The Tonewood Debate

Recently, I ran across another discussion in an online forum debating the characteristics of various tonewoods in electric guitars. In case you've never visited a guitar forum and witnessed this, the debate surrounds the influence that different species of wood have on tone, or the voice, of the guitar.

One side claims the different species absolutely effect the tone. Maple is brighter than Ash, which is brighter than Alder, which is brighter than Mahogany, for example. The other side says "Wood? How can wood have an effect on an electric guitar? It isn't part of the electronic signal chain!"

So, I found a Professor at Georgia Tech, a prestigious engineering institution, who holds a Bachelors in Music Performance and Recording Arts and Sciences as well as a Masters and PhD in Mechanical Engineering. I asked him the following questions:

In the guitar building community, there is an ongoing debate regarding the effect that various species of wood, used in the construction of the necks and bodies for solid-body electric guitars, have on the tone (or what I would consider the voice) of the guitar. For example, it is a widely held belief that mahogany (a more porous wood) body guitars produce a warmer tone while maple (a less porous wood) body guitars produce a brighter tone. As it relates to solid-body, fully electric guitars only, how could the choice of Ash, versus Alder, Mahogany, Maple, etc., directly influence the tone of the guitar? Is it possible for different species of wood to effect the electromagnetic field surrounding the guitar's pickups, which would in-turn effect to frequency response of the signal and cause some guitars to sound "warm" and others "bright"? 

The Professor, from whom I did not seek permission to use his name so I won't disclose it, provided the following response:

Hi Rod,

Thanks for reaching out. This is CERTAINLY a controversial topic as you know. 

From a simplistic point of view, the body should make no difference to the sound. The pickups are so close to the strings and the wood exhibits no electromagnetic properties. In this basic model, the assumption that the body makes no difference would be a correct one. However, people will trust their ears and their perception/feel more than basic models. More complex models look at the motion of the solid body and how the physical vibrations of the transducer might have a noticeable effect on the electromagnetic response. (Editor's Note: this link works occasionally: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Helmut_Fleischer/publication/233595733_Mechanical_Vibrations_of_Electric_Guitars/links/561b67b508ae78721f9fca8c.pdf) Other people have looked at particular joints of the guitar body/neck and how it might affect the vibrational characteristics. (https://hal.archives-ouvertes.fr/hal-00810874/document)    

You can try to contact the authors of those papers for more of their research. I find as a musician, the feel of the instrument can affect the perception greatly. If the weight or the density distribution, or the texture (or anything else) is off, then it’ll affect my acoustical judgement of the instrument. I would hypothesize that in most scientific studies, with rigorous statistical analysis, it’s hard to say one way or the other. Thus why it’s so controversial. 

Here’s another paper that may interest you: http://hal.upmc.fr/file/index/docid/810875/filename/hal-00810875.pdf

So, there you have it. The definitive answer. Or not. My take-away is this: if you believe you hear a difference, then there is a difference.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go practice Voodoo and over-wind some pickups to add extra mojo to offset the brightness of a solid Maple body, Ebony fretboard, and titanium saddles on the guitar I'm building.

Handmade versus Factory Made

There is a great article written by Ervin Somogyi entitled "Some Thoughts on the Difference Between Handmade and Factory Made Guitars."  Mr. Somogyi builds acoustic guitars, by hand, that start at $31,000 and he is considered a foremost American authority on the principles of acoustic guitar construction. While I build electric guitars, most of his ideas still apply. I encourage you to read his article.

There are a myriad of reasons why people choose to buy handmade products over machine, or factory, made. Many of these reasons are tied to emotions. In his article, Mr. Somogyi acknowledges that many factory made guitars are equally as good as handmade guitars, especially given the varying levels of expertise between builders.

One difference he points out is choice of features and options. Mass-produced guitars are very standard in their features and the choice of options is usually limited to the number of models produced by the factory - generally, very few in order to maintain consistency and lower the cost to produce. This is one of the primary advantages of commissioning a custom guitar. The choices of options and features are almost endless.

A second difference is personal relationships. Mr. Somogyi believes that "an important difference between handmade and non-handmade guitars is the degree to which the process is one of collaboration." There is something to be said for the relationship that develops between guitar maker and musician.  The builder will be available for consultation and he will feel a responsibility to the buyer for the work he does. The musician will likely develop a bond with the guitar maker and feel a much stronger sense of pride. 

Another important difference is craftsmanship. As I mentioned before, the quality may very well be comparable, especially if comparing "Custom Shop" creations to handmade instruments. According to some industry experts, factories are concerned with efficiency and consistently making identical things. According to Mr. Somogyi, "The main ideal behind factory guitars is that they be made quickly, strong and salable. The main ideal behind the handmade instrument is quality of sound and playability. A really well made guitar almost plays itself."

So if quality is comparable, what's the biggest difference? To me, it is the emotional connection between the guitar maker, the instrument, and the musician. Factories are cold, sterile, automated environments that try to drive human interaction out of the process and are guided by quantitative measures. Handmade guitars  are built one at a time - with passion, dedication, and love - and human involvement every step of the way.

In short, custom makers give their guitars a soul.  

 

A Case for Fat Necks

Maybe the most critical element to comfort and playability in a guitar is the neck. For me, the feel of the neck defines the guitar. I like big necks and I cannot lie (what, huh?)....

Today, most budget and mid-priced guitars come with standard, thin neck profiles. It seems that, for most manufacturers, thin is still “in.” While many players grew up playing thin necks and love them, an increasingly large number of players find the extra girth more practical, comfortable, and tone righteous.

 

Thick necks equal more mass, which stabilizes the headstock and prevents much of the strings energy from dissipating. This results in a more complete, robust sound and, some say, better tone.

If you like thick necks, you may have trouble finding one “off the rack” that suits you. Today, some of the re-issue models from the major manufacturers offer thicker vintage neck profiles as do their Custom Shop models – both of these options come with a premium price.

With a Custom guitar, you can get the size and neck profile that manufacturers may not offer. You select the wood, size, back contour, and other features so the neck feels comfortable in YOUR hand. I spend time hand shaping the neck in the final stage so that it feels like you have played it for years. Then, the nut is accurately slotted and shaped, intonation is adjusted properly, and frets are leveled, crowned, and polished to eliminate buzzing.

One more thing about necks; as players get older, they often complain about their hand cramping while playing. The solution: a thicker neck that fills up the area between the thumb and index finger and provides relief to those muscles. And bigger necks can also work great for people with small hands - sounds counter-intuitive, I know. But, the right combination of neck thickness, back contour, fretboard radius, and neck width can dramatically improve comfort and playability.

If you’re accustomed to playing thin necks, I encourage you to find a guitar with a thick neck and give it a spin. You may be surprised at how comfortable it feels. Check out the neck profiles and common thicknesses to the right. My personal favorites are the Chunky C's, with 1st fret thicknesses in the 0.90 - .094 range, and the Fat C, also known as the "baseball bat" profile, with thicknesses hovering around 1 inch up and down the neck.

First Post

Welcome to my new website for Lanxton Custom Guitars. I've started getting lots of questions about my guitars and requests to build custom, one-of-a-kind guitars. So, I thought it was time to pull everything together in one place so I don't have to re-create the wheel when people ask for examples of my work.

I hope you'll look through the site and find it interesting. Check back often to see what's new. If you have any questions, comments, or suggestions, I would love to hear from you.