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ShatnersBassoon

So what exactly does contribute to 'tone'? Aside from pups

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A contentious issue I suppose (which in itself is kind of silly when you think about it), but everyone has their idea of what contributes to the (amplified) 'tone'. By 'tone' I mean what in classical circles is often referred to as timbre, but rightly or wrongly I've always included sustain in to the equation too.

From my limited experience, here are my small nuggets of observations. I think that nut material absolutely does, compare a wood nut to a bone nut for example. The wood nut (padauk in my case) was dull and thuddy on open strings in my humble opinion. This suggests to me that nut density contributes to a defined tone. To such an extent I'm fairly certain that this dull character will change when I change the nut to to a brass one.

Another. I think the neck plays a huge part in the tone of the guitar. Much more than the body. Notes that sustain nicely acoustically on a neck seem to translate nicely to the amplified sound. What exactly the magical formula of the ideal neck is remains elusive, but I will say that the Wenge and ebony (fretboard) neck i built seems to have a beautiful ring to it that was evident both removed from the body and attached to it. I think that density has a lot to do with this. 

Ofcourse there's definitely more that I have forgot, but its late at night :)

Thoughts?

 

Edited by ShatnersBassoon
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That sounds like a solid start for a fruitful discussion. I mean, you didn't mention "tonewood" at all and you include sustain to the tone.

For what I've understood and learned, the "timbre" of an electric guitar doesn't transfer through the pickups as such. That doesn't mean it can be omitted since sustain is part of it and that definitely can be magnetically amplified. Also, the more the guitar vibrates, the more feedback it gives to the player affecting the way he plays. So although the timbre can't be amplified, it has an indirect effect to the resulting sound.

About materials, I classify them to "soft" and "hard". By "soft" I mean something that has more or less rubbery features in dampening any vibrations. Obviously, "hard" is the opposite, not giving in. As you've observed a wooden nut had a thuddy sound compared to a bone or brass nut. Is it because of density or stiffness, I can't tell for sure. Maybe both.

You're right about the neck. Because it's much thinner than the body blank, the vibrating strings have energy enough to move the neck accordingly which in turn can extend the life span of the sustain. I mean, the vibrating neck acts similarly to the player's finger nudging on a fret to elongate a note. Because of the proportions, the neck must also be "hard" - not necessarily all the way, but at least partially for all of the length. The fretboard has to be hard for wear resistancy, the truss rod adding to "hardness", the two allowing some freedom for the neck material as long as it's strong enough to stand the palm wear and the string pull.

I've heard that a guitar made entirely out of marble would have infinite sustain.

One thing that hasn't yet been mentioned is the finish. Obviously a 2 mm thick flexible lacquer will thuddify the sound, both in the neck and under the bridge. A thickly lacquered/painted solidbody with a hardtail bridge laying on the surface might benefit significantly by removing the finish from under the bridge and from the neck.

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I'm a tone agnostic. I could be convinced either way that some things make a difference one way or the other, but I've yet to see convincing arguments either way to sway my opinion for or against.

Personally I think the biggest thing that makes the most difference in tone are the pickups and what you plug the guitar in to.

Other things that I feel make a significant difference are the scale length, string gauge, how much down force is applied to the bridge as the strings pass over the saddles and what kind of bridge is used (floating trem, hard tail, tune-o-matic, top load etc).

Timber used might make a difference, but trying to prove it's importance in imparting a particular tonal quality gets really wishy-washy because the work executed in trying to prove it's difference invariably results in changing multiple things simultaneously in the comparison. This is further compounded in nearly all the 'experiments' I've seen/heard by the fact that the most variable part of the comparison  is never eliminated when doing those kinds of comparisons - the player.

 

8 hours ago, ShatnersBassoon said:

From my limited experience, here are my small nuggets of observations. I think that nut material absolutely does, compare a wood nut to a bone nut for example. 

Only for open strings. As soon as you fret a note the nut is unlikely to play any part in determining the tone of the instrument. You could probably 'normalise' any nut material by the use of a zero fret too.

 

8 hours ago, ShatnersBassoon said:

Another. I think the neck plays a huge part in the tone of the guitar. Much more than the body. Notes that sustain nicely acoustically on a neck seem to translate nicely to the amplified sound.

Difficult to prove. How do you determine that the neck itself is or is not responsible for the characteristics of the tone you're hearing? I guess you could make two identical bolt-on necks - one from maple and one from mahogany, and swap them on and off a common body, but in doing so you're also swapping more than just the one element between tests..

 

2 hours ago, Bizman62 said:

I've heard that a guitar made entirely out of marble would have infinite sustain.

There's a Youtube video of a concrete Telecaster compared to a wooden version (don't know what species) floating around. IIRC, the concrete one sounded brighter, but still sounds like a Tele.

 

2 hours ago, Bizman62 said:

One thing that hasn't yet been mentioned is the finish. Obviously a 2 mm thick flexible lacquer will thuddify the sound, both in the neck and under the bridge.

I'd be somewhat skeptical that the finish itself could be an audible contributor to the sound of an electric guitar. My gut instinct is that it would take a relatively massive difference in finish thickness and makeup to impart an audible difference between two otherwise identical guitars.

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4 hours ago, curtisa said:

I'd be somewhat skeptical that the finish itself could be an audible contributor to the sound of an electric guitar.

I meant that a thick plasticky/rubbery finish might work as a dampening material causing the sound to die sooner; I just love the word "thuddy" coined by the OP.

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5 hours ago, curtisa said:

Only for open strings. As soon as you fret a note the nut is unlikely to play any part in determining the tone of the instrument. You could probably 'normalise' any nut material by the use of a zero fret too.

Absolutely, I should have clarified this I guess. With regards to the neck, I can only go by my limited experience, but so much of this is subjective isn't it? So many variables and of course confirmation bias comes in to the equation sometimes too.

As has been noticed, I haven't really included 'tonewood' in this debate, although it is interesting for sure. I've heard of people getting death threats over this subject😂😂. Ah the church of the tone woods huh, people get so reverent over it!

Edited by ShatnersBassoon

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16 hours ago, Bizman62 said:

I meant that a thick plasticky/rubbery finish might work as a dampening material causing the sound to die sooner

Aye, but a guitar with a finish so rubbery that it dampens the natural decay and sound would be...well...kinda icky to play, to say the least:lol:;) 

 

18 hours ago, ADFinlayson said:

- Guitarist

To a degree, yes:

Joe Satriani plays Surfing with the Alien on a cheap Strat clone

It certainly sounds like Joe's playing, even if it doesn't exactly sound like Joe's sound.

 

18 hours ago, ADFinlayson said:

- Finish

Surprised you put that ahead of wood. I'd personally put that waaaaaay down the list. 

 

16 hours ago, ShatnersBassoon said:

 so much of this is subjective isn't it? So many variables and of course confirmation bias comes in to the equation sometimes too.

Which is why I'm sure we'll never see any real objective reasoning behind the importance of the various components that make up an electric guitar and their subsequent impact on tone. 

Everyone's been 'trained' to know that mahogany is warm and maple is bright, but I bet any builder worth their salt could make a bright sounding mahogany-bodied guitar if they wanted to. 

A lot of the experiments trying to demonstrate the importance of some part of an electric guitar having an impact on tone centres around plucking long sustained notes or chords, or showing the results passing through a spectrum analyser to reveal the minutiae behind the sound. But the real-world application of testing like that is nearly meaningless as no-one plays or listens to their guitars in that way. We play in bands in bars, and perform pentatonic scales at 135BPM, and plug in to an AxeFX, and listen through headphones, and have a few drinks while we jam along with some backing tracks. And we do so safe in the knowledge that the wood underneath the opaque black paint finish on our Fendsonanez SuperThunderPatrolMeister86 is Honduran mahogany...or is it birch plywood? :player

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2 hours ago, curtisa said:

But the real-world application of testing like that is nearly meaningless as no-one plays or listens to their guitars in that way. We play in bands in bars, and perform pentatonic scales at 135BPM, and plug in to an AxeFX, and listen through headphones, and have a few drinks while we jam along with some backing tracks.

Tru dat! What puzzles me the most is that when a guitarist in a band plays solo between the tunes, like when checking his tuning with a couple of chords, the sound can be pretty awful. But with the band he blends in beautifully. Most often a single player sound is entirely different than a band player sound. Playing by yourself you try to get a rich sound to compensate the lack of other instruments while with a band the sound has to be distinct in order to be heard.

I recall an old article where a 60's musician told one guitarist having used an annoying sound reminiscent of the whining of mosquitoes. When the rest of the band played, the combined sound was very pleasant to listen to.

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@curtisa I said guitarist because a good player will nearly always make any guitar sound good, a bad player will make a good guitar sound terrible. I said finish because whether or not a finish is soaked into the wood or built up on the surface of the wood is bound to affect the sound as much as species of wood (IMO) 

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On ‎8‎/‎24‎/‎2019 at 7:50 PM, ADFinlayson said:

 I said guitarist because a good player will nearly always make any guitar sound good, a bad player will make a good guitar sound terrible.

All good. I knew what you meant. The link to that Satriani video I posted pretty much demonstrates what you're saying, although I do feel that the tonal qualities we're hearing in this case are down to performance and execution, rather than the instrument itself.

 

On ‎8‎/‎24‎/‎2019 at 7:50 PM, ADFinlayson said:

I said finish because whether or not a finish is soaked into the wood or built up on the surface of the wood is bound to affect the sound as much as species of wood (IMO)

Can you give any specifics about how you think these differences can be quantified? Say, will an oil finish impart X and a solid paint colour impart Y on the tone? Not trying to be difficult, just genuinely interested in your opinion here.

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One thing that tangented from the the thick finish idea is glue. As with the lacquer I don't believe it would be any sort of issue with a builder who has done his homework.

However, there's videos showing how an eager novice builds a guitar using materials he already has or can easily get. So it could be entirely possible that instead of good wood glue he'd use construction adhesive like Sikaflex or Soudaflex. Why not? If it's strong enough to be used for building houses it must be strong enough to hold a neck against string tension, mustn't it? And if it fills any gaps, even better since the fitting of the neck won't be snug by any measure. Pluck, pluck....

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the internet is now replete with examples of guitarists playing guitars made of bazaar materials. Stuff like Concrete, Cardboard, sheet metal, plastics, carbon graphite, etc., etc., etc.   

in every case there is one common denominator... a good guitarist...  Not once in my over 50 years of being involved with guitars have I ever seen a demonstration where a sucky guitarist was handed a superb guitar, he stumbled through a few riffs, and every one stood there amazed at the horrible playing BUT stunned by the amazing tone... not once...

in every case when someone is demonstrating superb tone... there is a superb guitarist at the helm...

funny how that happens . . . every time,,  but the way guys speak about their favorite wood, pickups, paint, caps etc... you would think all you gotta do is screw 'em on/into your's and bingo, you instantly become a virtuoso... the gear's got very little to do with how you sound,, very little..

in the early  60's I met a luthier that maintained Andreas Segovia's guitars.. as a Kid I was not impressed by Segovia, but he owned what became my personal Mecca for things guitar... the American Music Store here in Jacksonville,  his mantra was... 

Tone is defined and generated in this order... The guitarist's skill and talent,, the amp, the acoustic signature of the room in which the guitar is being played.. after you get through that rather significant labyrinth.. you start to encountered the physical makeup of the guitar.... since there is such a complex consortium of materials contributing, it's a useless proposition to try to quantify what is doing what... its not individual parts.. it is A guitar.. the guitar has a voice.. you hear that, not some piece of wood, a bit of dry paint.. some glue joint... the pickups... you do not hear parts you hear the sum total of it all..

If you cannot take some knowledge of a part's sonic contribution to the shop and order a guitar that makes THAT sound the predominant tonality... then any discussion of such is useless... the parts sonic contribution is only a random occurrence.. you want a guitar that sounds good... that's the purview of the luthier.. you do not want a guitar that sounds like some bridge or a set of pickups... because no one gives a hoot...   there's been a lots of home projects assembled from the finest "stuff" that wound up sounding like cack... until it falls into the hands of a good guitarist...

it's, can you play or can you not? IF you can, no one cares what you're playing our how, and what its made of... they just wanna be amazed by the superb music... and if you cannot, no one cares either, they just want you to stop making noise...

No one has ever, to my knowledge, walked up too a superb guitarist and said, Man,, you rock, but the tone of your rig sux....  and no one to my knowledge has ever walked up to a poor guitarist and said, Man you suck, but your tone is drop dead gorgeous.... What's the common thread in that calculus? the guitarist...

You can do more for your tone by practicing religiously for a few months than by burning your rig and stealing Clapton's ....

Its not the gear, its never gonna be the gear, its 100% what you can do with the gear you presently have at hand..

However should you feel the need for something astounding... there's this old fat bald guy in North East Florida . . . 😉 😉

rk

 

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That's the best argument I've heard on the subject in years.

Backing up the page a bit, I would add one more observation. There have been many arguments for and against various woods, constructions, hardware et al in terms of which produces the best "tone". Changing any of the aforementioned pieces of the guitar puzzle can change the sound / tone of the instrument. Whether one improves the tone over another can only be determined by one specific instrument.

The ear of the listener.

I love to quote one of our members who was well known for using nonstandard woods and construction methods and hardware he made from found materials. When questioned what all that sounded like he said "it sounds like a guitar".

It's just waiting for a great player to make it sound great. (my words not his).

SR

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11 hours ago, Ronkirn said:

No one has ever, to my knowledge, walked up too a superb guitarist and said, Man,, you rock, but the tone of your rig sux....  and no one to my knowledge has ever walked up to a poor guitarist and said, Man you suck, but your tone is drop dead gorgeous.... What's the common thread in that calculus? the guitarist...

I'm sure we can all identify capable guitarists that have rubbish tone and vice versa.

I personally think Carlos Santana has an appalling righthand picking technique and a lot of his solos are unimaginative and tend to recycle a lot of his favourite licks and tricks, but he's got a rich, creamy, silky-smooth tone.

Frank Zappa was a brilliantly gifted musician and composer, but you'd be hard-pressed to call his tone astounding. Although perhaps that was deliberate on Frank's part.

Allan Holdsworth had a tone that I suspect only worked for his particular style of playing and songs. You couldn't apply his tone to other styles of music without people complaining that it sounds way too honky.

Kirk Hammett is more than a capable guitarist, but his tone on the early Metallica albums was abysmal.

 

1 hour ago, ScottR said:

love to quote one of our members who was well known for using nonstandard woods and construction methods and hardware he made from found materials. When questioned what all that sounded like he said "it sounds like a guitar".

I think that's an argument that gets missed a lot in these debates. We can rant and rave all we like about how much difference the fret material makes in a Strats tone, but at the end of the day a Strat with nickel silver frets and a Strat with stainless steel frets both sound like Strats.

Maybe Frank Zappa had it right when he told us to 'Shut Up and Play Yer Guitar'.

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7 hours ago, curtisa said:

Although perhaps that was deliberate

That may very well be true for all of the "rubbish tone" players. Anyone with half decent playing skills can find a killer tone by turning the knobs - be it the ultimate hillbilly twang or the darkest death metal buzz. The problem with that is that such tones or sounds aren't recognizable by the masses. Being a good player or having the best sound doesn't sell, you'll have to stand out from the main stream. Santana was the first one with his sound which made him special, Zappa had a distinctive sound to accentuate the compositions. It's the same with singers. Neil Young's voice is a good example from the past... Being noticeable, sticking out, being unique, that's the question to be answered by any musician who wants to get some name. The constant quest for the holy grail of becoming Someone Noticeable can lead to brilliant licks played with an annoying sound since we're fed up with the "good player/singer with a good tone" stuff. We as masses want something new, something different.

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I’ve heard it said that stainless steel frets can screech when fretting notes and not advisable to use on an electric guitar when recording but don’t know if it’s true? 

One of the many cool things about guitars is you can pick the material component combinations you like and set up all your different guitars types so they have their own unique tone that you can enjoy hearing when you play. That is the icing on the cake. Guitars sound awesome and the tone they make is what makes playing fun. I like fixing up cheap guitars to have great tone just to prove you don’t have to buy a $10,000 guitar to sound good. You can make a $2,300 Les Paul sound like a $10,000 Les Paul for a lot less money. Technique and some thoughtful guitar parts modifications can go a long way. If you can afford a $10,000 custom guitar then hey, more power to you, they do look quite stunning but it won’t make you a better guitar player.  Experience and your own style can coax that magical tone out a guitar  

“If you just get your mind together and come across to me. Who in your measly little world are you trying to prove that your made out of gold and you can’t be sold. But have you ever been experienced, well I have. Not necessarily stoned but beautiful”- Jimi Hendrix 

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22 minutes ago, PlayItLoud4u said:

I’ve heard it said that stainless steel frets can screech when fretting notes and not advisable to use on an electric guitar when recording but don’t know if it’s true? 

One of the many cool things about guitars is you can pick the material component combinations you like and set up all your different guitars types so they have their own unique tone that you can enjoy hearing when you play. That is the icing on the cake. Guitars sound awesome and the tone they make is what makes playing fun. I like fixing up cheap guitars to have great tone just to prove you don’t have to buy a $10,000 guitar to sound good. You can make a $2,300 Les Paul sound like a $10,000 Les Paul for a lot less money. Technique and some thoughtful guitar parts modifications can go a long way. If you can afford a $10,000 custom guitar then hey, more power to you, they do look quite stunning but it won’t make you a better guitar player.  Experience and your own style can coax that magical tone out a guitar  

“If you can just get your mind together and come across to me. Who in your measly little world are you trying to prove that your made out of gold and you can’t be sold. But have you ever been experienced, well I have. Not necessarily stoned but beautiful”- Jimi Hendrix 

 

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59 minutes ago, Bizman62 said:

That may very well be true for all of the "rubbish tone" players.

I think what I meant was that Zappa had an outlandishly ridiculous tone to match his outlandishly ridiculous songs. That's likely an artistic decision, rather than an inability to get something that sounded 'good' out of his guitars and equipment.

That said, there's definitely examples out there of adept guitarists that simply got/get a dud sound. Mike Stern is another one that cops a lot of flak for his tone, despite being completely at home on his instrument..

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On 8/25/2019 at 11:22 PM, curtisa said:

Can you give any specifics about how you think these differences can be quantified? Say, will an oil finish impart X and a solid paint colour impart Y on the tone? Not trying to be difficult, just genuinely interested in your opinion here.

No I can't because no two pieces of wood are the same, no two finishes are the same either, how something like an oil finish soaks into and solidifies in a unique piece of wood is not replicable, however I suspect there would be a "difference in tone" between a finish that soaks deep into the wood and one that sits on the surface, but I also suspect that difference would be negligible. IMO none of the points in the tonewood argument are quantifiable.

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12 hours ago, curtisa said:

I'm sure we can all identify capable guitarists that have rubbish tone and vice versa.

well, ya see.. that's a subjective call.. if you don't care for Carlos, no harm, no foul, you simply avoid Santana.. as for me, I personally I like him and would give a boatload of whatever is required to play like him with his apparently sucky tone... 

Point is, I rather doubt that anyone ever walked up to him, short of a producer or sound tech, and told him is tone sucked... with any of all those different guitars he's been seen with over the years...

Wood does contribute to the sound.. but it does so in concert with everything else that is also contributing... It contributes in the same fashion different ingredients contribute to a complex "dish" a chef may be preparing... 

How does a tomato taste? If you grew up as a Latina.. you have one composite reference... say, Salsa.  or as an Italian, quite another... yet there are very few actual ingredients that change the taste of Spaghetti sauce to that of Chili ..

You can only take very basic knowledge to the shop to choose a guitar with a very generic tonality based on the wood its made of.. I can guarantee ya there';s a lotta Mahogany bodied guitars with humbuckers out there playing very convincing "Metal."  and equally, a lotta solid heavy Alder with active pups playing amazing Jazz, Blues, C&W ...

If you cannot use the information to actually steer the construction of a guitar to produce a specific tone, or choose a guitar made of a specific wood with the assurance it will make you sounf=d like that wood is supposed to... it useful as nothing more than academia for conversation on a forum..

Like, Mahogany sounds how??  Jerry Garcia? Peter Frampton? Chet Atkins? they all played Mahogany enough times to be identifiable..yet none sounded even remotely similar other than .. drum roll please.. They all sounded like electric guitars...

It;'s NEVER gonna be the guitar or what its made of that dictates the style music or how it sounds... Never... its YOU .. you at your best will sound like you...

the guitar, . . any guitar is your "paint brush" it gives you the opportunity to be a Matisse, a DiVinci, a Picasso, a Dali.. none of those guys were defined by the paint brushes they chose.. they were artists.. how "bout you?

Now.. go make sawdust like a real artiste 

r

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8 hours ago, curtisa said:

I think what I meant was that Zappa had an outlandishly ridiculous tone to match his outlandishly ridiculous songs. That's likely an artistic decision, rather than an inability to get something that sounded 'good' out of his guitars and equipment.

That's what I tried to say. An artistic decision, a distinctive tone, unique and unlikely to be copied.

Edited by Bizman62
Grammar

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On 8/24/2019 at 7:50 AM, curtisa said:

To a degree, yes:

Joe Satriani plays Surfing with the Alien on a cheap Strat clone

It certainly sounds like Joe's playing, even if it doesn't exactly sound like Joe's sound.

The trouble with this example is there are too many variables. Yeah you've got a great player on a cheap guitar, but you've probably got a rubbish amp, it's recorded on a rubbish camera, probably a phone. If it was a decent amp mic'd up properly, it would probably be a different story. But back to the point, he did seem to make a cheap guitar sound awesome, probably the best that guitar has ever sounded. 

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Ash, did you read the notes of the YouTube poster?

Quote

he is using a knock off pig nose guitar with a peavey backstage 30 with a digitech rp 200

As Mr Satriani said in the end, "it was a little painful on this guitar..." but the Peavey and the Digitech shouldn't be too bad.

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I'm taking one thing away from this thread... curtisa is on record as saying kirk hammet is capable aka good.  (hehe, he's better than me but I think it's funny)

other than that... EVERYTHING effects tone... to a huge degree or an infinitely small degree.  

So IMO it's perfectly legitimate to talk/consider those things... getting carried away with the importance of fretwire is the same as getting carried away with importance of brushing your thumb across the strings as you hit an a chord.  If it's .0000000000001% difference then it's a difference.   If it's dogma to you... ok.  If it's everything to you also ok.  I weight your opinion with your ability and tempered with the fact that if you are good you are likely endorsed. 

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13 hours ago, Ronkirn said:

well, ya see.. that's a subjective call.. if you don't care for Carlos, no harm, no foul, you simply avoid Santana.. as for me, I personally I like him and would give a boatload of whatever is required to play like him with his apparently sucky tone... 

You misread my statement in the opposite sense - I mentioned that I felt his tone was good, but he was an average player.

 

13 hours ago, Ronkirn said:

Wood does contribute to the sound.. but it does so in concert with everything else that is also contributing... It contributes in the same fashion different ingredients contribute to a complex "dish" a chef may be preparing...

2 hours ago, mistermikev said:

other than that... EVERYTHING effects tone... to a huge degree or an infinitely small degree.  

I suppose the issue I have with claims like that, and why I approach the importance of wood/frets/paint/air pressure/[insert factor here] with a grain of salt is that it's intrinsically impossible to prove that anything makes a difference when it seems to be universally acknowledged that they're all inter-dependent and can (allegedly) amount to no difference whatsoever. And if the player themselves is acknowledged to be a significant contributor to the tonal mix, then the whole argument that 'wood/finish/frets/fretboard X = resultant Y ' becomes moot.

The follow-on questions in that case could be, 'why should a Strat be made out of ash?' or 'why should I use maple in a neck?' etc (ignoring obvious structural reasons for selecting certain wood species for particular applications). My only logical conclusion to that paradox can be that we do it because we have convinced ourselves that it does make a difference and that all we're doing as builders or players is perpetuating an unprovable hypothesis when we should be focusing our attention on just building and playing a guitar.

I say embrace the things you can prove to make a tangible difference to the sound, and exploit the use of novel materials and solid construction techniques for their aesthetic benefits. The rest of the instrument will simply fall into place after that.

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