How much difference do construction methods make to the sound of an electric guitar?

Do you remember that scene from Monty Python’s “Life Of Brian” where Brian goes up to a group of people at the gladiatorial games and asks:

Are you the Judean Peoples’ Front?”

If you’ve seen the film (and if not, why not?) then you’ll remember the reply…

F*%K OFF! We’re the People’s Front of Judea, mate!”

What this illustrates is that there is no difference too trivial for folks to get upset with each other about. The same is true in guitar circles. Simply Google the term “tone wood” and you will, in all likelihood, be directed to any one of dozens of sites where the debate rages… swamp ash makes the best strat bodies, and basswood sounds like crap… a Les Paul with an ebony fretboard MUST sound different from one with a rosewood board… etc. etc.

Some say that a guitar made from plywood will/will not sound totally different to one made from kiln dried Honduran mahogany, or that a coat of lacquer on a guitar does/doesn’t kill the sound (pick a side). These disagreements often happen in the most vociferous manner. Name calling ensues, forum admin get involved and people who SHOULD share a common interest (the guitar) end up making enemies of each other. How VERY sad.

Bearing all that in mind, I thought I’d join the debate. One of my favourite guitars is a cheap & cheerful Les Paul copy by Harley Benton. Now, I HAVE owned a “real” Les Paul or two in my time, so I DO have a benchmark to judge it against. This little Chinese made knock off is as good as any USA built Gibson. And I am 100% right about that! I can say this because whether ANY musical instrument sounds good or not is a matter of personal taste. Unless there is scientific evidence (and we’ll return to that point later), it all comes down to one question: Do I like the sound this guitar makes and is it comfortable to play? If the answer is “yes” then you have a good guitar on your hands, even if it’s a cheap knock-off. If the answer is “no” then you don’t… even if it cost you the same as a small car.

When you look at the construction methods employed by the “boutique” guitar makers and how they differ from the instruments made in the far east you’ll begin to see why anything with “Made In The USA” stamped on it costs so much more:

Methods Of Guitar Construction

The question is, though, does any of this make a difference to the sound? Well, in my experience, I just don’t think it does. As I say, my little £120 Harley Benton sounds (to my ears) just as “Les-Paul” like as either of my Gibsons ever did. Judge for yourself here (I’ll tell you which guitar was which at the end of this post):

http://geetarjohnny.fileburst.com/blog/LP%20comparison.mp3

This is my Harley Benton in a direct comparison with a USA Les Paul. Sure there ARE differences in the sound, but no more so than you would expect between even two “identical” guitars from the same company – certainly not the kind of difference that would suggest nearly a £1000 difference in price.

So, here’s an idea… let’s prove it one way or t’other. Here’s how it could be done:

  • Get a statistically significant group of guitarists in a big venue… say 500 or so in a theatre.

  • On the stage, behind a curtain, have a guitarist who will play the sample guitars.

  • Blindfold the guitarist and get them to play, in turn, a selection of guitars from “boutique” makers and a similar selection of “cheap knock-offs”.

  • Poll the audience of guitarists to see how many correctly identified the expensive guitars.

  • If a clear majority of the listeners (more than would be likely to do so simply by guessing) get it right, it proves the case for expensive guitars.

The reason for blindfolding the guitarist is to make this a proper “double blind” trial. If someone knows they are playing a top shelf guitar, this may influence how they play.

OK, you might say… but surely the guitarist will be able to tell by the feel. Well, yes, maybe. But in my experience even a cheap guitar (if properly set up) can play like a million dollars, so we’ll just make sure we’re using instruments that are correctly adjusted & set up for optimum performance, admittedly an area often lacking in budget guitars – so we’ll take that out of the equation.

And yes… I have seen the “Squier vs Custom Shop Fender” and “Epiphone vs Gibson” “blindfold tests” on YouTube by Rob Chapman & Lee Anderton (Chappers & The Captain). But they’re hardly conducted under proper scientific conditions & crucially, the audience (ie the viewer) can SEE what guitar is being used, which kind of makes the result null & void, to my mind.

So… here’s a challenge. Companies like Gibson & PRS easily have the resources to set up this kind of trial and settle the matter once and for all. I can’t believe I’m the first person to come up with this idea, so why hasn’t it been done? Maybe it would prove them right and me wrong… and I will have learned something. But maybe… just maybe they’re nervous that the result might not back up their marketing claims. Expensive guitars being made using expensive processes with expensive materials sound better? Prove it!

Until next time,

Have Fun!

John Robson Guitar Tuition

Twitter: @JrobsonGuitar

P.S. Guitar 1 = Gibson Les Paul/Guitar 2 = Harley Benton copy

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