Friday, January 25, 2013

WOODS FOR GUITAR AND BASS (a guide for dummies)

Hello and welcome to this week's article! Today we're going to talk about woods!
How do the different types of wood change the sound of a guitar or a bass?
Like every string instrument, guitars and basses are all made of wood (except for some particular model), and the wood type influences the resulting sound.
The incidence of the wood on the final sound is particularly audible on acoustic instruments, since in the electric ones it's easier to mask a cheap wood with a good pickup, that is sometimes capable to transform radically a signal, yet a good wood choice can give a strong print to the final sound.

The wood type, the kind of tree used to build the body, has a big impact on the tone, but along with the type of wood it's important the amount of it (if the quality is good, the more wood = the more tone), the shape (some shapes are more likely to resonate than others), the age (more years = less moisture inside the wood = more resonance) and how the neck is jointed with the body (if the guitar is neck-through-body, the sound will resonates better and have more sustain).

We must not forget that trees are living things, therefore not all woods of the same tree specie are made equal, for example if we take two identical instruments of the same brand and made with the same wood, we can still find some tonal difference: this is because some part of the body will resonate better, others will resonate less, and on some part may be present a knot or some other natural imperfection that will stop the sound to propagate at best through the body.
If a piece of wood is perfectly flawless and properly aged, it's classified as "10-top", and its value is much higher than the other pieces, therefore it will be used to create higher level guitars (such as
the top-end Paul Reed Smith guitars).

Here are the most common woods used for Guitar and Bass body and neck:

- Mahogany: Mahogany's weight and density are similar to maple, however mahogany carries are more mellow, soft and warm tone to it, with a great sustain. Les Paul guitars, along with the vast majority of "rock guitars", are made with Honduran mahogany.

- Maple: Maple is a very popular wood for necks and fretboards. Easily identifiable because of its bright tone, characteristic grain patterns and moderate weight, it's featured on many Fender Stratocaster and Telecaster guitars. It's tonal characteristics includes durability, a good sustain with plenty of bite.

- Ash: Ash is available in two types: Northern (hard) or Swamp Ash (soft). Hard Ash is popular because of its hardness, with bright tone and long sustaining qualities.
Swamp Ash is much softer; many 50's era Fender guitars were built with this wood, which has a much warmer feel than Hard Ash. Both variations have an open grain, meaning that a lot of lacquer is required to seal the wood. Excellent for clear finishes.

- Basswood: Basswood is a very light wood - even lighter than alder. It is very soft, and should not be subjected to much abuse. This wood has a nice warm, soft tone.

- Alder: Alder is light in weight with soft tight pores like Basswood. Tonally, alder retains more of the highs that Basswood softens, but it also gives some room to the lows. This brings to a broader spectrum of tones, which leads to the perception of a little less mids than Basswood.

- Rosewood: Rosewood is one of the heaviest woods available. The sound is very warm (Indian Rosewood is even warmer and heavier than the Brazilian one), although the high end sounds are dampened. Usually Indian Rosewood is reserved for fretboards only.

- Walnut: Walnut's tone is slightly warmer than maple, although it still has good sustain. This wood can look excellent with oil finishes, and is moderately heavy, but still lighter than maple.

- Tulipwood (tulipier): it's a premium wood similiar to maple, sometimes used to make Stratocaster clones. It's lighter than mahogany but with similar tonal characteristics.

Focusing on neck and fretboard material, Maple is a common wood for necks, as it is stiff, and creates a bright tone. Rosewood and maple are used for fretboards: Rosewood creates a warm tone, but ebony, a slightly less common wood, is very heavy and creates a bright, hard attack, and has a longer durability than Rosewood.
If you are on a guitar shop you can try to lay your ear on the guitar/bass body and knock lightly over it, to hear how much it resonates: the more is the sound, the richer will be the tone, once it's plugged into an amplifier.
This is also a way to find parts that doesn't resonate: if we have to choose between two identical guitars this may be a criteria to find the best one, the one with less "dead" parts on its body (on cheaper guitars, though, these tests to understand the resonance of the wood are harder, since the manufacturers covers the wood with dense layers of lacquered paint to cover the imperfections and its cheapness).
As a general rule, though, when plugged into an amplifier, softer and less dense woods will produce more volume, less attack and less sustain while heavier and denser woods will produce more sustain and a sharper attack with less volume.

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