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Aesthetics vs Tone...

Uncle Os

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Hey All...

I didn't sleep last night, so please pardon my lack of articulation.

I was going through several of my guitars in the wee-hours of the morning contemplating their tonal characteristics before sitting back and merely looking at the beauty or lack thereof and I've realized something about myself. That is to say, I realized that I much prefer the beauty of an instrument sensed aurally as opposed to that I experience with my eyes. I can't really explain it other than to say, I much prefer the tones that come out of my ugly guitars as opposed to the ones that look nicer. I have a Baretta strat with and alder body and nothing more than one coat of a hand rubbed flat poly finish on it that sounds absolutely fantastic. I have an ugly Frankentele with nothing more than a tung oil finish that was once described by a studio owner I was doing session work for (this was in about '93) as having God-tone'. I love the way these guitars sound. Not necessarily the way they look... But I love the way they sound.

Then there's the other side of it... I've got a guitar with thick quilted maple top and a burst finish on it. It plays better than the others, it feels better than the others, it looks better than the others. But it doesn't sound as good as the others.

As a 'control' for this train of thought... I used my old 7 string. It used to have this big, thick and cheap finish on it that I couldn't stand. I stripped that sucker down, through a veneer on it and with a few coats of gloss poly on it. I'm not kidding when I say it 'sounds better'. Previously, I had been the self appointed spokesperson against basswood as it tends to color the tone so little. Blekk. My train of thought dictates that the wood should color the sound in order to assist with it's identity as an instrument.

Then I thought back over the years and realized... All of the guitars I preferred (Schecter Custom 7 with flamed walnut top (oiled), Ibanez S540FM that had been stripped and oiled, Schecter Custom with a swamp ash body that'd been wire brushed and oiled, my Baretta Strat as well as the Frankentele) have little or no finish. What gives?!?!?!?!

When I take into account all of the amazing talent I see around this place with regard to finishing, I fall in lust instantly!!! No kidding. I really, really REALLY... want one. I could build one... But wait... All the guitars I've ever built had little to no finish as well.

I came to a couple of conclusions though all of this confusion. I'm embarrassed that it took me 'til my 36th year to come to it too. I'm a 'late bloomer', I suppose. :D

Cory's newfound opinions...

1) A good 'tone wood' is nothing more than a big hunk of resonant lumber. Ie, the lighter, the better for our purposes here on the forum. For instance... The 'light' Les Pauls I've had the priviledge of playing have always sounded better than the heavy ones. Why? The wood, being lighter, is more resonant. Ash... Same thing... Swamp ash, IMHO, sounds far superior to northern ash. Why? It's lighter and more resonant. And... It sounds better.

2) The lesser the finish, the more representative the tone is to the individual instrument at hand. Therefore, it sounds better, no?

3) If I had my druthers (sp?), I'd prefer to actually be able to feel the raw wood beneath my fingertips. Why? Only because the feel of the raw wood is more organic and grounding to humanity and our attachement to our environment. The more finish you have, the further the musician gets from the natural elements allowing for more of a 'plastic-like' feel. I realize, without any finish the instrument would crumble and fade to dust. However... I bet it'd sound better. B)

If you made it all the way through this insomnia induced haze of inarticulate 'spewage', you're a better man than I am.

Feel free to shoot me down or offer up some vindication. I posted this to share my thoughts as well as see what you guys think of these topics. Does any of this stuff make sense to you guys? Or have I wasted a night with useless epiphany(sp?).

Ever so respectfully....

Big Cor

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what you're getting at with the finishes is true. the thin, almost non existant finish let more of the woody characteristics of the guitar shine through, while the thick, yet flashy, poly finishes deaden the wood.

maybe to a certain extent...but that same "flashy" finish serves a very necessary purpose...to make sure the guitar lasts as long as possible

the thicker the finish,the greater the protection

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My guess would be that you had (or could of had) other ugly guitars through the years and if they didn't sound good, you let them go or never snagged them in the first place. The toneful ones you kept are not really representative of ugly or plain guitars so much as keepers. I think most of us here are looking to find/build that illusive looks great/sounds great.

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I'm with ya there Uncle. :D My primary aim when building a guitar is functionality. When I buy a car I make sure its running real good before giving it a paintjob. I've seen lots of guitars that were all eye candy but no soul, tons of them in the music stores. One good thing about an ugly guitar that plays and sounds great, it might be less likely to get stolen. B) But the owner sure knows its value.

An ugly guitar might also be a well seasoned guitar, complete with wear marks and battle scars, ie. a "true" relic. I seem to remember someone mentioning that a guitar that has been played for quite a few years has better tone than it had when brand new. All the resonance that has been going on in the wood "breaks it in".

Edited by Southpa
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I agree wholeheartedly. My favorite finish is pure, raw, unadulterated tung oil. I put together a guitar with tung oiled and waxed alder body, a birds-eye maple neck (experimental finish made with a ground of glare and benzonite clay, stained with green tea, and finished in tung oil) and the resonance is amazing. When you tap on the body (and this is a bolt neck mind you) you can fully feel it in the headstock. The guitar feels alive!

Here is an ugly guitar that I built (from USA Custom Guitars parts), that really sounds amazing (click on the pic to read the details about this guitar):


* Mods, the hotlink above is from my personal site.

The guitar above is finished in 4 coats of Waterlox (two regular and two glossy) Tung-Oil and Phenolic Resin based varnish, while the neck is 6 coats of hand rubbed minwax satin poly. The headstock face is 8 coats of brushed on minwax gloss poly. However, I will never go back to anything but pure tung oil from now on. I also really like the "ground" I applied to the neck of the other guitar I built (wish I had pics).

I love the way fancy guitars look, but I REALLY love the way an extremely thin finish feels and the resonance of the wood.

Edited by javacody
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I think it all depends on what you consider ugly :D

I think that guitar in the pictures looks "plain".

A guitar is a beautiful thing and some just look more flashy than others. Besides, when youre on stage playing, and you get lost in the music...are you even looking at the guitar? Who the hell CARES what it looks like...its all eye candy, a selling factor. Its hard to break myself of that habbit.."ohhhh...it looks so preeetttttyyy..." too bad it sounds like crap B)


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