Regarding Tone - Parts and tonewood in a solid body electric.
In continuing the quest for TONE…
So much has been said about which wood produces what sound, but very little is said about how much your choice of wood changes the tone and how other components of the guitar increase or decrease the impact of your choice of wood. This guide will assume that you have read about tonewoods. If you have not, a simple web search will connect you with all you need to know (and it is usually fairly accurate).
In an Acoustic guitar, the details that determine the sound are design, construction, the wood and the strings used (playing style not included). The choice of tonewoods matters greatly because the energy produced by the strings is transferred to the guitar and nearly the entire instrument is resonant. But what about a solid body electric guitar? How much does the wood matter to the overall sound when a pickup is used to amplify the vibration of the strings? Some would have you believe a lot, some would say not much at all. Lets dig deeper…
Let’s leave amplifiers, strings, playing style and processing gear out of the picture and just talk about the instrument itself. The single most important detail to the overall sound on an electric guitar is the pickup. A pickup has so much to do with the sound produced, that it will not only change the characteristics of the guitar completely but it will influence how much change the wood will have on the overall sound too. A hot wound pickup (both single coil and humbuckers) will not be as dynamic so woods used in construction of the instrument will have less to do with the sound. Whereas weaker pickups will be more dynamic and the sound will include more of the nuances of the wood used. Some have argued that a pickup mounted directly to the wood with no springs or padding will bring out more of the wood’s tone. I have tried this on several instruments and cannot hear a difference, although I have not put one on a scope or an analyzer. But for me the loss of height adjustment does not make up for any ‘hardly perceived’ sound improvement. Other parts of the guitar like the nut, frets and bridge also play a role in how much affect the wood will have on the sound. A nut will result in less of a change, especially since once a note is fretted, the characteristics of the nut are nearly erased. Another factor with nuts & frets is how well they are seated in their slot and how much energy could be lost. Bridges also have the added issue of having adjustable parts. The string rests in the saddle, which attaches to the height adjusting screw, which rests on the bridge (or similar)… Whew, don’t even want to begin to decipher that but again the ability to adjust, outweighs any potential sonic enhancement.
Once all of the other factors are considered we can now discuss the wooden parts of the guitar.
Neck – Tonewoods used in the neck have to be strong, rigid and resistant to warping. Out of the three pieces of the guitar that are made from wood, the neck has the most bearing on sound, but since the options so are limited, so are the tonal differences available. Traditionally maple is used most in necks and will have a brighter tone than mahogany which has a warm tone and runs a distant 2nd in popularity. There are many other woods that can be used in neck construction but not every tonewood is good neck wood. Alder is a great body wood but will turn sound to mush in a neck, provided you could even tune the thing.
Fretboard (or Finger Boards) – Many woods can be used as a fretboard but there are three that are widely used. Rosewood is the most commonly used and has the warmest sound out of the three. Maple and Ebony have a brighter tone. To avoid killing tone or having dead spots, great care is needed in securely attaching this to the neck.
Body: The body of the guitar provides the builder/designer with the most options to color the tone of the instrument. Most woods are sturdy enough to be made into a body, and most will sound ok. I have heard several pine and plywood body guitars that sounded perfectly fine for many uses. Before you start burning me in effigy for saying that, they are usually not worth the time to build...so don’t do it. Body woods can range from warm sounding, to bright, to snappy, to scooped and everywhere in between. Shape matters very little as long as there is enough wood under and around the strings. See Mass below.
So, does wood have an influence on the sound of an electric guitar or bass? YES definitely!
Does wood influence the sound more than any other detail? No, not by a long shot. The truth is that many factors will determine tone, AND those same factors will change how much your choice of woods, will impact the sound of your instrument.
Glues & Finishes – Some say that glues and finishes can strangle the tone of the wood. I definitely agree about glues but less about finishes. Good wood glues like Hyde Glue or Titebond I along with a quality flush joint will let energy transfer between pieces and tone will not be lost. Epoxy’s, non hardening glues and joints with gaps can kill tone too. Oil finishes are said to let more of the natural tone of the wood out but lack the protection and gloss of a Nitro Lacquer or even a Poly finish. Again, we may need a sonic analyzer to find a difference.
Mass – Doesn’t matter if we are talking hardware or wooden parts, mass will change the sound. More mass in hardware may lessen the woody-ness of the tone where more mass in the wood parts would do the opposite but only slightly. The more mass that a bridge and your frets have may increase sustain slightly, but will also lessen the amount of vibration that is transferred into the wood. Mass can be separated from the bridge like on a Tune-O-Matic so more energy gets conveyed into the wood. The mass of a guitar body is another area that has been discussed a lot but an SG (thin), a Les Paul (thick) and an Explorer (Large) all sound Gibson-ish right? Yes it does make a difference, but really how much.
String Angle is the degree of angle the strings take after the bridge or nut. More angle = more downward pressure, but also means more pressure on the string and more breakage. Usually 10-13 degrees is best.
I hope you found this more helpful than confusing, if so, please indicate that you have and be on the lookout for more guide and information from Doeringers.