Ultimate Guitar Guide: Tone Woods

author: Backup Guitar date: 02/26/2004 category: the guide to
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Ultimate Guitar Guide: Tone Woods
A guitar's wood is one of the last steps to creating that ideal tone you've been looking for. Different woods give off different sounds, which add to your guitar's ambience, tone, durability, and ability to age with time. Along with that, it also adds an incredible amount of sale value to that $4,000 guitar you see in the window. The type, and quality, of the wood in your guitar is perhaps the most important factor in deciding the price of the guitar.

Understanding Wood

First of all, to understand woods, the first rule is "quality first". You can have your guitar made out of mahogany if you want, but if the mahogany wood came from an area with a bad growth pattern, or diseases, you're not getting what you pay for, no matter what you are being charged. It is safe to say that most companies spend a great deal of time finding high quality wood, otherwise Paul Reed Smith wouldn't charge $3,00 for a Custom 24 model. But when you are buying into the lesser known brands that cost less, but supposedly sound as great as high end guitars, you should be weary of what you're getting. Always give guitars a good play in the store, to make sure that you're not getting a dud. Knock lightly on different parts of the guitar to ensure that the wood is solid, and there aren't any major dead parts. Some dead parts are merely part of wood. If you hear one part of a guitar giving off a slightly less clear tone, don't be alarmed. If there were no dead parts in your guitar's wood, that would mean it is classified as "10-top", meaning the wood is perfect. Paul Reed Smith is one company that offers 10-top quality wood in their guitars as an option - for a very real price increase. When knocking lightly on the guitar, look for even tone quality. If you hear a muddy, dead sound, put the guitar back. If you hear a nice, solid crisp knock all over, you've got some nice wood in your hands. If the guitar's wood has an overall good quality, you should classify it as a keeper. Definitely try this practise out when you have an option of picking between two or more "identical" guitars.

Different Tones

Wood tones are not the most important factor in deciding tone, but they do play a large role. The same two high quality pickups in the same guitar shape would sound entirely different if one guitar were made out of plywood and the other out of maple. So, in the end, don't limit yourself to thinking that a plywood guitar will sound the same as a mahogany guitar, but don't think you need a 10-top mahogany guitar to sound great. Don't make compromises on quality, but don't spend all your money to get the right wood. Neck material and fretboard material also help create their part in tones. Maple is a common wood for necks, as it is stiff, and creates a bright tone. Rosewood and maple are used for fretboards. Rosewood creates a warm tone, but ebony, a slightly less common wood, is very heavy and creates a bright, hard attack. Mahogany is also sometimes used in necks, as well as bodies, for its classic warm feel. Be wary, though, sometimes getting that great mahogany tone creates a lot of weight in the guitar. Always check out the weight of the guitar standing up and sitting down when playing it in the store - sometimes you don't want to dragged down by your guitar when playing a long gig.

Woods

  • Alder
    Alder is used commonly because of its light weight, most commonly in Stratocasters. Has an excellent clean tone. It is commonly a tan colour without many distinctive grain lines. Not a good choice for clear finishes.
  • Ash
    Ash is available in two types: Northern (hard) or Southern (soft). Hard Ash is popular because of its hardness, with bright tone and long sustaining qualities. Soft Ash (aka Swamp Ash) is much softer. Many '50s era Fender guitars were built with this wood. It has a much warmer feel than Hard Ash. Both variations have an open grain, meaning that a lot of lacquer is required to seal the wood. Excellent for clear finishes.
  • Maple
    Maple is a very popular wood for necks and fretboards. Easily identifiable because of its bright tone, characteristic grain patterns and moderate weight. It's tonal characteristics include good sustain with plenty of bite. It is about as dense as hard ash, but is much easier to finish. Very durable.
  • Mahogany
    Mahogany's weight and density are similar to maple, however mahogany carries are more mellow, soft and warm tone to it. Great sustain, but not well suited to clear finishes. Les Paul guitars are made with Honduran mahogany.
  • Rosewood
    Rosewood is one of the heaviest woods available. Strat bodies made out of rosewood will weigh in at over 6 pounds, and remember that Stratocasters are quite small guitars. The sound is very warm, although the high end sounds are dampened. Finishes can be a little difficult to apply. Usually reserved for fretboards only.
  • Walnut
    Walnut's tone is slightly warmer than maple, although it still has good sustain. Walnut can look excellent with oil finishes, and is moderately heavy, but still lighter than maple.
  • Basswood
    Basswood is a very light wood - even lighter than alder. It is very soft, and should not be subjected to much abuse. Clear finishes are not very desirable. However, basswood has a nice warm, soft tone.
  • Ebony
    Ebony is commonly used in fingerboards. It is quite heavy, but has a very bright attack, good sustain, and excellent durability compared to rosewood.

    In Conclusion

    In conclusion, choosing your guitar wood should be based on playing guitars in store. Try playing two similar guitars made out of different materials on the same amplifier. With some experience, you should be able to hear the difference in the tones. Remember that on necks, different finishes can affect how fast you can move your hand along the neck, so don't be put off from a certain type of wood because of one guitar. Remember that quality is a very important element in wood, so if you play one mahogany guitar that sounds bad, don't think all guitars may be like that. Also, body shapes can affect tone - an arched top guitar will sound different than a flat top guitar. Variety is the key to finding out, first hand, the subtle nuances between wood tones. Thanks for reading my article, and I hope anything you've learned will serve you well. Peace Out, - Backup Guitar
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