I'm a guitarist and bassist with over 35 years of experience as a musician.
Electric Guitar Sound
Some electric guitars sound good, and some simply don't. What makes the difference between a good guitar and a bad guitar, and what is it that sets really great guitars apart from the rest?
I've read a few posts and comments recently that have me thinking about this. I know which qualities of a guitar that I have always found important, but what surprises me is how divided the guitar community is when it comes to the variables that influence the sound of a guitar.
On one hand, you have guitarists who believe every subtle nuance of a guitar impacts its sound. Way in the other direction, you have guitarists who insist nothing matters but the player. So who is right, who is wrong, and is it really that simple?
What makes an electric guitar sound the way it does, and how do the top guitar companies in the world consistently put together quality instruments?
In this article I'll tell you what I think makes or breaks the sound of an electric guitar. But I also want to know what you think. I'm going to present several different variables, and you can let me know how important they are in determining the overall sound quality of an instrument.
Reading through the results might surprise you!
The Tonewood Debate: Do Tonewoods Matter?
Guitar companies choose different tonewood combinations when planning their guitars, and the hope is that these decisions result in a good-sounding instrument. Certain tonewood combinations like the mahogany/maple of the Les Paul or the alder/maple of the Strat have become industry standards.
In my opinion, quality tonewoods are at the top of the list when it comes to the factors influencing the sound of an electric guitar. The wood is the foundation on which everything else rests. Like the chassis of a race car, if the wood isn't strong and solid the rest of the machine suffers.
Maybe my metaphors are getting a little out of control there, but I hope you get my meaning. And it isn't just the quality that matters. The species of wood means a lot too. The choice of mahogany or alder, for example, will mean a significant difference for the sound of a guitar.
The takeaways: A better piece of wood will sound superior or a poor piece, different species of woods influence the sound of your guitar in different ways. That's my opinion anyway. Surprisingly, some players don't agree that this is true.
Even more surprisingly, others say tonewoods mean bunk altogether. Ash or alder, mahogany or basswood, it makes no difference in determining the overall sound of the guitar. Or at least not enough of a difference to worry about.
I do see their point to a certain degree. If a guitar sounds good or bad, it really doesn't matter what wood it is made out of, or what the wood is supposed to sound like. The significance of tonewoods is a debate that will probably go on for as long as there are guitars.
So, what do you think? How important are tonewoods to the sound quality of a guitar?
Types of Tonewoods
Pickups and Electronics
Along with tonewoods, I've always felt pickups and electronics make a big impact on the sound of a guitar. Of course, different types of pickups will have different sounds. Swapping out a vintage single-coil bridge pickup on a Strat and replacing it with a hot humbucker will make a huge difference to the sound.
But this is more a question of pickup quality. Expensive pickups with high-quality magnets and innovative designs should make a guitar sound significantly better, one would think. This seems to hold true, in most cases. Guitars with lower-quality pickups tend to sound a little muddy and notes lack clarity and definition. Guitars with better pickups tend to sound, on the average, a whole lot better.
However, that's not always what I hear from guitar players. In my post comparing the Fender MIM Strat to the American Strat I routinely get comments from MIM Fender owners who insist their guitars sound as good as any American-made Fender. I've heard this for years, and it's a common refrain in guitar forums. If you find the right MIM Fender, you don't need to look at the MIA instruments.
I have to agree in many ways. I love my MIM Strat, and really don't find the pickups lacking. Other players may disagree, and in some cases, I find myself on their side as well.
It's a little maddening, especially since pickups are such a subjective thing. The sounds one player loves in a certain pickup may be the very thing that turns another player off.
So, if pickup quality is so important, how can both perspectives be true? What do you say?
How important is the quality and type of hardware when it comes to the sound of the guitar? For electric guitars, you may think not very, except when it comes to the bridge.
Many players feel a bridge with higher mass provides better sustain and improved tone. Therefore, wimpy bridges on inferior guitars should be among the first things swapped out when making upgrades.
I suppose we can add the nut to the hardware category as well. The material the nut is made out of, many say, makes a big difference in the sound.
I have to agree with all of this to some extent. Sustain is certainly influenced by the bridge and nut, and for some guitarists, that's all the convincing they need. But can you hear an audible difference between a guitar with a tune-o-matic bridge and one with a Floyd Rose?
For that matter, can you tell the difference in the sound of a guitar with a quality bridge and one with a budget knock-off version?
In my opinion, the hardware is one of those things that may or may not translate into the sound you hear coming out of the amplifier. However, it does mean a whole lot to the player.
Can I tell the difference between a guitar with a tune-o-matic bridge or a Floyd in a recording? Probably not. But I can sure hear and feel a difference when I am playing either guitar.
Here we get into one of the most hotly contested arenas of the guitar sound debate. How important is the design of the guitar to the overall sound?
Guitar companies vary so widely in their design techniques, and even two similar guitars from the same manufacturer often have huge differences between them.
Much of the debate stems from the fact that some of the classic guitars from major manufacturers have been altered from year to year. Of course, guitar players are apt to believe some years are better than others, and since we can't see "under the hood" that leaves us with a ton of speculation on why some years are better.
Did they make the body heavier one year, or thicker, or did they use fewer pieces of wood? Did they scoop out some wood and chamber the body, or did they choose a different type of paint?
Since the arrival of the internet there is more transparency and open discussion about these things, but still plenty of room for disagreement on how different design techniques alter the sound of a guitar.
On one hand, this falls to the "good chassis" argument I made earlier regarding tonewoods. A guitar that is put together well will simply sound better, and provide a better foundation for the rest of the instrument.
However, it is also true that there are many budget-level electric guitars that sound a whole lot better than they should. These guitars aren't designed with the precision of a high-level Gibson or PRS. They often utilize lower-quality paints and finishes as well.
So, how do guitar companies manage to make these electric guitars sound so good?
High-quality, made-in-the-USA guitars from brands like Gibson, Fender, Martin, and Taylor cost big bucks, and for good reason. These instruments are superbly crafted, and among the best of the best. That's why they're so popular, and so many professional musicians rely on them.
Then again, there are some guitarists who insist none that means a thing. I see this in my Epiphone vs Gibson Les Paul post. Just like the MIM Fender, plenty of Epi players compare their guitars to Gibsons and are perfectly happy about it.
To this way of thinking, most guitars, no matter where they are made, are ultimately mass-produced machines built by other machines. I sort of see that point, and in some cases agree.
Even though when comparing an Epiphone to a Gibson we may see better materials and quality control for the Gibson, Epiphone is still a Gibson product. It's not like one guitar is made in Nashville and the other is made on the Moon. Everything that comes out of the Epiphone plants needs to meet Gibson's standards.
So, what say ye on this one?
Guitar Construction Plants
I'm no guitars snob, and I've always believed the player makes up a huge part of the sound you hear coming from a guitar. Your hands, your technique and your skill makes a big difference, and no two players with the exact same guitar will sound alike.
There are many players throughout rock history that have exemplified this concept. Eddie Van Halen, most notably, built his famous Frankenstrat out of junk parts, and he sounds pretty good on those early recordings.
But the question is, all other things being equal, will a great guitarist sound ever better with a better guitar? The answer should be yes, but real-life examples don't always pan out.
So, what do you think? Is the player the ultimate variable when it comes to the sound of a guitar?
Is Your Sound All About You?
The Search for Tone
How much do the variables discussed in this post play a part in the sound of your guitar? Tonewoods, electronics, construction techniques and design and hardware are all important. If they weren't, there would be no arguments over them in guitar forums across the internet.
The question is how important.
On our journeys as guitarists and musicians we will always be learning, and we'll probably change our minds many times on what, exactly, makes or breaks a guitar. So, really it's personal question, subject to your own experiences, biases and opinions.
But I also think it is much more complicated than simply deciding which qualities are most important in a guitar. I feel like there is a lot I haven't touched on, and probably some things I'll think about later that I should have mentioned.
You can probably think of a few things I haven't too. So, I'm hoping you won't just vote in polls, but also leave a comment and let me and other readers know what you have to say.
What makes a guitar sound good?
What is Most Important for Good Sound?
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Tell Me What You Think Makes a Guitar Sound Good or Bad!
Michael James (author) on August 13, 2020:
@Vibration Mech Eng - Fascinating! Thanks for your comment!
Vibration Mech Eng on August 13, 2020:
Basic principles you need to know:
- Faraday's & Lenz's Law
- Vibration mechanics
- Fourier's Law - all notes are composed of a main frequency and infinite waves whose frequency is double, triple, etc of that of the notes frequency
1. Body's material, design, weight do affect sound; as a closed system the strings vibration resonate in the body whose natural frequency vibration modes are different for each guitar (frequency is proportional to stiffness and inversely proportional to mass) so the 2nd and onwards harmonics are magnfied or diminished for each note giving a warmer or crisper/sharper tone
2. guitar strings gauges should be considered for the rpevious reason
3. the quality and sound of a pckup depend on if it is H or S, number of turns the wire has, wire gauge, magnetic field intensity from magnet (and pickup height)
4. bridge also affects but not because of material quality, but due to weight and how tightly maintains tuning (craftsmanship)
5. internal circuitry matters to a certain extent, it is more important that is correctly isolated from magnetism, but materials likje Permalloy are not cheap. There's no need for gold or platinum connectors; conductivity makes no difference at this voltages.
6. the design matters, but again from the vibrations mechanics point of view; tilt/inclination of saddles, length of neck, width of frets makes a guitar be easier to intonate.
7. the nut's material is somewhat important in terms of that it receives and trasnmits string vibrtion first hand; as long as it is solid does not pinch on the string (allows sliding) and has the correct notches height it will as fine as most expensive ones.
The most important features that affect sound profile/quality are:
materials and design, they affect due to their weight/distribution/density in the way they amplify higher frequency harmonics of each note giving warmer or crisper tones.
Pickups attributes that matter are number of coil turns, magnet intensity and height.
For the rest, there's no real difference, copper is copper and its conductivity will be same; wire gauge/material is no relevant at this level of voltages.
jose renteria on March 16, 2020:
there is no end to it
Francis prasad on December 21, 2019:
I feel even strings and choice of metal for strings does matter...just like a right choice metal alloy for a church to peel melodiously. Is there a choice metal alloy for guitar strings and their guage?
Vernon Spradling from Chesaning, Michigan, USA on September 29, 2019:
For me personally, the decisive factors in choosing this musical instrument are pickups and a tree (including build quality)
Frethound on September 26, 2019:
Meh to all of it, its all about the amp! Done spending more $$ than i can afford on over priced guitars!! Soooo many options these days. Buy a cheap, korean made harley-benton (for example) run it through a quality amp and that kids is where the magic awaits!!
Justin on September 26, 2019:
I have made basswood body guitars sound incredible by upgrading every other part...it should go without saying that the sound of an electric guitar is 99% based on the electronics...tonewoods only make an audible difference with acoustic guitars
Danny on August 11, 2019:
I believe your comment, if you have a weak chassis, you have a weak instrument. Good wood is the foundation of a good guitar.
Tonewood makes some difference. A Mahogany Telecaster WILL sound different to an Alder or Ash Telecaster.
I think wood drying along with its rigidity, plays a big part of a good, resonant guitar. That being said, I believe that the body contributes more to the depth of tone (heavier meaning deeper, lighter meaning brighter.)
The neck I believe contributes more to the definition of the guitar (stiffer wood meaning more articulate, less stiffer wood meaning more compressed, or even muddy sounding.)
Yes, all the components and craftsmanship matter to some degree, but if you have dodgy wood - we’ll all the glitter in the world won’t make it sound good.
Michael James (author) on August 01, 2019:
Well said, Royston! Thanks for adding your thoughts.
Royston on August 01, 2019:
Everybody is different as are Guitars. We all have our own likes and dislikes as we Travel Our different paths on our Life Journeys. One Type and Make of Guitar may be Liked by us but be Hated to other Guitar Player's. If a Guitar Manufacturer could make a Guitar that Every Guitar Player likes and drools over. Then that would be the Holy Grail of Guitar's. But as we are all Individuals with our own likes and dislikes. Then this will never happen. It all depends on what Guitar you like and are happy with at the time of Playing. You may even change your mind later on and choose to buy another Make and Type of Guitar that you earlier disliked. But just because someone says that their Guitar is much better than yours. Doesn't necessarily make it so.! Variety is the Spice of Life and that is true with Guitars. We all have our own choices of what Guitars we prefer. Guitar Snobbery is just that, Snobbery. It's a Guitarists way of trying to convince themselves that they and their choice of Guitar etc is much better than everyone else's. It's a way of making themselves feel better with themselves. Guitar Snobbery exists all in the mind and not with the Guitars.!
Better to Concentrate on how well you are Playing a Guitar and forget about Guitar Snobbery. As it will hold you back not just as a Guitarist but as a Individual Person as well.
To those of you out there, who are still Learning to Play a Guitar whether it be Electric or Acoustic or even a Classical Guitar.
Never, ever give up on Playing a Guitar due to Guitar Snobbery or how Badly you are Playing your Guitar at this moment in time. Because Practice makes Perfect. Even though you may try to emulate your Guitar Heroes, you will never be them. But One day with Lots of Practice your Own brilliance will come through and Shine.!
Don Miguel on January 03, 2019:
What makes a guitar sound good or bad is the player, period. You can take a guitarist like David Gilmour and stick a cheap squire bullet and amp in his hands and he will make it sound like himself, brilliant. On the other hand, you can take a droog like CC Deville and it doesn’t matter what you stick in his hand, no matter how expensive the instrument or rig, it will always sound like utter, utter garbage. It’s down to the player.
JMyra on December 13, 2018:
Id have to say ALL variables matter, in one way or another. My esp sounds amazing on a marshall jcm 2000, but very lack luster on my 9v honeytone ( f-ing duh! ) The same can be said about my cheap ass first act i own. Also, depending on playing slyle, electric, acoustic, finger picking, etc, tonewoods, hardware, electronics can have more importance than others. All in all, if what you play sounds good to YOU, then nothing else really matters.
Beni on September 27, 2018:
Well.. I own an old (1971-73) Gibson LP Custom, that sounds great.. but I also got an Ibanez JS 1000 from 2000, and is way more playable and has nothing to be ashamed of! The Gibson is Mahogany and heavy and the Ibanez is Basswood and light! And both sound great.. and I tend to pick up the Ibanez waaaay more!.. so the wood can't be that important!
In my opinion, pickups are what's more important on an electric guitar, and of course the amp and fx pedals.. as they all are involved in the chain, and a change of one of this, makes a huuuge difference in sound quality.
The player? It's not that important.. of course a good player can make a bad guitar sound ok, but that's cause he can play.. and bad guitars, aren't that bad! They might have high strings, cheaper pick ups but still work a charm. Today's "cheap" guitars are amazing compared to those back in the 90's!.. and still, I remember a friend in the 90's who bought a pretty cheap bass, modded it to become active, and when he played (he played awesome), no other musician could believe that it was a cheap as f#*k bass! Even basses close to 10 times it's price sounded worse!, if the player played poorly, it would still sound decent.
In acoustics, of course.. wood as well as every other component and the construction process are 100% decisive.. But still same applies.. my $600 Walden acoustic, sound better than many other at 3-4 times it's price.. even comparing with Martin.. though I played once on a jumbo Martin with a price tag of over $6k, and I felt in love!
btw, the fingerboard wood on an electric has way more importance than the body.. It might be from the interaction with the string, when pressed on it.
I would say that even the cable you use has more of an importance than the wood of the body! I had for years a monster cable and it sounded ok/good.. and one day I bought a planet waves one (that people were reviewing positively).. One strum, and I though it was something wrong with the guitar!.. So after some minutes of not finding it out.. I changed back to the old monster cable.. and everything sounded great again. No idea if it was something faulty or what with the planet waves one but big difference!
My 2 cents
Russell Stubbs on June 02, 2018:
I don’t play guitar but I listen to high end stereo and my son is an accomplished player. The thing about sound quality is some people hear but don’t listen. Proof of this is when you are speaking to somone and they stare into space. I think even some guitarists are this way they don’t or can’t really “listen” to the sound.
As far as the player being the only important thing; well the same player playing a cheap or expensive guitar is going to sound different isn’t it?
Michael James (author) on April 15, 2018:
Well said, John! I recently had the chance to play a few very expensive, high-end guitars, and they were fantastic. However, I can't say they made me sound any better than any guitar I currently own, and I doubt they would make me any happier. Everybody has their price point they feel comfortable with, but the most important thing is to find a guitar you love and play the heck out of it.
John on April 12, 2018:
I had quite a few guitars so far and only kept the ones I either felt really comfortable on or that mean something to me. I still have my first electric that isn't half as bad as I thought it is. I'm gonna mod it, do a proper setup and make it a player. It sounds really good although it's just a "cheap" beginners electric. Then I have a custom handmade Strat I got from my parents for my 18th birthday and although the guitar feels awesome to play it has some major flaws, especially staying in tune and the high E string slipping off the board when playing. The trem is unusable and sends it straight outta tune. Still love it to bits since it has sentimental value. My current favourite is a beat up Gibson Les Paul Studio that looks plain and ugly (got it in a trade) but just sounds and feels perfect. Then I have a Japanese Randy Rhoads that gives me a visual orgasm everytime I look at it. The neck profile makes my right hand cramp up sometimes though, especially when I don't warm up.
My point here is that sometimes you just click with an instrument. Sometimes the visuals are off but everything else is fine. Sometimes it's a sexy beast but it doesn't feel as well as another axe. At the end of the day all that matters is that the instrument inspires you to write songs, practice and become a better guitar player and that you use it. Never deny an instrument cause it doesn't tick all the boxes. You will know there's something about it when you try it. Then you snag it. No matter if it's a 6000 dollar Gibson Custom or a 400 dollar Ibanez :)
p.s.: the player matters. Take Gary Moore as an example. He always sounded like himself, no matter what he played on/through. We should strive for improvement of our skills, not the next purchase
Michael James (author) on March 04, 2015:
Thanks for adding your thoughts Allan!
Allan on March 03, 2015:
I feel I should add that the effect of tonewood really depends on the type of instrument. On an acoustic it will make a very noticeable difference. This is because the vibration of the body itself is what you hear. On a hollow body you will notice some, and on an electric there is almost no difference at all. This is because the main sound you hear is the string interacting with the magnetic field of the pickup. While the body can influence the way the string vibrates, it doesn't change the frequency the string vibrates at or the way the pickup works. The body material will affect sustain though, and certain materials will sustain more at different frequencies. Obviously when played unplugged you hear the vibration of the wood instead of the string passing through a magnetic field, so the wood will make a difference.
Michael James (author) on August 30, 2014:
@Robert: Very true! The greats have proven it through the years!
@ladyguitarpicker: I can imagine how sorry you were to see that Martin go. I bet you still sound good though!
stella vadakin from 3460NW 50 St Bell, Fl32619 on August 29, 2014:
I liked this hub and was glad to answer the questions. I can honestly tell you I had a 1971 Martin for 6 weeks and yes it made me sound better. I hated to give it back People commented how good I sounded.
robertzimmerman2 on August 29, 2014:
The biggest impact in any type of music comes from the imagination of the musician.