wood (or, other) choices for electric guitars: how developed are the criteriae?

Discussion in 'The Small Company Luthiers' started by splatt, Jan 31, 2012.

  1. splatt

    splatt david torn / splattercell Gold Supporting Member

    Apr 20, 2008
    recently, i read a statement by a somewhat popular small-builder,
    in which he proudly boasts about not seeking "special" timbers for his instruments;
    the statement seems to imply that all that's needed are clear & plain timbers,
    as well as a strong prejudice against those builders & buyers who seek cosmetic "standouts".
    (this is my interpretation of what i read, fwiw).

    note well that i love the way his instruments look,
    and i bet a fair number of them sound & feel great to a whole buncha folks:

    that's cool, but there's also something strange about it.

    i'm not one for fancy-looking woods, myself, just for the sake of cosmetics;
    still, the quality of materials is, in fact, important to me.....
    as are the perceptual- & skillset-qualities of the ears, eyes & hands of the builder choosing & building-with the materials that make-up an instrument
    which i plan on playing, learning & playing for the rest of my life.

    indeed, most of the great guitar-builders i know & have known do seem,
    at very least in time,
    to develop many, many more criteriae for their usable woods than those quoted above,
    amongst a huge assortment of other very specific benchmarks learned & developed for all the other materials, pieces & parts they're gonna employ.
    not to mention, even, the qualities of the very tools that they use!

    within that website statement, above, there's a broad-stroke that almost denies that
    any further specific quality-points-of-timbers really matter;
    that's kinda weird, imho & ime.

    why should i trust that a "nice plain & clear board" is gonna sound & feel good?
    for me:
    after playing guitar for so many years, i know with some certainty that that's not necessarily the case.
    {and, ok, i admit: i have a hard time believing that the quoted criteriae are really the builder's only reasons for choosing woods for their instruments, though it could be true.....}

    those, too, are a set of at least partially educated qualifiers, regardless of the paucity of their quantity..... albeit,
    the focus on only those qualities as one's benchmarks for wood-choice denies anything further or more refined is possible from potentially learning more about how to make great timber-choices.

    why choose that specific supplier, even?
    why use alder & maple, then, rather than basswood, spruce, carbon-fibers, plastics, ash, mahogany, plywood or whatever?
    what feeds the decision-making process, and why deny that there is a decision-making process?

    no matter how hard we try, it seems unlikely that we'll ever truly return to the innocence
    of the earliest years of mass-manufactured electric guitars,
    wherein some of the long-developed skill-sets of acoustic lutherie were almost (but, not quite, in truth)
    chucked out-the-window.

    and, taking broad-stroke negative swipes at any & all builders who take the time to develop other criteria
    meant to be applied to their own, personal timber-choosings does not present very well, from my POV.

    just a coupla cheap opinions, here; that's all.
    Last edited: Jan 31, 2012
  2. Giraffecaster

    Giraffecaster Member

    Mar 14, 2006
    I think all the builder is trying to say is that he isn't going to try and sell you on the rareness and prettiness of the wood he uses. And that he chose his supplier because he can go and pick the wood out himself.

    I respect that choice as he's not busy trying to source exotic rare pieces or trying to hype up a wood that brings some magical tone that plays riffs for you in perfect tune. I think with his designs he can get away with that, but a lot of customers are looking for that extra zing that comes with a custom guitar so they expect a nice top or exquisite tonewoods.

    And his choice of alder and maple are traditional and feed into the tone signature he looks for his instruments.
    Last edited: Jan 31, 2012
  3. Carltone

    Carltone Gold Supporting Member

    Feb 25, 2006
    great observation... just goes to show that everything is in the marketing... Even the stuff that ain't there, is there!

    Looks to me like the builder has picked up on the fancy top "backlash" that a lot of forumites have~ which to me is hysterical... because it's all just personal preference and pixie dust (apologies to H. Peavy, but it's there in perception) in the end.
  4. Laurent Brondel

    Laurent Brondel Supporting Member

    Dec 9, 2011
    West Paris, ME
    I know far more about acoustic guitars than electrics in terms of wood properties, however it seems the neck has more influence on tone on an electric than the body, whereas for acoustic guitars it is obviously the opposite. However, the body has an influence on what the pickups hear, as it must, doesn't it?

    Criteria for choosing wood are beyond aesthetics IMHO, but the way the wood looks gives a lot of clues to the luthier: grain direction, straightness, runout, figure etc. What visual clues do not give is weight, stiffness (in both directions) and internal damping. And stiffness is not correlated to grain count BTW. Although generalities can be made by species, those properties vary according to soil, climate, location, speed of growth and… plain genetics I suppose.

    I am making a couple of Fender-style electric guitars for myself at the moment (and for fun). Out of the 5 maple necks I cut there is great variation in weight, stiffness and surface hardness. They're all eastern sugar maple (acer saccharum), and local to me BTW.

    Anyway, builders (acoustic and electric) are very opinionated fellows, and not always in a rational way.

    David, it was great meeting you at the Woodstock invitational last October, your playing on "Secrets of the beehive" is a landmark for me.
  5. Longer

    Longer Member

    Apr 17, 2011
    It's cool that he is up front on what he is not willing to do for clients. Not my cup of tea, I like neat wood, but if that's how he wants to do business, more power to him.
  6. splatt

    splatt david torn / splattercell Gold Supporting Member

    Apr 20, 2008
    please note well that i did not, and DO NOT,
    intend for one builder/one buyer to be the subject matter of this thread,
    just an example as noted by no-one other than me.

    that said:
    i understand the "cosmetics as personal choice" factor.
    while i freely admit that cosmetics, design & functional design are super-important to me,
    i do not like to play instruments with highly-figured, custom-furniture presentation tops etc.
    i like & sometimes love the way they look; i just don't like to play them.....
    the showiness of those grades of wood seem to distract me, somehow.
    just my thing.
    all good.

    but that's clearly not the only subject that's being presented, within that specific quote.....
    and, i'm addressing those other subjects, with that quote acting only as a bit of a broader "signifier", for these days:
    not just one single builder, not just one single buyer.
    a trend, as it were.

    so, again:
    this goes against the core of the viewpoint/attitude presented, to some fairly large degree;
    that there are, indeed, many more potential factors for the specifics of the choice of materials,
    which certainly ought to include even further specific qualities of the individual pieces of timber chosen,
    not to mention the choice of drying & finishing techniques, tools used & etc.

  7. splatt

    splatt david torn / splattercell Gold Supporting Member

    Apr 20, 2008
    NB, folks:

    i will nuke this thread, very soon, if this becomes about one or more specific builders and/or one or more specific buyers;
    that is not my intention, here.

    my intention:
    trends, thoughts on the actual subject.
  8. John Coloccia

    John Coloccia Cold Supporting Member

    Dec 31, 2007
    Connecticut, outside of Hartford
    re: the nice, plain clear boards
    Sounds like good criteria to me. It's a far bigger tossup to use highly figured woods in a guitar than it is to use straight grained, clear boards. If you think plain boards are variable, you should see the variation in highly figured woods. The only exception, maybe, is something like bear claw on an acoustic top, where you expect it to be a little stiffer and you compensate with a thinner top and/or smaller braces. That's the idea, anyhow, if you choose to buy into it.

    The idea that a figured wood is of higher quality is, generally, inaccurate. It's just more expensive. For example, as much as I like the look, I never use figured maple for a neck. It's more expensive, but why would I use a wood with a wild grain pattern when that's the part of the guitar that is most critical to get straight and stable? I shouldn't say "never". I have and I will again, but I know it's a compromise and I'm very persnickety in my choice for a figured neck.

    Benedetto himself, in his archtop making videos, admits that a nice mahogany neck is probably acoustically superior than the typical maple neck he uses. He's also not shy to admit that guitars made with cheaper and less desirable (i.e. not as pretty) wood can make instruments that rival and even surpass those made from more expensive woods. Even at his level, tone isn't everything :)

    I go to the lumber yard and pick through many hundreds of board feet of Honduran mahogany looking for that one board that will yield some good neck wood. Nice, clean, straight grain. It would be great marketing to say I have sherpas searching the forests of Tibet for the most perfect examples of 5000 year old, figured whatever, but I think a plain mahogany neck is probably superior in most ways.

    Anyhow, it sounds like as good of a criteria as any, and it's not that I don't use figured woods or have anything against them. If I had to guess (and it's just a wild guess) I would probably guess that with all things being equal the plain clear boards will make more consistent instruments that high end, highly figured woods, assuming there's some significant difference beyond just the normal variation you see within a species.

    Anyway, the bottom line is that if I build it and it isn't right, no matter where the wood came from the only way it leaves my shop is in the form of smoke out my chimney. In the end, that's really the only criteria that should matter.
  9. splatt

    splatt david torn / splattercell Gold Supporting Member

    Apr 20, 2008
    the questions still kinda remain, jc:
    is that your only criteria?

    do you see particular kinds of grain, direction & density as beneficial or harmful
    to particular tonal & stability-oriented characteristics?
    if so --- how much so?
    do you "tap" & listen-to the timbers, at all?
    is the provenance of the wood meaningful to you?
    do you seek or dismiss any particular regions' woods, due either to their "tonal histories", composition, etc?
    do you see (or, hear) any of these things in the woods?

    so, do you buy into that?

    again, my questions are not only about cosmetics vs. tonality/stability, here.

    beauty is in the ear of the behearer;
    but, "best" to benedetto is not necessarily "best" to everyone, of course.

    these are not asked disingenuously, and i'm also not trying to pry any secrets from you:

    have you investigated specific, potentially hard-to-acquire woods' tonal properties,
    from a research perspective, though?
    would you know what to look for, if going to great lengths to acquire certain specific timbers?
    do you not believe it's actually possible to find something "better",
    through having done such personal research & engaging in ongoing experimentation?

    just wondering, here.....
  10. burningyen

    burningyen Vendor

    Jan 4, 2002
    My reading of the website ad copy that inspired this thread is not that the builder doesn't care about the tonal properties of the wood (at least that's how I interpret "rock your face off"). If anything, it seems to me that they're simply saying that they mostly concern themselves with the tonal and mechanical properties of the wood, that as a matter of taste they don't particularly care for the more ornate woods, and that good wood can be found locally with a reasonable level of discrimination and effort without resorting to extraordinary sources or methods. Reading a little further between the lines, there's also an implication that perhaps they see their instruments as directed more to the practical player on a mortal's budget. All of these things appeal to me.
  11. splatt

    splatt david torn / splattercell Gold Supporting Member

    Apr 20, 2008

    i believe so; it appears to me that the interaction between body-wood & neck-wood/f'board is important,
    though i also believe that the choice of neck-wood, its dimensions, weight, density, rigidity, the nature of the drying-techniques used & the wood's provenance may be key to the things that
    are important to me in an electric guitar.
    but, while my experience is long & detailed,
    i'm still a punter, when it comes to the specifics of fact, in this.

    (thanks for weighing-in, laurent!)

    internal damping:
    would you elaborate on this term, please, if it doesn't offend your sensibilities?
    i could guess, but.....
    as i said, i'm still a bit of a plebeian, here.

    this genetics thing..... or, "provenance",
    is something i've come to believe (through some experience),
    though i think it's not germane, at all, unless the builder, him-/her-self, has some sense of what the genetics, re: wood composition, might actually mean,
    in specifically tonal & musically-responsive terms.
    (and, in terms of stability, etc.....)

    maybe you'll let me try one, one day!
    woodstock? montréal?

    not like musicians, right?

    ah, thanks, lb --- i'm sorry i rushed out.
    i was there, very specifically, to get together with ken parker,
    following which my grand-daughter was getting very irritable, so we left the show.....
    pretty darned quickly!
    i do everything she wants me to do, without any questions asked.
  12. splatt

    splatt david torn / splattercell Gold Supporting Member

    Apr 20, 2008
    the "mortal's budget" is appealing to me, too
    --- since i'm usually overextended, really ---
    but i read something else, there.

    specifically, it's implied that provenance & composition don't necessarily matter......
    which all may prove, as far as very individualistic musical perception is concerned, to be true to some degree;
    but not always, and certainly not for everyone the same.

    certainly, some of us (including me) can be satisfied & happy making music w/instruments of a variety of grades;
    i never doubt that.
    i have a few offhandedly manufactured (or, built) instruments whose builders
    did not pay increasingly educated attention to increasing detail,
    which instruments i absolutely continue to love & play.....
    but, that's not to say that some folks can also truly appreciate
    --- musically, not just cosmetically ---
    instruments made from that kind of "reaching for something else" perspective.

    but, in no way should that imply that there is not more to be known.

    as well, while it's usually so (& primarily by necessity, in the bestest of cases),
    those instruments are not always marked with the very highest of price-tags, so.....
    it's a wide world, out there, afaic.

    there's a wide world of things to learn,
    and an awful lot of instruments to enjoy.
  13. scott

    scott Member

    Jan 31, 2002
    Canada Eh?
    Splatt, your such a detailed kinda guy its hard for me to pin down exactly what answer your looking for. Your wording kinda goes over my head a bit....just a hillbilly Canadian you know:)
    Anyway, I came up in the days of "nice top" and to be sure it started to get on my nerves. Ive build a couple hundred guitars and paid close attention to the sound of certain grains and certain feels and stiffnesses of wood. Most of my early guitars(and the ones I build these days) were semihollow/hollowbodies and I listened very carefully and tried to tune them to the customers specifications. For the most part I did alright. I could probably write a few pages on that but not today.
    I dont find much corolation bettween woods that are figured and those that are not, as far as sound goes. Every piece should be judged on its own. A lot of the time you can feel it in the wood without even tapping it. Just running your hands over it or listening closely when you work it will give you a really good idea of how its going to resonate. Then, if its a semi or hollowbody you an tune it to tase. If its a solidbody the wood selection is crucial. You cant tune a solidbody after its been shaped into a guitar. I dont care who you are its not physically possible. The only way to tune a piece of wood is to remove wood.
    On a side note, tap tuning is not this mythical fantastic thing that only super human luthiers can do. Its something you learn over time from doing it every day over and over. Its hard to explain in words but its not as big of a deal as people seem to think.
    I did find that getting a piece of quilted Maple that would sound as good as a nice quarted piece of flame was rare indeed. There is some sort of damping quality about it that I dont like.....not to mention Its just to fancy....lol

    I dont really like figured woods on my personal guitars. Im not a flashy kinda guy. I like the look of nice wood and I appreciate it but Im a rocker and a nice plaintop is what I like to play. Or just a black guitar made of nice quartered wood will do for me. Sound and feel is , by far, my most important criteria.

    I would not rule out figured woods. I will use whatever sounds good for the particular guitar I am building. However, the days of emailing a hundred different pictures of flamed tops for guys to choose from is over for me. These days I pick the wood and build accordingly. You cant choose the best woods for a guitar over the internet. A lot of the time the top/back/neck woods people want dont necessarily go together the best, as far as tone goes. These days I build them based on the tone I or the customer is looking for. Plain or figured, it doesnt matter, as long as the feel and tone is there. After all, in the studio, what guitar do you pick up first? The super model flame top or the gutar that sounds the best? I know which one I go for.

    Also, I dont think the builder you speak of was running down other builders that use figured woods. I believe they said something to the effect of, "there are plenty of other builders using fancy woods but we focus on nice plain woods for face ripping tone." or something like that. Its not a bad idea. The plain wood sounds just as good and most times is more stable and the price is something mere mortals can afford.

    Anyway, thats my babbling opinion:)
  14. splatt

    splatt david torn / splattercell Gold Supporting Member

    Apr 20, 2008
    hillbilly canadian?
    great response, scott..... thanks.

    what got to me in the builder's statement wasn't so much about the cosmetics,
    more about the other woods, the go-to-the-end-of-the-earth-to-find woods.
    i thought that was oddly & very negatively dismissive:
    as if that wood either didn't exist,
    and/or that no builder would get anything remarkable from it:
    tone-wise, feel-wise.

    while i could agree that it wouldn't matter to everyone,
    nor would it necessarily be more valuable as a building material for everyone,
    i found it odd to see those things dismissed "out-of-hand",
    as if it's ALL, globally & universally, "marketing hype":
    that was the implication, as understood by me, in the comments that went beyond cosmetic detail.

    with which i, obviously, do not agree, so:
    i figured i'd ask what other folks think --- builders, players, collectors.

    in fact, i've never met a guitar-maker worth-their-salt who didn't, literally,
    go kinda nuts when they came upon some source for unusual woods they can employ:
    whether old, new, water-recovered, historical (from barns & such), etc etc etc.

    that's what triggered my questions, really & truly;
    i've got no cause nor reason to disparage nor hype any individuals, here.

    the builder's original statement only served as my flashpoint/sart-up for this (now quite interesting, to me) discussion.

    like i said;
    i find that specific builder's instruments really phreaking attractive,
    they look really well-made,
    and i agree with his/her sentiments, re: 10+-tops-just-because-it-can-be-done;
    those cosmetics distract me, somehow, when i'm playing instruments that feature them.
    it's probably very adolescent of me, but..... that's still how it is, for me:
    just a personal "visual style" thing, i guess.

  15. scott

    scott Member

    Jan 31, 2002
    Canada Eh?
    Ill have to go back and re-read the site. I really liked thier guitars too. Very cool looking.
    After being in this biz professionally for more than 15 years I can appreciate that point of view. There is a LOT of hype in this game and sometimes I just groan when I read it. Its like they think people are stupid. For example, guys that claim they tune thier solidbodies, "like the old school violin makers did." Give me a break, you cant tune a tele after its been shaped, physics dictates it. When I first started it was almost a secret that was never to be spoken of. Like, "you cant tell them how it really is, thats a secret for only the luthiers(and retailers) to know. They need to believe the fantasy." Now with the internet people are more savy and will usually call BS and I like it. Finally!....lol.
    Im not saying that everyone does that or that most do it. However, there is still a residual left from that old school attitude. A certain elitist attitude that is used to sell guitars.

    Anyway, back on topic.

    You are right about the wood thing. I find it difficult to not buy woods that I lust after. Its like GAS but with wood. I restrain myself from buying to much because, I mean, how much wood does a guy really need. Ive got enough for a lot of guitars as it is. Its literally stacked in my pantry, my laundry room, piled up under the CNC and in my way in the shop yet I still find myself looking for more swamp ash and Alder(Im on a tele kick lately) I feel kinda greedy collecting it all, some of it I might never use.....but then again Im in a minimalist mindset these days so maybe its just me. I love wood of all kinds, figured or not, I really appreciate it.
    Last edited: Jan 31, 2012
  16. John Coloccia

    John Coloccia Cold Supporting Member

    Dec 31, 2007
    Connecticut, outside of Hartford
    I don't have any secrets. I wish I did. I'll be very honest with you...I can't reliably make two electric guitars sound exactly the same. I wish I could. The only thing I will stand by is that it will have the right vibe before it leaves the shop. Using the same kinds of wood, shapes and construction techniques seems to do that, but I can tell the slight differences. One has more bite. Maybe one is more mellow.

    Honestly, I get more feedback from what it feels like carving and shaping than I do taping. You can really feel and hear differences in stiffness and get a rough idea of how stiff the whole thing is, for what it's worth. I'm not quite sure what to do with that feedback other than catalog it in the back of my mind since I'm surely not going to changes the shape of my guitar trying to chase something.
  17. John Coloccia

    John Coloccia Cold Supporting Member

    Dec 31, 2007
    Connecticut, outside of Hartford
    Oh. Re: finding something better
    I just played an acoustic made from Sycamore at Cumpiano's shop a month or so ago. Even the neck. It sounded great.

    I think there are plenty of ways to make things better, however you define that. Chasing wood is just a small part of it, though. You can make a great meal from many different sets of ingredients, once you learn how those ingredients behave.
  18. DavidH

    DavidH Member

    Sep 25, 2006
    In the world of custom guitars it's important to customers/players to feel that they got a 'special' piece, hand selected for it's tonal properties. It's part of the bond with our favourite instruments, that this one has certain 'special' properties. Ultimately you can end up with an emotional attachment to an individual piece of tonewood. When you order a custom guitar unheard, you're really putting faith in the builder's ability to source best sounding materials and this is a large part of what sways a customer's choice of who to go with, as important as your building skills, though of course it's all part of the same process-making the best instrument you possibly can.

    It wouldn't be a great business move to suggest you don't go to great lengths to ensure the best materials, after all, if it was such easy task to source great tonewood we'd presumably just head to the guitar store and pluck something mass produced from the racks.
  19. Laurent Brondel

    Laurent Brondel Supporting Member

    Dec 9, 2011
    West Paris, ME
    Well, I'm not a patrician either! Roughly internal damping is when vibrations are dissipated as heat instead of soundwaves. Think wet cardboard (very high internal damping) and aluminium plate (very low internal damping). Woods with very low internal damping are for example some rosewoods (Brazilian RW, African blackwood, Honduran RW etc.), spruces and most other conifers, woods with relatively high internal damping are some ebonies (Macassar), soft maples (big leaf and eastern red), and generally (but not always) soft hardwoods. Tapping the pieces, or just running your fingers on it gives a lot of information. It's not easy on a big chunk of 8/4 Southern ash… To complicate things: damping, like weight, is not necessarily a bad thing. Although usually light and resonant are better. But a guitar (electric or acoustic) is a sum of its parts, rather than having only the characteristic of one part.

    By genetic I meant, for example, the differences between human beings: we belong to the exact same species, but every single one of us is unique and different. Most often the variations within species is not big, but there are always outliers.

    A straight, no runout piece on the quarter will always be the strongest and most stable, with any wood. The exceptions are a few true mahoganies which are as stable in any cut because of their interlocked grain.

    IMHO there is no "magical" wood, or piece of wood. After evaluating and trying a lot of different tonewoods, one comes across more similarities than differences. That being said, not every piece of lumber "will do", and we builders are on the quest for tonewood pretty much 24/7, 365 days/year. And yes we do get excited when we find something either unique, of great quality or preferably both.

    Figure in wood can mean different things, curl or flame is essentially localised runout (the end grain comes to the surface periodically) and is most visible on the quarter. Curl happens in a lot of different woods, and I do not see anything objectionable structurally with it. Bearclaw (or hazelfichte) is similar: localised "free" runout spots. Birdseye happens only in sugar maple (acer saccharum) and is visible only on the flat sawn part. Quilt is best viewed (and sometimes only visible) on the flat sawn part as well.
    Figure can also mean wild grain, especially on the flat sawn part, and wild grain usually means tension within the wood. Usually not a good thing.
    Ultimately it's a matter of taste. I prefer "calm" wood: straight boring grain, quartersawn etc. because the wild stuff can look gaudy pretty quick, and be tiring to look at (besides the structural worries).

    I'll be at both this year. It'd be a treat to hear you play one of my electrics (if they turn out to be any good), but you gotta try the steel strings!
  20. John Coloccia

    John Coloccia Cold Supporting Member

    Dec 31, 2007
    Connecticut, outside of Hartford
    Every piece of wood is special and hand selected for a lot of us. I've ordered wood from reputable suppliers and sent it back as unsuitable. "Special" doesn't necessarily mean pretty. I bust my butt when I go to the local mill to get wood that I think is just right, and if you've ever handled 12ft long pieces of wood and crawled through 20 or 30 of them, you would know it really is a great deal of work.

    Please don't think that a pretty piece of "instrument grade" wood I order is somehow more special than a plain piece of wood I've hand selected. I try my best to make the most consistent instruments I can. I can't say that any of the wood is magical or special...I can only say that it seems to work for what I'm trying to achieve. I wish I had the deep knowledge necessary to lovingly select the perfect piece of wood, and tune it by shaving a 1/128" here and there, but I don't. That's not to say that everybody doesn't. Just personally, I don't.
    Last edited: Jan 31, 2012

Share This Page