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An X-braced top being prepared for glue-up. While a number of factors determine how a particular acoustic 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.