Checklist Point #5: Woods
The woods used in an electric guitar create important differences in tone. The various woods used in a guitar color the sound by providing the guitar with its resonant frequency structure; each wood has its own sonic color and sustain characteristics. We’ll touch upon the major varieties briefly.
Mahogany is one of the most common woods used in electric guitar construction, and for good reason. Mahogany is a rich sounding wood with a resonant structure that accentuates the midrange frequencies. It is a dense, open sounding wood that vibrates well, becoming more resonant with age. It also plays well with other woods (the Les Paul’s mahogany/ maple cap, as an example).
High-end frequencies abound wherever maple is used. Not often used as a body wood due to its weight, it provides a snappy and bright tone. It is often used as a neck wood to create more attack and brightness in cooperation with warmer body woods. Flamed, curly, birdseye, spalted, burled and other figured maples are quite striking visually, and are often used as body caps (tops) to provide both good looks and some extra “snap” in tone.
Swamp ash is a common, lightweight, “soft” wood used in many guitar bodies today. Some players swear by this wood’s upper-midrange overtone structure and sustain, making it popular with the shred crowd. Ash has an open, warm tone that smoothes out the attack a bit, while remaining very resonant.
Basswood is a soft, light, wood that has no figuring and is used by guitar companies for solid finishes on less expensive models. However, basswood guitars have vibrant sustain and pronounced highs and mids. Some brave companies, like Parker, use basswood for their necks, due to its consistent tone and lack of dead spots.
Alder and Birch:
Alder and birch come from the same tree family and share very similar tonal and resonant characteristics. These woods generally have a brighter tone and are not as dense as mahogany. They have plenty of warmth and sustain, and are lighter weight. Clapton’s famous “Blackie” Strat featured an alder body.
Ebony and Rosewood:
These woods are primarily used in fretboard construction due their density and durability. Ebony provides a “stiff” feel and snappy attack; rosewood is less dense and offers a “softer” feel. Rosewood is used occasionally as a body wood, offering a tone similar to mahogany with more highs.
Other Exotic Woods:
We live in a gigantic world with thousands of tree varieties. One could theoretically make a guitar out of just about any wood. Brian May made his famous Red Special out of his father’s fireplace mantle! The tonal properties of exotic woods vary greatly; if you are going to use an exotic tonewood, it is important to ask plenty of questions regarding the actual piece of wood you will be using. Make sure it fits your needs.
When contemplating tonewoods, do your homework. Are you thinking about building your own custom instrument, or are you buying off the rack? Do you want a darker or lighter sound? Which woods tonally compliment each other? For example, some Fender Strats have a maple neck, rosewood fingerboard and an alder body. What is the purpose for this combination? How would the sound change if you went with a basswood body? What about a maple neck and fingerboard?
Checklist Point #6: Components
It may seem like we’re really delving into minutiae here, but even your guitar’s components will have a big impact on your tone, as they either handle the actual signal path (after the pickups) or are part of the string’s vibration.
When it comes to tone, your tuning pegs are all about vibration transfer. Installed properly, good pegs will transfer string vibration into the headstock and neck – once the neck and body begin to vibrate together, you get sustain. A tuner’s mass has the ability to affect the sustain; likewise, companies that manufacture “locking pegs” claim to transfer the vibration of the string through the peg quicker and truer than standard pegs.
Nut and Saddles:
The composition of the nut and saddles will deliver certain tonal properties, as well as affect your sustain. Standard plastic nuts usually deliver a standard, uncolored tone. Bone nuts are popular and give good resonant transfer, but most companies use some form of synthetic material to provide enhanced vibration transfer – products from companies like Graph Tech are popular here.
Likewise, bridge saddles can greatly change your tone, as it’s the first place a string’s vibration gets transferred to the guitar’s body. Brass saddles are warm and tight sounding; standard steel is bright and ting-y; stainless steel offers an even brighter option; and coated and composite saddles generally offer mellower options.
Bridge and Tailpiece:
Stop bar tailpieces stop the string after it “breaks” over the bridge with a bar bolted into the guitar, providing an immediate transfer of vibration at the bridge. The denser the metal used here, the better the transfer. Stringthru designs stop the string inside the guitar’s body, with individual string holes routed into the body behind the bridge. The idea here is to “attach” the string to the body, allowing the string complete resonant opportunity. Fender-based tremolo designs stop the string inside the bridge, transferring vibration from the string at the bridge fulcrum through the springs inside the routed body cavity. Locking tremolo systems lock the string down at the bridge and the nut to ensure stable tuning during whammy abuse. These designs were once known for killing tone, but a lot of sweat has gone into making new locking trem systems as resonant as any Fender-based system.
What happens to your signal after the pickups and before the output jack is an oft-ignored detail, but potentiometers (pots) are essential components of your signal chain. As a general rule, the higher the number, the more highs you’ll have. Pots with a 250k resistance are generally used with single coils due to their softer highs, and 500k pots are generally used with humbuckers due to their more present highs.
If you’re planning on buying a stock guitar, your components may matter little; however, for anyone considering a custom built guitar, you will again want to ask these important questions. Do you love the sound of whammy abuse, or would you rather put in a stop tailpiece for more vibration transfer? Is tuning stability a concern for you? How important is sustain to your playing? Alternative nuts and saddles may cost more, but if you value sustain, it may make sense to spend the extra cash.
To sum up points 3-6, choosing a guitar is a matter of feel and tonal nuance – there are now tons of options available for tone hunters. Prior to buying a guitar, determining the kind of pickups, body style, woods and components you need will make your search more manageable. If the guitar does what you want, it’s because of the choices you make. Ask yourself exactly what you want from your guitar.