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What Lies Beneath: Five Tone Woods and their Respective Sounds

I went in to the local guitar shop last week for the first time in a month or so and I found the most abhorrent creation. Someone, I don’t know who, has built a telecaster out of alder. That not’s so bad. But they capped the alder body with a very thick piece of quilted maple, and then carved it out like a Les Paul. The neck was also maple, with little cute little bird’s eye spots.

It looked ridiculous. I know this is an opinionated statement, but I think I can back it up. The telecaster is a blue-collar guitar. It’s working class. Tele’s are exquisite instruments, and handsome in their own right, but they are not supposed to be pretty. Putting a carved flame maple cap on a tele body is kind of like putting Clint Eastwood in a tuxedo.

And it ruins the Telecaster sounds. It may look like a Tele, but it sounds like electric bagpipes.

And here’s why. Almost all guitars begin as a piece, or pieces of lumber. Everything else has a measurable effect on the sound. But the finish, hardware, pickups, pedals and amplifiers all modify the acoustic feature of the wood.

So let’s talk about the five most common species found in electric guitar bodies.

Swamp Ash

Telecaster’s bodies are built of thick slabs of Swamp Ash. It’s an American wood that’s dense and heavy. It doesn’t grow very fast, so it is rare to find bodies built of one slab. Most are pieced from two or three boards. Ash gives the Telecaster their incredible range—the deep resonant sustain available from the neck pickup and the brighter twang that comes off the bridge.

But if you’ve played many Telecasters, you’ll know that one may sound perfect and the next one will not. This has less to do with set-up and electronics and more to do with the wood itself.

Alder

Another Fender favorite is alder—a reasonably fast growing American wood that is lighter than ash. The tone isn’t as rich as ash, and the wood isn’t noted for sustain. Fender has made some Telecasters out of alder, but the wood is the foundation for the Stratocaster. Strats are often covered in thick coats of candy colored polyurethane, which further obscures alder’s tonal qualities. I have often wondered if this is why so many lead guitar players rely on their Strats, and why so many rhythm players like their Teles. Whatever the reason, I find that Stratocasters don’t vary in their sound nearly as much as Telecasters, and that because of the consistent results Fender achieves with alder.

Mahogany

Mahogany is a luthier’s dream. The wood is dense, but easy to work because it has an incredibly straight grain structure. It is highly stable. The folks at Gibson have built the company on mahogany. The necks and bodies of Les Pauls and SGs are built from the exotic wood. The tone is similar to ash, only maybe a bit darker. The sustain is even longer.

Look at two different Les Pauls. The Studio version, or the Juniors, have incredible rich tone, especially when coupled with P90 pickups. They are really dynamic instruments, often overlooked because they aren’t as flashy as Gibson’s staple electrics. And they certainly don’t sound like Les Pauls, because they are missing their maple caps.

Maple


There are two main types of maple. Most highly figured, flashy, pretty maple is relatively soft. While good for making flashy bodies, the wood is too soft for necks. Hard maple is much more stable, but often lacks the signature grain patterns that sell so many guitars.

But maple has more to offer than looks. Maple is bright. It is dense. The sound is often referred to as bright. Really nice maple topped guitars have a bell like tone that is derived from the tight brittle configuration of maple. But maple has its disadvantages. It grows slowly and is a beast to work. So expect to pay for it.

Pressboard, Plywood, Masonite

Before I get accused of dendrological snobbery, I’d like to spin the discussion in the opposite direction. I can remember the first time I played a Danelectro—in basement guitar paradise that was Midtown Music, in Atlanta. It must have been the mid 90’s, and Danelectros were being cobbled together from Korean cardboard and glue. They were the epitome of cheap. Cheap materials, cheap electronics, cheap price. But the sound—solid gold.

Google “Danelectro player” and check out how many ridiculously famous players play Danos. The list is long.

Conclusion

What I’m about to write is going to make me seem like a lunatic. But it’s gospel truth. You should choose an instrument based on the way it sounds and what you can do with it, not the way it looks. If the luthier thinks the tone wood matter, than it will probably have a distinct effect on the sound of the instrument. Play every electric guitar you can unplugged, first. Listen to the way the instrument responds without any electrickery. This will give you a baseline for the instruments abilities. And, call me a purist, but that’s where I think tone ought to start.

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About Dave

I’m a college professor in Virginia. I build electric guitars, cigar-box guitars and banjos. When I play, I play harp through a 1961 Gibson Ranger.

One Response to “What Lies Beneath: Five Tone Woods and their Respective Sounds”

  1. Eric July 24, 2011 at 12:11 PM #

    I agree with you 100%. Sound over looks.

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