An X-braced top
being prepared for
glue-up. While a
number of factors
determine how a
guitar will sound the
way it does, both
the “what” and “how
much” continue to
be up for debate.
In this month’s column, I’m going to talk
a bit about some of the ideas and practices
that hold a special place in our hearts
and minds as acoustic guitar enthusiasts.
I am not trying to debunk myths here. In
fact, when it comes to certain ideas that
custom builders adhere to, I’m more of an
agnostic. There are some notions about how
certain things affect guitar tone and volume
that, I think, we just don’t know for sure.
Here at the shop, we often say that some
of our customers want to believe their guitars
are made by tree-dwelling elves. Endowed
with special powers, the elves simply lay their
hands on a piece of wood and make the
guitar come out just the way the customers
hear it in their head. The romantic notion of
guitar building is certainly an important element
for some of our customers. Of course,
there are some things that can be adjusted
on an individual instrument to acquire a certain
tone, but honestly, some things are left
completely to the whims of Mother Nature.
I like it that way because it maintains a mystique
that makes our work more interesting.
Some things don’t seem to make
a difference to me.
Neck attachment. I have not seen evidence
that any one method of attaching a neck
makes for different tone or volume properties
than another. As long as there is a good
joint with solid wood-to-wood contact, the
vibrations can be properly transferred and
will allow the best tonal transmittance. It’s
a matter of some neck-attachment systems
being more serviceable than others, with
their counterparts offering more in the way
of old-world appeal. Choose the one that
works for you, but don’t expect to be able
to hear a difference that can be proven.
Hide glue. I know this is heresy, but I
don’t hear it. To me, saying that hide-glued
braces transmit vibration better is, in essence,
saying that braces glued with Titebond are
loose. The truth is that if braces are not
glued well enough (with whatever glue) to
pull fibers from the top if removed, then the
guitar won’t hold up to string tension and
will come apart. That being said, we will use
hide glue for the top braces if a customer
asks. I don’t see hide glue as being inferior in
any way—otherwise we wouldn’t do it. But
having personally strung up identical guitars
side-by-side that were glued both ways, I
honestly don’t hear any difference.
Removal of the “tongue brace.” This
is a bit dangerous in my opinion. There is
very little of the top’s important vibration
going on in this area, but there is a lot of
stress caused by the string tension here.
Leave out the upper transverse graft at your
own peril. This is something I don’t recommend,
and something we simply won’t do.
You know what I’m talking about if you’ve
ever seen an old guitar with a failed top
because it was built in the days before the
graft was added. Trust the wisdom of the
sage builders who put it there decades ago.
Bridge pin material. I’m not saying that
it doesn’t change tone at all, but I think there
are so many other sonic variables that it’s hard
to really be sure about something so subtle.
Some things do seem to
make a difference.
Bridge plate material. For best possible
vibration transfer and being able to hold up
under string tension, we prefer hard rosewood
for the bridge plate. Because the top serves as
the “cone” of your speaker, the main objective
here is getting the vibrations transferred to it.
Top brace material. The top braces
need to be extremely strong and light to
transfer energy to the top. And your braces
must be quartersawn and of excellent wood
structure to achieve this. If your custom
builder uses 10,000-year-old mammoth
ivory for bridge pins, but puts in inferior,
non-quartered top bracing, you probably
won’t get the tone you’re after.
Strings and picks. If you’re like me
and use a flatpick, you can make a lot of
difference in your tone by trying out different
ones. I recently did a “taste test”
with six different pick materials and found
that it made a huge difference in my tone.
Different strings … same deal. If you have
a guitar at home that’s just not doing it for
you, try out a variety of different strings
and picks before giving up on it.
Most important of all … your playing. If
you’ve ever listened to the album Tone Poems
by David Grisman and Tony Rice, you know
that 90 percent of good tone comes from the
player. Rice plays a variety of old and new
instruments on the record and gets killer tone
out of all of them. As players, we can affect our
tone most when we work on our technique.
When I find myself getting lazy and let my
picking-hand position or pick angle go awry,
it kills my tone. With that said, keep in mind
that it’s not all in the picking hand. Good
fretting-hand technique is just as important
for good tone, and concentration and practice
on both makes a world of difference.
Remember that the tree elves can’t always
make our guitars sound better. Some of that
work has to come from us. Keep pickin’!
Mark Dalton is a founding partner of Huss & Dalton
Guitar Company. When not building guitars, Mark and
his wife, Kimberly, tend to the draft horses and mules
that inhabit their farm in the Piedmont region of Virginia.