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Can anyone help give a technical explanation of how tonewood effects solid body tone?

john_ciampa

Member
Messages
15
Hey guys, can anyone give a definitive answer to how the choice of wood in a solid body electric guitar effects the tone you hear?

There’s a lot of other threads that tackle this topic hope I don’t rub anyone wrong with redundance. I just have not been able to find an explanation that satisfies me as to what’s really going on.

A bunch of people say choice of tonewoods doesn’t matter at all, it’s the strings making the vibrations that count and the electronics are where the tone of a great solid body really comes from (paraphrasing).

I just don’t think this holds up to empirical evidence; not to my ears at least. I’ve watched videos of traditional style guitars like strats made out of weird funky materials like colored pencils glued together, and I think some clever dudes actually managed to make one out of specially treated cardboard. Standard pickups, strings, and everything else, but wildly different sound to my ears. I can also usually tell the difference between a rosewood tele vs. ash, a redwood strat vs. ash vs. alder, and am strongly convinced that none of this is my imagination. They really do just sound different to me.

I’ve been interested in the
topic for a while, and recently acquired a really nice tele built from old growth ash by a really top notch builder. It sounds phenomenal to me. It’s balanced, stable, sustains with beautiful clear sweet highs, slight mid scoop and well defined bottom end. If I strike a string on the guitar unplugged, and hold the body right up against my ear, I can hear it ring out and it sounds very similar to when I have it plugged into an amp as clean as it gets with a flat eq.

My conclusion from all this is that choice of woods is a significant factor in solid body construction. But why, exactly? We all know that even the greatest solid body moves a relatively small amount of air when played unplugged. You hear the sound produced by the speakers, not the body of the instrument itself when you play with an amp. But how can everything I described above be explained? Why does my electric guitar sound so similar to me plucked acoustically as compared to clean through an amp? Why can I hear the difference between a mahogany guitar and an ash one, if I’m not really hearing the wood, but rather the strings vibrating through the pickups?

My hunch is that 1) vibrations in the wood interact with the vibration of the strings and 2) the reference frame against which the strings are seen as vibrating is also moving - the pickups moving with the guitar’s vibrations is creating a changing magnetic field just as the strings alone would if the pickups were theoretically at an ablsolute dead stand still with no vibation. You move one thing relative to the other, it’s equivalent to moving the second thing relative to the first. The idea that the strings are vibrating and the pickups stand still has got to be false, but to what extent does that effect the sound?

Anyone have definitive knowledge on any of that, spefically on which of those two factors might be the most significant?
 

Stratman Dan

Member
Messages
186
Tonewood is just like Big Mac, Pepsi or other million dollar word created to evoke emotion in the consumers mind. It's all smoke and mirrors and marketing designed to part you from your $$.

Try watching several guitar videos blindfolded and you quickly realize without your eyes tonewood means nothing.
 

john_ciampa

Member
Messages
15
Thanks @galibier_un! Cool, I might have overlooked something there. I’ll admit I’m new here and haven’t used the site much - I saw a bunch of arguments in this site related to the topic just googling it, so I decided to make my own to drill down to some of the more specific questions I had.

That’s a good point you make, I should make sure I use the search specifically here rather than google results from various forums. Thanks and sorry if I’ve duplicated something that’s already out there, I’ll search that up.
 

Tootone

Member
Messages
5,496
The Science of Maths and Physics....

Its all about "Resonant Frequencies".

Any object or system of objects will have a resonant frequency. That means it will vibrate more strongly (louder) at or around its natural resonant frequency. It will also vibrate more around the harmonics of its resonant frequency.

So take a sample of 10 guitars, all made from the same wood. Because their composite materials are similar, they are likely to have similar resonant frequencies. They will all be slightly different however, because the resonant Frequency is for the system (body, neck, tuners, bridge etc), not just each individual part.

So, all Alder Strats will sound similar to each other, but slightly different to Ash Strats, which in turn will sound similar to other Ash Strats.

Same with Les Pauls (Maple + Mahogany) vs SGs vs 335s.

So, the wood (material) and build absolutely does make a difference.

The real question is subjective in the case of "But which sounds better?". That's entirely up to you, the listener, and your preferences.

Some guitars have very low resonance in desirable frequencies (dead) but in truth they will still have a resonant frequency, somewhere, outside the norms, or desirability. Some may sound too shrill or too bassy/muddy.

Also a system can be prevented from resonating by adding "damping" to the system. This implies damping is intentional, but in the case of guitars it is likely unintentional. It may be an "unlucky" combination of individual parts whose individual resonance tends to cancel each other out.... it becomes a damped system, aka a dead guitar.

Rule of thumb is to always play electrics acoustically before you buy. If it sounds lifeless with no amp, chances are it will sound lifeless when amplified..

Some people say "but if the guitar body is resonating loudly, it is sucking energy from your strings. Sadly, these people have no understanding of physics or science and are completely wrong.
 

gunslinger

Member
Messages
2,963
More flexible woods can absorb some of the string's energy sort of like a shock absorber. This can cut down on sustain. Stiffer woods won't absorb as much of the string's energy and thus can have more sustain. This is similar to weight and density. Heavier woods tend to have more sustain than lighter ones. It's sort of like hitting a baseball with a bigger heavier bat. It will tend to go farther than if you hit it with a light weight one. Also stiffer woods tend to be brighter. I believe there's all kinds of great tone recipes. Such as a mahogany neck with a mahogany body. And an alder body with a maple neck. And both of these can have rosewood fretboards. I could be wrong but I don't think plywood body guitars sound good. But like a lot of people say you can't tell what a guitar will sound like until it is made. Also I don't think a guitar has to be made with expensive exotic wood to sound good.
 

john_ciampa

Member
Messages
15
Thanks, this helps a lot! Sorry I messed up a quote a second ago, deleted that. Anyways I was saying Jack Pearson plays a $90 squier bullet made of basswood (I’ve read at least, he said it in an interview) and the thing sounds ridiculously good. I definitely don’t think one wood’s necessarily better than another.. but there are also lots of cheap guitars made from inexpensive wood that don’t sound good.. Jack played a lot of other squiers after that and apparently it’s just the one he found that sounds good to him (and anyone listening to him play that has hearing :)

Interesting and helpful replies, thanks guys..
 

Timtam

Member
Messages
2,072
It doesn't ....
https://www.gitec-forum-eng.de/2019...of-physics-of-the-electric-guitar-is-on-line/
In short, the 'admittance' of a solid bridge is so low that very little string vibration energy reaches the body. It is almost all reflected back to the strings. And vibration energy that is absorbed by the bridge or that does reach the body is lost from the strings, so not seen by the pickups. The neck on the other hand is more flexible and resonant, and the nut / frets have higher admittance. However those neck resonances that correspond to string vibration frequencies can 'steal' vibrations from the strings, leading to 'dead spots'.
https://www.semanticscholar.org/paper/The-Physics-of-E-Guitars-:-Vibration-–-Voltage-–-(-Zollner/88a7c4bedb89fdfda7ed01f11f77d9e14939c004
https://www.researchgate.net/public...r_T_Mechanical_vibrations_of_electric_guitars

Also, there are a pile of under-appreciated explanations for differences between otherwise similar guitars, eg absorbances of specific bridges that differ even between bridges of the same generation, micro-differences in set up, that have now been shown to affect the frequency spectrum of the pickup output of real guitars (see Zollner chapter above). While it may have been easy in the past to naively say "I can't see anything different between these guitars that would explain why they sound different, so it must be the wood", or construct 'voodoo physics' explanations, that no longer flies.
 
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Guppie

Member
Messages
915
It short, the bridge 'admittance' is so low that very little string vibration energy reaches the body. It is almost all reflected back to the strings. And vibration energy that is absorbed by the bridge or that does reach the body is lost from the strings, so not seen by the pickups.
This ^^^^^^^^^
What matters most is the mounting of the bridge and rigidity in general. This determines the energy that is "held" by the strings. This is probably why a cardboard guitar sounds different from a wood one. But I dare you to tell the difference between a rosewood and maple fretboard blindfolded.
I have read somebody arguing that what matters most is the piece of wood in and just around the neck pocket. This determines the rigidity of the construction. And since the density of wood can vary a lot within a single piece of wood this cancels out difference between types of wood. Sounded logical to me.
 
Messages
2,288
I can sum up the whole tonewood debate with only 3 sentences.

1. If you have eyes, you hear with them.
2. If you don't have eyes and only have ears, you only hear with them.
3. The internet has been a campaign of misinformation by the Russians from the beginning.*



*How I wish that were true. Unfortunately, it's only us - an irrational, gullible population seeking a magical solution to answer our questions of life and placing their faith in the wrong people.
 
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Frozen Rat

Platinum Supporting Member
Messages
2,189
It's all subjective, relating to the underlying principle that was deduced when empirical tests were done and found to be correct. The data was analyzed by a super computer and found to have been flawed because Bob dropped a blob of mayo on the testing equipment and didn't report it in his logs; he spilled his guts under intense questioning by Mavis, who can detect a lie from seventeen feet away. They did the tests again and got different results. The grant money ran out and they went back to feeding narcotics to mice and drinking Bud Light during their breaks.
 

xmd5a

Member
Messages
2,238
It doesn't ....
https://www.gitec-forum-eng.de/2019...of-physics-of-the-electric-guitar-is-on-line/
In short, the 'admittance' of a solid bridge is so low that very little string vibration energy reaches the body. It is almost all reflected back to the strings. And vibration energy that is absorbed by the bridge or that does reach the body is lost from the strings, so not seen by the pickups. The neck on the other hand is more flexible and resonant, and the nut / frets have higher admittance. However those neck resonances that correspond to string vibration frequencies can 'steal' vibrations from the strings, leading to 'dead spots'.
https://www.semanticscholar.org/paper/The-Physics-of-E-Guitars-:-Vibration-–-Voltage-–-(-Zollner/88a7c4bedb89fdfda7ed01f11f77d9e14939c004
https://www.researchgate.net/public...r_T_Mechanical_vibrations_of_electric_guitars

Also, there are a pile of under-appreciated explanations for differences between otherwise similar guitars, eg absorbances of specific bridges that differ even between bridges of the same generation, micro-differences in set up, that have now been shown to affect the frequency spectrum of the pickup output of real guitars (see Zollner chapter above). While it may have been easy in the past to naively say "I can't see anything different between these guitars that would explain why they sound different, so it must be the wood", or construct 'voodoo physics' explanations, that no longer flies.
Manfred Zollner is a solid source, but I don't know if I would write off the bridge so fast. A full hollow guitar like an Casino with P-90s sounds different than a Les Paul with P-90's, if you pull up YouTube demos of the two guitars it's readily apparent. I'd have to say, what happens beyond the bridge still does matter, but that being said, the difference between a Les Paul and a Casino is far more extreme than a sole difference being wood species.
 




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