I’ve played the guitar for nearly forty years now, and I’ve been doing it for a living for about twenty five of those years. In that time I’ve played many guitars right from the lowliest entry-level instruments right up to custom shop exotica. Based on this experience, I’ve come to some conclusions about what makes a good (or bad) guitar and which factors significantly affect the tone of an instrument.
One thing I am convinced makes much less difference than people imagine is the wood that an electric guitar body is made from. Allow me to explain: Back in the early ’90s, Washburn made a range of guitars which were identical to each other with one exception: the body wood. You could have a guitar made from (if I remember correctly) alder, mahogany or paduak (pronounced “padook”). The guitars were identical in every way: 25 ½ inch scale length; bolt on neck; rosewood fretboard; maple neck; double cut-away body etc. The same guitar in each case, except for the different body timbers. This provided a good opportunity to see what effect the body timber had on the tone, without any other factors muddying the waters.
I spent an afternoon in my local guitar emporium playing these guitars into a range of amps (a Marshall valve combo; a solid state Fender; a Peavey Bandit and a Vox AC30). I was in the market for a new instrument at the time & was considering buying something from this range. I tried all three of the guitars, one of each type of body wood, quite extensively. Was there a difference? Well… sort of, is the answer. You could just about tell the difference between the mahogany guitar & the other two. Strangely, the mahogany guitar sounded somewhat brighter than either of the others, which is counter to the often stated “mahogany = warmth” view.
Having said that, the overall difference between all three guitars was less than one notch on the mid range or treble control on whatever amp I was plugged into at the time. Admittedly this is a test I carried out over twenty years ago, but it still lingers in my mind because the results were a genuine surprise.
What with all the debate online at the moment about the merits of various tone woods I do wonder how many people who “know” that timber affects the sound of an instrument have actually tested their theories properly. Sure… you have a telecaster with a one piece ash body which sounds better than the four piece basswood/agathis/pine/poplar body on the Squier you keep as a spare or second guitar. But is this difference in tone down to the body wood? Could it be (for example) that the Squier doesn’t have the same quality hardware as your ash tele? A guitar with a single piece body is likely to cost more, and come with a better nut, bridge and pickups than a budget instrument with a four piece body. Those factors will have a profound effect on the tone, so to make out that the guitars sound different because the body is made from a different material seems a pretty big leap to me.
Even if you upgrade the cheaper guitar with hardware & pickups similar to those fitted on it’s more expensive cousin, have you really got two guitars where the only difference is the body timber? Of course not. The neck is going to be a big factor in the difference between the two guitars. Possibly the biggest difference of all. Here’s what I mean: An electric guitar is essentially two bits of wood either glued or bolted together (assuming you don’t have a through-neck guitar where the body & the neck are basically the same entity). Of these two lumps of wood one is a slab shaped, thick piece which sits underneath less than 50% of the vibrating length of the strings. The other is a slender, comparatively thin length of wood sitting underneath over 50% of the vibrating length of the strings. Ask yourself which piece of timber is going to be resonating & vibrating in sympathy with the strings to a greater extent? Have a look at the diagram to see what I mean:
OK, so the pickups sit in the body, not the neck, and the strings are anchored in the body too, so perhaps that will affect the tone. But don’t forget that the strings are also anchored at the end of the neck too (in the nut), and that the pickups will only “pick up” the sound that is there in the first place. And I would contend that this is shaped more by the neck timber than that of the body, purely because the string vibrations are going to interact with the neck to a much greater extent than with the body for the reasons outlined above.
Another comparison which springs to mind, albeit not as scientific as my guitar shop Washburn trial, is the difference between two telecasters I’ve owned. The first one was a USA tele with an ash body (2 piece if I remember correctly), and my latest favourite squeeze, a guitar built (or should I say resurrected) from an instrument I found in a charity shop. The latter guitar has a four piece poplar body. I had to sell the USA tele a couple of years back to help fund a business venture the wife & I were embarking on. I always missed that guitar and vowed that I’d have another tele when I got the chance. Well, now I have – my charity shop special. The tone of this guitar is more than a match for the old USA, ash bodied plank – it sounds like a classic tele, something a traditionalist would say shouldn’t be the case due to it having the “wrong” body timber and being made up of more than a single piece of that timber – things that a true telecaster snob will often spend considerable sums to avoid.
All I know is what my ears tell me, and having played many cheap guitars, many expensive guitars and many which lie somewhere in between, I can honestly say that I don’t think paying extra for “prestige” tone woods in an electric guitar body, or having fewer pieces of wood in the construction of that body is quite the investment in tone that many people think it is. Feel free to disagree… I’m sure many will 🙂
Until next time, have fun!