How on earth did Fender, Gibson, Gretsch, etc, choose the wood types for their early mass produced solid body guitars? I mean, Did Leo Fender really understand the differences between alder, ash, basswood, korina, poplar or any other wood for that matter? Did Gibson think that mahogany wood sound different from ash?

I wanna think these choices had less to do with "tonal characteristics" and more to do with business. Don't you think they would have made their choice based on availability, workability, durability, looks and price? All of the old legendary low serial # guitars off the Fender and Gibson factory floors seemed to be made of the same materials we are using today, so experimentation is out of the question.

In the early years, Fender made guitars out of one type of wood at a time. And then they would switch it up with a different wood years later. In the 50's, strats were made of alder, then in the 60's they were made largely of ash. early 50's teles were made of pine, for prototye and demo purposes, then they quickly switched to swamp ash. So logically, they only made their wood selection based on what was economical at the time, and not the "tone".

You would think that if the companies took into consideration or were even aware of "tonal characteristics" they would have made strats and teles and les pauls of varying woods from the start so they had a broader "tone" selection from the get, and have an edge on the other guys.

But that's just what I think really happened. Does anyone know of any other reasons?
I only feel like me when I'm behind my ax...
p.s. let's not try to flame one another over this. Questioning the magic of "tonewood" is like opening up Pandora's box around here lol.
I only feel like me when I'm behind my ax...
I don't know about Gibson, but Fender used alder and ash bodies and maple necks with maple fretboards because he had a steady, reliable supply of those woods (the first Broadcasters/Telecasters actually had pine bodies).

He used nitro lacquer because it was very common on cars of the period and there were plenty of guys with the gear and knowledge to spray it.

After a few years of heavy playing, the finish of a maple fretboard wears off in spots and the player's finger oils and sweat turn the raw wood green. So Fender chose rosewood for the new fretboard wood because it was dark and he liked how it looked. By this time, Fender was a renowned guitar manufacturer so everyone else followed suit. As it happens, rosewood is naturally oily and is the perfect choice for use where it will see lots of human contact.

Leo Fender was tone deaf. He couldn't even tune a guitar, much less distinguish the finer nuances of tone woods. His mission was to make guitars that were of good quality and road-worthy and affordable for the working musician.

While Fender was more focused on utility rather than embellishments, Gibson seems to be more attentive to the aesthetic side of things so it is possible that they chose mahogany because it is a nice-looking, common wood and the figured maple tops simply because they look awesome.
Last edited by Invader Jim at May 3, 2014,
Gibson absolutely used woods designed to sound a certain way. They'd been 'tuning' acoustic and hollowbodies with specific design changes for over 50 years by the time they got to the Les Paul, and Mahogany is not exactly the cheapest or most practical wood that could be used. On top of that the LP Custom has no maple cap - that was a conscious decision to make a darker sounding instrument, and it worked. Then of course there was experimentation with the '61 Les Paul which Les was so famously dissatisfied with, to the point where they had to spin it into a different model. It used the same hardware and electronics, the only difference was the body shape and the wood used. You know that model now as the SG, and of course you can play one next to a Les Paul and hear the difference for yourself.

Ted McCarty also gave plenty of interviews describing how they chose the LP's woods specifically for tone and sustain. So that's a matter of record. Then of course there are his years of work with PRS which has a strong history of experimentation with different woods. Ask Paul if different woods sound different and he'll look at you funny.

Fender - Leo was a cheap bastard and used whatever was around. The very first Fenders were pine, but Fender was generally unconcerned about what went into their guitars and amps. Just because they didn't care doesn't mean there isn't a difference, though. Leo was an engineer, he didn't play guitar.

In fact with ten seconds of googling you could find writings from both companies on tonal characteristics of woods!

So yeah...real stuff.
So if Fender used whatever was lying around, and Gibson chose only the finest, then why are both still the most preferred wood for guitar making? It cannot simply be coincidence that Leo just stumbled upon a few awesome "tonewoods" and stuck with them. Don;t ya think Fender wudda moved on to better "tonewoods" eventually? Same with Gibson and all the other big manufacturers. I just don't understand...

I just feel like the the woods have nothing to actually do with tone and everything to do with margin, which = bottom line. You think they'd upgrade to something "better" as the standard eventually. All of the old heads 'round the geetar playing community talk of how good the old Fenders and Gibbys sounded, but in fact, they were made of just garden variety materials. So if garden variety woods can sound so good, apparently, then what is the use of anything different?

What if Leo and the guys at Gibson just happened to use something else? Then wouldn't people be saying how good those poplar '57s sounded?

And lastly, you just cited info from the guys who are trying to SELL that stuff to us.
I only feel like me when I'm behind my ax...
Speculation is truth, but actual evidence is conspiracy. Can you hear the difference between a LP and an SG? I bet you can. What's the difference between those two guitars? What about a 335 and a Les Paul? What about a 137? You can go to any decent guitar store and play all those guitars with the same hardware, electronics, and even strings, and I think you'd have to be a little disingenuous, or completely stone deaf, to say that they didn't sound different. What's the difference there if not the body?

Who exactly would you like me to cite? Someone completely uninformed on the topic? Do you think McCarty used mahogany because it was cheap, lightweight, and locally available? It's none of those things. If this was a conspiracy it was an exceptionally poor one.

You can make a perfectly good poplar strat. It's just different from a pine or a mahogany or an aluminum one. It's not about better, it's about different. Those old guitars are the way they are because if they were made differently, they would sound different. Not worse, just different, and guitarists generally don't gravitate towards different. It's a hard sell. There's no magic here. You don't have to have one specific wood to sound good. It's just that there are subtle differences and sometimes that matters to people. Maybe it shouldn't matter to some people as much as it does but to keep insisting that those differences don't exist at all is a bit silly.
it all comes to trial and error in the beginning, but not so blind as we all may think, maybe Leo Fender was tone deaf, but being an engineer he tried different woods for resonance and weight, he worked with expert luthiers that happened to know a little bit about acoustics in guitars (acoustic and resonator guitars are known to be way more difficult to build, tonally speaking), go ahead and try guitars, hear and feel the difference, and you'll get the answer, play a bunch of different strats with similar electronics but different woods in the same amp, and you'll get different timbre, color, tone, the same happens with different lespauls, now if you're a basswood+emg player you wouldn't notice the contrast haha :p
Throw the same pups, guts and strings on each of those and they'd be 99% similar lol.

But you make some good points. I do agree that guitars do sound differnetly. I mean, you'd have to be a single celled organism to not be a ble to tell the difference. I dont't think it's a conspiracy so much as a logical deduction thing. My question really is that why hasn't something "superior" come along, where these companies can implement such a thing and make it the standard? That definitely would have happened long ago if not for the mysticism behind wood choices, which REALLY drives sales.

It really is hard to argue with logic something so subjective as music and the human perspective. Really. I'ts difficult to challenge something so ingrained (no pun intended) in our guitar culture. I think it's about time for some revolution in this antiquated realm.

Aren't people sick of having smoke blown up their asses?
I only feel like me when I'm behind my ax...
Again. It's not superior. It's different. Go on the Gear Page, you'll find small luthiers using dozens of different varieties of wood on guitars.

Aren't you sick of having to backpedal about woods making a difference? Different side of the same coin. For every person who cares a bit too much about wood there's a thread like this that tries to say that wood makes no difference because of some logic that never quite makes the case. Both sides are a little silly. Let people use their own ears and decide.

What you've done here is find a small piece of truth ("there is some silly mysticism around wood") and taken it way too far in the opposite direction ("wood makes no difference whatsoever") and now nobody is happy.
Different wood species have different densities, growth patterns, resonant properties, etc. and the final shape and finish of the guitar largely affects how the wood resonates. Saying that the wood type doesn't affect tone is just plain silly.