Recipe For Success
What defines the sound of a guitar? This issue, Alex Bishop cracks the secret of perfect tone once and for all
Lately I’ve been delivering quite a bit of lutherie tuition and I’m often asked what, above all else, makes guitars sound different, and why do some guitars appear to sound better than others? Is it some special, expensive tonewood? The type of strings? Perhaps the instrument was built in a ritualistic fashion according to the waxing and waning of the moon? I’ve heard every ‘secret’ of the sound of the guitar, no matter how bizarre. It’s a timeless debate and a question for which every guitar maker ought to be armed and ready. Naturally, I’m always willing to launch myself into the fray, so here we go.
I’ve always broken down my response to the question of ‘tone’ into three categories. Let’s address these in ascending order of importance. So starting in third place is – drum roll, please – wood.
Finding that ideal guitar might be a little bit like going into your dream restaurant and eating your favourite ever meal. If you can indulge me for a moment with a tenuous food analogy, guitar tonewoods are like the ingredients that make up your dish. Every wood colours the sound of the guitar in its own (almost indescribable) way. There is no doubt that a softwood top gives a more balanced tone to an acoustic than a hardwood one, and that a solidbody electric with a heavy mahogany body has a fatter tone than a light and airy poplar one. Even saddle and nut materials are up for debate in the quest for ‘tone’, with cheap plastic cast aside in favour of hard, dense materials such as bone or brass.
In the kitchen of lutherie, however, good ingredients only get you so far. It’s with the skill of the head chef that your wood choices can turn into something truly special. That’s why the second most important item on my tally of tone is craftsmanship.
It’s a little harder to see from the guitar player’s perspective, but there is more than one way to build a guitar, and the multifarious methods one might employ in constructing a guitar give rise to wildly different sonic results. Better-known variations might include using a bolt-on neck instead of glued-in set neck, or a Spanish-style solera-based method instead of a mouldbased one. Many manufacturers use cutting-edge computer-controlled machinery to accurately shape parts, whereas some hand-builders rely upon intuition and hand tools when carving critical components. These different production methods result in variations in the way the guitar comes together and ultimately affect the way it vibrates and produces sound. As a result, we tend to define our favourite guitar by who made it rather than what it is made from.
In my opinion, there is one factor even more important than materials and craftsmanship when it comes to defining the sound of your perfect guitar, and that is design. Body shapes, pickups, scale lengths, bracing patterns: all of these and more are fundamental to the sound of your instrument.
When building a guitar I am often surprised that, once finished, its tone is still familiar despite making use of unusual woods or alternative construction methods. I know that, despite my reservations, a fanned-fret, bubinga parlour guitar with three soundports will still sound more like a parlour guitar than a jumbo guitar ever will. Likewise, swapping out single-coil pickups for a pair of fiery hot humbuckers is going to have a more noticeable effect on its output than just about anything else. There are modes of vibration and characteristic sounds produced that are inescapable when one follows a particular design. Just compare the stark tonal differences between types of stringed musical instruments, such as the banjo or mandolin, and the importance of craftsmanship or materials soon fades into the background.
But, of course, we are missing one last ingredient in the production of perfect tone: the player. The subtlety (or otherwise) of our favourite guitarist’s playing style can utterly transform the sound of an instrument, as our ears are drawn towards the human touch that injects so much personality into the perfect ‘tone’. When it all comes down to it, the magic is in the music.
“In the kitchen of lutherie, good ingredients only get you so far. With the skill of the head chef, wood choices turn into something truly special”