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Overlooked factors in guitar tone

Discussion in 'Guitars in General' started by Deed_Poll, Jan 2, 2016.

  1. Deed_Poll

    Deed_Poll Member

    Jan 19, 2013
    So here's my top 10. Some of these are hotly debated here and elsewhere, but I feel all are unfairly overshadowed by talk of wood species.

    All of this is of course just my opinion based on theory and limited experience, and wheresoever my opinions are stated as objective fact I do so only for the sake of clarity.

    I have studied the physics of musical acoustics at the University of Edinburgh and owned, worked on and built maybe a hundred guitars. I am sure many others will have their own opinions, and I hope they will share them in this thread. Of course, theory is theory and it's what matters in practice that's most important.

    1) Where the neck joins the body

    It seems to me that this makes a huge difference, yet I never hear anyone talk about it. All fenders by and large are the same in this regard - at least, Teles, Strats and Jazzmasters. Gibsons vary quite a bit, with the single cut Les Paul and SG marking the boundaries. I will explain the model of the resonance of tines and bars later in this post to flesh this out a bit more.

    2) Pickup position

    Ok, so we all know how different the neck and bridge pickups sound, but how much do people really care about tiny differences in where each pickup is placed?

    Not enough, in my opinion. One of the prime reasons (in my opinion) that a Tele bridge pickup can 'fatten up' more easily than a Strat bridge pickup is that it is further from the bridge saddles.

    The important distance is the proportional distance from the bridge - so even a tiny difference that close to the saddles can make a huge difference.

    Even on the neck pickup there can be a big difference. A '59 DC LP Special sounds very different to a '61 in the neck position. SGs sound noticeably brighter than LPs in the neck position to me, too.

    3) pickup potting

    People see potting pickups as a necessary practical measure. But if a pickup is made properly in the first place, it shouldn't need to be potted at all. Pickup potting is a hangover from mass producing pickups quickly and cheaply, and should be seen like making loose neck pockets to make sure they will fit without damaging the finish.

    I can definitely feel (more than hear) a difference in the high end response of a guitar with imported humbuckers. As a single coil fan, I took a long time to warm to humbuckers - until I played a set of Wolfetones on my Kauer. Now I have a set of OX4 humbuckers on my V and couldn't be happier with them - and can get some great bright Fender-esque tones with the Maestro and a good headroom amp.

    4) coil dimensions

    I feel like number of winds / output / magnets have dominated talk of a pickup's tone for too long.

    Of course these factors make a big difference. It has been better explained than I could do so here why 'output' is not a suitable word, nor impedence a suitable measurement, of how powerful we expect a pickup to be.

    There is less talk of coil breadth / depth, which is a shame since I recognise it as a huge factor. Consider how different a Strat pickup sounds compared to a Jazzmaster pickup, for instance. A WRHB for all that it has a higher output and completely different design sounds so similar to the Jazzmaster in its character and response that I figure this must be a big factor.

    5) Scale length

    So this is talked about a lot, but I really don't think it can be emphasized enough what a huge factor scale length is on the attack and decay characteristics of a guitar's sound. My personal feeling is that one of the main reasons PRS guitars sound 'sterile' etc to traditionalists is because of the 25" scale in combination with the otherwise Gibson-esque pickups, construction and bridges. I hear far fewer complaints about more Fender request models such as the 513, for instance. Though I concede that much of this animosity is surely the result of subconscious bias.

    Anyone who has played a Byrdland back to back with an L-5 will know what I'm talking about. Obviously the L-5 has a much deeper body, but it has so much more clarity and focus to the sound whereas the Byrdland is smoother and more 'romantic' sounding, to borrow parlance from the piano world.

    6) bridge type

    Again, people do obsess over materials etc when it comes to bridges.

    But people underestimate the more fundamental aspects of a bridge's mechanical and geometric design.

    The break angle, string length below the bridge, and force diagrams are discussed less commonly and make a huge difference to both the feel and sound of a guitar.

    For instance, a Tune - o - matic bridge makes no sense whatsoever mechanically outside of and arch top / trapeze tailed guitar. It is designed to transmit the string signal orthogonally into the focus of the guitar top.

    Pairing it with a stop tailpiece on a solid body guitar is to defeat the point. On a solid body guitar it makes a great deal more sense to use a simple intonated wraparound like a PRS or intonatable alternative like a Pigtail or Tonepros. Mechanically, these bridges work under far less stress from string tension than a TOM/STP combo, though if a TOM/STP combo is being used then the break angle over the saddles makes a big difference to which parts are bearing the force of the string tension and thus will change the sound and feel of the guitar.

    7) Vibrato type

    Two main sorts - the synchronised vibrato (like a Strat) where the bridge saddles and the string anchors themselves move together relative to the scale; and the 'behind the bridge' vibrato whereby only the string anchors are moved and either a low friction / roller system or else a rocking system is used to correct the bridge saddle geometry to account for this.

    On the latter system, like a Jazzmaster or Maestro vibrato, it makes a huge difference to the sound and functional range of the vibrato action whether a low friction or rocking action is used.

    If your vibrato usage falls within the operational limits and you do not have a very heavy hand which might dislodge a rocking bridge, the rocking bridge is superior to the low friction bridge.

    It will not leave the strings sharp of their desired pitch after a vibrato dive, and leaves all of the speaking length of the string's harmonics unmolested in operation. This keeps the energy in the speaking length of the string increasing natural sustain, and allows the player to glide up to chords more fluidly.

    The high friction operation of the rocking bridge also means double stop bends are more consonant, since the this prevents the added tension you are adding to the string from the shared anchor point at the tailpiece and essentially allows the tension of all the other strings to counteract extreme movement in the bridge itself.

    8) Neck taper / thickness

    The stiffness of your neck determines a great deal more of the physical properties of a note than simply the material the frets are set into.

    The taper is important since the neck resonates sympathetically as a kind of tine, or bar fixed at one end. A time will always resonate most consistently with a slight taper as the angular momentum of its vibration is greater at the end of the tine than at its base.

    Consequently, necks with a certain taper should have more consistency up and down the neck and exhibit fewer dead / lively spots than necks without taper. Obviously some taper is provided in any case by the nut being narrower than the neck heel joint, and all of this will be too affected by natural variance in material density / grain orientation to be predictable - but shaving a taper into a neck you don't much like the sound of can transform an instrument.

    Bars are tuned by removing material either from the ends to sharpen a note, or from the main reverberant cross section to flatten a note.

    9) Neck grain orientation

    Because the force acting on a neck is pretty much planar, i.e. normal to the fretboard, flat sawn necks will naturally have more flex in them than quarter sawn necks.

    Some of my favourite guitars are quarter sawn, and less stable woods like Mahogany must be quarter sawn.

    But it seems to me that flat sawn necks, where possible, make a great deal of sense if a lively interaction between string and instrument is desired.

    They also have practical advantages in their application on Fender style guitars, since all the screws on a Fender neck (neck bolts, string tree, tuners) are aligned to get maximum purchase in flat sawn woods.

    10) speakers

    It amazes me how many players and enthusiasts know every detail about their guitars and a fair bit about their amps, but cannot tell you what speakers they are using! As the last interface between the instrument and your ear, an hour spent demoing different speakers for tone is better spent than 2 hours demoing amps, five hours demoing pickups and a whole lifetime demoing different wood species!

    Anyway that's my list. I'd be very interested to hear especially if your experiences run counter to my own, or if you have your own factors and opinions to share.

    Like I said before, if my tone is matter-of-fact that is not my intention. There is necessarily a chaotic element intrinsic in closed / self referential systems with complex webs of causality like an electric guitar, and I would never claim to have all the answers, or expect theory to be borne out in practice for specific cases. I just think it's funny there's unproven stuff we care so much about when other unproven stuff doesn't even hardly get discussed!

  2. freedom's door

    freedom's door Member

    Jun 11, 2008
    I agree with what you posted, and i'll add:

    -age of strings. Brand new strings will certainly sound different than ones that have been on a while, and been through lots of practicing/gigs.
    ibis and Deed_Poll like this.
  3. misterturtlehead

    misterturtlehead Member

    Jun 23, 2013
  4. Multicellular

    Multicellular Member

    May 29, 2013
    Washington, D.C.
    Agree. Many of those, like pickup position, trem type, vastly more important than wood.
  5. Blanket Jackson

    Blanket Jackson is Tio's favorite Silver Supporting Member

    Sep 1, 2009
    Brooklyn NY
    Don't forget the fingers of the player

    kowalski440 and Caprica like this.
  6. Shiny_Beast

    Shiny_Beast Member

    Apr 27, 2009
    Ottawa Canada
    I had a beater strat with a really bad neck pocket connection. It had a distinct thumpy mid range response that I just loved from the first moment I put it together. Neck died, the new neck fits properly and that mojo all went out the window. I actually considered (and still might) putting damping material in the neck pocket to make it less resonant. Of course maybe the taper of the crappy knock off neck had something to do with it? But it's a different guitar now and the pickups are being replaced etc...

    I like your point about bridge style, but I always felt that on a strat the specifics of the saddle material is one of the most important parts in defining it's personality. I'm not necessarily saying any specific one is better than another.
    Deed_Poll likes this.
  7. icr

    icr Member

    Mar 9, 2013
    The useful list would be those things that don't affect tone.
  8. burner

    burner Member

    Dec 27, 2007
    What about the mids tho'......what will give me the most haunting mids?
  9. scottosan

    scottosan Member

    Nov 29, 2003
    Arlington, Texas
    Too much thought. Just play your guitar like it was rented.
    ibis likes this.
  10. bob-i

    bob-i Member

    Oct 16, 2005
    Central NJ
    I agree with all of these points, but I don't agree that they're overlooked.
    Eagle1 likes this.
  11. JBid

    JBid Member

    Sep 15, 2015
    Mostly cerebral Onanism, in my estimation. I just play the things. The more I play, the better they sound. I have 48 years of empirical examples and testimonials attesting to this fact.;)
    Deed_Poll and Flyin' Brian like this.
  12. Blanket Jackson

    Blanket Jackson is Tio's favorite Silver Supporting Member

    Sep 1, 2009
    Brooklyn NY
    I don't know him, is he like Eddie VH?
  13. T Dizz

    T Dizz Member

    Jan 20, 2015
    Erotic City MN
  14. fezz parka

    fezz parka Member

    Nov 25, 2009
    The Land that Time Forgot
    majordanger likes this.
  15. archey

    archey Member

    Jan 16, 2013
    Op I think you are right on. The most overlooked factor in a guitars overall tone, is the neck joint itself. How far the tenon goes into the body has a pretty big affect on resonance, and tone imo.
  16. pickdropper

    pickdropper I am Soldering Iron Man Vendor

    Aug 21, 2011
    I think some folks overlook the effect of picking angle and how it affects tone.
    ArchDukeOfTops and Deed_Poll like this.
  17. supergenius365

    supergenius365 Supporting Member

    Oct 22, 2005
  18. customguitars87

    customguitars87 Member

    Oct 27, 2009
  19. TheoDog

    TheoDog Supporting Member

    Jan 17, 2011
    Bethany, OK
    Pick material.
    2020jan08, Roe and ant_riv like this.
  20. Help!I'maRock!

    Help!I'maRock! Member

    Mar 12, 2008
    Capital City
    Everything matters. Now go practice.
    ArchDukeOfTops likes this.

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