain. Ash has a brighter, harder sound that might be more useful when cutting and distorted tones are desired.
Basswood. Solid basswood bodies have a fat, but well-balanced tonality. There’s a muscular midrange, but also a certain softness and breathiness. On a well-made guitar, basswood can yield good dynamics and definition with enough grind to give the sound some oomph.
Korina. Korina is a warm, resonant, and balanced performer. It also yields great clarity, definition, and sustain. It’s a fairly light hardwood with a fine grain.
Mahogany. Mahogany’s characteristic tone is warm and somewhat soft, but well-balanced with good grind and bite. There is usually good depth to the sound, with full but not especially tight lows, and appealing if unpronounced highs.
Maple. Maple is a dense, hard, and heavy wood, a maple body produces an extremely bright, precise tone with tight lows. Used for semi-hollow electric-guitar bodies it contributes tightness and clarity.
Maple/Mahogany. Adding a solid maple top to a solid mahogany back yields a guitar body that exhibits many of the best tonal properties of both woods. The solid maple/mahogany body is characteristically rich, warm, and resonant. You get mahogany’s smooth, appealing lows with good sustain, as well as the extra clarity, definition, and bite added by the dense maple cap.
Poplar. Poplar displays a rather bland, characterless quality. Although well-balanced sonically, poplar bodies aren’t particularly resonant or sustaining, and they generally don’t seem to enhance any particular frequency range or overtones.
Rosewood. Seen frequently in fretboards, and in the backs and sides of many quality flat-top acoustics, but rarely in solidbody electrics. Rosewood makes for a very heavy and overly bright-sounding guitar and an expensive one too, that is typically more of interest for looks and novelty factor than for tone.
Walnut. Dense and fairly heavy, with sonic characteristics similar to those of mahogany, walnut is occasionally used in electric-guitar bodies. It tends to be warm and full, but usually with a firmer low-end, and more overall tightness.
Okay, so that’s what the experts on Guitarplayer.com have to say about the characteristics of each of the Tonewoods.
With the characteristics of Tonewoods covered lets now take a look at a video produced by Rob Chapman. Rob is from our first group of people who claim emphatically the tone of your guitar is determined by the wood it’s made from.
Now let’s go over to the second group and have a look at a couple of videos claiming that the wood your guitar is made from makes absolutely no difference at all to your guitars tone when it’s amplified.
The next two video are by a sometimes controversial gentleman by the name of Scott Groves, who Does admit that the wood itself will have a specific tone or characteristic when the guitar is played without amplification, when the guitar is amplified the wood type becomes irrelevant. Word of warning, Scott can rub people up the wrong way!
Here is another video by Scott.
This next video takes a more in-depth and scientific approach when looking at the sound your guitar produces when run through an audio processor. There has been a lot of effort gone into this next video, and as you will see, the only difference in the two guitars are the materials the body is made from, one is made from chip board, the other from Alder, everything else remains the same. The same neck was used on both guitars, including all of the hardware, electrics, wire, strings, etc…
As you can see from the previous two videos, there is a very good argument to be made that the wood used in making your guitar, makes absolutely no difference to how your guitar will sound when amplified. Both videos clearly state that the wood does produce a certain sound when played unplugged, but when amplified the wood makes no difference at all.
Now lets take a look at the last group. Here are some guys who don’t even think you need to make your guitar from wood, let alone a tone wood.
This first video is looking at the Gittler guitar, which is made from titanium steel. This guitar sounds great for something that looks a lot like a fish bone!!!
Now this next video totally blew me away, a guitar made from a masonry brick? You really need to check this out!!!
So there you go, these guys prove that your guitar doesn’t even need to be made of wood to sound good!
Okay, will all that said and done, what do I think about the whole tone wood debate?
Putting this article together caused me to stop and really think about the different tone of my guitars and I find myself leaning to the side of this debate where it doesn’t really matter what wood is used in the making of your guitar. I say that because I do like a traditional style electric guitar with a wooden body, the Gittler and Brick guitars aren’t really my thing.
I think there are definite differences in how each of the Tonewoods behave, but only with the instrument played unplugged.
To confirm my theory I thought I would try a couple of little experiments. Not nearly as in-depth or scientific as the video above, I might add.
Firstly, I got two Strats, both with maple fretboards and Ash bodies, both very similar in all respects, as far as the neck profile, weight, etc…
I was surprised to find that one of the guitars sounded full and really well-balanced with a darker tone, while the other was quite bright and spanky. Both guitars were made from the same type of woods?
I then grabbed a third Strat which has an alder body and rosewood fretboard and the difference between the full and balanced, darker sounding Ash bodied Strat was so subtle, that it was actually hard to tell their was any difference at all????
But when plugged in, the Alder bodied Strat sounded more like the brighter ash bodied Strat than the fuller darker sounding ash bodied Strat it sounded like when it was unplugged.
Conclusion, when played unplugged, two guitars with almost the exact same materials produced a totally different sound, and two guitars made from totally different materials sounding almost exactly the same, but when amplified, the results were reversed.
Another point that might be worth mentioning is when I take a look at some of the MIJ guitars that I have bought in the past.
Almost all of the guitars I purchase are in original condition, and when they land on my doorstop I always plug them in to listen to the stock pups, which invariably always get replaced with something from Seymour Duncan, Dimazio or some other well made after market pickup, and 100% of the time the guitar always sounds totally different than it did with the original pick ups, in all facets of its sound.
I think there are just too many variables that must be considered when it comes to how your guitar sounds than pinning it all down to the wood used in its construction.
A Strat sounds different from a Les Paul, but is it because of the wood, the pickups or the design? Does a bolt on neck resonate in a different way than a neck through body causing it to sound different etc…
So for me personally, I just think every guitar has its own unique sound, regardless of what wood it’s made from.
When it comes to buying a guitar based on how it will sound, it doesn’t really matter what wood it’s made of, as long as the guitar has been built with a good quality wood and the craftsmanship is evident. I don’t believe the tone of the guitar is overly influenced by the type of wood it’s been made from when it’s amplified.
Maybe the professional guitarist or sound engineer might notice a subtle difference in the tone produced by a specific wood type when playing at loud levels or in the recording studio?
For me, I’m kinda over the idea of buying guitars based on the notion the wood it’s made from will influence how it will sound. These days I purchase guitars purely for looks and feel, yes you can call me superficial and shallow… but, If I want a Strat with a three tone sunburst and a rosewood neck I get one, not because I want it to sound like Stevie or Rory, (which by the way play Strats that would have been made around the same time as each other, yet both artists have two very unique and totally different tones) but because I want my guitar to look like something Stevie or Rory’s played.
And if I want a guitar to produce a sound that is bright and spanky I install specific pickups and plug it into an amp that will produce that sound. Simple!
So I think the question really comes down to what aesthetics are important to you?
How do you want your guitar to look and feel, do you want a vintage or modern, a heavy or light guitar?
One thing I will say before closing, I definitely think it’s important to consider the longevity of the guitar, and the ‘Tonewoods‘ have certainly proven to stand the test of time, because a plywood guitar or a chipboard guitar as seen in the video above, certainly aint gonna last as long as a guitar made from any one of the tonewoods mentioned in the above list.
To be honest, most basswood guitars have always sounded great to my ears, and they are also very affordable, making it very easy to allow for pickup swaps if the stock pups need swapping out.
However, I have found that sometimes my perception of a cheaper guitar will influence my desire to play it. I think you need to be able to trust in it and love it regardless of the materials used in making it! We’ve all had that cheapo we loved, like some old used jumper which just felt so warm and friendly when you put it on.
Now a lot more can be said about wood, and I haven’t even gotten into acoustic guitars here, where I will admit that the wood can be very important! However I might sign off here (despite my rough writing skills today) and let you look into this fascinating and somewhat controversial topic further!
Peace and love rockers!!!