The impact of wood choice in an electric guitar

There are continuous debates on various topics that I am often asked to contribute to with my opinion. I usually decline, because it’s rarely important what my opinion is when it comes to the instruments I produce – it has to be the musician’s opinion that counts. So let’s start by the question “Which tonewood is the best” and just answer it with “The tonewood that gives the musician the sound and feeling he or she is after” and then we can leave it at that.

My son David did a school project about a year ago now, and I have been meaning to publish it for a long time. What prompted me to do so, was stumbling onto a “myth debunking video” the other day, which draws all the wrong conclusions in the name of science.

Here’s what David did:

  1. Created four identical test rigs out of scrap wood from my workshop. They are all 725 x 35 x 47 mm in size, and weigh 651 grams (Alder), 618 g (Koa), 537 g (Swamp Ash), and 818 g (Zebrano). They obviously don’t exactly mimic a guitar, but should for the sake of the test resemble the type of tensions and forces that a guitar body with a neck is subjected to.
  2. Fitted two .strandberg* bridges, a .046″ low E-string and a .010″ high E-string on a 25.5″ scale, and a Lace Aluma X-bar pickup 125 mm away from the bridge. The same bridge, pickup and strings was used in each test.
  3. Created a simple rig to hang a plastic ruler from, to strike the strings with an equal force each time, simulating a pick hitting the string. (As you can hear in the recordings, the pick attack between the samples is somewhat different, but less different than the results, I would argue.)
  4. Recorded two sets of samples of each rig on different occasions, to isolate issues with repeatability.
  5. Created Fast Fourier Transform snapshots 2 seconds into each clip to provide a visual comparison.

Here’s what what you can hear and see in the video below:

  1. A 5 second clip of the low E each on Alder, Koa, Swamp Ash, Zebrano – first recording
  2. A 5 second clip of the low E each on Alder, Koa, Swamp Ash, Zebrano – second recording
  3. A 5 second clip of the high E each on Alder, Koa, Swamp Ash, Zebrano – first recording
  4. A 5 second clip of the high E each on Alder, Koa, Swamp Ash, Zebrano – second recording
  5. Alternating first and second recording of the low E and then high E of Alder, Koa, Swamp Ash, Zebrano
  6. Alternating first and second recording of the low E of Alder, Koa, Swamp Ash, Zebrano
  7. Alternating first and second recording of the high E of Alder, Koa, Swamp Ash, Zebrano


Here’s my intuitive explanation to why we are hearing what we are hearing: What makes a guitar sound like a guitar, as opposed to for example a piano or a harp, is the spectrum of overtones that are generated when the strings are plucked. This also makes two guitars sound different from each other, despite having the same make/model of pickups. Any component that is involved in how the vibrations in the string is created (this is kind of what the myth debunking video refers to as “timbre”, but then goes on to equate to amplitude and frequency, as if the tonewood would alter the notes, as opposed to the tone) affects the sound. For example:

  • the string itself: material, gauge, etc.
  • how the string is plucked: fingers, nails, plastic pick, stone pick, a coin, etc.
  • how the string is anchored in each end, i.e. the characteristics of the bridge, the nut/fret materials, and even if there is a headstock, and so on.
  • the properties of the material that holds the anchors of each end of the string apart, i.e the density, stiffness, and so on of the body and neck materials.

Note how the FFT images are composed of a whole variety of frequencies in the video above. Here is one with just a single curve for simplicity:

Screenshot 2014-12-28 20.16.42

In the image above, the first higher peak we see is E4 (i.e. the low E-string on a guitar in standard tuning), the second peak is E5 (i.e. an octave higher) and the following high peaks are B5, E6, G#6, B6, D7, and so on. Remember that the test rigs only have two strings, both tuned to E, and plucked open. So what you are hearing is a mish-mash of tons of overtones that shape the character of the “tone” that you hear.

The pickups on an electric guitar can only pick up the vibrations of the string and convert those vibrations into electricity, which is ultimately converted into sound waves that emanate from the speakers. Do the pickups shape the sound? Of course! Can pickups mask the characteristics and make two electric guitars with different tonewoods sound the same? Yes again. So, I guess the correct answer to the question if wood makes a difference in the sound of an electric guitar is “It depends”. A pickup that can’t pick up these subtle overtone differences, enough compression, or other kinds of dynamics-killing processing, will kill the dynamics of any guitar, regardless of tonewood. Does that make it a bad guitar? Not necessarily – it depends on what the musician is after.

A good guitar builder can pick materials that provide a predictable result. The process of making a <insert established brand name here> guitar that costs $10,000 and one that costs $1,000 is identical, or at least very similar. The big difference is likely that in the more expensive one, personal attention has been put into selecting, drying, storing, and cutting the tonewood. The cheaper, which is mass produced by less skilled labor, consists of the same species of wood, but from a pile that came out of a container, in the order it was stacked. This means that two guitars from the same batch can sound quite different. They can sound exactly like the expensive guitar, but they can also sound different.

Manufacturing techniques can alter the impact of the variability of other factors. A .strandberg* guitar is made from lightweight but stiff materials. The neck is reinforced with carbon fiber. Each string rests on its own bridge that does not transfer vibrations to the other strings in the same way as a conventional guitar bridge. The bridges themselves are made from light and stiff aircraft aluminium instead of brass or steel as is commonplace. Each component is tightly coupled to the next with no room to vibrate. Regardless of tonewood, your .strandberg* will sound clear, airy, organic, dynamic, and respond quickly to the plucking of strings with a great dynamic range – as a result of the construction itself. The characteristics of different woods and pickups are transferred more effectively than might otherwise be the case. Is this better? Again, it depends on what the musician is after… I’ve come across for example ES-335 players that are intimidated by the responsiveness and dynamics and who become inhibited and self conscious when picking up a .strandberg*. But for most, it’s a pleasant experience that liberates their tone.

Add to this the physical attributes and ergonomics of a .strandberg* that work together to relax muscles, joints and tendons when playing. Some players are freaked out by the low weight, others by the lack of headstock and some have a natural playing position that places their thumb right at the edge of the EndurNeck™ and is not comfortable at all.

You have to judge for yourself.

Feel better – Sound better.

34 Comments

  1. Awesome article, of course wood makes a difference, you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to figure that out.

    However, I’m very grateful for the detailed test, it definitely proves the point.

    • Only a rocket scientist would take:

      ‘ I guess the correct answer to the question if wood makes a difference in the sound of an electric guitar is “It depends”.’

      to mean

      “OF COURSE”

      ?

    • Yup! I agree with your point. The important thing that the guitar made by woods, if you’re the good builder knows how to choose good materials with reasonable costs. Anyway, the boy did project well.

  2. This is a valiant effort, but this is not ‘science’.
    It could perhaps better be called ‘vaguely science’ish’ or maybe ‘sciency’ but there is just so much wrong.

    First off, you start out from the vantage that wood makes a difference in an electric signal to a degree that can be heard. You basically accept an inherently invalid premise as valid, then go from there. The entire experiment is essentially an exercise in confirming your own biases, which themselves would not withstand a blindfold.

    Your entire conclusion is that it has something to do with ‘overtones’ that again, are deep into the realm of magical thinking.

    Lastly, everything is unblinded (you provide an answer key before the video even begins) which all but guarantees confirmation bias will be overwhelming.

    Nice try, but perhaps study how medicines are studied in clinical trials- and more importantly, why they are studied that way- to shed a little light on why this kind of ‘test’ doesn’t add much to the tonewood debate, other than being a Rorschach that allows a certain sort of person to see what they want.

    • Thanks for your thoughts. I don’t claim this to be science – I offer it as my intuitive understanding of the observations made in a high school science project.

      • This topic always raises a lot of passion in folks, on both sides. I think your “It depends” conclusion is the right one. But most of all, I would like to commend you on raising such an engaged and motivated son. Kudos to him!

    • Boy, such uncalled for resentment! Why exactly this harsh debate? This is certainly not the most accurate study on tonewoods that could ever be performed, but also far from the complete bs you practically call it.

      “First off, you start out from the vantage that wood makes a difference in an electric signal to a degree that can be heard. You basically accept an inherently invalid premise as valid, then go from there. The entire experiment is essentially an exercise in confirming your own biases, which themselves would not withstand a blindfold.”

      Ahem, did you listen to the clips? There are taken under absolutely comparable settings (same wood volumes, same hardware, same pickups, same strings, same picking et cetera) and yet they do show noticeably different frequency spectrums…I mean, if you don’t hear any difference, I have bad news for your ears.

      “Your entire conclusion is that it has something to do with ‘overtones’ that again, are deep into the realm of magical thinking.”

      Why would that be “magical thinking”? Unless you play a sine wave with a synth, the timbre of every instrument is made of a set of freuquencies, a dominant frequency plus a ton of harmonics (which is, I take it, the overtones people talk about). Woods, like every other material, resonate at particular frequencies, and consequently might emphasize a particular subset of these frequencies rather than another subset. Hardly magical thinking.

      “Lastly, everything is unblinded (you provide an answer key before the video even begins) which all but guarantees confirmation bias will be overwhelming.”

      Well, we are not part of the study! The study has been conducted, and he’s just giving you the results, it was written nowhere that you had to guess which wood was which or anything of the sort. This doesn’t imply that his little kid (cause this is his son’s science project, remember) performed any form of double-blind test, but still your remark is completely inapplicable and actually turns back on you, that make a big fuss about this article’s sloppyiness, only to attack it with wrong logical reasoning.

    • Fair point, but you should try being less condescending in future. Being ‘smart’ doesn’t entitle you to be a dick to someone.

    • This man presented evidence without tampering with it. It’s there for you to interpret. That’s how science works. So you embark on endless speculation about his motives. What do you know about his motives? And what do they have to do with the evidence he presented? You’re not a scientist, you’re a poser. Either educate yourself or shut up.

    • I liked that the test used identical setups and that the results were captured on a high resolution display. Often the debunkers use either their ears alone (and in a MP3 format as well for us to compare) or an oscilloscope which is a terrible measuring device for real sound because it can only display time and amplitude where the amplitude is a summed view of all the frequencies at the same time. The FFT clearly showed much much more.

  3. I don’t really care whether or not “tone woods” make a difference, I just want one of your guitars…

  4. The phenomenon of overtones in a guitar string is described in a credible way in for example http://www.bsharp.org/physics/guitar

    I think we can all agree that different models and makes of pickups sound different. I would argue that the reason for this is that they emphasize and amplify the overtones differently. If there were no overtones and a plucked string produced a perfect sine wave, then all guitar pickups would sound the same.

    I think we can also agree that a conventional passive tone control on a guitar cuts treble. It does this by progressively cutting overtone content from the signal.

  5. This is an excellent article. Whilst some have stated that it is less than scientific, I have certainly learned something from it. I am in the final year of a music degree and one of my dissertations is on this very subject.

  6. Best article on the topic i have come across. Thank you for that as this was much needed. The video shows exactly what i am already hearing, that swamp ash and alder sound much alike and vastly different from mahogany.
    I don’t think we should ask whether different woods produce different tones in an electric guitar or not, we should ask what for the certain (youtube) nerds vehemently deny such fundamental facts in the first place…

  7. Thank you Ola and David for this excellent article. The approach is totally scientific: you try to study the impact of one element of a system while keeping the rest of the settings identical (same pickups, same strings, same picking, etc.). The wood used modifies effectively the electrical spectrum composition and therefore the sound we hear. All the difficulty is that the wood is a part of a very complex system (woods combination, building type, pickups, strings, effects, amplification, restitution, etc.) and, without a solid knowledge or skills, it could be difficult to choose the right elements of the system to get what you want…

  8. Excellent article. I have found that is a complete waste of time trying to convince guitarist of anything contrary to what they already believe about instruments. The level of passion for the “wood doesn’t matter” camp is truly astounding. We are not testing a new drug or solving cold fusion. The question is simple, does wood make a difference in the tone of an electric guitar? Intuitively, it would seem strange if it didn’t; but, there are many factors that are going to affect the sound produced from a guitar; isolating them is as difficult as creating a study that will convince anyone of an idea they already are clinging to. I think this is a pretty good experiment, better than most I have seen. In the end though, who cares?…really. If someone would like a guitar made out of a Formica counter top…go for it, locking tuners, the pickups and strings of your choice…you’ll be ready to rock. And won’t you be the clever one? As for myself, my opinion, musical instruments have character, a soul if you will. That character comes from the material it is made out of and the craftsman that made it. There is no object more alive than a musical instrument. For arguments sake, lets grant the “wood doesn’t matter” their entire argument. I’d still buy the korina instrument over the countertop. And like most stubborn asses who play guitar, you won’t convince me otherwise.

    • Thanks for your note, Ed. I try to be very clear that there is no notion of one being better than another. They’re just different, and it’s a matter of preference what you want. Nothing I’ve ever posted has gotten more attention than this, so despite it probably being futile, I am planning to make new version of this with video as well.

  9. I think this is one of the better done tests. Any musical instrument is subjective, so there is no “this one sounds ‘better’”, but having an understanding of how individual components interact in the overall sound is important in a luthier. Too often players are too quick to label one guitar as sounding “good” or “bad” instead of quantifying what characteristics they do or don’t like. Building this sonic vocabulary helps a musician work their way towards their ideal instrument instead of haphazard trial and error.

  10. Ola, I haven’t paid much attention to this issue for some time and your article motivated me to research the the question again. I found what I think is a very good experiment; https://youtu.be/E55QkLpSSMo.
    Thanks again.

    Ed

    • Thanks Ed, that was a great clip and it explains some of the things that are going on in a very understandable way.

  11. I’m thinkin the criticisms of ‘unscientific’ are a bit uncalled for. This is a blog, not a peer reviewed acoustics journal (and I wonder how many guitar fans read those.) I took this as a well-considered reminder that the type of wood can have an effect on the sound we get, something many players may not be aware of. Thanks, Ola!

  12. Thanks for your note, Ed. I try and be terribly clear that there’s no notion of 1 being higher than another. They’re simply completely different, and it’s a matter of preference what you wish. Nothing I’ve ever denote has gotten additional attention than this, thus despite it in all probability being futile, i’m getting to build redo of this with video likewise.

  13. OK, maybe I’m insane but I definitely heard a difference between the woods in the videos. The most obvious are those at the beginning and end of each strike. They all share similarities but were different. Some were harsh starting off but rounded out and mellowed, others were just dull. Others were more consistent. Am I the only one hearing this?

  14. Well, the differences in tone are undeniable. The spectrograph shows them up in an objective way too.

    As the text says, the pick wasn’t exactly identical with all the samples. This would make for the differences alone: The movement of the string must not be imagined as a plain two dimensional one. In fact it’s rotating in three dimensions, while the pickup only senses that part of the movement which is perpendicular to the deck of the guitar. The vibrations direction changes all the time and does so for each frequency component (read: harmonics) independently.

    Practically this can be experienced with a to low action. It might buzz not instantly but a second or two later once the vibrations mean direction travels from parallel to perpendicular.

    The effect described has to be controlled for a valid test. Scientific tests do so by for example using a (scientific ;-) hammer as the actor. Such would be repeatable, but–well–the strings movement might in detail remain unpredictably chaotic.

    When it comes to the specific tone of a guitar as opposed to a harp or piano common wisdom suggests the transient, say “the pick” to be the discriminator at least for untrained listeners. Then the series of harmonics might be of interest. But this is fixed by the scale and fretting. Only the relative amplitude of harmonics may vary, which by common wisdom does not do to much in reasonable bounds.

    An utterly odd topic would be a discussion of woods for a certain tone. Wood does no magic to the tone. It has properties which might change the resonant behavior of a guitar body. But, that it does by some very course parameters, say stiffness and specific weight. Of very same importance is the shape of the plank which is referred to as “the body”. Stiffness, weight and shape work all together.

    As a trained engineer I just don’t see how contemporary luthiers would be able to control only these three parameters in combination in order to make up a specific tone. There is simply no connection between these and the sonic impact they have–again, in combination. Did anyone ever change the shape due to the wood he uses? For instance wood would be lighter by 5%, stiffer by 8% (which would be very much, by the way, but it happens all the time even with the same species) so consequentially make the horn less thick by 3% and trim the tail by 5 mm. A rule like that would be plausible in case wood would affect the tone that much. But luthiers never do. Thy do not even take care of weight and stiffness.

    The only thing which can be observed is that people try to get a feel for a rough slap of wood. How does it touch? But again, where is the plausible connection to the triplet of weight, stiffness and shape in combination?

    Let’s get rational.

  15. The sheer amount of hate by those that think it’s all about pickups and strings is scary…I bet they are descended from those that burned witches back in the day.

    Anyway, what I’ve found is that differences in woods, with all other things being held the same, is made more obvious with high levels of volume. What I believe is that the energy in the sound waves from the amplifier is vibrating the woods used and making the sounds from different guitars (even those of the same woods) more obvious.

    Same woods sounding different? OF COURSE!!! Look, I’ve been a carpenter for over 30 years and can absolutely inform you that there is a marked variation of characteristics of wood in the same species…density, tap tone, characteristics of how the individual piece reacts to being worked with tools…heck for all anybody knows internal stresses (for example as indicated by how a 12″ wide piece of wood reacts to being ripped down the center…many times both pieces end up being bowed and such) might play a big factor in how said piece of wood sounds musically…shrugs shoulders…

    The best data I can offer for the fact that wood matters in tone is the following:

    I had a 1984 Jackson Randy Rhoads Custom with a serial # in the low 400′s…that thing would sing on a note with high gain and boost with a TS-808 Tube screamer like a Sustainiac guitar…problem was the bridge was mislocated and it wouldn’t intonate correctly…sent it back…made them replace it with a new guitar (didn’t want plugs in it)…the new one had (ermmm…still has as I still own it) the EXACT same pickups, hardware down to the tuning machines, etc…EVERY single piece of hardware was moved over to the replacement (and in the case of the bridge pickup it is a proven fact as that was/is a retail version of an SH-6 wired for series/single coil/parallel…along with the pickguard with the additional hole for switch)…same types of wood used (3 piece maple neck through construction with poplar wings) yet the replacement has NEVER sung on a note. So what does that say? I have to say that the replacement does sound “better” overall in some intangible way…glassier I guess…longer sustain…yet it REFUSES to go into a sustained feedback loop.

    I can ONLY think this is because wood DOES matter

  16. If the wood is the foundation of the structure, of course it will contribute to how the guitar sounds. Most people who argue that wood doesn’t affect the tone say that the string cant be affected by the wood because it is suspended between the metal parts of the guitar. If this were entirely true, you wouldn’t feel vibration in the guitar body. If the body of the guitar is vibrating, then it is going to affect the vibration of the string. The foundation of a structure will affect how it reacts to vibration.

  17. It is good test, it would be great if you could compare more woods as mahogany, basswood etc. And maybe mahogany glued with maple top to simulate les paul. Very interesting article! Thank you.

  18. If you find the time and patience to dive further into this topic you might want to try a book called “Physik der Elektrogitarre” (physics of the electric guitar) by Manfred Zollner.

    He is a very approachable guy that put in almost a decade of work to put together this 1300 page book in two volumes. It explains all sorts of sources of sound of the electric guitar.

    The retired Dr. of engineering lectured as a professor of electroacoustics and signal processing at the university of applied sciences of Regensburg, Germany.

    You and all other interested people can download a pre-release of his book here:
    http://gitec-forum.de/GitecWP/downloads/

    A whopping 40MB pdf-file.

    At the moment it is only available in german.
    It might be translated in the future.

    The gitec-forum which he founded, is a association for sharing knowledge of this kind and there are meetings/workshops to do so.

  19. As a musician for 50 years and a custom builder for 30 years I definitely believe that wood choice has an effect on the tone and sound characteristics of an electric guitar. In my younger years as a cabinet maker, I was helping install a large church pipe organ (Cassavan I believe). The installer from Montreal and I had some discussions about wood and specifically wood properties best for certain applications. He told me that they used poplar for the spacers between the organ pipes because as a good tone wood, sound did not bleed from one pipe to another which is very important with pipe organs. They are the oldest and I believe the largest pipe organ manufacturer in the world and have done a lot of trial and error in this area according to the installer as to what wood works best. I happen to agree with them and agree that poplar is an excellent tone wood and works very well in guitars. Jackson guitars use poplar in there guitar bodies and is a great sounding tone wood. I use it a lot in my custom guitar because of the nice tone it produces.

  20. A) this is not a double blind test. As a result, the conclusions are by definition biased.
    B) using same brand/model pickups is not the same as using the SAME pickups. In other words, a single pickup on all tested rigs.

    Changing wood on a solid body electric will impact the sound the least.

    And at any rate…. A human being will not be able to tell the difference. Not to mention that if the signal goes thru a distortion pedal, you can say goodbye to any difference at all.

    • Hi Kris,
      thanks for your note. We are not drawing any conclusions whether one is better than the other, just that they are different, which I think is apparent from the samples. Also, we did use only one pickup that we moved between the samples, and mounted it in the exact same location in relationship to the bridge. I would claim that the only variable that could have been controlled to a greater extent is the picking attack.

      Best regards,
      Ola

  21. There’s tons of people going on about this nonsense like there isn’t a clear definition in the tones of two different woods.

    After spending a moment on youtube, I found a comparison video with two guitars coming off the same assembly line. The pickups were “wound to the millimeter”. One, mahogany and the other, maple. Running through the same amp, on a clean setting, there is an audible difference between the two. Its unmistaken.

    It does however get a little bit more difficult once the distortion is turned up. But you can still hear it very well when there’s nothing being added to the pure guitar tone.

    I agree with some people that the importance lies on the electronics side, like the quality of the pickups used. But it is simply absurd to act like you can’t hear a difference.
    Check out this chart:
    http://fretbomb.com/definitive-answers-on-guitar-wood-tones

    This explains the difference in guitar tones expertly.

    There is another theory stating that the magnets cant even detect the vibrations from your guitar, and that theory is proven wrong too.

    I just don’t see why people always have to find some loop hole as to why a test is complete and udder garbage…there’s always going to be some smidgen of detail that isn’t quite right for you to swallow.

    I’ve had a guy play two telecasters right next to each other at the guitar store and they sound completely different

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