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The Great Electric Guitar Tone Wood Debate: Solved!

Updated on November 12, 2015
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Elton graduated from Hardknocks Prep and has been writing his way out of a paper bag for years.

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...

Pictured: What all the arguing is about.
Pictured: What all the arguing is about.

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.

This is Les Paul holding "The Log"
This is Les Paul holding "The Log"

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

These can be a little confusing.
These can be a little confusing.

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 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:

Okay...magnets. And?

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.

Prove it!

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:

Believed to be one of, if not, the oldest guitar in the world. Created sometime around 1590.
Believed to be one of, if not, the oldest guitar in the world. Created sometime around 1590.

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.

There is hardly anything there at all.
There is hardly anything there at all.

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!

Is Tonewood important?

What IS The Right Answer?

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    • profile image

      Sylvain Draps 19 months ago

      In french and in english :

      Caractérisation vibratoire et acoustique des instruments à cordes - Application à l'aide à la facture instrumentale


      Vibro-acoustique des guitares électriques


    • abyssinal profile image

      Elton Edgar 17 months ago from Pennsylvania

      I'm not sure what you're trying to say here. While it is true that the vibrations of the strings decay within the wood of the guitar, it's after the signal has already left the guitar.

      The initial disturbance of magnetic field above the pickups and it's subsequent signal has already left the guitar before any decay can effect the originally generated signal.

      It's like saying the wood handle of a hammer effects the tone generated by hitting a nail. The nails been hit, vibrations through the wood afterward are pointless. Unless the guitar itself is metal and hollow, you would hear sound generated acoustically, as you would with any acoustic instrument. An electric guitar is not an acoustic instrument in a classical sense.

      What I get from the study is that a strings vibrations decay in the wood body. That's not the argument. It's whether that decay colors the signal going to an amp, which it doesn't.

    • profile image

      Dan 16 months ago

      The string is not the only thing that vibrates. The guitar itself vibrates, and how it vibrates depends on the tone wood. The pickups are attached to the guitar and therefore they go along for the ride. In other words they vibrate under the strings which adds to the disruption of the magnetic field. So the environment the pick ups are placed in affects the tone. A good example is Neil Young's Old Blackie, which has an aluminum pick guard on it which gives it a unique.

    • abyssinal profile image

      Elton Edgar 16 months ago from Pennsylvania

      The vibration of the wood isn't in question at all. It does indeed vibrate and if you put a microphone up to the wood of the guitar as it's being played (and if you can manage the feedback) you'll no doubt hear the tonal qualities of the wood. You can knock on it to hear that. It's like knocking on a door. ANY wooden door or any processed wood for that matter.

      It's whether that wood would in anyway shape the signal of a pickups electromagnets field and signal generation...that has already left a guitar long before any wood vibration starts.

      No. It doesn't.

      If that were true, you'd have to take into consideration everything that vibrates after the string is stuck (the strap, the plastic of the knobs). You vibrate as well. So in essence, what you're saying is...the contents of your stomach affects the signal going to the amp. Hell, what wood your floors are made of affects the tonal quality. Maybe if you hit it hard enough you can get the ceiling involved.

    • profile image

      JustAGuy 13 months ago

      Well technically, the floor and the ceiling do shape the tone, post amp. Room acoustics are a major factor in the quality of sound recordings. Also Dan isn't wrong. Each thing that vibrates that eventually moves the pickup (while a note is being played or sustained) will disrupt the magnetic field. In physics there is hardly ever an instance where things have absolutely zero effect on the things around them. It comes down to the significance of the effect. For example, if something moves the pickup .05 picometers six times a second, then it likely has a negligible effect on the sound (i.e. our ears are not capable of detecting any difference. There does come a point where other variables do begin to change the characteristics of the sound. Additionally, as a string is struck, due to the rigidity (or slight lack thereof) the neck and body will vibrate, changing the distance between bridge and nut. The shortening and lengthening of this distance will then change the vibration frequency of the string. This can result in the dampening of vibration or potentially slight amplification of frequencies or overtones. Overall, it is impossible to say with absolute certainty that something does not have an effect on something else in this case. The truth, however, is that the degree to which the change is noticeable may not be detectable by the human ear.

    • profile image

      Michael 10 months ago

      I don't really have a strong opinion on how wood affects the tone of an electric guitar. However, i do want to challenge the premise that the properties of the guitar cannot have an effect after the signal has "left the guitar".

      For one thing, the signal hasn't really "left the guitar" until the strings stop vibrating completely. In electrical sense, you can only say it's "left the guitar" for a given window of time. It's not unrealistic to think that what's happening ongoing in the guitar can affect the future signal (the pickups don't simply pickup an instantaneous signal then stop abruptly)

      Anything that affects how the strings vibrate will affect what the pickups capture. For example, if the guitar resonates more strongly at a particular frequency that can reenforce the vibration of the strings at that frequency which in turn will affect what the pickup picks up.

      If may well be that for solidbody guitars, the affects of different woods are negligible, but what about solidbody vs hollowbody? The "sound has already left the guitar" paradigm would seem to imply that these should sound identical, yet I strongly suspect that isn't the case.

    • abyssinal profile image

      Elton Edgar 10 months ago from Pennsylvania

      [JustAGuy] What you say is true when recording...a guitar amplifier. Mic placement can vary according to preference and tonal quality. The same holds true for any kind of mic'd recording. Everything else you describe are after effects of a string vibrating...which occur after the vibrating over the pickups has occurred.

    • profile image

      Butch 7 months ago

      I have made over a hundred solid body electric guitars by hand. I can use the same pickup in a plexiglas, or a wood body, utilizing a wood neck, plugged directly into a tube amp, and they do sound different. There is no way anyone can deny me my personal experience on this. I think whats going on here is the new 3D printer body's that are being pushed for their capability of unusual designs. Nothing wrong there, as i have some of my own designs i am going to try as well. I have a contact that makes aluminum guitars, and they also produce a different sound.

    • abyssinal profile image

      Elton Edgar 6 months ago from Pennsylvania


      "There is no way anyone can deny me my personal experience on this."

      That's true. The same can be said about seeing a ghost or angels, but it doesn't make it reality.

      People that "hear a difference" are usually pre-conditioned to hear one. If you were removed from the guitars presence completely and only given anonymous samples of their tone, it's highly doubtful you'd identify, match or even come close to choosing 100% of the guitars tones correctly. Especially based on some imagined effect the wood is having on the sound.

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      Shj 5 months ago

      For whom who studies the physics of vibrations, when it comes to the study of vibrating masses there is diagram of natural frequency interaction where on the basis of the natural fraquency of adjecant masses they intract diffrently in terms of resonance responce which is a non linear effect within the vibrating masses who vibrates closely. Thus when it comes to diffrent woods, of course the difference in density and other geometricl properties influenes the way the strings vibrates to start with. So to be scientifically accurate, although the vibration of the string passes through the magnetic pick ups but the initial vibrations have already been affected by the interaction between the natural frequency of the constructing wood.


    • profile image

      Shj 5 months ago

      Sorry had to recheck the grammer and resend the message! Not english ;)

      For the expert who studies the physics of vibrations, when it comes to the study of vibrating masses there is an analytical diagram of natural frequency interaction which shows that on the basis of the natural fraquency of adjecant masses they interact differently in terms of the corresponding resonance response due to a non linear effect within the vibrating masses who vibrates closely.

      Thus when it comes to different types of woods with various me mechanical properties such as density and geometry, these should influence the way the strings vibrate to start with. So to be scientifically accurate, although the vibration of the string passes through the magnetic pick ups but the initial vibrations have already been affected by the interaction between the natural frequency of the constructing wood of an electric guitar.


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      peterpan 5 weeks ago

      elton edgar?

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