Holy Tonewood

I have a problem with unsubstantiated claims that are based on “personal experience”, belief or statements “simple and/or obvious knowledge” which are in turn non-provable in the lab. This especially applies to musicians who seem to find all kinds of differences and using “experience” in order to convince everyone else about what’s the proper way to do things.

tonewoodI had people that argued that the size of your guitar’s input jacks affects your tone for that matter or even that the machine heads you use can make or break your tone. And while these are easily disprovable arguments, it’s a disaster when you’re discussing the effect of the guitar’s woods on the tone.

I came across this thread which discusses a study on the effect of the wood on the tone (you can find a link for the study in the first post). Essentially, what the graph shows is that while wood affects the tone, the effect is minimal. Here are two graphs from that study demonstrating this:

1 2

Let’s study the two graphs, shall we? First of all, we’ll need to notice that the horizontal scale of all graphs is different. Pickup graphs have a range of 15KHz while the microphone ones only range to about 5,8KHz.

In the first set of graphs then we can see that while the microphone part shows differences of up to about 20dB at points, the maximum noted difference in the pickup graph is about 5-6dB tops. One can argue that even 5dB can have a noticeable effect on sound and I will tentatively agree with that (it’s an incomplete statement without specifying the Q as well). But in this case, the huge amount of differences in the microphone graph is noticed within the range of the first 5KHz while in the pickup graph, the differences in that same range are minimal. True, there is a wide amount of extra high frequencies in that graph, but those are very much attenuated compared to the ones near the fundamentals; it’s entirely possible that without some extreme compression and very loud speakers you’d probably not even be able to notice to them.

Within the 5KHz range there seem to be about 6-7 spots that have a difference in amplitude greater than 5dB. I won’t disagree that if your ears are damn good, you may be able to spot these differences and distinguish a guitar’s character from another; but… keep that in mind for now, I’ll get back to it later.

 

Let’s have a look on the second graph then. This time the story’s a bit different. In the microphone graph we can see that that particular alder body seems to have a dead spot around 3KHz. Apart from that, the harmonics indicate that alder likes the 1,5-4KHz range more than ash does (with the exception of two peaks in that range). The differences are subtler than in the previous graph however.

In the pickup graph we can see differences of up to 10dB at points. While these seem more pronounced compared to the previous pickup graph, keep in mind that the peaks are very band-limited and the effect is not as pronounced as one might think. Again, I’m focusing on the 0-5KHz range; the dip in amplitude nears the bottom end of the 16bit dynamic range.

 

So, according to those diagrams, we can see that a pickup mostly ignores the effects of the tonewood on a guitar. The reason for that is that unlike some 50-60s pickups, today’s pickups are not microphonic. The way that tonewood does affect the tone however is in the ability of the string to sustain. In other words, tonewood X might allow for some frequencies to resonate in the wood better than tonewood Y and vice versa, with the effect on the resonating wood reflecting back to the string to a some kind of a limited feedback loop. This effect will make the string vibrate differently in regards to its proximity to the pickup and as a result make a few frequencies resonate a few dBs higher.

I still insist that the effect of the tone at this point is minimal and here is my argument for it: There are elements on your instrument that can actually affect your tone way more than tonewood does: The Pickup, the Pickup the Nut, the bridge, the proximity of the string picking to the bridge and of course, the strings. Notice how these are all absolutely related to (or simply are) the string. I’d argue that the bridge and the nut have a much lower effect than the pickup, the proximity of the picking and the pick, though I’d also argue that the bridge and the nut themselves have a greater effect than the wood.

These are things you can easily try out yourself however. When changing the pickups, changing the pick you use or even when you start picking strings closer to the bridge can affect the tone so much, what makes you believe that the effect of the tonewood is still relevant at this point?

 

Oh, I see that you still disagree with me and remain on the tonewood bandwagon. Very well then. Here are a couple more things to take into account when considering the tone of your guitar:

silhouette-rock-band-thumb9219259 Gibson/Baldwin GRAMMY Jazz Band Recording Session at Capitol Recording Studios

In other words, unless you’re gigging alone and comparing sounds using high-precision digital equipment, you’ll have to take the other instruments into account, trying to fit in that little band of available frequencies your guitar likes to reside on as well. And in order for everyone to be happy, the creatures known as audio engineers will take the signal and change it from the inside out, by equalising and compressing everything there is on the spectrum, because their mission is to make the final listener happy on his €50 mp3 player, not the musician.
The audio engineer will not care much if you want your guitar to sound more “warm” to the expense of other elements in the song. To him/her, this means more mids and those are also occupied by the vocalists, the other guitar and such. The mixer’s engineer’s job is to make the instruments sound good as a whole and the mastering engineer’s is to provide a polish to the final sound (that is, minor adjustments) plus equalising the levels of one song to those of the others in an album. The musician’s job is to play the instrument and contributing to the sound by choosing the instrument, the amp (if applicable) and (usually but not always) the microphone that applies to his/her instrument.

I’ll address the musician’s mentality in another post, however what you should take home from this one is that you should care for things that matter in your tone, knowing it will be heavily affected in the end. And as experiments would show, even changing the position of your picking will have a greater effect on your tone than the wood your guitar is made of.
Note, I’m not saying that every guitar has the same sound; I’m saying that Les Paul pickups on a superstrat will make the guitar sound almost completely like a Les Paul (and vice versa; I have an ESP LTD EC-1000 with EMG active pickups and 24 frets on a 24.75″ scale. It sounds more like a superstrat than a LP-style guitar).

Of course, to get back to one of my very first arguments, religious stupidity likes to crawl everywhere it can. In that particular forum thread, you’ll see shining examples of pristine mental processing that will put a smile on your face. Examples such as:

  • This is a case where it’s so far beyond that point i can only consider the researcher an utter moron. I don’t care what tests he did, it’s a moronic conclusion. – Translation: I don’t care what he did, he’s a moron because he disagrees with me, due to my personal anecdotal evidence from non-controlled experiments.
  • if you measure something and don’t see a difference between two objects whose differences you can clearly perceive, that just means you’re measuring the wrong things. – So, if the facts don’t support the theory, try to find new facts that will do ignoring things like the placebo effect. This is not wrong necessarily, but it’s dangerous if you use it to defend your convictions.
  • Guitars are complex systems. Everything effects everything. Wood included. – Yes, but not everything affects everything with the same intensity.
  • It may be nicely worded, but after years of experimenting around the same thing, I can guarantee their fundamental research work couldn’t be more wrong. Body material makes a huge difference in amplified electric guitars. – Fundamentalists also “guarantee” that their god is real. Thanks but no thanks, I’d much rather have proof rather than yours or anyone else’s guarantees.
  • The experimental design is flawed, the analysis is almost non-existent, and the pictures are misleading. Next! – Care to elaborate?
  • It’s because we hear better than we can measure. Therefore, to do real science in this area, plots and analysis are really blunt tools and almost useless ways to make a point here. – You realise that measuring objectively has to be done with instruments rather than ears and brains susceptible to the placebo effect, right? Unless you mean to say that you also weigh yourself using the mirror and the bathroom scale is blunt and useless.

Bottom line? Don’t get obsessed over trivialities. I would probably think twice before buying a basswood guitar, not because of its supposed great tonal inadequacies, but because it’s a softer wood, more susceptible to dings and surface damage. I’ll close this with a quote from a guy in that forum:

I always take anything that musicians say to me with a huuuuuge pinch of salt.

Have a nice day!

  2 comments for “Holy Tonewood

  1. Papaeris
    2013/08/28 at 10:13

    Placebo is a drug very addictive to all performance artists, scientsts can always measure the wrong things, though. In my personal experience, its way beyond argument that heavier, more solid and without inner discontinuities woods provide longer sustains (and sustain is a “tone” characteristic that all musicians crave for). There are probably smaller losses of energy when a ‘standing wave’ pulses through a more solid wood, because this wood reacts differently than a low quality, lets say melamine one.
    I cannot provide measurements to support my claims, nor that I care much or have the time to do it, but it’s not a placebo effect, its something experience supports.

    So, I am not so dismissive of some of the opinions you see as “unscientific”. Maybe the scientist didn’t know where to look, as some of the above persons argue.

    • Q
      2013/09/09 at 02:34

      Hi Papaeris,

      What I was trying to say, in a nutshell, is that, compared to other elements in a solid body electric guitar the wood should have a miniscule effect (with properly waxed and non-microphonic pickups that is). One would be wrong (in my opinion) to preemptively dismiss basswood or even agathis (which has a rather bad reputation) or even to have their opinion for an instrument affected by that fact, instead of solely focusing on the sound they get and the playability of the instrument itself, especially if one considers how much strings, picks, pickups and amps provenly affect the final sound you get (not to (re)mention the effect of the mixing & mastering engineers have in the final result), all compared to the still debatable effect of the tonewood.

      It’s OK really, I don’t care how other people set their criteria for the instruments they buy; their choice after all. This kinda becomes a problem for me, when I have to deal with ad hominem attacks of an almost religious nature, as the ones I demonstrated in the post against the research. Nobody cared to attempt to repeat the experiment (which I admit is difficult to be done properly scientifically), most wouldn’t even bother arguing the points made in a civil manner and with an open mind.

      As a closing example, I’ll tell the story of a Jackson JS32T which I bought off e-bay for cheap, being a cheap instrument to begin with. It’s an Indian Cedar made flying-V like guitar with an actually awesome maple neck and rosewood fretboard. The guitar came with a Duncan Designed B and a no-name N pickups (plus they were in the wrong positions). The guitar sounded awful but played nicely, thanks to the neck. I replaced the pickups with an EMG H4/H4A set and the sound improved quite a bit, but EMG-HZs were a bad choice for something I intented to use for Standard D. I then changed them (again) to EMG 81/85 with the 18V mod and the sound of the 81 was almost indiscernable to my ESP EC-1000 with the same bridge pickup (81/60 + the mod), which is made out of mahogany.
      This is anecdotal since I haven’t recorded the procedure anywhere in order to present it as evidence, but I’m content to state that the guitar became a usable guitar, after I changed the pickups and the nut with an Earvana one. The point is that it sounded damn similar if not outright the same with a completely differently shaped and priced instrument which happened to have the same pickups.

      Cheers!

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