Long before it can be all about that bass, in my world it’s all about the wood. Wood is an amazing material to work with. It’s a whole journey in itself getting to know what one variety will bring to the instrument vs. another, how much it contributes in a given area (for example changing a maple body to mahogany vs. changing a neck from maple to mahogany), and how to combine them like a chef does ingredients into a final dish. The best recipes have ingredients that bring out the best in each other.
The basic principles I select wood by are structural and tonal. One over the other depending on where in an instrument it will be used, but both a consideration in some way always – if for no other reason than the piece staying together while I work it from plank to carved, shaped body or even just surviving the planning of the rough lumber. After this it's visual, but structure and tone come first. Some woods offer little tonally other than their being wood, which is good and will sound fine, but with the recipes I go by they don’t bring anything to the table. They’re iceberg lettuce and I’d rather work with arugula; I’m not interested in sonically inert material.
Generally speaking a denser wood is harder and heavier and brings out low lows and high highs, dipping a bit of midrange out; a softer wood will weigh less, not take as much abuse, and bring out midrange content, what we call “warmth” and can be a little less focused in the low end and not as bright up top. This is subtle and the magic is really in the combinations. Once you get past design, scale, construction, types of pickups and where they’ll be along the strings, we’re left with this pile of wood and its flavors. Ideally their strengths will work with those other considerations – and vice versa – and where one may lack another may compensate. Thus the whole works better than the sum of its parts.
Every piece is different. Some of my favorites tonally are denser pieces of mahogany, a thick piece of rosewood as a fingerboard, and mesquite. Yes, the wood you’re soaking right now to smoke out your weekend BBQ is also an amazing wood for a high-end electric guitar or bass, with a beautiful rustic look. There are “Tone wood” snobs like there are wine snobs, and definitely in some traditions (acoustic guitars, for example) there are superior woods to select. Solid body electrics, unless an established recipe is being copied, allow much more freedom to experiment and the results are more subtle, like seasonings for your sonic soup. There’s so much going on in there – even in a solid body.
Picking the right pieces is, basically, allowing them to do what they do best and working around the limitations in a given piece – some of which can be a lot of fun visually with wild grains and rustic character, but much of which we don’t want in a structural area like a neck pocket. In a custom instrument, meaning also factors in – this isn’t a toaster. Many times I’ve asked about any family memories involving trees or wood and received answers about grandpa’s old hammer or a fascination with baseball or picnics under a cherry tree. We then pick that wood (hickory for the baseball bat, for example) and work it somewhere into the build.
One of the most meaningful pieces of wood in the shop right now is a giant slab of cypress. A year ago our little town with its peaceful and scenic Blanco River was pretty much washed into halves by it during the Memorial Day flood, taking lives and livings and lots of homes. Many very special trees, river bank cypress hundreds of years old, were lost too. I would up with a slab I think I can get five or six instruments out of once I’m ready to cut it. I’ll tell you though, I’ll have to be more ready than I am. But it’s here, safe, respected; air drying and soaking in good workshop vibrations it will someday put into strings and hands and songs for others.
It’s Memorial Day weekend, so on behalf of the Wingfeather Workshop circle and all hands involved in the Birdsongs and SD Curlees and all the other music maker makings going on here, our deepest gratitude and respect is offered to those fallen in service and MIA, and continued condolences to their families and circles. You are not forgotten.
Listening to: A CD a friend brought back from Cuba… man this is good. “Grupo Sorpressa Trinitaria.” It’s virtually a field recording with a rooster in the background at one point. The real deal. Great music and it’s been on all week except for some Mississippi Fred McDowell.
From Cuba: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=negKPXjm09w
From the Delta: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9TyzAAwJnIw