Elements That Contribute to Your Guitar Sound - Part 1: Wood

How wood affects the tone of electric guitar.

Elements That Contribute to Your Guitar Sound - Part 1: Wood
1
Since electric guitars come in many shapes and sizes and are constructed of varying kinds of woods and electronics, it's important to be aware of the individual components, how they are constructed, and how, along with the unquantifiable elements, or "Mojo," they determine a guitar's sound.

The qualities we associate with great electric guitar tone always begin with the guitar itself. Even with solid body electrics, the final amplified and effect-processed tone we hear originates with the acoustic sound of the guitar.

A flawed photographic slide may seem fine when looked at by the naked eye. But an unseen defect can become gargantuan when it is seen at a high level of enlargement. The same is true when a guitar is amplified. A tiny sound that is barely audible when unplugged goes through an even greater level of enlargement through amplification, mic-ing, and sound reinforcement.

A guitar that sounds bad acoustically will sound even worse when amplified, so it's important to always consider the acoustic sound of an electric guitar! Always try out a prospective purchase "unplugged" first to see how it sounds and resonates against your body. Then place your ear against the body and listen as you play. The sustain, warmth, resonance, and fullness you want from your guitar should be apparent before you even plug it in.

Wood and Tone

The type and quality of body, neck, and fingerboard woods are critical to defining a guitar's inherent sound. The weight and appearance of the wood are also important factors. In general, dense, heavy woods such as mahogany yield the most warmth and natural sustain. Lighter woods such as alder tend to sound brighter and livelier, and are more "friendly" to your back.

Since the overall mass of a guitar can absorb or resonate in a particular range of frequencies, the quality, type, and even the individual cut of the wood are huge factors in shaping tone character. This also means that two guitars of the same model and vintage may not sound equally good!

Common Woods Used in the Construction of Electric Guitars

Type of Wood: Alder
Weight: This lightweight wood is generally used for guitar bodies.
Tone Quality: Full tone, with an emphasized lower midrange, for the classic Fender Stratocaster sound.
Listen to: Stevie Ray Vaughan - "Lenny"

Type of Wood: Ash
Weight: This lightweight wood is generally used for guitar bodies.
Tone Quality: Bright, punctuated treble and strong low notes typical of Telecasters and the earliest Strats.
Listen to: The Hollies - "Long Cool Woman (in a Big Black Dress)"

Type of Wood: Mahogany
Weight: This medium-weight wood is used for guitar bodies and necks.
Tone Quality: Rich, warm resonant tones and the long sustain that Gibson solid bodies are known for.
Listen to: AC/DC - "You Shook Me All Night Long"

Type of Wood: Maple
Weight: This heavy wood is used for guitar bodies and necks.
Tone Quality: A hardwood with a bright, sustaining tone, used for Fender-style necks and Godin bodies. A piece of carved maple forms the top piece of Les Paul bodies, adding brilliance, while retaining the warmth of the mahogany.
Listen to: Allman Brothers Band - "Revival"

Type of Wood: Basswood
Weight: This is the lightest-weight wood, used for both guitar bodies and necks.
Tone Quality: Soft wood has a pronounced midrange for singing modern rock soloing. The Ibanez Joe Satriani series of guitars are constructed with basswood bodies.
Listen to: Joe Satriani - "Always with Me, Always with You"

Fingerboard Wood

We've reviewed the wood of bodies, but the wood on the neck of the guitar is equally important.

Ebony: A heavy, hard wood that produces a clear, sharp attack and fast decay.

Rosewood: Warm and sweet sounding with a softer attack.

Maple: With solid maple necks, the fingerboard is the top surface of the neck. These yield a bright, clear, and balanced tone with a less pronounced attack and slower decay than ebony fingerboards.

Elements That Contribute to Your Guitar Sound - Part 2: Attachment of Neck to Body

Elements That Contribute to Your Guitar Sound - Part 3: Body Types

About Berklee Online:
Berklee Online is the continuing education division of Berklee College of Music, delivering access to Berklee's acclaimed curriculum from anywhere in the world. The material above was excerpted from the Berklee Online course "Getting Your Guitar Sound" by Dan Bowden. Learn more about Berklee Online's guitar courses, certificate programs, and Bachelor of Professional Studies degree program. Also, be sure to check out Berklee's Online Guitar Tuner, a free tool for getting your best guitar sound.

50 comments sorted by best / new / date

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    huesudo2
    Okay, so we have one post about "why sponsored shit in my UG". We can put a check mark there. Now all that's left is the incoming storm of tonewood debate, complete with "If Berklee is saying tonewood is a thing then it's definitely a thing" as if Berklee was an institute of physics. For the last fucking time: Your tone is made, for the most part, on your pedals, your amplifier, your cabinet, and your EQ. Your attack is on the way you strum and with what; your delay (not the pedal delay, the ADSR delay), sustain, and release is all on your left hand. As for any other color your tone may have, saying one is better than another even in the concept of a style or a genre is elitism and bullshit. Each and every tone is good, or can be made good. Worry more about your technique and about whether your guitar stays in tune or not.
    NeoMvsEu
    That's why this is part 1 of however many parts this series will end up being. It might help to not shoot the game until it's ripe.
    Carl6661
    Hope I don't sound too nit-picky, but the D is ADSR is for decay, not delay. It's how long it takes for the note to reach it's sustained level, after the initial attack. Other than that minor slip-up, your comment was pretty spot on.
    huesudo2
    Delay, decay... Just one letter away. Hahahahaha thanks for pointing it out, I totally mixed the words up
    jean_genie
    'Tone woods' are bullshit. The physics behind tone woods are totally real. If you have two pieces of wood that are the exact same hardness, flexibility, and weight/density, and are equally free of knots and other impurities, it doesn't matter a lick what those two pieces of wood are - they sound the same. One might be prettier, or even hold up to tension over time better - but they sound the same. How the wood is finished actually has a greater effect than what the wood is, unless you're comparing two drastically different woods, like ebony and basswood. The thicker the finish, the less it will vibrate. Mahogany "sustains better" than Ash in part because it is a softer, open-grained wood that resists movement less(why tool handles and baseball bats use ash, not mahogany), and in part because its more porous nature absorbs finish better(especially penetrating oils like Gibson uses), while poly creates a 'shell' around the guitar that protects better, but also resists vibration. Maple and tight-grained rosewood sound about the same, with the finish on the maple producing much of the sonic differences. The best sustaining guitar I ever had - or even played - was a Les Paul. I stripped the finish, and just gave it a few coats of hand-rubbed oil. Sounded much, much better than my custom shop, and weighed less too. There's a lot more weight in finish than people realize - especially on fancy finishes.
    Gray Lensman
    The effect of "Tone Woods" on guitar tone. Acoustic guitar = Yes Acoustic Electric = Considerable Hollow Body Electric = Quite a bit Semi-Hollow Body = Not so much Solid Body Electric = Strictly Marketing
    cmvideo
    To me, the only important difference in an electric regarding woods is it's weight and feel.
    SaltMcBridge
    >Even with solid body electrics, the final amplified and effect-processed tone we hear originates with the acoustic sound of the guitar. This is completely wrong unless you have piezoelectric pickups, the sound that comes out from your amp comes from an electrical current caused by the magnetic interferance of the vibrating string, not the acoustic resonance of it.
    huesudo2
    I'm guessing the common misconception here is to think all guitars obey the same mechanics. Acoustic guitars depend 100% on the soundwaves created within the body, on the air that moves out of the sound hole. Electric guitars, being guitars, are probably shoehorned into this concept by musicians that don't know (or need to know) about how electric guitars obey different rules because they create sound in a different way. If wood affected the tone of a solid body electric, chances are the rules of wood would be different - why is it that every time I find an article about how guitar affects the tone of an electric guitar, the properties of woods listed are the same as for acoustic guitars, save for a few new misconceptions based on Fender using X wood more and Gibson using Y wood more on their history? Goes to show that people aren't giving enough thought about it.
    FretboardToAsh
    I would add to this that it is, in fact, not as much the sound coming from the soundhole of an acoustic guitar that is defining most of the sound when it comes to 'tonewoods', but the top of the body itself. It is why manufacturers advertise these so much with 'solid top', sometimes also with the material used. If you wish to try and see how much of a difference it makes, strum a chord, place your strumming hand on the top, behind the bridge, and push. You'll mute half the sound, and the guitar will sound as if you played with a sponge.
    huesudo2
    I phrased it badly but yeah, I did meant that the body affected the sound. I, however, had never heard or read about that top pushing experiment, and I'm gonna try it as soon as I get home. Seems like an interesting thing to observe.
    FretboardToAsh
    You'll basically keep it from vibrating properly. Behind the bridge is a lot of 'meat' where it concerns the sound, so you'll get 'good' results trying it there. As a sidenote for those overzealous few, don't push too hard, obviously.
    PRSguitars87
    Oh god here we go... Sponsored content on UG. Ive been joking around lately leaving sarcastic comments like "This will SHOCK YOU!" And shit like that because of the "clickbait" style articles Ive seen here.... Now something that actually says "sponsored" next to it.... If you arent familiar with what Im talking about go to yahoo.com and look at about every 4th or 5th article with the "sponsored" logo next to it, see how their all those clickbait articles that are total rubbish.
    d.pshenichnyi
    Yes, it's a sponsored content. But there's a huge difference between 'this will shock you' and an article that educates you about things closely related to guitar. People from Berklee provided you with an excerpt of their paid course for free, hoping to interest you for a minute. You don't have to click any links, needless to say you don't have to buy anything. If the article is helpful - you're welcome. If not - sorry, bad luck for us. But is there any real cause to complain about the [sponsored] label?
    Velcro Man
    When it's a guitar website publishing paid articles perpetrating myths created by guitar companies to trick customers into paying thousands of dollars for mythical electric "tonewoods"...yeah, there's a cause for fucking concern. Fuck, thankfully tonewoods are a myth with solid body electric guitars because a solid chunk of wood has horrible acoustics. It's certainly not going to give the same benefits even if it IS piezo or unplugged.
    EntropicDiscord
    TIL science is myths.
    Velcro Man
    Tone woods aren't a thing; with acoustic guitars the density and stuff has quite a bit of an effect on the sound of a guitar, but with an electric...it's just not how it works. A very thin piece of wood being amplified by other pieces of wood so that the natural sound of the strings resonates throughout the body = sound and even tonal differences. With an electric guitar? You just have a piece of material that is either super solid that allows some extra sustain or it just kinda absorbs the vibrations. Your tone is 100% from your electronics and rig. Metal and plastic materials are the best things you can have if you like a lot of sustain, though a trem system will destroy any of that. Of course, as soon as you use any type of overdrive or distortion the whole sustain thing becomes pretty fucking moot. The strings you use have more influence on tonality than the fucking wood the body is made of.
    sol_afro_within
    on a side note: even moving your pick a bit creates a different sound so obviously the wood will also have a decent impact. remember: actual science=! Scott Grove's 'experiments'
    Velcro Man
    Not to be pedantic, but volume, sustain and such =! tone. Wood does have a little impact on that (mostly just electrified). Your best material is just going to be something solid. Your tone? Purely identified by electronics. Try putting EMGs in any guitar and honestly try to find a difference. Fuck, even if wood impacted tone like it did with acoustic guitars...if your guitar didn't have enough mids? Turn the knob from 5 to 6 on your amp. Bam. Moving your pick makes far more difference than the contruction of your guitar. A huge part of tone comes from the strings you use, the thickness of the picks you use and how you pick.
    sol_afro_within
    Sorry, both me, the results from this unbiased test, and one of the most renowned music institutes in the world are wrong and you are right, again: I apologise.
    Velcro Man
    that test is the tonewood equivalent of EVP with ghost hunters. Just because you use scientific instruments doesn't mean your pseudo-science is valid. Fuck, if you just play the same not on the same guitar over and over you'll get wild variations based on picking differences. Also, Berklee might be a renowned music institute, but they're certainly not ranking high on any physics rankings.
    sol_afro_within
    http://guitarworks.thestrandbergs.com/2014/12/... this is the explanation of the methods used in this test to determine whether or not your choice of materials matters. https://www.reddit.com/r/Guitar/comments/2qnr3l... This guy does a pretty good job of explaining how this stuff works. If you're still not convinced this wasn't just 'hunting ghosts' I suppose nothing will and I'll leave you to your beliefs.
    Velcro Man
    It's not beliefs, it's simply just bad science. You can't get an accurate test without outside influence unless you can create a guitar with a completely removable body so that there can't be any differences in strings, pickups, electronics and so on. You'd also need a machine calibrated to strike the strings in the exact spot at the same pressure to recreate identical conditions. There are so many flaws with these shitty little tests that they can not be considered a real study. This little experiment would never get past a peer review.
    sol_afro_within
    Okay, since you refuse to read things that don't agree with your preconceptions we can't have a meaningful discussion of any shape or form. This whole thing was educational for me since I learned a ton on the subject and I hope you can go back and/or do some research yourself and say the same. Or better yet: setup and perform an experiment like you just described, I'd genuinely love to hear (geddit? ) the results and should they contradict my hypothesis I'll be more than open to changing my opinion.
    Velcro Man
    Well, like I said, something along those lines are they only types of experiments that would be relevant to the debate, but it would take quite a bit of work...and considering I don't believe body material matters I have no reason to want to do an experiment myself.
    RnFnR95
    i have two PRS SEs with the same EMG pickup setup (81/85) and i can DEFINITELY tell the difference between the two. il admit i never noticed a difference just playing in my bedroom but when i started using the second one live, it shocked me how different it sounded from my main guitar
    Velcro Man
    Have you considered that it's one of a million other things? Hell, are they even the exact same model with the same exact hardware? PRS SEs seem to use every different type of bridge design out there, so I'd wager one is a hardtail while the other is a trem?
    RnFnR95
    you said "Try putting EMGs in any guitar and honestly try to find a difference" i have EMGs in two of my guitars and i hear a big difference. you said tone is purely identified by electronics, now youre saying the hardware can make a tonal difference. youre absolutely right, one is a trem and the other a hardtail and im sure that is where most of the difference comes from, but that still contradicts what you said before about tone being all in the electronics
    Velcro Man
    Well, let's discuss what difference you're perceiving. Trem vs fixed bridge implies a lack of sustain...which goes back to "sustain isn't tone". If you're implying that there's a NOTICEABLE difference in bass, mids or treble I'd have to start off by asking if they're the same model EMGs, do they have the same amount of knobs, wiring and so on. Pots and wiring are a pretty big influence on your sound.
    terranraptor
    So people want these "tonewood" guitars with nice sustain, tone clarity etc, just so they can plug them in a boss DS-1 and a Line 6 or whatever and turn the sound to shit and play in front of people who can't tell the difference between a guitar and a bass for example? Ok, not my problem really GLHF
    PRS_Rock
    Anyone who says wood doesn't have a significant effect on tone has never played guitars with different woods. I'm talking solidbody electrics without insane metal distortion.
    huesudo2
    When I bought my guitar I still noodled around on axes that were beyond my budget. I noticed 2 S-type guitars that looked pretty much the same in specs except for the wood, and I noticed one of them was brighter than the other... ...the brighter one had 500k pots instead of 250k. Ya sure it's the wood? Or are there things about the make of the guitars that you're overlooking?
    Eifler121
    Man, so many people getting worked up about a free article by Berklee. It's not like it's Fender sponsored. UG community will talk shit all day about Jack White and his use of crappy guitars, go nuts about all this gear, and when an article comes from a respectable institution about the issue, they don't want to hear it.
    sol_afro_within
    Thing is: a crappy guitar can sound fantastic, but the construction and materials still play a role in how it will sound. It won't necessarily sound better, but it will sound different.
    domea
    Please, by all that is holy, even if you are just trolling for the fun of it, can we not have the tone wood debate start up again? I'm begging here please haven't the children suffered enough?
    Kueller917
    Saw an article about tone wood and went immediately to the comments first. I am not disappointed.
    2Crosser
    http://www.latrobe.edu.au/news/articles/2012/a... Please. The paper hasn't been published to the wider community yet, but this never gained attention anyway, including our own forums where it was discussed.
    sol_afro_within
    I love how the guy didn't even bother with a grammatically correct title, kind of reminds me of the whole 'does Bruno Mars is gay?' thing except not ironic in this case. Besides nitpicking though: If it hasn't been published 4 years later it's pretty clear that the science didn't hold up.
    2Crosser
    Or that it wouldn't be profitable to publish or that he never finished the analysis seeing it as worthless or that it did get published but in some collaborative compendium that we have no idea about, or if you're a conspirologist that he got payed not to release it. I might actually try and hunt it down.
    sol_afro_within
    Well, I can say I'd certainly be willing to change my opinion on the subject should you find the data, but all I can find is him saying a lot but not having anything tangible to show where Ola Strandberg does using this, albeit low budget, experiment
    notice how the initial peak on each one is nearly identical, dispelling the idea of a major difference in picking as some suggested. The difference is also largely in the decay of certain frequencies above others (wood in electric guitars take away rather than add like in an acoustic). also: this experiment was conducted with low impedance pups so the differences are definitely more pronounced than they would be on something like a pair of dimarzio d-activators. Hope you can find the data on Angove's tests though, might shed some major light on the differences between high and low impedance pickups should his results fit what he's saying.
    2Crosser
    Well that's interesting. And Mr Angove never realeased his full set of data as per La Trobe documentation, although he did get his Honours so it must exist somewhere. I've got no empirical data to present for my contention, so I rescind my argument, if only for now. Thank you for the data and discussion though.
    DoodlesMusic
    I'm going to go ahead and assume I'm in the minority in thinking that wood does play at least some part in the overall tone. I have 2 guitars, same brand, same hardware,both have rosewood fretboards and maple necks, both with EMG 81/85 pickups too, yet one is alder and one is mahogany and I use both extensively to record with and the alder one is brighter than the mahogany one. I have A/B'd them and there is a brighter tone with the alder one. I believe there's many more prominent factors in the tone but I believe wood plays at least some part in it. Otherwise why don't every company just use the cheapest pieces of wood possible because it won't matter what is used
    axeinurface
    I find it funny that they refer to mahogany as a "medium-weight wood". A LesPaul is heavy as fugg.