WOOD & Wire


Long Answer on woods effect on tone in musical instruments...

There's way too big a debate over this. It's like reading the arguments of fundamental extremists. There are those few who claim everything from physics degrees to conspiracy among "those in the industry" in their opinion that solid body woods don't affect the tone. Please note none of them are solid body instrument makers - if they were, the first two of a design made with different woods would prove themselves wrong. And though I haven't heard them play in person, I have a sneaking suspicion we're not talking Eric Johnson, Joe Pass or Victor Wooten here. Mis-applied scientific theory can easily disprove life itself, let alone tonal coloration of musical instruments by, uh... the very materials they're made of. One's ability to spout off theorems that leave debate pointless isn't proof. I don't have a physics degree, but I am pretty sure both vibrational ingredients translating into hearable tone differences - and life - exist at this point.

Why? Because there are tonal differences in the voices of the nearly identical instruments I build (but with different wood combinations) as they come through the same amp. Lacking in the ability to debate scientifically such arguments changes little about how obvious they are. Patterns in all of this tested and seen over and over again are how we learn, whether it's in a garden or in a science lab. I may have thoughts on aeronautical engineering too - but I'm not going to start spouting just because I've flown a kite; I am, however, qualified to have some weight to my findings. It is not opinion. I could offer opinions as to WHY it does, but THAT is does is obvious to most on my side of the bench. We actually know, regardless of whether anyone thinks it should happen or not, and of our abilities to explain precisely how or how much to the satisfaction of what I call "Tonal atheists."

If you bolt together two Strats with identical pickup assemblies, strings, hardware sets and setup specs - one with a Mahogany body and neck and Rosewood fingerboard... the other of all Maple... play them as a player with tactile and aural senses through any decent amplifier... and don't hear any difference at all, it's not the guitars. You can call it whatever you want, you can ignore it if you like even. But even if the variables in your room, the predisposition of your amp's EQ curve, and your wooden ear that can't differentiate subtleties DO NOT all line up to accent this bit of difference to where it's night and day to you, you should still be hearing something because something is there to be heard and completely not dependent on your belief to be so. Craft an instrument more precisely with tighter fit and better materials and the effect is multiplied. 

While not nearly as defining as in an acoustic instrument, wood changes in wood instruments affect the vibration of a string attached to it at both ends (touching it or not, vibrational transfer exists - it's how the guitar resonates in the first place) and this feeds performance characteristics (sustain, resonance, frequency peaks and attenuations) of THIS recipe of ingredients back into the string vibration (differences which you can hear unplugged, so it is there - in much greater amount, this is partly how acoustic guitars sound different). This becomes the different flavor profiles within the string's vibration which is captured in different ways by different pickups. This is the beginning of where we veer into design - MAJOR contributors to tone - but before we go there, we're still talking identical instruments except for the wood. 

To argue to the contrary is to argue that a string attached to a granite monolith with a pickup under it and the same measured length of string tuned the same and attached to a plank of balsa wood with the same pickup under it will not show ANY of their resonant differences (their contribution to this vibrating tonal system) through that pickup if run through an amp. This is the ONLY thing more absurd than overbelievers who compare a Les Paul to a Strat or two players on two different guitars through different amps and chalk it up to the wood and do the truth no favors. 

800+ builds in and an entire adult life of tinkering, modifying and repairing - often manipulating the very things deniers say don't exist in the first place - I can promise you that it does. I can't promise anyone they can hear it, and I can't debate using physics that only addresses the discrepancies in imperfect arguments. I can't taste differences in many red wines; that doesn't mean there are none. One's environment, gear EQ and technique may bring that tonal difference out through the speakers profoundly; others' may not, or even work against it BEFORE the ears. For example, a hard rock player's preferred scoop in the midrange can dip where most of Mahogany's difference would show - to him "There is no difference!" Is he right or wrong? It's called context. You all go argue that. 

And the fact that I make a living doing this does not compromise these basically understood properties - known and used by luthiers and players alike all over the world, by no means all great or gifted - one bit. Nobody buys my bass vs. a Pbass because Maple sounds different than Mahogany, or because dense Walnut generates more lows than a softer piece. This is the "Doctor gets paid so he can't be trusted" argument. Good luck with that. In some cases sure - there's hocus pocus to be sold. But as a general defining principle? It does you no favors to not listen to an expert on something vs. lesser opinions, or on through to beliefs - which require no proof - presented as opinions. We all have beliefs; when they turn to infallible truth we try to apply universally to everything and everybody, wielded with zealous self righteousness, hey - look around to see how well that works. Little is proven and the potential in much life, time and energy is sacrificed. This debate is no different; vibration is bigger than we are and we can argue over the whole beast from our grip on its pinky-toe or we can choose to say that toe doesn't exist. None of it matters; we are either open to more or closed to all. Just show a little humility when you opine that it doesn't, because for 35 years every time I tickle it in certain ways, it shakes in certain ways.

Will body wood change your world? Probably not. Will being the blind man pontificating on how vision is a farce everyone else has just bought into? "Sight confirmation bias"? Probably. That's what this debate is really about - being "right" and getting to spout off and call people names - not what can be proven with a couple of 2x4s and a $5 pickup.

~S