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How much does the wood affect the sound of an electric?

Postby Dr Huge Longjohns » Wed Feb 15, 2012 5:51 pm

Companion thread to my electronics one! How much does the kind of wood/weight etc actually affect the tone of an electric guitar? Is all this stuff snake oil too or do the various woods really make as big a difference as the pickups? Do maple fingerboards genuinely sound brighter than rosewood (or vice versa)? Presumably it's pretty hard to prove any of this but is there really any genuinely noticeable difference?
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Re: How much does the wood affect the sound of an electric?

Postby The Korff » Wed Feb 15, 2012 7:04 pm

Makes quite a lot of difference!

You might think that because the vibration of the strings is being picked up by magnets, that the wood that holds it all together doesn't have much say in the matter... But it does; the wood isn't inert, it resonates and contributes to things like tone, sustain and so on... Basswood, for example, has a very even frequency response, while denser woods carry high frequencies better, etc.

Cheers!

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Re: How much does the wood affect the sound of an electric?

Postby Dr Huge Longjohns » Wed Feb 15, 2012 7:41 pm

Hmmm, I know that's what everyone says, but is there any actual scientific (or quasi-scientific) evidence for this?
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Re: How much does the wood affect the sound of an electric?

Postby agent funk » Wed Feb 15, 2012 8:33 pm

I've often wondered, it would make more sense the other way around. That is denser heavy woods vibrate less with the string, thus the strings vibration lasts longer, lighter woods resonate more with the strings and therefore damp some of the vibration, giving less sustain.

Just a theory, like yourself I have wondered......

let's wait for Zen
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Re: How much does the wood affect the sound of an electric?

Postby Jack Ruston » Wed Feb 15, 2012 8:42 pm

The electronics are the icing on the cake. They account for maybe 10% of the sound. Hot pickups change the sound a lot, but what they're really changing is the sound of the amp not the guitar. The timber and design is everything. It's not just about quality or charachter of the timber but also about the relationship between the pieces used. The neck and body interact, and they can either encourage or discourage each other to 'sing'.

You can tell a good sounding electric without ever plugging it in.

J
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Re: How much does the wood affect the sound of an electric?

Postby Random Guitarist » Wed Feb 15, 2012 9:33 pm

Jack Ruston wrote:You can tell a good sounding electric without ever plugging it in.

J

No disrespect but that I must disagree with, it depends a lot on what sound you're going for, whether or not the unplugged sound matters so much.

I have a chinese made Tokai LP that sounds completely undistinguished unplugged, but plug it in and put some crunch on it and it sounds perfect, pure Led Zep sounds, great rocking power chords etc.

On the other hand I have a chambered Gibson LP that sounds fantastic unplugged and cannot make a good clear crunch in any configuration, makes great jazz tones though.

So I don't think it's just about the unplugged tone, it's more complex than that.


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Re: How much does the wood affect the sound of an electric?

Postby dubbmann » Wed Feb 15, 2012 9:40 pm

Jack Ruston wrote:The electronics are the icing on the cake. They account for maybe 10% of the sound. Hot pickups change the sound a lot, but what they're really changing is the sound of the amp not the guitar. The timber and design is everything. It's not just about quality or charachter of the timber but also about the relationship between the pieces used. The neck and body interact, and they can either encourage or discourage each other to 'sing'.

You can tell a good sounding electric without ever plugging it in.

J

+1. in a store i always play an electric unplugged first, to see how it sustains. only if it has a long 'hang-time' do i scrounge a lead and go find an amp to plug it into. as for the OP, in 30 years of playing electrics i've never noticed any correlation of wood and sustain or tone. it all comes down to the guitar gods' smiling when the builder picked up the piece of lumber ;-)

cheers,

d
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Re: How much does the wood affect the sound of an electric?

Postby agent funk » Wed Feb 15, 2012 9:48 pm

I agree that the wood matters, I'm just curious about why. The string vibrates and that's all the pick up sees, it doesn't care what the wood is doing. Therefore I'm wondering what the wood can do, and as I said it makes more sense to me if the wood does nothing. That is it takes no energy from the vibrating string by resonating. If it resonates it will absorb the vibrations and damp them, hence less sustain. If the wood is lighter it will be more likely to vibrate, heavy woods are therefore better. This would be audible without plugging in as well.
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Re: How much does the wood affect the sound of an electric?

Postby zenguitar » Wed Feb 15, 2012 9:50 pm

Huge Longjohns wrote:Hmmm, I know that's what everyone says, but is there any actual scientific (or quasi-scientific) evidence for this?

Lots of hard scientific evidence for both the materials themselves and how they interact. And Several centuries worth of empirical evidence gathered by experienced makers of many generations, which shouldn't be discounted either.

The real problem is constructing a sound (see the pun) conceptual model of what a guitar is and how it works. And a large part of the problem is that the simplistic description of an electric guitar is flawed at best, and completely wrong at worst. Too many people have a set idea in their head; what makes an electric guitar is a vibrating string and a pick-up. The string vibrates, and the pick-up creates an AC current that is an analogue of the string's vibration. Every pick-up has it's own sound and that is far more influential than the woods.

The problem is that pick-ups don't have a sound. They have a transfer characteristic which is not the same thing. Take a 59 Les Paul and a 59 ES335 and swap the pick-ups between them. They both have PAF's, both sounded different before, and swapping the pick-ups doesn't make much difference. So this is the first pointer that pick-ups are less critical than people think, and that the woods and construction make a far bigger contribution.

The next problem is that vibrating string. It seems straightforward enough, but actually it is just one component in a highly complex system where all the components resonate at some frequencies, damp at other frequencies, the components are coupled together so that their behaviour is modified by the other parts, and CRITICALLY has a mechanical feedback loop back into the string.

The string is fixed under tension at the nut and saddle. When it is plucked and given more energy, it vibrates and puts energy into the body and neck of the guitar. The individual components and bits of wood damp some frequencies and take their energy to resonate at different ones. They then interact with each other to modify those resonances. Effectively, the guitar 'steals' string energy at some frequencies because of the damping and then puts it back into the string at different frequencies due to the resonances.

Where it gets even more complicated is that these processes are not linear. There needs to be enough energy put into each component to overcome inertia and inefficiencies, but if you put too much energy in to a component it can behave in a chaotic manner. And in turn, that interacts with the other components.

With all the complexity and possible chaotic behaviour it is impossible to predict EXACTLY how a combination of materials and parts will sound. However, with enough measurements and computation it might well be possible to predict where the chaotic areas are and understand how they broadly affect the tone.

And this broad understanding of how different woods, materials, hardware, construction, etc., contribute to the sound of an instrument brings things nicely full circle. Because the empirical model used to explain the sound of different woods does essentially the same thing.

So there's a nice conceptual model of how the wood affects the tone of an electric that also fits the experience based model.

TA DA....

Drum roll please

Andy
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Re: How much does the wood affect the sound of an electric?

Postby agent funk » Wed Feb 15, 2012 10:05 pm

I did say let's wait for Zen!

we do appreciate you around here Zen.
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Re: How much does the wood affect the sound of an electric?

Postby Jack Ruston » Wed Feb 15, 2012 10:21 pm

zenguitar wrote:
Huge Longjohns wrote:Hmmm, I know that's what everyone says, but is there any actual scientific (or quasi-scientific) evidence for this?

Lots of hard scientific evidence for both the materials themselves and how they interact. And Several centuries worth of empirical evidence gathered by experienced makers of many generations, which shouldn't be discounted either.

The real problem is constructing a sound (see the pun) conceptual model of what a guitar is and how it works. And a large part of the problem is that the simplistic description of an electric guitar is flawed at best, and completely wrong at worst. Too many people have a set idea in their head; what makes an electric guitar is a vibrating string and a pick-up. The string vibrates, and the pick-up creates an AC current that is an analogue of the string's vibration. Every pick-up has it's own sound and that is far more influential than the woods.

The problem is that pick-ups don't have a sound. They have a transfer characteristic which is not the same thing. Take a 59 Les Paul and a 59 ES335 and swap the pick-ups between them. They both have PAF's, both sounded different before, and swapping the pick-ups doesn't make much difference. So this is the first pointer that pick-ups are less critical than people think, and that the woods and construction make a far bigger contribution.

The next problem is that vibrating string. It seems straightforward enough, but actually it is just one component in a highly complex system where all the components resonate at some frequencies, damp at other frequencies, the components are coupled together so that their behaviour is modified by the other parts, and CRITICALLY has a mechanical feedback loop back into the string.

The string is fixed under tension at the nut and saddle. When it is plucked and given more energy, it vibrates and puts energy into the body and neck of the guitar. The individual components and bits of wood damp some frequencies and take their energy to resonate at different ones. They then interact with each other to modify those resonances. Effectively, the guitar 'steals' string energy at some frequencies because of the damping and then puts it back into the string at different frequencies due to the resonances.

Where it gets even more complicated is that these processes are not linear. There needs to be enough energy put into each component to overcome inertia and inefficiencies, but if you put too much energy in to a component it can behave in a chaotic manner. And in turn, that interacts with the other components.

With all the complexity and possible chaotic behaviour it is impossible to predict EXACTLY how a combination of materials and parts will sound. However, with enough measurements and computation it might well be possible to predict where the chaotic areas are and understand how they broadly affect the tone.

And this broad understanding of how different woods, materials, hardware, construction, etc., contribute to the sound of an instrument brings things nicely full circle. Because the empirical model used to explain the sound of different woods does essentially the same thing.

So there's a nice conceptual model of how the wood affects the tone of an electric that also fits the experience based model.

TA DA....

Drum roll please

Andy

Awesome.
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Re: How much does the wood affect the sound of an electric?

Postby Gary_W » Wed Feb 15, 2012 11:46 pm

Hat's off, Zen - that post is a thing of beauty.

One factor left out of your equation which adds to the chaos theory. I've just been with friends practicing. I took my cheapo Les Paul copy tonight. By the end of the night, my shoulder hurt due to the weight of it and started to sag. As I was plugged in to a valve amp, was this the 'tube sag' that valve addicts crap on about? If it is, this proves that wood is important as my Telecaster has less wood in it and does not cause my shoulder to sag at all.

So you heard it here first. More wood = more sag and I think that's good isn't it?

There. I think that's put the nail in the coffin of sense and reason.
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Re: How much does the wood affect the sound of an electric?

Postby agent funk » Wed Feb 15, 2012 11:53 pm

I think that's all I want to hear about your sagging wood!

(I think you can get a pill theses days....)
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Re: How much does the wood affect the sound of an electric?

Postby zenguitar » Thu Feb 16, 2012 12:38 am

Thank you gentlepeeps

Although I am intrigued by Gary's experience... in my experience, the greater the wood, the less the sag. Could be an inverse square law going on there. Valve sag could be symptom of a prostate problem...

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Re: How much does the wood affect the sound of an electric?

Postby russ123 » Thu Feb 16, 2012 10:49 am

also, don't underestimate the difference the logo on the headstock makes. I have a well made 335 copy but the sound is average. As soon as I changed the logo to a Gibson, it sounded ten times better, moreso when I further upgraded the logo to Gibson USA

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Re: How much does the wood affect the sound of an electric?

Postby Dr Huge Longjohns » Thu Feb 16, 2012 10:53 am

Many, many, many a true word said in jest!
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Re: How much does the wood affect the sound of an electric?

Postby 4TrackMadman » Thu Feb 16, 2012 11:22 am

I haven't seen a huge difference in guitars with active pickups. I got a modern 7 string which resonates great and is overall a very good guitar, comes with actives. A friend bought similar guitar, different manufacturer different type of wood, same strings, same DI into the same plugins, same pickups and same wood on the fretboard - the two sound very close together. I've also seen this on active EMGs (The Zakk Wylde set) between a Gibson LP, Epi Gothic LP and Jay Turser - with those pickups they sounded eerily close, funnily enough the Turser was the winner by better playability overall.

Another thing that I've noticed is that the majority of guitars that have graphite are "dead" to me, i.e. they just sound dead. I am referring to the Fly guitar line - tried to like them for a few years but they all sounded identical to me.
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Re: How much does the wood affect the sound of an electric?

Postby Dr Huge Longjohns » Thu Feb 16, 2012 11:26 am

The plot thickens...but just found this on the excellent Tele forum. How about that for coincidence!: TDPRI wood thread!
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Re: How much does the wood affect the sound of an electric?

Postby Frisonic » Thu Feb 16, 2012 12:00 pm

russ123 wrote:also, don't underestimate the difference the logo on the headstock makes. I have a well made 335 copy but the sound is average. As soon as I changed the logo to a Gibson, it sounded ten times better, moreso when I further upgraded the logo to Gibson USA


Enjoying this highly informative thread enormously! Especially Andy's 'what makes a guitar sound like it does 101'. But not everyone falls for the logo... This is a snippet from a memo published on the Steely Dan website from Walter Becker to his tech prior to a recording engagement in November '97:

"Anyway, here's the list of stuff I'm gonna need when we go into the studio:

1. Stratocasters, all 14 of them. Even the Fender one, send'em all. Make sure they're all tuned up and ready to go..."

My Thinline Telecaster doesn't have the name Fender on the headstock either and I've yet to hear or play one I like better (alder on alder/rosewood on maple). I've always known how much those woods have to do with it. Although the Lindy Fralin pick ups don't hurt. But like Dubman says, if it doesn't play and sound like a musical instrument without plugging it in, I'd be highly dubious.
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Re: How much does the wood affect the sound of an electric?

Postby artzmusic » Thu Feb 16, 2012 12:30 pm

To add one more dynamic - the guitarist. I invited a highly regarded guitarist out of the audience to come up and play my guitar at one of my gigs. I've never heard that sweet a sound coming from that guitar. I was so totally entertained and at the same time reluctant to go back on.

Perhaps a great guitarist can make bad wood sound good while a poor guitarist can make good wood sound bad.

Rick
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Re: How much does the wood affect the sound of an electric?

Postby Fibes » Thu Feb 16, 2012 12:51 pm

Wood doesn't affect tone as much as you might think. For me pickups and pots are the biggy.

For instance, this sounds much like a Tele:

Oil Can Telecaster
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Re: How much does the wood affect the sound of an electric?

Postby Dr Huge Longjohns » Thu Feb 16, 2012 12:58 pm

No 'perhaps' about it, it's an absolute fact. Great players sound great on any old plank, they really do. And they sound like themselves too, regardless of the type of guitar they're playing (and certainly regardless of what wood it's made out of!).
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Re: How much does the wood affect the sound of an electric?

Postby Dr Huge Longjohns » Thu Feb 16, 2012 1:04 pm

and pots are the biggy


Trust you'll be getting involved in my other current thread then!
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Re: How much does the wood affect the sound of an electric?

Postby permanent_daylight » Thu Feb 16, 2012 1:11 pm

the question is always 'by how much' if you get more of a difference by changing strings, or by adjusting your action, swapping your bridge hardware you might never get around to caring about wood choice.

fingerboards make a lot more difference than the body or neck. then depending on the bridge type as to whether you put more importance on either of these i would have thought that body or neck are after most other factors in the guitar.

though semi-hollow guitars sound different, they use the same pickup principle, so it can't be all snake-oil.

different guitarists tend to put importance on different parts of the sound, listen out for different things and are deaf to other things depending on their style. in a way its up to the sound you want whether its important.
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Re: How much does the wood affect the sound of an electric?

Postby Dr Huge Longjohns » Thu Feb 16, 2012 2:09 pm

fingerboards make a lot more difference than the body or neck


I'm really enjoying this thread, even though I started it, simply because there are so many apparently contrary positions stated with utter conviction, like this one! I have an open mind on all this stuff, hence my post, but how can a thin strip of wood which has no physical connection to the strings whatsoever, and presumably has very little influence on the resonance of the instrument as a whole, be the most important wood-related factor in tone?
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Re: How much does the wood affect the sound of an electric?

Postby 4TrackMadman » Thu Feb 16, 2012 2:34 pm

It comes into contact with the player, also the projection from it is different and the vibration of the string varies depending on that. Most of the time I can discern rosewood vs maple fretboard by just listening to the sound on record.
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Re: How much does the wood affect the sound of an electric?

Postby Dr Huge Longjohns » Thu Feb 16, 2012 5:00 pm

Most of the time I can discern rosewood vs maple fretboard by just listening to the sound on record.


With all due respect and all that, but this is utterly impossible for anyone to do.
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Re: How much does the wood affect the sound of an electric?

Postby ef37a » Fri Feb 17, 2012 9:13 am

Not getting drawn in here because the ears are no longer up to it!
But even I could tell (5yrs ago) the difference, unplugged between son's Rikky and a bolt on necked Mex Strat.

There is however a "socio-green" aspect to this. If it can be agreed that certain, sustainably grown woods are as good as some highly sought after exotics surely this would be a Good Thing and help prevent rich guitarists funding the plundering of the rainforests?

And no one here has so far mentioned laminates? I mean proper, good wood laminates as used for top sporting riles, NOT Wickes' ply!

Lastly, if anyone is doing comparisons, swopping pups on different guitars, they need to jig up to make sure the poleface to string distance is the same in all case (maggy pull)and that the pup centre ref bridge is kept constant. It is obvious that the harmonics picked up depend critically where the pup is under the string.

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Re: How much does the wood affect the sound of an electric?

Postby Gary_W » Fri Feb 17, 2012 10:54 am

ef37a wrote:

And no one here has so far mentioned laminates? I mean proper, good wood laminates as used for top sporting riles, NOT Wickes' ply!


My first guitar was a second hand Marlin Slammer strat copy. It was compressed blockboard with a black coating. The 2nd hand shop sold me a well-matched Gorilla 10w practice amp - for the uninitiated, this was made when Grunge was 'the fashion' and consequently it was a cheap imitation of a wasp in a bottle with its bum on fire for added anger. And it had a hole through the speaker cone which I heard later was a common user 'modification' to improve the sound quality

You know how a good player can make even the worst instrument sound pretty fine? Well I was s***e and that really compounded the issue

Two of my guitars now claim to be 'Swamp Ash'. I have no idea whatsoever if an ash grown in a swamp is better than one that is grown next to the M25 but the marketing folks know how to set off a guitarist's 'Mojo' detector - just tell us it's got a hint of voodoo about it (and what smells more of voodoo than a swamp?) and we'll go for it.

Of course, it may well be better.... I'm led to believe it is a particularly 'hard' form of ash and for sure you would NOT want to bang your head on either of them. Now Keith Richards obviously uses something much softer like Basswood.... If Keith Richard's tele had been made of Swamp Ash then he'd have killed that guy http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dv1bM0pp_o4
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Re: How much does the wood affect the sound of an electric?

Postby Darren Lynch » Fri Feb 17, 2012 12:24 pm

Yep, IME wood is vital. As Zen has more comprehensively explained, the played guitar is circulating system in which the plucked string resonates the instrument, which feeds back into the string begetting more complexity until entropy brings an end to the sustain. However - time was when cheap guitars were plywood and expensive ones were solid. Now both electrics and acoustics have 'solid body' as a marketing mantra, so 'solid' can mean artfully spliced two-piece ash (my Tokai Tele) or a few lashed together offcuts...As examples - I have a much used Pacifica 112, body is about 3 bits of alder. It is a bright, zingy but well-combined sound and a loudish acoustic sound which I enjoy greatly. I also have a couple of Squier Affinity's for alternate tunings which whilst boasting solid bodies have what I can only call a brittle, jarring quality when strummed. So its not simply the wood, but how the instrument has been put together. And the pickups. And the string guage. And the amp. And the player. So many variables to good tone! Don't you envy those people who simply judge a guitar on how cool it looks?
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