Weighing In on Body Density
To chamber or not to chamber—and is a heavier guitar really heavier?
If you’ve been a guitarist for less than 20 years, you probably don’t remember when players weren’t concerned about instrument weight. That is to say that nobody put their guitar on a scale or cited lightness as a selling point. In fact, it was often stated that heavier guitars sounded, for lack of a better term, heavier.
The classic-rock mainstay Les Paul is no bantamweight, and it was widely thought that its considerable mass was at the center of the legendary rock tone it produced. Telecasters, Strats, and various off-brand solidbodies were generally lighter, and brighter, which probably helped prop up this urban legend. The fact that most of those guitars often had single-coil pickups didn’t seem to enter into the discussions at the time. Anecdotally, some of the best-sounding guitars I’ve ever played were north of 10 pounds.
Body mass index. So, what is it about light weight that makes it a bullet point for guitarists and builders alike? I bring this up because I got so many emails asking how much my guitars weighed that I just cut to the chase and put the numbers on my website. Apparently, there is a sweet spot in guitarists’ imaginations, right around 8 1/4 pounds. My limited research reveals this may be traced back to Les Paul bulletin boards, where discussions about vintage ’burst tones festered in the early 2000s. Still, 20 years on we continue to see weight as an important talking point among guitarists.
Trimming down and toning up. Although weight-relieving techniques had been in use by Gibson on their Les Paul models since about 1983, it seems to have begun as a way to combat weight brought on by extremely dense mahogany that was being imported at the time. In fact, the nine interior-weight-saving holes employed by Gibson in their Les Paul model weren’t even revealed publicly. After all, they were hidden from sight. Apparently, after some enterprising souls began to X-ray their guitars, Gibson came clean, and, in fact, dealers started touting these measures as a benefit for sound as much as for weight. Today, Gibson offers a number of variations on the “swiss-cheese” body internals, including the Modern and Ultra-Modern versions of interior excavation. There is little doubt that CNC-routing machinery has made this possible, without adding too much labor cost.
Enter the chamber. Another step in the trajectory of lightened solidbody instruments is the chambered guitar. Chambering has become a catch-all phrase for almost any guitar with some of its internals scooped out. In recent years, tone fiends have become enamored with chambered instruments for their lively response, as well as their lighter weight. I’m a fan of these instruments, and so is my chiropractor. In fact, some so-called solidbody instruments from Danelectro and Harmony (Kay and Supro included) had been partly hollow since the 1950s. Rickenbacker guitars have always been considered semi-hollowbodies, but are actually chambered solidbodies.
Of course, the ES-335 and similar guitars straddle the line between solidbodies and chambered. It’s worth mentioning that Fender’s 1967 Telecaster, nicknamed the “Smuggler Tele,” (Photo 1) featured three large weight-reduction chambers beneath the pickguard. The arguments from the “pickups are everything” crowd will go on forever, but I enjoy the timbre of many chambered guitars, although I wouldn’t say they are that useful for metal music styles. I hear a springiness to these instruments that translates to amplified clean sounds and encourages dynamic playing, most of all.
Swampy sounds. When it comes to making lighter-weight solidbody guitars, the premier material is swamp ash. Fast-growing Southern ash can yield a lighter weight than many of the other traditional woods used for guitar building. Many of the most cherished vintage Stratocasters were made of lightweight ash, and their sound has spurred speculation that the material is a tuneful wood.
Unfortunately, the emerald ash borer (EAB) insect is threatening domestic ash supply to the point that Fender and others have discontinued the use of ash on some models. As such, many guitar builders are experimenting with alternatives that are lightweight and resonate well. African mahogany is gaining popularity as a suitable guitar wood both in sound and appearance.
The back story. Besides the sonic differences between heavy and light guitars, the debate may really center around comfort. Although the argument for enhanced tone can be convincingly made, there is also concern for the physical pain induced by heavy instruments. A huge generation of rock guitarists in their arthritic years may be trading in their weighty guitars for a heavy dose of relief. A lot of young, fit musicians don’t want to play a 90-minute set with a 12-pound guitar either, even if it does sound great. Either way, it seems that the question of guitar weight will be sustained for a long time to come.