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“Tonewood” Doesn’t Matter. Wood Does

“Tonewood” Doesn’t Matter. Wood Does

In the first installment of his new PG column, master guitar builder Paul Reed Smith explores the truth and mythologies about the wood our instruments are made of, and why the neck and body of your guitar is also its sonic soul.

Understanding that a landslide in a presidential election is 55 percent in one direction, I do not believe that what follows will get anywhere near 100-percent agreement. But, let’s go through the debate again. I don’t really use the term "tonewood." Because the internet uses the word, the word is used, but at PRS we just talk about wood, its beauty, and its ability to ring.


By definition, I guess tonewood is a wood used on musical instruments that helps give the instrument a “good tone.” Certain woods are classified as tonewoods and some are not. For me, the species is less relevant than the qualities of the wood. Those qualities are: length of time the wood rings when you hit it, the amount of water remaining in the wood after it is dried, the resins in the wood being crystallized/not gooey, the ability to have strength as necessary (i.e., a fretboard needs to be resistant to sweating, whereas back wood doesn’t), its ability to not warp over time, and its aesthetic appeal. A magic guitar can be made of many different types of wood, but those woods need to have certain qualities and need to be handled correctly throughout the manufacturing process. So to me, woods matter.

“Tonewood,” it follows, is not about making a “better-sounding” guitar. It is about making guitars that sound different and musical because of the woods chosen in the build.

When I started making guitars, I could trust the research of the guitar-making masters that came before me and use the woods they had decided on, or I could experiment with all the available woods. My decision was to trust what the masters had used because I didn’t have the time to experiment. Over the last 15 years, we have been able to experiment with woods that are not considered vintage tonewoods. I’ll give you an example. Vintage guitar fretboards are typically made of rosewood, ebony, or maple. There are several species within those wood types that work, but generally, the ones that were used were Brazilian rosewood, East Indian rosewood, African ebony, and sugar maple. The guitar I am currently playing has a ziricote fretboard and a chaltecoco neck. Chaltecoco is used for fence posts in Guatemala, and somehow that has given it a low-class reputation on the internet. To me, it makes fantastic electric guitar necks: It is strong, straight, and rings for a long time once dried. I used that guitar last night, and I’ll use it tonight. It’s got a beautiful sound.

“While the tonal differences in electric guitars start acoustically, they carry through when the guitar is plugged in.”

I also had a guitar with the exact same specs but a mahogany neck—same pickups, same parts—and both guitars sound different. The mahogany-neck guitar has a different kind of midrange, which I really like. I gave the instrument to Al Di Meola the other day, and he loved it. It was very musical in its tone. I’ll also add that while the tonal differences in electric guitars start acoustically, they carry through when the guitar is plugged in. Pickups are microphones, amplifying the acoustic tone of the guitar. In addition, pickups have a frequency response, a harmonic content, an attack and sustain characteristic, and an amplitude all their own.

To me, if wood doesn’t matter, then logically it follows that the material the bridge is made of doesn’t matter and the material the nut is made of doesn’t matter. What I believe, because of scores of experiences, is that if we make two identical guitars out of different woods, the guitars will sound different from each other. Then, if we exchange all the parts from guitar A and guitar B—the tuning pegs, nut, electronics, bridge—they would sound almost the same as they did, and still different from each other.

Let me tell a story. Once, I was at the Guitar Summit show in Frankfurt, and I took two Cremona violin makers who were at the show to my wood supplier to pick out curly maple back wood. They both picked about 35 backs out of what was in my friend’s booth. When they were done, the supplier looked at me with his jaw dropped, and said, “Oh my god.” I said, “What?” He said, “Look—all the backs they picked have the same number on them.” I said, “What does that mean?” He said, “The ones they picked all came from the same tree!” What they had been doing when they went through the pieces of wood was not to look at the curl, but to tap on them to find out how long they rang and whether they had a good note. They picked the backs that had the longest ring time. I learned something that day.

Bottom line, to throw away one of the main ingredients for making instruments because the internet says “it doesn’t make any difference” is, to me, like saying dead strings, rubber bridges, soft finishes, and wet woods make no difference. With all due respect, I don’t buy it.

On her new record with her trio, Molly Miller executes a live-feeling work of structural harmony that mirrors her busy life.

Photo by Anna Azarov

The accomplished guitarist and teacher’s new record, like her lifestyle, is taut and exciting—no more, and certainly no less, than is needed.

Molly Miller, a self-described “high-energy person,” is fully charged by the crack of dawn. When Ischeduled our interview, she opted for the very first slot available—8:30 a.m.—just before her 10 a.m. tennis match!

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John Mayall in the late ’80s, in a promo shot for his Island Records years. During his carreer, he also recorded for the Decca (with the early Bluesbreakers lineups), Polydor, ABC, DJM, Silvertone, Eagle, and Forty Below labels.

He was dubbed “the father of British blues,” but Mayall’s influence was worldwide, and he nurtured some of the finest guitarists in the genre, including Eric Clapton, Peter Green, Mick Taylor, Harvey Mandel, Coco Montoya, and Walter Trout. Mayall died at his California home on Monday, at age 90.

John Mayall’s career spanned nearly 70 years, but it only took his first four albums to cement his legendary status. With his initial releases with his band the Bluesbreakers—1966’s Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton; ’67’s A Hard Road, with Peter Green on guitar; plus the same year’s Crusade, which showcased Mick Taylor—and his solo debut The Blues Alone, also from 1967, Mayall introduced an international audience of young white fans to the decidedly Black and decidedly American genre called blues. In the subsequent decades, he maintained an active touring and recording schedule until March 26, 2022, when he played his last gig at age 87. It was reported that he died peacefully, on Monday, in his California home, at 90.

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Featuring enhanced amp models, a built-in creative looper, AI-powered tone exploration, and smart jam features.

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Donner andThird Man Hardware’s $99, three-in-one analog distortion, phaser, and delay honors Jack White’s budget gear roots.

Compact. Light. Fun. Dirt cheap. Many cool sounds that make this pedal a viable option for traveling pros.

Phaser level control not much use below 1 o’clock. Repeats are bright for an analog delay. Greater range of low-gain sounds would be nice.

$99

Donner X Third Man Triple Threat
thirdmanrecords.com

3.5
4.5
4.5
5

A huge part of the early White Stripes mystique, sound, ethos, and identity was tied to guitars and amps that, at the time, you could luck into for cheap at a garage sale. These days, it’s harder to score a Crestwood Astral II, or Silvertone Twin Twelve with a part-time job in the ice cream shop. Back in the late ’90s, though, they were a source of raw, nasty sounds for less than a new, more generic guitar or amp.

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