In the Woods
Hello Troubadourians! Which elements define the tone of an electric guitar? Just like any guitar, electric guitars are first and foremost acoustic guitars. I can say from experience that an electric guitar that doesn’t sound good acoustically—that means unplugged—it is unlikely that it will sound good when it is plugged into an amp. Likewise, if it doesn’t sustain when played without an amp, it is not going to sustain through an amp. There is a caveat: if your tone is defined by using a lot of effects, then the basic tone of the guitar may be irrelevant. However, even with the aid of compression, it is very difficult to manufacture sustain. Okay, that’s enough equivocation, let’s get into it.
From my experience, the type of wood that the guitar is made of essentially defines the tone of the guitar. These are the basic components: body, neck, fretboard. Each can be made of a single type of wood or a combination of woods, and those differences are significant. Wood can be complicated and many factors figure into its tone-making properties. The weight and density of the wood makes a big impact on tone. Let’s start with the body; lighter bodies tend to have an “airier” or more open tone and lend a more acoustic-like tonality to the electric tone. Not to mention being easier on the back and shoulder. Sometimes, lighter guitars sustain very well too, which is counter-intuitive, but is often true. The decay of the notes is gradual and predictable. Light guitars tend to be brighter and livelier on average but can sometimes be perceived to have a thinner tone, especially if the guitar has weaker pickups. The density of the body wood also contributes to the tone. Denser wood is usually heavier and imparts a more immediacy to the attack of the notes. They can exhibit more sustain, often described as “pianistic,” but that sustain can sometimes sound somewhat forced or non-musical, almost too much information. It’s a matter of taste. The type of wood that the guitar’s body is made of greatly influences the overall tone of the guitar. The most common body wood type for vintage style guitars are alder, ash, ebony, mahogany, maple, poplar, and rosewood. There are many variants of each of these, of course, and these woods can be made into guitar bodies as single piece, multi-piece, or in combination with other woods. Some classic examples are ash (or swamp ash) or alder for Fender guitars like Telecasters and Stratocasters, solid mahogany or mahogany/maple for Gibson guitars like SG’s and Les Paul’s, and some Fenders as well as many off-brand guitars were made with poplar bodies. Warmoth has an extensive description of the many different wood types that they use to make bodies that represent both vintage and modern guitars with description of the basic tonalities each wood type has to offer.
While the body wood probably contributes the most to the tone of the guitar, the wood used for the neck and fretboard also influence the tone. The most common neck woods are maple and mahogany. Maple is a very hard wood and is often used by itself as it is hard enough to be the fretboard. Mahogany is softer and is usually used with rosewood or ebony as the fretboard. Rosewood makes for a classic tone combination with the mahogany—as in most Gibsons—which is warm and detailed. Ebony is harder and denser than rosewood, and using ebony in lieu of rosewood can accentuate the high frequency detail of the notes and add clarity to chords but can sometimes be perceived as harsh. (Sometimes you’ll see maple used as a fretboard with a mahogany neck but that’s more often for appearances rather than for tone). I should mention that the fret type also contributes to the tone of the guitar, especially stainless-steel frets, which can be very bright and can, in some cases, be too bright to the point of being distracting. Again, Warmoth has a very detailed description of neck wood and their tonal properties.
But how would we describe these woods in combinations that we can understand in context, as in a guitar that we know and recognize. Let’s start simple with a Fender Telecaster. The classic combination for a Tele is an ash body (or later, alder) with a maple neck. One slab of ash, one piece of maple. That’s it. Simple. Well, sort of. The combination of ash and maple do make for a bright, twangy combination which is what we’ve come to expect from a good Telecaster. Substitute alder for the ash and you still have a bright, twangy guitar. You also have the recipe for a good Fender Stratocaster. Those two guitars, while similar, can and usually do sound very different when played. Why? Well, it’s because of the pickups and other hardware, such as the bridge. But more on that in a minute… While ash (or alder) and maple are the standard configuration, both Teles and Strats have models that sport rosewood fretboards. Those —while still plenty bright—tend to have a slightly mellower, more rounded tone due to the rosewood in the fretboard. Gibson Les Paul Standards have a body made from mahogany with a maple top cap, a mahogany neck, and a rosewood fretboard. Les Paul guitars are known to exhibit a rounder, fatter, more sustaining tone that the Fenders mentioned above and much of this is due to the combination of woods that the guitar is made of. In fact, most of whatever brightness a given Les Paul might exhibit—and a lot of its weight—is primarily due to the hard maple top on the mahogany body. Early Les Paul custom models (’53 to ’57) were, in fact, made entirely from mahogany, without the maple top, and they sound significantly different from the Standards. This difference in materials and construction was partly a business decision by Gibson and partly because Les Paul, the model’s inventor and namesake, preferred the tone of an all-mahogany guitar. Gibson figured that since all customs were going to be finished black, it didn’t matter that the top wasn’t maple and pieces of wood that were of lesser appearance but still mechanically and musically sound could be used for this model and reduce the cost of manufacturing. Even though the customs had fancier gold-plated parts and more binding, Gibson was still able to make them for only a little more than the standard and sell them for more money. The custom also had an ebony fretboard that added to the elegant vibe of the guitar’s appearance and also added some high-end detail to the notes and overall tone of the guitar which was a nice compliment to the mellow tone of all that mahogany. I can personally attest to the difference in the tonality between the maple/mahogany and all-mahogany guitars as I own two Collings City Limits models, one built with each method, and the difference in tonality is striking. The maple/mahogany guitar has been compared to sounding like a “Fat Telecaster” while the mahogany guitar seems to be more mid-range focused. I like them both but I’m really digging the mahogany guitar… Both have ebony fretboards that add detail to the high end but thankfully without harshness. I also have a Telecaster that has a mahogany body and neck with an ebony fretboard that while still very “Tele-like” has a uniqueness to its tone.
Now, what about the other things like bridges, tuners, and pickups? Back to the Tele to start; Teles have a mostly flat, bent metal bridge plate that holds the bridge position pickup. This so-called “ashtray” bridge is a major reason why Teles are often very bright. The neck position by contrast is suspended in the plastic pickguard that isolates the pickup from the guitar and “floats” the pickup effectively making what is already a bassier position more so. The pickups are single-coil in construction, which accentuates the high frequencies. Stratocasters usually have a vibrato bridge that has springs in the back of the guitar to facilitate the movement of the bridge (the vibrato action) and have three single-coil pickups that are suspended in a plastic pickguard. This mounting scheme, while still positioning the pickups to be very bright in basic tonality, does tend to mellow some of the “ice pick” highs that Teles exhibit. Les Paul guitars have a combination tune-o-matic bridge and stop-bar tailpiece, which is somewhat adjustable for string tension. The classic implementation the Les Paul has two humbucking (dual-coil) pickups that have a greater output than a single-coil and also a slightly attenuate high frequency content. The pickups are also suspended in plastic mounting rings, which perform much the same audio isolation as the pickguard mounting scheme of the Fender guitars above. I do think it is important to mention the contribution that scale length—the length from the nut to the bridge—makes to the overall tone of a guitar. In general, Fender guitars have a 25.5” scale and Gibson guitars have a 24.75” scale. A longer scale usually means that the guitar will sound brighter and the shorter scale usually means that the guitar will sound mellower. As you can see that pretty much everything about the respective construction of the guitars in the examples above are intended to accentuate one tonality or the other.
Now since this column is going into our online version, it’s gotten a bit longer than usual and we haven’t even talked about some of the other things that shape the tone of an electric guitar, such as multi-piece bodies and necks or electronic components like potentiometers, capacitors, and resistors, much less exploring the different types of pickups beyond the simplicity of single-coil versus humbucking. I’ll try to dive into some of that stuff in future columns. Thanks for reading this far and stay safe and healthy. Enjoy!
Need to know? Just ask… Charlie (firstname.lastname@example.org)