What Makes an Electric Guitar Sound Good?

Updated on August 24, 2017
Guitar Gopher profile image

Guitar Gopher is a guitarist and bassist with over 30 years of experience as a musician.

We all want great tone, but what really makes an electric guitar sound good?
We all want great tone, but what really makes an electric guitar sound good?

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 toneswoods to the sound quality of a guitar?

Les Paul-style guitars are made with mahogany bodies and maple tops. Do you care?
Les Paul-style guitars are made with mahogany bodies and maple tops. Do you care?

Types of Tonewoods

How much does the type of tonewood used in a guitar impact the sound when considering comparable woods? (Alder vs Ash, Ebony vs Rosewood, Mahogany vs Basswood, etc)

See results

Tonewood Quality

Does the quality of the tonewood translate to better sound quality?

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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 things that turns another player off.

So, if pickup quality is so important, how can both perspectives be true? What do you say?

Do pickups matter?
Do pickups matter?

Which Pickups?

Do expensive pickups from high-quality brand names improve the sound of a guitar?

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Hardware

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, hardware is one of the 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.

Quality Hardware

How significant is the quality of a guitar's hardware when it comes to sound?

See results
How much does your bridge and other hardware impact the sound of your electric guitar?
How much does your bridge and other hardware impact the sound of your electric guitar?

Design

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 them 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?

Does it matter on which side of the border your Strat was made?
Does it matter on which side of the border your Strat was made?

Guitar Design

How important is the design of a guitar to the overall sound?

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Guitar Weight

Does the physical weight of a guitar make a difference in the sound?

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Guitar Finish

Can the finish or paint used on a guitar make a difference in the sound?

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Construction

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

Does it matter where a guitar is made?

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The Player

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?

Maple or rosewood, when your fingers hit the fretboard it's your playing that matters most.
Maple or rosewood, when your fingers hit the fretboard it's your playing that matters most.

Is Your Sound All About You?

Is the player the only thing that really matters when it comes to guitar sound?

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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?

Besides the player, which factor is most important when it comes to the sound of a guitar?

See results

Questions & Answers

    Tell Me What You Think Makes a Guitar Sound Good or Bad!

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      • Guitar Gopher profile image
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        Guitar Gopher 5 weeks ago

        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.

      • profile image

        John 5 weeks ago

        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

      • Guitar Gopher profile image
        Author

        Guitar Gopher 3 years ago

        Thanks for adding your thoughts Allan!

      • profile image

        Allan 3 years ago

        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.

      • Guitar Gopher profile image
        Author

        Guitar Gopher 3 years ago

        @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!

      • ladyguitarpicker profile image

        stella vadakin 3 years ago from 3460NW 50 St Bell, Fl32619

        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 profile image

        Robert Zimmerman 3 years ago from SE Florida, USA

        The biggest impact in any type of music comes from the imagination of the musician.

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