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Tonewood: Myth and Magic or Bullcrap?


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Pickups vibrating/moving minutely while playing has to do with the construction of the guitar, correct. However I hold it to the hardware rather than the wood to actually affect how the pickup moves (if at all). The mounting system will cover the large majority of whether the pickup moves or not, and the wood will still have a small effect.

I'm not one for anecdotal stories, I like evidence since I'm a science guy, but this debate would be extremely hard to win with scientific evidence. Anyway, my story. One night I was particularly p*ssed off about the tone wood debate and looked up videos on the YouTubez that were comparisons between guitars. Knowing that everyone who's ever watched a guitar video or played guitars has preconceived notions of how they sound, I decided to watch whatever video I found first with my eyes closed. I found a Les Paul vs. SG video. Perfect, I thought. I proceed to watch said video. There were no pauses in the playing to signify a change in guitar, it was continuous playing throughout. It's safe to say that I was thoroughly confused as to trying to decide what guitar he was playing at any point in the video. I couldn't tell for the life of me. I've always known Les Pauls to be a bit muddy, so I was expecting a distinguishable difference in sound. Nothing. Video finishes, I rewatch with my eyes open. Low and behold, I hear a major difference between the guitars now.

That's my argument for tone woods, really. EVERYONE has these preconceived notions of what certain woods and guitars should sound like, so they perceive that it does sound very much like that. I'm subject to this, all the time. I don't deny it. I get into arguments all the time with people saying "but why do my two guitars with the same pickups sound different, then?" Sorry, but is your brain completely devoid of any bias or preconceived definitions of what an instrument sounds like? No? Then I don't see credibility in your argument. You're destined to fail at convincing me tone woods do anything with your own anecdotal evidence - exactly how I'm destined to fail at convincing anyone with my anecdotal evidence of the video. It's each to their own, and in the real world, each to their own is not a huge issue in the guitar business really. People will be stubborn, all the time. The only real way to show some evidence would be to conduct a double blind test of people blind-folded or something while someone plays a variety of guitars. Even then that's not very scientific.

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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 ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

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

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 poss

Watching youtube for sound comparisons... good luck! ;) The sound is compressed and very few of us have even half-decent speakers connected to our computers. The story proves exactly that: We want to hear a specific thing ans tend to look for the proof that support our case.

Re: microphonic pickups. Her's an interesting experiment (at least somewhat scientific) that is easy to conduct at home. Connect a pickup that is un-potted to your amp, no instrument at all, just straight to the amp. Now tap the pickup with your finger, just knock on it. There will be sound produced by the pickup. Do the same thing with a vacuum-potted pickup and there will be virtually no sound at all. Now the theory: Those two pickups will sound different in the same position in the same guitar. Even if they are CNC-procuced to extreme tight tolerances with the only difference that one is potted and one is not. Why? Because the vibrations of the complete instrument is affecting the sound. one pickup will "pick up" the vibrations of the guitar in a different way than the other. If we continue the same thought experiement: Will changing the way we attach the pickup to the guitar affect the sound? Probably, as it will change the pickups relation to the strings vibrations. Will changing the material in the bridge affect the sound? Probably as it will change the way that the vibrations from the strings are transferred into the body and thus changing the way the pickup vibrate in relation to the strings. Will "magically" changing the wood in the neck affect the sound. Probably, in exactly the same way. An so on.

However: Is there a "holy grail of tone wood?" In my opinion no. The use of specific wood are down to tradition. There is an at least somewhat scientifically project called the Leonardo Guitar Research Project were a set of as identical as possible acoustic guitars were made, half of them made from tropical wood (except for the tops) and half of them from other wood like pear, walnut, oak, ash, alder etc. In blind tests neither the player nor the audience could tell which guitar were made from traditional wood and which were made from alternative wood. However when knowing what guitar was made from what material there were a significant bias towards tropical wood.

My point? There are certainly "tone wood", however it might not be the species we think that will produce the best guitars

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An unpotted pickup possesses properties of a physical transducer in addition to those of a magnetic one. Not entirely dissimilar to a contact mic. Again, using my example of a Mahogany Tele and Firebird; a contact mic or microphonic pickup would sound significantly different in either. Scale, neck profile, heel position, mass distribution, tension. All affect the physical system of a guitar. Wood is just the medium.

Hell. Screw the guitar down to the planet. Does Earth qualify a good/bad tonewood?

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  • 1 month later...

Show me a double-blind study where the listeners can hear identical guitars, through identical equipment and identify the body, neck, fretboard, whether it's a drop-top (and if so, what woods are used), etc. then I'll give the myth some credence.

Then, we'll get the same folks to listen to differently made guitars, through different gear, and see if they can identify the woods.

Then, we'll test the "cut under a full moon" myth.

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Show me a double-blind study where the listeners can hear identical guitars, through identical equipment and identify the body, neck, fretboard, whether it's a drop-top (and if so, what woods are used), etc. then I'll give the myth some credence.

Then, we'll get the same folks to listen to differently made guitars, through different gear, and see if they can identify the woods.

Then, we'll test the "cut under a full moon" myth.

I'm not sure I understand your post. You want listeners to listen to identical guitars and ID the woods? That's not what this thread is about.

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This thread was an interesting read with my morning coffee. I've not been building guitars for long but I am not new to the guitar. My uncle started one of the UKs biggest gear chains when I was a boy and most of my close family are either collectors or players. We experimented with this lots over the decades.

I don't care what anyone says, the wood a guitar is made from affects it's tone. Take an alder and an ash strat or tele, weight is the same, with the same pickups set at max and play them through the same amp.. They do have a different tone, not wildly different but there is a tonal difference. And this translates across to solid mahogany LPs vs maple cap and many others over the years. Ok so most of that can be totally changed or replicated by turning a tone knob or other amps and settings but the fact remains in an A-B test the difference is there.

I will say this, what one sounds better is all down to personal tastes and preference. Does a set of pickups, new amp or a set of flat wounds change the sound more.. Yes. Ofcourse it does, but each wood type having a slightly different character gives a builder the oppertunity to build in an intended sound.

Here's an analogy. An expensive race car is tuned from the ground up. Each component is looked at and fettled, strengthened, lightened and aerodynamically shaped. Does that one little fin make the car fast.. No. Would a different set of tyres change it more.. Yes. But it's the sum of all parts that makes a championship winning car. Why should a guitar be any different. Put a set of cheap and nasty pickups in anything it will sound bad. As a builder of both cars, and guitars now, I will always use the best materials I can source for the specific task at hand, end of story.

Thistle.

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Prostheta - that's where your wrong. How else would the big companies and luthiers justify the prices of their products? They have years of tradition now. Gibson simply can't justify making a Les Paul out of something else because it wouldn't be traditional and they couldn't charge thousands of dollars for it.

Aristides already makes guitars our of a polymer based material. I have yet to hear a significant difference in tone between an Aristides and any other wooden guitar OUTSIDE OF the difference in pickups and whatever settings the amp is on.

Again, with two Strats or Teles, alder and ash, you already have preconceived ideas of what each sounds like. I openly admitted to having the idea that a Les Paul is warm and slightly muddy, and that I heard the difference in tone when I was watching the Les Paul and SG being played.

If you sit in front of someone, with your eyes closed, who can play the same chord progression/lick multiple times exactly, and they play it on two different wood guitars, I doubt you'd hear a difference.

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If anything, I agree with you FlagMuffin. Partly we continue to use wood out of tradition, but also because it has a definite effect on the sound when used appropriately and in context. The same could be said about using any other material for the properties it lends to the end product, whether they be about sound, durability, stability or economy. Perspex, composites, resin-bound wood fibres, etc.

I disagree on your last point though. My two 35" scale basses, both strung up with new ProSteels sound completely different. My self-built bass is super-thin (28mm) with a set neck, Wengé fingerboard, stringers, etc. but is otherwise all-Sapele. It sounds a light year's difference from my RBX, especially amped up. Muted/dead notes played fingerstyle (think Blood Sugar Sex Magik era Flea funk) have punch, weight and body. Not so with my RBX. Something in there is just not letting the bass speak.

We'll see what effect different woods have when I re-make this same bass with a semi-hollow body from Birch. It might not be a fair comparison since this one will be a compound scale I guess.

Woods DO have an effect. The point made about the front end of the amp compressing all the life out of the instrument is valid as is the point about EMGs killing the natural tonality of the instrument. Some instruments are so generically bland in construction quality and poor hardware choice that the wood makes little to no difference, in which case your final point is valid. You can have your doubts, however the statement does not totally stand up in all cases unlike what you imply.

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  • 4 weeks later...

I've heard some Trussard and one can expect a more metallic sound from them, but there's not much difference from a tele made out of wood. At least from my ears. I must say that I can not hear those slight differences, so I choose wood regarding look and stability. The sound will be always good, because my guitars sound really good. Always. <_< No matters the wood, hardware, pickups, strings... they simply sound very good.

Anyway, those slight differences between tonewoods are not going to make a better song. And since they are musical instruments, and the purpose is making music, who cares about the tone...

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  • 2 weeks later...

Anyway, those slight differences between tonewoods are not going to make a better song. And since they are musical instruments, and the purpose is making music, who cares about the tone...

Really valid point. Its all about the song! Great songs have been made and performed on totally inferior instruments (seasick steve, anyone?). However a great instrument is always going to be inspirational and, as fas as I'm concerned, inspire new music in a different way than an inferior one. However I doubt that the world will be able to reach a consensus on what a great instrument is, nor if wood is important or not in guitar building...

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I will put my $0.02 in. This topic has been talked to death over the years and my point is, Does it make a difference in the end? Let me finish. I have been playing guitar for 46 years and I have had guitars made out of some of the strangest materials. I had an acrylic guitar in the '70's. Sounding just like my Les Paul. Why? Because the body material and neck have no part in the tone of an ELECTRIC GUITAR! Not shouting, just talking about electrics and not acoustics. Read all of Les Pauls comments about tone wood. When he made the log he added the hollow body wings to it because the guys in the orchestra would not have bought it. Look at all the guitars that Justin Johnson has! He has them made out of shovels, boxes, wood, plastic, and I have seen them made out of cinder blocks, plastic, metal, carbon fiber and you name it, someone has made it. The body, no matter what it is made of does not get picked up by the pickups. Think about it, if a shredder is playing supper fast, by the time the vibration goes from the string thru the bridge and to the body and neck, he is 100 notes past that and the vibration would never even come into play. Think about it. The speed of sound is not the speed of electricity or light. Make sense? I cannot in any way shape or form believe that the body and neck material have anything to do with the sound of an electric guitar. Can't happen. By the time the body would vibrate from the string transferring energy to the bridge, and I say bridge only because the nut does not matter unless you play an open note, there is no way the vibrations would turn around and go from the body and neck, back to the bridge and into the strings again and be picked up by the pickup. The pickup is the only way the sound gets to the amp thru the guitar cord. Do you really think that it works any other way? Not! Sorry but it is virtually impossible to work this way and it is the only way it could work. A pickup is not a microphone per say, it can't pick up sound from afar. It only picks up the strings vibration. It has to be really close to a pickup to be transferred too the amp and the wood is way too far away to come into play. Just play and forget about tone wood. It is aesthetic only. Everyone likes a pretty looking guitar. 

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Woods used do have an effect. That's obvious. Anyone who has made identical guitars with identical hardware and different woods knows this.

Everything affects the tone of the instrument. Doesn't mean a guitar will sound bad if less than ideal woods are used, but you always keep in mind the sound you are after.

You can definitely make up for bright woods with pickups that sound less bright, but it's  certainly in your best interest to consider everything. I once made a guitar of maple and cherry and it was so harsh I couldn't stand to play it without adjusting my eq to dampen the unwanted frequencies. 

 

It's not uncommon though for years of playing at volume to desensitize players to a degree where it's barely noticeable though. Some digital amps kill most differences as well.

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Like most subjects, there are a lot of partial truths, edge cases and examples that don't always hold up in certain circumstances.

A very simple point that I like to make is that pickups (mostly) induce an alternating current in the coil through the movement of metal perturbing a magnetic field. The movement of the strings is affected by what they are mounted on, usually a guitar shaped object made of materials. A rubber guitar will alter the ability and characteristics of those vibrations differently to a solid granite guitar, a polystyrene or a wooden one. The pickups faithfully reproduce what the strings are doing, the strings are affected by the substrate.

This is just an example in extremis to validate the point that the "thing" the strings are mounted to has an effect. Different woods have different characteristics also, from flexibility, density and ability to dampen or resonate.

I disagree about digital modellers Wes, however the interaction between instrument and amp is different. I note that you added, "some" so you can sit on a fence a little safer 😉

I do however vote bullshit on "tonewood". It's a meaningless term used to propagate marketing wank. It doesn't describe or refine, it broadens and despecifies. It elevates simple things to bullshit levels of magic and woo. We don't need that. Only people who are trying to sell you something you don't need, or create a want in your mind have a use for marketing terms like "tonewood".

No tree grew up with the express intent of being a guitar.

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Pickups only pick up the oscillating frequency of the string oscillation. Wood does not have a frequency at all. Therefore it cannot be amplified. No way scientifically the wood can be part of the sound on an electric guitar. No way I will ever be convinced that wood plays any part of the sound. If I make some sound clips from all 17 guitars I have, can you tell me which type of wood they are made of? Or what brand they are, pickups they have, single coil or humbucker or P90? What neck material they have? Maple or rosewood or ebony? What gauge the strings are and who made them? Of course not! So back in the day when I first started on the guitar, you had no after market anything to upgrade a guitar. You got what you got and if you wanted to change the tone, you adjusted the amp or the knobs on the guitar. Just play it and don't worry what it is made of. Watch the video of Justin Johnson playing the 1 string shovel guitar he made to prove this anomaly. The only thing the pickup reproduces is the string between the nut or fret and the bridge. That part of the string only. Not the wood!

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And none of it is to say acrylic or aluminum,  etc have "bad tone", Pros.

 

But talk of you want about a fence, "some" is still a completely accurate word in this context. Assuredly more than "all". 

Tonewood is subjective. There are many ways to achieve a desired sound. Denying any effect at all though is disingenuous. 

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Well Ronnie, the point is not to convince you. I have no idea as to your hearing range. Neither does the anecdotal "listen to this and tell me the woods used" argument hold any merit. By the time a track is run through all the processing in a recording studio and put onto a medium replayed by your own equipment of course telling woods apart would be tough indeed.

 

What does matter is that the artist hears the tone he wants through his equipment so he likes what he's playing. In person in your own home where you hear all your music it's much more noticeable. 

Every one of us has a different opinion as to what is most important for a "good" tone. Build quality is also a very important aspect, probably more so than woods used.

 

I find woods used have a greater effect than strings used, but more effect than the type of fretwire used.

Edited by westhemann
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I neglected to add in about microphonic pickups. Lightly potted pickups can be pretty responsive to the wood also. Not so much that you'd regard the wood as "tone wood" or whatever, however I didn't see it as useful. Mostly because you can't design for it that well in most cases. Still, a nice Les Paul with low wind count lightly potted pickups speak from the wood and not just the strings. As Wes says, we're not here to convince. Just to illustrate and further the conversation. It's a shame that you "can't ever be convinced" as this leads to dogmatic thinking and a lack of openness man. There's always something to learn and new things to discover which is what makes guitars a lifelong obsession, not simply a static thing.

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Hear is some good reading for the skeptics. 

https://spinditty.com/instruments-gear/The-Great-Electric-Guitar-Tonewood-Debate-Solved

https://forum.bareknucklepickups.co.uk/index.php?topic=29361.0

https://www.jazzguitar.be/forum/builders-bench/35592-electric-guitar-wood-myth-busted.html

just a few professional scientific findings on the tonewood myth. It is impossible for a pickup to amplify wood vibrations I don't care how you feel about it. It can't happen! Wait, maybe if you had wooden strings it would pick them up! Not! Sorry but when you get to heaven, God will tell you. Trees don't make music, only the strings!

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The pages you link to all point to the same study by Matthew Angove at Latrobe University from about 6 years ago. The problem I have with that reference is that it's impossible to find anything more about his work other than the announcement that he did a couple of months research and came to a conclusion. I've searched before and never been able to locate his research paper, so there's no way of being able to study his methods and measurements to find out how and why he came to his conclusion that material and body shape make no difference.

That said, I'm personally of the belief that the whole tonewood-in-electric-guitars is a pointless debate. I suspect the material the guitar is made from does make some difference, but in the case of the electric guitar there are other things that make the differences directly related to the materials alone disappear into insignificance. The build quality of the instrument, the pickups, whatever effects you run through, the amp, the speaker and the volume you're playing at would easily swamp any differences in a basswood vs swamp ash body.

The videos in the first link are kinda neat but they don't really prove that material does or does not make a difference to the tone, other than whatever material the guitar is made from the end result still sounds like an electric guitar.

I'd rather just play the damn thing and enjoy the experience of making music on one of the most influential instruments of the last 100 years, than try and find reasons to like or dislike a rosewood fretboard vs a maple one.

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I'm of the opinion that you can factor out material contributions in most cases. Dump an EMG-81 into any instrument and this becomes abundantly clear. The opposite is true of say, a PAF clone in something like an ES-335. That combination is highly influenced by the woods.

Body shape. Hmm. To a degree. I'd be more inclined to say that thickness, density, etc. have more effect than the mere outline. My thin 32mm bass has a rather large shape in spite of the thin body. The result is a spanky and quick sound, both acoustically and through the Music Man pickup. The relationship is there. 

Like I say, plenty of cases prove what people want to hear and plenty disprove. It's best saying that it can be made a factor if one chooses to. That sweet '59 LP will sing like a turd with EMGs.....

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I think everyone can agree that pickups pick up the variances in the magnetic field caused by the vibrations of the steel strings. Wood does not create variances in the magnetic field and therefore plays no role in tone......at least that is one of the arguments presented. However the material the strings are anchored in can and do affect the way they vibrate. Anchor one set in a sheet of one inch thick rubber and another in a one inch thick sheet of iron and see if vibrate differently or exactly the same. And that is how one piece of wood can change the sound from another. It is very subtle, one cannot pick what type of wood is used, and they all sound like electric guitars......because 99%+ of the sound comes from everything else involved.

Many times one can here a difference and many times one cannot, the vibrational variances are not that extreme within the most often used types of wood. I would have to agree the most important function of the woods we use is the visual impact and perhaps the way they feel in our hands....and mojo. Mojo is the best thing the right piece of wood brings!:)

SR

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