The Great Electric Guitar Tone Wood Debate: Solved!
What Great Electric Guitar Tonewood Debate?
A great debate has raged hot and heavy throughout the guitar playing world since George Beauchamp and Rickenbacker invented the electric guitar. It's a debate that's ignited feuds, torn apart families and has surely broken some hearts and continues to this day. What debate drawn from the innocent depths of guitardom could illicit such a foul and unexpected response?
The debate regarding the importance of an electric guitar's wood, of course. What did you think it was? Politics? Pfff...come on now, that's child's play in comparison.
The war over an electric guitar's tonewood, like the Princess Bride sword fight, has ranged all over leaving a wake of havoc whenever it's brought into a conversation. It's brought a few too many guitarists to the brink of insanity certainly. Regardless, everyone has an opinion about it and when the Internet comes into play, the world weighs in too.
The answer to quell the argument is actually quite simple actually. When a string is struck...
Whoa. Wait. A little background information is in order...
It's About Wood? Seriously?!
Yes. It's about the wood or, more accurately, which tonewood is used to make the guitar actually and if that wood actually affects the guitars sound.
Tonewood is a dense specialty wood coveted for it's tonal resonance and ability to reverberate. It's used in a variety of instruments for those properties to amplify and elevate the sound produced by the instrument.
These special qualities have been used for centuries to create and build various instruments with differing levels of success. Some tone woods do it better than others so, are often more vigorously sought out and because of their growing rarity (due, primarily, to over harvesting) also vary in expense, the rarest most hard to find being the most expensive, of course.
So, The Tonewood Is Important?
Depending on the instrument, goodness yes. The tonal qualities between an acoustic guitar made with fine tonewoods, for instance, compared to one composed of cheaper ply woods are readily evident.
The finer woods hold a notes sustain (a notes ability to carry on after being played) longer and richer than cheaper woods and will augment the note with richer, sometimes deeper overtones and character.
The same is true for any acoustic instrument constructed from a wood. According to some musicians and experts, instruments constructed from the same tonewood, taken from the same tree will vary in their tonal character or voice, despite being from the same origin. It's very important, yes.
Les Paul's "Log" Story
Ah, So, It's Important For Electric Guitar Too, End Of Story, Right?
Well, that is the crux of the argument and it would seem to play out that way. Though, when it comes to electric guitars, more often than not, nothing is quite what it seems.
The argument regarding electric guitar tonewood and it's importance goes back a long, long way. It's confusing too. There is a reason for that and that reason is ingrained in electric guitar history.
Way back, when guitar was used as a backing instrument for live bands, it was often relegated to little more than rhythm and filler. Because it was acoustic it's meager sounds were hard to hear.
It's place in the band was coloring the sound and give texture to the arrangements and little more. Not from lack of trying, of course, but, it was simply a limited instrument, sonically.
Then, as the most popular version goes, a young, jack of all trades guitarist named Les Paul got tired of all that. So, he set out to create a guitar that could be heard just as much as the louder instruments. He fiddled with a lot of electronic means to boost his sound. Some worked better than others. His piece de resistance at the time would come to be known as "The Log". It looked like what you see up there on the left:
Basically, as Les Paul tells it, it's a railroad tie with a "pickup" underneath the strings and two "wings" glued on the side, so it would look more like the guitars seen at the time. It was in a bid to avoid being laughed at. Who could blame him, right? Nobody wants to be seen a big stick of wood with strings on it.
Sorry Electric Celloists
Okay, He Made The Log, What's That Have To Do With Anything?
It has everything to do with it. Namely because of the point, Les Paul himself, drove home. He added those "wings" to make it look like a traditional guitar. A traditional acoustic guitar.
Les knew that the best way to gain acceptance for his electric guitar, was to "ease in" with acoustic looks. It gave the illusion of consistency, despite it being anything but. It's right there, that the beginning of the electric guitar tonewood debate started.
Guitarists born and raised on acoustic guitars understood that tonewood played a key role in the sound of an instrument. The importance of good tonewood was understood by lots of musicians playing acoustic guitars.
So, when this newfangled electri-whosit made it's way into a big band orchestra, naturally they assumed the same thing. Why wouldn't they? Looks like a duck, quacks like a duck...it must act the same as a non-electric guitar.
Which is true, of course.
They're Right! There You Have It. Solved!
Well...they're right,...up until they're wrong. It's strung the same, fundamentally played the same and depending on design, look the same, the way in which the sound is produced, however, isn't. That's were things are drastically different.
Acoustics use string vibration and the echoes of those vibrations to produce their sounds, electric guitars use something entirely different; magnets and magnetic fields, to be exact.
An electric guitar uses something called a pickup to translate the vibration of a metallic guitar string into a signal, which is then turned into sound by an amplifier. Actually, this guy explains it a lot better:
Exactly, magnets. A pickup's magnetic field is disrupted, creating a signal that runs from it and then, basically straight out to the amp. There in lies the solution, it's path from the vibrating string to the amp is a pretty straight forward process.
Strings are strummed, directly above the pick ups. Strings effect the pickups with magnetic field, then, more or less, straight out to the amp to make the sound. The wood never comes into play and there you have it.
Wait, What?! Important?! Not?! So Confusing.
It depends on what you call important. Does an electric guitar's tonewood affect the tone? No. Sorry. When the thing capturing the sound is directly under the thing generating the sound and, it makes no sense for the wood, which vibrates in a secondary fashion, to have any effect on a tone that has already left the guitar. Think of it in layers, like this:
1. Strummed string/strings (vibrating string)
2. Pickups convert strummed strings/string into an electronic signal (translating the disturbance to their magnetic fields)
3. Takes it to the wires (they carry the signal away from the pickups and out of the guitar)
4. To the cord (cord connecting guitar to amp carries signal to amp)
5. Out The Amp (amp converts the signal to an audible sound and pumps it out of the speaker)
In that entire process, the wood never comes into play. Sorry, purists.
The grand ol' debate has been studied and argued from all sides, up to and including a physicist performing a two month study. A study which demonstrates, very convincingly, tonewoods importance to be irrelevant. Still, the debate persists despite logic, scientific study or even the history of guitar building itself.
While it's true that tonewood is ridiculously important in constructing an acoustic, it's simply not when putting together an electric. Definite proof is in the design of each instrument respectively. Acoustic guitar design hasn't changed much during it's, roughly, 5000 year existence on planet Earth:
Looks About The Same.
That it does, indeed. Acoustic design has been refined to reflect the best possible usage of materials and shape to get the most productive sounds and tones and, as you can see, it's pretty consistent. Wood is the predominant role player in an acoustic's construction, because it directly affects the sound. Only the best, resonant tonewoods would do and they were used to the hilt to make a good sounding instrument as the sound partially relies on it.
The same does not hold true for electric guitars, as you can see, you can make those from just about anything.
A Cinder Block Electric Guitar
An All Aluminum Electric Guitar
Or...Hardly Any Material At All
So, Tone Wood, Not A Big Deal, Eh?
It would seem not. There are and will always be detractors however. The debate will assuredly go on for as long as electric guitars exist. Hopefully, that is for a very long time.
Regardless of what side anyone is on, when it comes to the tonewood debate, tonewood's relevancy is just a small part of a bigger discussion. Simply talking about guitar, sparks interest in guitar. This is and will always be a good thing. Any pursuit that expands one's creative and mental abilities can be regarded, in most cases, as a grand and noble thing. So, in arguing about tone wood, it's fanatical sides raging against each other, interest in the instrument they're picking apart will inevitably grow.
So, keep debating!