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Tonewood: Myth and Magic or Bullcrap?

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I wrote this for my facebook page but I thought I'd post it here for the new guys as well.

Cheers

Allan

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TONEWOOD: MYTH AND MAGIC OR BULLCRAP?

Everyone who has had a custom guitar built for them has heard of Tonewood. The magical forces of nature creating the perfect pieces of timber that combined in the right combination create the exact sound we're looking for and if tapped in the right spot in the right wind direction will ring like a bell and sing like an angel.

Or is it all bullshit?

There will always be people who are 100% convinced that this timber makes the guitar sound like this and so forth, but does it really? It's one of those arguments like is God real, however in the Tonewood debate it's scientifically been proven to be fact and its also scientifically proven to be myth.

So which one is it?

So lets start with something that isn't argued. It has been agreed to be fact by the guys on both sides of the fence that in an electric guitar, the pickups contribute to at least 90% of the sound.

So if pickups are 90% of the sound, whats the 10%? Surely it can't be everything? YES! Everything else! Bridge and strings which are the next two most influential components in the sound of an electric guitar, and then after all that the Tonewood. All of that is divided up in the measly 10%

Now if we were looking at a acoustic guitar or a violin, there is no pickup, so all of a sudden the Tonewood becomes a much higher percentage. For example Tonewood used on the top of an acoustic is the most influential timber in the guitar etc etc, however in this case, we are discussing electric guitars with high gain pickups. But when it comes to peoples education on the matter, most of it comes from the books or papers written on guitar building by old school luthiers, most of which are educated from the Acoustic world. The knowledge used for them to build acoustics they just transferred straight over to electrics and then everyone just repeats all this like mindless parrots as if its all the same for electric guitars.

An example (and if you search the net you'll find hundreds of examples - I've even seen guitars made from concrete!)

A colleague of mine once built two guitars. One from quality "tonewood" and the other from cheap hardware shop Pine. Recorded one, swapped the hardware over and recorded the other. The recordings were made public for people to guess and they sounded virtually identical, so much so that it was 50/50 as to which was the Tonewood. I myself listened to these two samples and buggered if I could tell which is which.

So whats my stance?

I get asked all the time what my guitars sound like. I respond they sound like whatever pickup you put in them. If It's a Bareknuckle warpig, then it'll sound like a Bareknuckle Warpig. If you get that pickup and put it in a Fender, then all of a sudden that Fender will sound like a Bareknuckle Warpig, not a Fender. That pickup is high gain enough to override any influence the "Tonewood" has. Sure it may sound slightly different in each guitar, but it'll still sound like a Warpig. If you take out the Warpig and throw in an EMG, then all of a sudden it sounds like an EMG.

If you put an EMG in a guitar do you really think it matters sound wise if the guitar has a Maple or Rosewood board? You can get two identical guitars with rosewood boards, they'll both sound slightly different. You can get two identical guitars with the exact same specs and same pickups and most of the time they will still sound slightly different. That's the way it is.

So if the Tonewood only makes such a tiny difference, can we hear it?

Sometimes yes, sometimes no. In reality though, it's such a tiny difference with high gain pickups that you can walk over to your amp, tweak the knobs just a bit and its the same as if it were a different timber.

I've had other builders say to me: "How can you build a guitar that is all Mahogany, you can't have more than X% Mahogany oterwise the sound will be too deep and muddy" - well, um. Yeah. Guess I've proved that one wrong time and time again. Don't believe everything you read kids!

When I'm dealing with a new customer and planning out a build with them, I suggest they choose the pickups first and build the guitar around that. Choose the bridge second. Choose the strings third. Tonewood I advise to be selected for looks and for stability, as the looks and stability (in my opinion) offer much more influence in the build than their tonal characteristics will will be overruled by the pickups and amp. What I mean by stability is the guitars ability to stay in one piece over it's lifetime and not fall apart, bend, warp, split etc. Longevity.

There will always be people that want to argue this, I say whatever. I'm offering my opinion as a builder and player and you are more than welcome to your own. Sure there are always going to be other variables, but I'm breaking this down for the new guy without using words that have to be looked up on a dictionary, to the guitar player who has little understanding, so he or she will able to make some simple decisions based on what is made out to be way more complex than it really is.

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I would suggest scale length also plays a big part in a guitars' sound. High strings stretched over 27" vs stretched over 24" have quite a shrill quality that is equally noticeable plugged in or acoustically. The lower strings tend to sound more piano-like at longer lengths too.

But by and large I am in agreement with you - For the particular case of high gain shred/djent/doom/grind machines I suspect there's less in the wood and more in the pickup(s). I have an all-mahogany bodied Ibanez RG here with Bareknuckle Aftermath pickups that exhibits none of the "warm" qualities that is traditionally bestowed upon instruments made from the same timber. As you mention above, it sounds largely like a superstrat with Aftermaths.

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ok i will bite and say wood plays more of a role than what you think. how much to be honest not that much more the pickup is still gonna be the deciding factor and i do think that people put way too much in to the tone wood thing wood is wood is wood some is good for building guitars some isnt tone has nothing to do with it thats easly corrected with a choice pickup and the eq knobs on your amp.

the amp now thats where i think people should pay more attention to there tone guys who will spend hours researching woods and pay tons of money for the "right guitar" then just throw it though some cheezy modeling amp or digi pedal that makes all guitars sound the same. that doesnt make since to me.

if that ramble doesnt make any since its because i have been up since yesterday morning its bed time.

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I'm about to study these things a little, as some of you might have noticed. My current belief is that the wood (bridge, nut, frets etc) determine the sustain of the strings (both the primary tone and the overtones). Soft bridge/nut material dampens the high frequencies making them decay instantly - the string sounds dull.

The pickups on the other hand will mainly amplify/dampen different frequencies, based on their characteristics. (neglecting the magnetic effects on the strings themselves).

So in the first approximation, the effect of pickups is static and the effect of wood/hardware is dynamic.

Which basically means that the faster you play the more the pickups become the dominant factor. :P

(whether the first approximation is good enough is an open question, at least to me)

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I think one thing that was left our here is the almighty DIGIT- ie- the players digits.

I walk into a bar with Eric and Carlos. There are 10 people in the bar and 3 different guitars- and one amp. we ask the people to close their eyes. we tell them to listen and tell us which guitar sounds best and we will let them know who played what guitar at the end. I pick up guitar one and play, and then hand it to Eric and he plays, and then he hands it to Carlos and he plays. Despite using the same guitar I will bet those people will have thought we played different guitars because the same guitar sounded differently in each of our hands despite same amp, same picks, etc.

just something I have noticed over the years.

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I don't buy the 90% is in the pickups, unless you install high output pickups, like the EMG, in which case, a plywood body vs honduran mahogany wouldn't really make a difference.

Your assumption is that everything contributes to the final tone in fixed amounts i.e. pickups are 40%, body is 20%, neck is 10%, frets are 10%, bridge is 20% etc. It doesn't work like that. Take the same guitar and install nickel roundwounds and nickel flatwounds and tell me the difference isn't noticeable enough to make a BIG difference. Then, there's the steel strings, coated string, large core strings, the DR strings, Ernie Ball's Cobalt strings.... they all sound pretty different to my ears.

Different components will bring more or less to the final result depending on what they are made of and their design. Saying that pickups is 90% of the final tone is way too simplistic way of viewing or explaining an instrument's tone. Its like saying a Porsche 911 handles great. That may be true, but it won't handle as well with cheap tires as with Pirelli P-Zero tires and that little difference will have a HUGE impact on the car. Does that mean that 90% of the handling of the car is in the tires? No, because without the mecanics behind it, the better tires mean nothing. The car has to be able to exploit the tire's capabilities to the fullest. The same thing applies to pickups (or any other hardware) vs the guitar they go in and vice-versa. The sum of the parts is what make the final tone.

Over the years, I've come to appreciate lower output pickups. Why? they let the guitar's character shine through. If you need more gain, you can add it later. Sure, pickups alter the tone and give off their own character but they should also let the basic tone of the instrument come out.

Take an alder strat and compare that to an ash strat, both with maple necks and maple fretboards. I built both and tried the same electonics in both yet they sound vastly different. The pickups are Van Zandt Blues and I also tried the David Allen Echoes set. Every time, the ash strat had more top end and bite while the alder had a more more of a mid scoop and less sparkle. When you play the guitars acoustically, you can notice the same thing. This basically means that the pickups are letting the guitar's character shine through.That's why selecting the pickups appropriately for a specific guitar is very important.

The same thing applies to the old Les Paul Custom with the T-Top humbuckers. The acoustic tone is distinct and those pickups don't mask the guitar's basic tone.

Another thing to consider is tap tone. Tap a piece of wood and listen to the ring. cut it in half and each half with ring differently. Same piece of wood, different resonance. matching pieces of wood for similar resonance, in my opinion, will enhance the guitar's basic tone and resonance, which can play a big factor into things like sustain.

Then, there's the actual player. The way he frets the notes and his picking technique... and what about the amp? The amp and how well its macthed to the player and guitar has a huge impact on tone. Then, there's speakers.

Would I build around pickups first? No way. Try building a guitar around Maple vs Basswood or Northern Ash vs Alder or Swamp Ash vs Mahogany. If you can't hear a difference, there's a problem. For example, if you want a '70s rock tone with tons of mids, what would you choose for woods?

If wood doesn't make a difference, why not build with birch plywood, put a nice veener on top of it for looks and be done with it?

One thing I'll say is that there's no such thing as only certain woods are good "tonewood". Every wood can be good "tonewood", depending on what you're after.

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Don't forget that Allen is specifically talking about wood choice vs pickup choice for guitars primarily used in high-gain applications. I still think his argument holds true in this instance (maybe not sold on the percentage breakdown, but still...). Assuming we limit ourselves to solid body (non-chambered) electrics, it may be that in low to mid gain situations the wood has more of an influence but I reckon I could still swap out the pickup and effect a larger tonal change than I could by building a duplicate guitar using a different fretboard and the same electronics.

I walk into a bar with Eric and Carlos. There are 10 people in the bar and 3 different guitars- and one amp. we ask the people to close their eyes. we tell them to listen and tell us which guitar sounds best and we will let them know who played what guitar at the end. I pick up guitar one and play, and then hand it to Eric and he plays, and then he hands it to Carlos and he plays. Despite using the same guitar I will bet those people will have thought we played different guitars because the same guitar sounded differently in each of our hands despite same amp, same picks, etc.

But is that more to do with differences in playing style? Would the difference be as noticable if all three players were instructed to perform the exact same thing as clinically as possible?

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You can tell a child that there´s no santa claus and he doesn´t exist, but that doesn´t mean you can stop buying christmas presents.I see most of this topic is about how much pickups affect on tone on electric guitars. What then if I play ´em unplugged ? If that´s the case pickups don´t matter at all what they´re kind. That´s where tonewoodoo comes in.

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There will always be people who are 100% convinced that this timber makes the guitar sound like this and so forth, but does it really? It's one of those arguments like is God real, however in the Tonewood debate it's scientifically been proven to be fact and its also scientifically proven to be myth.

So which one is it?

From my perspective this one is easy to answer:

Yes

Yes

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Some Youtubage to stir the pot a bit more:

Is there a difference in two identical guitars built from different timbers? No doubt, yes.

Is it earth-shatteringly different? Not particularly.

Could a different pickup or amp settings make the same degree if not more of a difference? I reckon.

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Is there a difference in two identical guitars built from different timbers? No doubt, yes.

Is it earth-shatteringly different? Not particularly.

Could a different pickup or amp settings make the same degree if not more of a difference? I reckon.

That's a simplistic view.

Do speakers make a huge difference in tone in an amp? For example, try out a V30, G12T75, G12M greenback, G12M blackback, or G12-65.

The amp is the same but the final tone will be vastly different. Can EQ tweaks make the amp sound the same across all speakers? No, because they all have an inherent character that can't necessarily be dialed out.

Another experiment. Try an amp loaded with Tung Sol preamp tubes and then, swap 'em out for Shuguangs or JJs.

The same applies to electrics. Certain basic characteristics can't be dialed out of the basic tone of the guitar. Pickups can attenuate to exaggerate certain aspects of the tone.

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That's a simplistic view.

Do speakers make a huge difference in tone in an amp? For example, try out a V30, G12T75, G12M greenback, G12M blackback, or G12-65.

The amp is the same but the final tone will be vastly different. Can EQ tweaks make the amp sound the same across all speakers? No, because they all have an inherent character that can't necessarily be dialed out.

Another experiment. Try an amp loaded with Tung Sol preamp tubes and then, swap 'em out for Shuguangs and TungSols.

I don't think anyone will argue that different speakers will sound different. I think anyone could hear the difference between the speakers you list there. But I don't think that is a valid comparison when talking about the differences in timbers. I would equate swapping the speakers with swapping the pickups - they're both the last transducers in the signal path before they go to the next "big thing" in the signal chain (either an amp/pedal or our ears).

Your analogy with the swapped preamp tubes is better, but again I think the difference will be much less than swapping the speakers.

The same applies to electrics. Certain basic characteristics can't be dialed out of the basic tone of the guitar. Pickups can attenuate to exaggerate certain aspects of the tone.

I'm not arguing that there isn't a difference. It's easily audible in the video above. What I am asserting is that in high gain situations it simply makes less of a difference than some other parts of the signal chain or instrument construction (I think the authors of the video even acknowledge that the difference isn't that great either).

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"Over the years, I've come to appreciate lower output pickups. Why? they let the guitar's character shine through. If you need more gain, you can add it later. Sure, pickups alter the tone and give off their own character but they should also let the basic tone of the instrument come out."

This.

Also, I think whenever this topic comes up there are a lot of assumptions that every wood affects tone in the same amount. Lots of woods only minimally change tone, and some that affect it quite a bit. I know I always tap a piece of wood (Drak used to call this 'bonk tone') with my knuckles to see if there is some extra resonance in that piece over another. Stiffness and resonance in neck woods (cocobolo, pau ferro) seems to heavily alter sustain, and I've noticed that woods like pine for a body can really create a bell-like tone when an electric is played unplugged. Surely this is only amplified when plugged in?

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I will only speak from my personal experience. I have built guitars out of a variety of woods. As an experiment, I built an entire guitar out of a single white pine 2x4: body, neck-thru, and fretboard. I stuck some leftover parts on it, including pickups from an epi LP, and it sounded like a nice electric guitar. Nobody looking at it or playing it ever suspected that anything on it was pine, let alone the entire thing.

I have also built a solid maple neck-thru, neck and body from the same board. Had two different fretboards on it. Sure it was a little brighter than my other guitars, but I chalk plenty of that up to the EMG's I put in it.

However, on the flip side, I have one guitar that is a multi-laminate neck thru, and for the life of me, it perpetually sounds mellow, even borderline muddy. The pickups are good quality, as is the rest of the hardware. That leads me to think that the wood in this case (though most likely the massive number of glue joints, type, and quality are the culprits) plays a part.

On the whole, my opinion is that if you can learn what each wood's "typical" characteristics are, you can plan with that in mind, whether it be to feature them, avoid them, or make them a non-issue altogether.

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If you think pickups are 90% of a guitars sound you are doing it wrong.

However I will say this.. If your guitar comes from a big manufacturer there is a good possibility this is a statistical possibility. If I built your guitar this is not even close to the "tone ratio" and you should change your amp.

Truth - I have noticed that changing pickups can greatly affect the sound of a guitar.

Truth - I have noticed that two identical spec guitars can sound very different

Truth - I think 80% of a players tone is in his fingers. EVH sounds like EVH no matter what he plays and the solo to Stairway to Heaven was done with a telecaster.

Truth - I have owned a lot of crappy amplifiers in my life that killed my tone

So I love these "voodoo" rants and they are even more fun when you throw in "science". I also like when science says one thing and group think forces the individuals to toss out the results of science and go with folk lore. I don't have any science to throw on the fire so lets use examples.

I run in high gain situations all the time and I can tell you the amp is very very important in this equation. All my vintage Mesa Boogies are capable of displaying the slightest change in the user or instrument. New strings, changing pickup heights, different people playing it, different guitars, different pickups all were pronounce differences. While most of the newer high gain amps I own like the new Mesa Mini Rec or the AMT-SS20 preamp I have you can barely tell what guitar you are playing and damn near impossible to tell when I switch guitars, pickups, wood, etc...

I think depending on the amp the wood characteristics have to swing greatly to significantly effect the tone the amp produces. It is hard telling the difference between Sapele, Genuine Mahogany, Khaya, Limba on a Line 6 or a Crate. Play that bunch through a Blackface Fender and you might be able to get closer to telling which is which. But add a drastic wood dynamic like all maple or all padauk guitar in with it will stick out like a sore thumb. The brightness will deafen you. The same can be said about pickups. The more an amps front end compresses and eqs a signal the bigger the difference you need in the input to notice.

Therefore the theory is the more craptastic your amp is the more drastic the changes need to be in your input to hear a noticeable difference.

The woods I have used that have caused massive tone shifts vary greatly in characteristics. So much so you knew something was different because of the wood. Maple, Padauk, Wenge, Zebrawood, Northern Ash (Hard heavy black ash) are big changes from any species of Mahogany, Cedar, or Limba. Now what do the wood I listed have in common they are Hard and Dense with a great tensile strength to them.

Next up is the wonderful chaos that Nature adds to the equation. Since we use wood, a once living thing, to build guitars from they all vary in unpredictable ways. Much like a forest of pine trees. They all look like pine trees but everyone is an individual.

Now if you bring in a great big skidder or a bulldozer (lets say a dimed Triple Rectifier or a dimed Lee Jackson modded Marshal JCM800) and plow all trees in the forest down it is a lot harder to tell apart the individuals. But if you cut each one down with a nice axe you have had for years (say a Mesa Boogie Studio .22+ or a Fender Princeton) it is easy to tell the differences in each treeas it falls to the forest floor.

Anyway again if you can't tell the difference in woods of guitars you are doing it wrong.

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I think both claims are correct to a degree.

I say this because you all have more experience than I as builders. I also think the "voodoo" as some call it is when one is comparing apples to oranges.

You cannot get identical tone on two guitars built to identical specs, with each part of the wood for each guitar built from lumber from the same trees. Will the guitars sound similar? Yes, but not the same because of the organic structure of the lumber.

If you build a Les Paul spec'ed guitar with anything other than the mahogany, maple, and rosewood they are typically made with, the guitar will still hold the sonic principles of the Les Paul shape due to the geometry of the guitar. It will be different slightly due to the wood used, but it will sound like a LP. Same goes for any other shape. A strat will never sound like a Les Paul, even when using same woods, and humbuckers. It will sound like a Strat with similar aspects that a Les Paul has, but it still sounds like a Strat.

Back to the apples and oranges I mentioned above. The "voodoo" is comparing two different types of woods. Each wood is different in density, tensile strength, flexability, porousity. Will each wood sound different? Yes, but when you compare two woods of different species that have very similar or same qualities, maybe the only thing difference is color, is there really that much of a difference? So comparing an all mahogany with rosewood fretboard Flying V to one built with Koa, isn't apples to apples and negates the whole argument. Now the argument would hold more water if you compared the same Flying V build of mahogany from Swietenia humilis and indian rosewood from another build from Swietenia Macrophylla and same type of rosewood. Even two guitars built from same wood from different geographical locations will sound different, but similar. Then again all things being equal all guitars sound slightly different, even if built from the same treee due to the organic nature of wood. The circle comes around again.

Then again, I might be totally off base.

I am mainly a player and only working on a build because I love woodworking and want to mesh the two hobbies of mine. I am eager to create music through a guitar I have built with my own hands.

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I'm not arguing that there isn't a difference. It's easily audible in the video above. What I am asserting is that in high gain situations it simply makes less of a difference than some other parts of the signal chain or instrument construction (I think the authors of the video even acknowledge that the difference isn't that great either).

High gain is all about the amp, speakers and pickups. The more distortion you pile on, less and less the guitar's acoustics come in to play. You could play a piece of cardboard and it would sound the same.

Play some clean and crunchy tones and the guitar's tone should come out.

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I think both claims are correct to a degree.

You cannot get identical tone on two guitars built to identical specs, with each part of the wood for each guitar built from lumber from the same trees. Will the guitars sound similar? Yes, but not the same because of the organic structure of the lumber.

Actually, the answer is no.

I have two neck blanks here and the tap tone tone on them is very different. The wood is from the same tree, same board.

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People seem to forget that pickups aren't microphonic. Therefore they don't pick up the vibrations of the string itself, they detect the strings interference with the magnetic field produced by the pickups.
Vibrations from the string travel into the body/neck, sure, and then they travel back and cause interference with the strings wave patterns, but is it a big interference? No. it's tiny. TINY. The interference with the magnetic field doesn't change audibly at all. If your pickups were extremely microphonic, well, you might hear a difference then, since it would actually be picking up the strings vibrations.

What are the strings touching first before anything else? The bridge and nut, and the frets when you play, all while slicing through the magnetic field of the pickups.

You can believe in tone wood if you want, but I much prefer to base my preferences on looks and feel rather than believing I hear a difference. Often helps the wallet out.

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Generally some good points. However the assumption that pickups are not microphonic are not 100% accurate. You have a full range from "completely dead" pickups to "extremely microphonic" when considering how much they react to actual vibrations in addition to the change in magnetic field. You can add a metal cover or have the wire in the coil(s) really loose and the pickup will scream from feedback (in a very un-musical way) if you use even a touch of gain or play at sound level just slightly above bedroom level. That feedback is a reaktion to the pickup reacting to physical vibrations, so for those pickups the above statement are not entirely true. On the other end of the spectrum you have you EMGs and similar pickups, with completely solidified coils, cast in epoxy, with no possibilities to have any internal parts resonating to vibrations. You will however still mount them with a spring loaded system into a ring or pick guard, or directly in the body wood. Now we have eliminated the internal resonance. But we still have a physical resonating system were the pickup *might* move in relation to the strings due to resonance in the body and/or suspension system (screws, springs, rubber tubes, plastic etc). If the pickup vibrate in relation to the strings that will affect what the pickup "read". And the vibration of the pickup will be affected by the physical construction of the guitar.

A thought experiment: Test a set of HBs on a solid guitar (any wood, construction etc). Then move them to a typical big body jazz guitar, mounted to a vibrating top made from spruce or similar wood. Will the output (signal level, tonal spectrum etc) from the both guitars be the same? Probably not. It might maybe be a bit extreme to compare those two situations, but it "proves" that there is a difference in sound and the difference is based om the constructions of the two guitars -> how the guitars that the pickups are mounted to vibrate -> there is a difference between how different wood vibrate -> The wood do change the sound of the finished guitar

Now to the question if wood type A always will produce a specific sound and if you can scientifically "calculate" the sound of a guitar before you build it based on the wood and construction choices. No you cannot!. I have the same experience as guitar2005. There can even be big differences in sound (vibrational response) from different parts of the same board.

To conclude, the thing about pickups being non-microphonic is only partly right. And even with totally "dead" pikcups there will be a certain influence in the tonal output of the pickup depending on how the pickups themselves vibrate in relation to the strings and thus there will be a influence in sound from the wood and the construction of the guitar, however that influence is sometimes widely exaggerated.

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So many people have made good points here and I've lately been battling with this exact argument

I've recently had the opportunity to compare a $2000 LP Studio with a $9000 '59 LP reissue. Neither of them have high output pickups but the same thing applies. When played acoustically the '59 really shines but plugged-in the difference becomes less. So I agree with the premiss that higher the gain pickup, the less the wood is involved, but I believe its always there

It depends on the listener. There are so many factors involved in the listening

My father played drums in a band and he said sometimes you play like crap but people come up and comment how well you're playing. While other times you think you're playing really well and nobody says "boo" Some people have a good ear for sound and on top of that sometimes a person is just tired or irritable and just doesn't care

Getting back to my belief that the wood is always there, along with neck joint, frets, tuning pegs and bridge etc - For numerous reasons a person can hear the difference or they can't...

and getting the point I want to make is this

If you have a guitar made of balsa wood and yet has that fabulous high-gain pickup, you will get the attention of a lot of people. But there might be a percentage that can tell it doesn't sound right

On the other hand, if you have good wood and all the rest of it, you should get all the people all the time

And another point

If playing live you can get away with a lot but if you are recording, its there for people to listen to over and over again and its a lot more critical

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