Do Tonewoods Matter for Electric Guitar?
Whenever two guitar nerds get together and compare notes on their favorite instruments the subject of tonewoods is sure to come up. Tonewoods are simply the woods used to build a guitar, and they are carefully chosen to get the sound the manufacturer wants. Certain wood species are considered desirable for necks, fingerboards, guitar bodies and tops.
Most guitar players have preferences and prejudices when it comes to woods, this writer included. I like mahogany-bodied guitars, and I like basswood. Alder is okay, but only for Strats and Telecasters. I like one-piece maple necks for Strats, and rosewood for everything else. My favorite tonewood combination is the Les Paul-style mahogany body with maple cap, mahogany neck and rosewood fingerboard.
Obviously, like many guitar players, I have come to prefer some woods over others based on sound. And so I am always a little stunned when some people tell me tonewoods don’t matter when it comes to electric guitars. They’ll say it’s more about electronics, pickups and everything between the strings and the amp. Wood matters not.
My response: Huh? I can clearly tell the difference between the warm resonance of mahogany and the crisp snap of alder. I’m always stunned when people tell me they can’t, and it happens enough that I have to wonder if I’ve been missing something for the past thirty years.
Do tonewoods matter for electric guitars? If you believe the guitar companies it certainly seems like they do. Is it all a marketing ploy? Have I been brainwashed, the victim of some kind of tonal propaganda sales pitch? Or is it possible, as it seems to me, that if you are around guitars long enough you can certainly tell the difference in sound?
In this article I intend to address these questions with as little bias as possible. I expect to fail. Here we go!
Acoustic vs Electric Guitar Tonewoods
While there is apparently room for debate when it comes to the woods used to build electric guitars, the subject of acoustic guitar tonewoods is much less murky. The sound and projection of an acoustic instrument is entirely dependent on its physical construction. Therefore, it is impossible to separate the physical materials used to build it from the sound that results. In other words, when it comes to acoustic guitars wood equals tone. Better wood means better tone. Crummy wood means weak tone.
Of course you can also build an acoustic guitar out of something besides wood. We'll get to that later.
Electric guitars, on the other hand, have all kinds of circuitry and electronics, and they have pickups. Guitar pickups are essentially magnets wrapped in wire. The pickups create a magnetic field, and when the strings vibrate they disrupt that field. This is translated into an electronic signal and sent to the amp. Therefore, some reason, the pickups and electronics, not the woods, are entirely responsible for shaping the sound the guitar.
For me there is one problem with that way of thinking. The vibrations captured by the pickups are created by not just the strings, but by the body of the guitar. Just like an acoustic guitar that amplifies string vibrations via the soundboard, the vibrations that turn into the electronic signal from a guitar pickup are created, in part, by the body of the guitar.
Therefore, if the body of the guitar impacts the vibration of the strings, and the body of the guitar is made of wood, it makes sense that the wood used to build an electric guitar would matter a great deal.
You can tell the difference by laying two different electric guitars on a flat surface, placing your hand on the bodies and strumming across the strings. A mahogany-body guitar will resonate much differently than an alder-body guitar, and both much differently than a basswood-body guitar. You can feel the difference, and that means the strings are going to vibrate differently as well.
And I feel like I’d have a solid chance of winning the debate at this point, if it weren’t for that guy who did that experiment.
That Guy Who Did That Experiment
Every now and then somebody brings up that guy who did a bunch of measured tests on a bunch of electric guitars and found that there was no difference in sound when it came to body size, shape or wood. To me this borders on crazy talk, so what really went on here?
I think that guy they usually mean was a LaTrobe University student who, back in 2012, did indeed conduct experiments with electric guitars to determine if there was any sound difference based on body style and wood. He used seven different guitars, and loaded them each with the exact same pickups and strings.
Using some fancy-schmancy academic research equipment he measured the frequencies of the notes produced. The result was that they were all pretty much identical.
A quick sweep of YouTube reveals a few more enterprising individuals who have have done similar quasi-scientific experiments, and gotten similar results. To some people this proves without a shadow of a doubt that tonewoods don’t matter a whit when it comes to the sound of the guitar. There can now be no debate!
Of course in reality it proves nothing, except that a few guys did some experiments and came up some interesting fodder for guitar message boards. If you are already on the “wood is just a marketing ploy” bandwagon this gives you some serious ammunition!
For the rest of us, it is certainly food for thought, and it is hard to argue with science. If you’ve been playing guitar a long time and you believe wood matters a lot, how can you reconcile your thoughts with these findings?
The Science of Sound
For me, here is the problem with anything that whittles the sound of a guitar down to controlled scientific measurements: It removes many of the variables that go into how we hear music, and produce music as guitar players.
These experiments, as well as my aforementioned example where I suggested laying different guitars down and strumming across them, don't really represent anything practical when it comes to guitar tone. In other words, that’s not how you play guitar, so it really doesn’t tell you much of anything about how the physical makeup of the guitar affects your sound.
When we play guitar there are so many variables to consider. Our hand strength when we fret a chord. Our dexterity in getting around the fingerboard. How we choke up on the pick. Strumming technique. A million other things.
In all of those ways we are physically interacting with the guitar, so of course the physical makeup of the guitar matters. The woods matter. The mass of the bridge matters. The nut matters. The way the neck is attached matters. The way the pickup is attached to guitar body matters. It all matters, and it all has a role in how you play and the sound you get.
If the wood and build of a guitar body didn't matter then we'd expect solid-body, semi-hollow and hollow-body guitars to sound very similar. Even if they are loaded with the same pickups, obviously that's not going to be true.
How about if you could slap a Gibson PAF humbucker on a Martin D-18 acoustic? If the sound starts and ends with the pickup the Martin should now sound like a Les Paul, right? Of course not!
If construction and wood didn't matter then pro guitarists would all buy $100 guitars and drop expensive pickups in them. Needless to say, there is good reason most don't do that.
These are things I know (believe?) to be true based on years around guitars. Not just me, but many, many guitar players. So do we abandon these thoughts now that the scientific evidence is to the contrary? I don't know that I can. I just know what my ears and hands tell me.
Do Tonewoods Matter?
I’ve said a lot of stuff here, and I don't know that I'm any closer to convincing myself or anyone else of anything. I guess for me it basically comes down to this: One thing I’ve learned over thirty years of playing guitar is to trust my ears. In this case not only my ears but my hands as well. To me different tonewoods sound and feel different, and that definitely translates through the amp.
I am a firm believer that much of your tone is in your hands. So, really the tonewood thing comes down to one of those “all things being equal” issues. You’re still going to sound like you no matter what guitar you play. Playing a more expensive guitar made from allegedly better stuff isn't going to make you sound better than you really are. But if you play a guitar made from better stuff will you sound like a better version of you? I think so, or at least I think I do.
On the other hand, what about those acoustic guitars made out of something that's not wood? I started this article talking about how acoustic instruments are dependent on woods for their sound, and making a comparison to electrics. But Rainsong, for example, is a guitar company that makes their acoustic instruments out of carbon fiber, not wood, and they sound fantastic. So, must guitars be made of wood, or do they just need to be made of something that has good acoustic properties?
This concludes my examination of the electric guitar tonewood debate. I suppose I didn’t solve much of anything, but perhaps I did clarify some things in my own mind. As much as I think about it, I don't know how I can get my brain around the idea that woods don't matter in the build of electric guitars. To me they absolutely do.
So what about you? Do you think the wood your guitar is made from makes a difference? Do you think it is all a bunch of hype? Did this article change your mind either way?
Maybe the best answer is to simply not care that there is a debate at all and just play what you like.