SCIENCE OF SOUND: Understanding the Wood Impact on Guitar Tone

Alright, we’re doing it, we’re jumping into the tonewood debate. In the off-chance you’ve been spared from the thousands of internet pages and hours of video of people arguing online about this subject, there’s a hot debate in the guitar world about the effect of wood on an electric guitars’ sound. 

“Tonewood” as it’s known in the industry is the term used to classify specific wood species that are used in the making of musical instruments. There’s not a hard rule as to what constitutes a tonewood, but it generally refers to the tried and true woods; mahogany, maple, spruce, cedar, ash, and alder. 

An acoustic guitar is basically a speaker cabinet; the back and sides are your speaker box and the soundboard is the speaker membrane. There’s no debate that the speaker membrane material (or in this case, acoustic guitar soundboard material) plays an important role in the overall tone of the acoustic guitar. The strings vibrate the saddle, the saddle vibrates into the bridge, and the bridge in turn drives the soundboard to create the vibrations that we hear as the acoustic guitar sound (remember, sound is just wavy air). The back and sides of the acoustic guitar will also change the way in which the air vibrates inside the body and in turn, what you hear coming out of the soundhole.

Now, for some reason the internet is starting to convince itself that on an electric guitar, the ONLY thing that matters is the string length and the pickups. 

For those that don’t know, a typical guitar pickup is an electromagnet. Because the strings are metal, when they are plucked they vibrate within the magnetic field of the pickup. This creates an electronic signal which runs through your components and eventually outputs to your amplifier.

When you pluck your high E string (or any string for that matter) even when tuned to perfect pitch, you aren’t just hearing one tone. The sound your guitar is producing is made up of hundreds of other tones that eventually make up the sound you’re hearing. This is how you can tell the difference between an E played on a guitar versus a piano. All of the components on your electric guitar that interact with the string are going to affect the way in which the string vibrates; and in turn, the way it changes the magnetic field of the pickup. Some of these will be larger factors than others but they all play a role in the overall sound and resonance of the guitar.   

Much like an acoustic guitar, an electric guitar string is going to vibrate into the bridge which in turn vibrates into the body. Don’t believe me? Set your guitar down on a table and pluck any string. On most well-built guitars, you’ll be able to feel the vibration of the strings in the table. This is the vibration of the string passing through the body and into the table. In turn, the wood vibrations then feed back to the vibration of the string and is going to shape the resonance and sustain of that string.

I believe that the internet has robbed us of all nuance in debate. It’s very easy to speak (or in this case, comment) in sound bites and “gotcha” quotes. The debate about tonewood, nut material, bridge material, etc. doesn’t come down to a yes or no answer, but I believe we could actually find common ground if the debate is framed around “to what degree do these things affect tone”. The answer is going to vary for everyone. If you have a super resonant guitar but you play with it held up against your beer gut, some of that resonance is going to end up absorbed by you. There’s a reason classical players hold their guitars the way they do. 

This is my favorite way to explain it:

Like most people, I love steak. Not all steaks are created equal. You can get a high-end cut or a lesser quality cut and if you cook them the same way, they still taste like a steak. Kind of like how you can get a high-end guitar or an entry level guitar and they’ll still sound like an electric guitar.  A lower-end cut of meat seasoned with just salt can be a good meal, a great meal even when the chef knows how to cook. However, if you pick out a higher-end cut of steak and season it with different spices and seasonings, then cook it the same way as you did the other, the flavor profile on the fully seasoned piece is going to be more diverse and full.  You may not be able to pick out each individual flavor but the overall taste is that much better. It’s up to the consumer whether the extra flavor is worth the additional cost.

In the same way, a guitar with decent pickups and a plywood body can still make a good guitar. It just won’t have the full nuance of sound that you will find in a guitar that uses great materials. Whether that flavor difference is worth the extra cost is up to you. Another thing to keep in mind in this scenario is how you like to enjoy your steak. If you love to dip it in ketchup (model amps and saturate the sound with tons of effects), then the seasoning and preparation won’t matter as much. But if you’re looking to enjoy just the guitar for what it is and has to offer then the materials that are used play a larger role. 

So in conclusion, I believe the answer in the tonewood debate is somewhere in the middle. The type of wood will change how a guitar resonates, and I think a medium-level guitarist could identify a change in wood in a blind test with all other things being equal. A guitar should be more than the sum of its parts. To build a great guitar, all of the big AND little components should work together in unison to help the string resonate the best it possibly can. When a guitar is able to resonate freely and to its fullest potential It’s a wonderful thing.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Jim H.

    I have an observation and I am wondering if I’m close to the cause or reason for my problem. My situation: I play a relatively (actually pretty cheap) cheap acoustic guitar. I have noticed twice now that my clip on tuner basically stops working. I changed the battery and I still had the same problem. I changed strings and the problem with my turner immediately went away.
    Two months later I am again experiencing the same issue….My thoughts are such: It is NOT a string or turner issue, but the guitar material itself and lack of vibration throughout the guitar. As the strings used and aged overtime they do not deliver the tone as well because of the poor quality of the tone wood. Am I correct in my assumption?
    Thank you and I look forward to your response.

    1. Conner Baldacci

      This could be. The way these types of tuners work is they pick up on the vibration of the string through the neck of the guitar. If there’s less vibration there’s less for the tuner to pick up on.

      I would try your tuner on a different guitar to maybe help narrow down the issue. If your tuner works on another guitar then maybe there’s merit to the theory that the materials aren’t resonating enough to activate the tuner. This isn’t an issue I’ve ever encountered but i’d be interested to see if you come to any conclusion on it!

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