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Guitar Tone - Why Everything Matters

 "Fracturecaster" by Phil Sylvester of Pheo Guitars, Portland, OR
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October, 27, 2016

Guitar Tone Wood Factor (Even Solidbodies)

Swap the hardware & electronics from a Les Paul into a chambered Les Paul, then explain why the chambered one sounds different. Remember that the humbuckers are NOT microphones-- and only translate string vibrations into current in either guitar. Explain why wood and hardware resonances are not the reason for the tonal differences between both guitars using the same hardware, pickups and pots.

Everything matters. The vibrational pattern of a string is influenced by the body/neck/hardware resonances. And the vibrating string influences the way the pickup's field converts to current, which translates the guitar signal to the amp. Anyone saying solidbodies don't count should consider what makes a dreadnaught distinguishable from an OM thru an amp using a magnetic sound hole pickup with no microphonic capacity. Again, structural resonances influencing strings. Likewise, you can feel any body and neck vibrate sympathetically to/with string vibrations whether the body is hollow or not. Swap the same pickups and harness between 2 identically set up Telecasters, and the guitars still have tone and sustain differences. And that can only be attributed to structural resonance variations due to different wood characteristics between the Teles. Tonewoods matter because different wood species, density, moisture content, resin characteristics, grain textures and grain patterns resonate uniquely. Every component vibrates differently, cross vibrates and phases; combining into an overall resonance identity . Swap the same set of humbuckers & harness between an SG a Les Paul and a 335. They'll all sound different. And although the 335 is hollow, remember those pickups are magnetic and not audio reproduction mics. Even tapping 2 identical size empty wine glasses will yield different pitches.

Every component matters-- bridge, saddles, nut, strings, trem block, springs... All hardware as well as scale length variations. Pickups/harness are a HUGE factor indeed. Set-up, string type, string gauge and player dynamics which include how, where and how hard they attack-- and with what, are huge. 2 different musicians playing the same piece thru identically set up & configured unplugged solidbodies OR even the same instrument, will produce different tones and overtones. The reason we go on so much about wood is because a typical guitar's mass is still mostly wood. Naturally occurring forest 'products' are much more wildly variable than machined & cast metals and plastics/composites..

When we talk about carbon graphite guitars and or metal guitars; most non-wood platforms-- we usually experience greater consistency both unplugged and plugged in. Then emphasis shifts to hardware/electronics variations. And ultimately, pickups are the wild variable over hardware as it's easer to plan, predict, produce and procure consistent saddles and truss rods, etc. than matching pickup coils. But attack initiates string vibrations which also set off unique structural resonances that further loop-modify string vibrational characteristics resulting in TIMBRES, translated both acoustically and electro-magnetically. As an aside, since the infamous cardboard Strat has come up a few times here, although they managed to create a structurally stable guitar, and set it up adequately, it is not a good sounding Strat as Strats go. Notice in the video that most player demos utilize heavy effects. Any sparse, plugged straight in or even unplugged stuff is pretty dead sounding. Most are excited about the appearance, lightness and general novelty of the guitar. But replay the video with your eyes closed, and it's not a Fender CS Wildwood '10 demo by Greg Koch or nearly anyone's ideal dream Strat…

The waveform and oscillating patterns of a vibrating string are influenced by sympathetic resonances from wood and hardware. And that these patterns translate as tonal and timbre characteristics within the pickup's magnetic field as well as acoustically. In other words, a plucked, open 46 gauge low E string at 25.5" on one Strat doesn't oscillate identically as the same gauge string on another Strat, even when plucked identically and both vibrating at the same pitch. A string's waveform and oscillation also changes as the string gets older because of dirt build up, especially in windings, but also with any strings as the string's uniformity is changed by playing. If the player solos and bends a lot in a certain keys, the strings will experience more loss of uniformity in those areas of the fretboard. When removing old strings, you can feel those irregular areas-- you can feel where frets were, and more in some sections than other sections. This cumulative 'wear' condition alters waveform oscillation patterns of the strings, which degrades brightness, timbres and intonation-- which we call 'dead strings'. They still vibrate as the notes are fretted, but the 'tone' and 'timbre' change because of stress irregularities and sections of dirt accumulation acting as vibrational impedance points that diminish the string's original oscillating patterns. You hear this acoustically (unplugged) and in the magnetic pickup translation. The wood and hardware also don't resonate the same way from string vibration, and in turn don't contribute back in the same ways sympathetically. In the broader sense, this is part of why a guitar note doesn't sound like the same note/pitch of another musical instrument.

Timbres identify and differentiate instruments both acoustically and electrically. Timbres are the result of string vibrational patterns reflecting the sum of wood and hardware resonances, pickup design, instrument set-up, attack style, scale length, string gauge, etc. Anyone who says that solid body tone woods are not a factor is also saying by default that every Les Paul identically set up and configured- string & hardware-wise- will sound the same unplugged-- OR that every one of those Les Pauls will sound the same plugged in when the same set of pickups and harness is swapped from LP to LP. Some people have 'conceded' that different solid body tone woods contribute to greater or lesser "SUSTAIN". Just know that within a sustained guitar note lives the oscillation patterns that are the sum of many parts, including wood resonance which is a 'guitar sound' and from there a specific guitar. A solid brass Strat, a solid granite Strat, a solid graphite Strat and a solid alder Strat will not all sound the same acoustically by virtue of sharing the common denominator of being SOLID-- as opposed to being hollow, semi-hollow, chambered or anything but 'solid'. Gibson didn't add maple caps to mahogany Les Paul bodies for ornate wood patterns. Those tops were originally painted black, and later gold, before bursts were offered which finally revealed flames & quilts. It was about tone modification. Solid body tone modification involving a wood variation.

So theoretically, if I swap the same hardware, pickups and electronics from an ash body/rosewood fretboard Telecaster to an alder body/all maple neck Tele, will the second Tele sound identical to the first-- both unplugged and plugged in? Correct? Also, theoretically, an acoustic guitar with a magnetic sound hole pickup (not an audio microphone) can be identified as an acoustic guitar from the PA speakers because of scale length only? And if you transfer that sound hole magnetic pickup to another identical model acoustic guitar with same string gauge, the 2nd guitar will sound identical through the PA speakers, right? Then, if you pop that pickup from a dreadnaught size acoustic to an OM size body acoustic with same same strings and scale length, they will sound identical thru the PA speaker, right? Remember, a magnetic sound hole pickup is only influenced by string vibration as opposed to a microphone. So, in these contexts and examples what are the differences between a solid body originated signal and a hollowbody originated signal-- since the magnetic pickup is only influenced by string vibration and not +/- acoustic presence? In spite of math and physics based calculations, real world empirical results can & must also be observed/heard by testing per above. And when you're not able to calculate why the 2nd guitar in each above example does not sound identical to the first, in spite of math, then you have to acknowledge the influence of body/neck/hardware resonances upon the wave form of string vibration patterns. And this doesn't matter whether solid body or hollow body.

Either way, most of the guitar's composition/content/structure is wood, which resonates from string vibrations and influences those patterns, which create timbres to identify guitars as guitars as well as one guitar from another guitar. This resonance result speaks to magnetic fields as well as dynamic microphones and piezo interfaces. This is also not debatable. So take some time to test by swapping real hardware and electronics between real guitars, solid or hollow-- then try to figure out why they don't sound identical.

JP Holesworth


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