Guitars have been made from rocks, metal, and numerous types of endangered species, all in the search of finding the perfect tone or sound. First Act showcased a bamboo guitar, complete with a fully bamboo guitar neck just to try and get people away from the rare woods. Plywood, plastic, and wood-composites have even found their way into the manufacturing of guitars and basses. Each of these claim to have the perfect sound.
For the purposes of brevity, this will only cover solid-body electric guitar wood, so no information on bamboo acoustic guitars, or the like, will be discussed. Wood is the predominant material for guitars and basses, and it would be easy to do a search for a tone wood chart, but there are so many different woods it would be a bit overwhelming. No one type of tree is used for guitar lumber. There are some basic principals to answer any tone wood question:
- First, any wood which is physically softer (basswood) than another piece, will have a warmer/darker sound. Conversely, any wood which is physically harder (ebony) than another piece, will be brighter/ clearer.
- Second, from where on the tree and how it is cut, will impact the tone.
- Third is how oily (wenge) or dry (maple) the wood is will also affect the tone.
If that is mildly confusing, let us examine violin tone quality. Why violin? Because the best instruments in the world were made by Stradivarius, and maybe what he did for violins could be used on guitars. His violins were generally made from spruce, an option you do not see on many electric guitars. Recently, some researchers examined his violins in a CT scanner and discovered that the more dense the wood, even from the same tree, the more it sounded like a Stradivarius. Wood resonance is the key for a great tone!
For the electric guitar, how much wood resonance is detected in the pickups, the cable, and the amp? None. Wood is not magnetic. Guitar pickups detect a magnetic field disrupted by the strings. This was never a guitar wood guide. It is all evidence for the true influences on the tone of the electric guitar. You may be confused, but being completely honest, wood has no impact on a solid body instrument that uses magnetic pickups.
Here are some things that do have an impact on guitar tone:
- Nut Material
- Scale length
- String gauge and core size
- Bridge mass
- Your ear
A simple test to see if you really notice tonal differences of certain materials is to play an open note on a guitar with a plastic nut, then fret any fret of the same string. The fret is metal, the nut is plastic so it should sound a bit different. You don’t need to solve a guitar sudoku to get great tone, just understand what you like and buy quality.