Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Of Tone Woods and the Electric Guitar

Every electric guitar maker and player has their preferred kind of wood, but how much contribution does the wood makes in making the electric guitar sound greater than the sum of its parts?

By: Ringo Bones

Ever since Les Paul made his original solid body guitar out of a wooden railroad tie which he then called “The Log”, wood – or more specifically the type of wood – had become the be all and end all of luthiers the world over. Especially those luthiers whose reputation rests on making the ultimate electric guitar – i.e. the kind that produces the most soulful and wicked tone. But before we proceed, let’s trace back the historic origins of the luthier’s obsession of the perfect tone wood.

During the past few centuries, tone woods priced by luthiers and other musical instrument makers like the spruce used in Stradivarius and Guarneri violins grows indigenously in a few mountainous in Europe. Tone woods grow slowly and steadily – especially in a cold, stable climate. And preferably from a time before global warming started to affect tone wood growth physiology. As a result of this slow and steady growth, tone woods acquire a dense grain structure.

Scientific research conducted during the past few years had found out that various species of fungi is the secret behind the wonderful musical sound of these tone woods as evident in Stradivarius and Guarneri violins. So the “secret lacquer” formula’s contribution to the musicality of these violins may had been purely “cosmetic”(?). These fungi make the tone woods acquire a more musical sound by strategically loosening the woods’ grain density enough to create a desirably sweet tone. Although most luthiers still swear by their various proprietary secret lacquer concoctions because to their ears – and to the ears of their musically inclined clients – these lacquers do contribute significantly to the musicality of the finished musical instrument may it be a lute, guitar, harp or violin.

Fast forward to post WWII America where even though various types of woods – each type with their own devotees – now constitute the starting material in the construction of electric guitar bodies. Though most contemporary luthiers still swear by (reached a consensus?) the inherently flammable nitrocellulose lacquer – to the dismay of the US Environmental Protection Agency - as the ideal finishing material for their electric guitars. Which could explain the dramatic result when Jimi Hendrix set fire to his Strat during a stage performance using just a lighter and a can of lighter fluid during the Monterey concert. Although there seems to be a choice of wood that will match every electric guitar’s intended function.

Solid-body Gibson Les Paul’s tend to be constructed out of lightweight Honduran mahogany with a nitrocellulose lacquer finish allowing the wood to breathe, thus preserving the wood’s resonance. The practice started back in 1949 with their Gibson Super 400 a semi-hollow guitar equipped with f-holes. While the Fender Stratocaster tend to be constructed with a well-chosen maple using the same nitrocellulose lacquer finish. Although those American worker-made Fenders that allow their makers to have a “decent” 401-K tend to take on average 3 years to build and tend to cost above US$1,000.

Probably the latest type of wood to become in fashion in electric guitar building is the relatively rare Hawaiian koa wood. First started to appear during the early 1990s and tend to be priced higher than US$2,500, luthiers don’t apply lacquer to these guitars since application of any type of finish tend to ruin these kind of guitars “sweet spot”. Joining in the ranks of exotic woods that gained preference by luthiers during the 1990s are various basswoods used in guitars that are endorsed, played and ultimately made famous by famed guitar god Joe Satriani. Although very beautiful, electric guitars made out of koa wood are now viewed by many as so 1990s. Especially by those who were never fortunate enough to afford one during that time.

Given that most buyers of these guitars tend to play them on amplifiers with chock full of effects like distortion and what have you, I have since wondered if the very expensive and environmentally sensitive woods used in modern electric guitars mattered at all. Although most “very good electric guitars” being used by a new generation of semi-pro and amateur guitar players are more than likely family heirlooms from their dads and granddads (sadly, guitar playing back then is a mostly “he” endeavor). Though these guitars are even more likely made during the golden age of electric guitar making – i.e. the late 1950s and early 1960s before Beatlemania spurred every guitar company to mass-produce substandard guitars. Thus insuring the fortunate few amateurs a good start.

1 comment:

  1. Like all musical instruments - a good guitar also needs an equally good guitarist. Just like Strads and del Gesus will sound just like an ordinary violin in the hands of a novice fiddler. Great guitars only shine in the hands of master guitarists.