As the shavings fly out of the back of my thicknesser I’m thinking about what to write in this article and not really concentrating on where my fingers are, I remain ten-fingered (auto-pilot is rather useful after all) and have the theme worked out. In the end it was blindingly obvious, what you all want to know about is wood. It’s tonal properties, beauty and sheer bloody-minded naturalness make it the best and worst of materials to work with.
Words that luthiers use a lot like warmth and feel and tone are all very well but it can be argued that, behind a lack of practice and neighbours who complain at the least breaking of wind let alone at the volume of air pushed out by a good celestion, the wooden element of our instrument of choice gives more trouble than it is worth. Moving from your lonely bedroom to a sweaty, warm club (or from an empty club to a sweaty over crowded bedroom!) can change the entire nature of your guitar from the action to tuning stability and even on occasion the odd fret deciding to poke out from the sides of your fretboard to obligingly rip a hole in your fretting hand! Bring on the synthetics I hear you shout?? … (pause for effect…) no, piss off!
If my children (or my wife for that matter) were perfectly behaved paragons of virtue and grace I’d have self-destructed long ago, life is about flaws and foibles and, I say, if you’re not living on the edge you’re taking up too much space! Wood is here to stay and the reason we love it is at least partly that we’re never quite sure if we’re going to get a tuneful note that sustains for ever and melts your lovers heart, or a splinter!
Guitars fall roughly into two camps, the bolt on variety tend towards hard maple necks with soft, lightweight, bodies. Set necks tend to prefer medium density mahogany or similar throughout with a harder top wood.. and then of course generalisations fail and you get someone like me who builds whatever you can think of.. but back to the broad strokes. The differences between, for example poplar and basswood would probably have to be measured by an anal retentive lab weenie (ps this is not derogative, I like anal retentive lab weenies) for anyone to find a meaningful difference. The variation in tone is often greater between a plank taken from the top and one from the bottom of a single tree than between similar species!
While going through a list of every wood known to Reg (the god of gigging musicians) and discussing their basic characteristics may be interesting and might well feature in a future article, here are a few basic rules. A bolt on neck wood has less of an effect on tone than a through neck.. ie if your through neck guitar has a mahogany neck with a poplar body the main tonal characteristic you will get will be that of the mahogany, with an ash bodied strat the main tone will be the ash.. but this is about construction methods and is fodder for another day
My opinion is that you can choose the sound you want with a little thought; bright and crisply defined or warm and sustained. From here you can ‘shade’ your tonal pallet with a few small adjustments, for example the differences between a strat with a maple fretboard and one with a rosewood board are self-evident and this is only a 5mm thick piece of wood! Maple is brighter and rosewood the opposite and this is where you start judging woods, maple has a very very hard tight packed grain with rosewood is open-pored and lighter. Pick up any dense and hard wood and it will be bright sounding (and hard on your tools to boot!) and any open grained lightweight wood and it will be warmer and, in my opinion, more characterful.
The skill of the luthier is now needed, too much of a wood that is too hard and the brittle tones of your new axe will set the dogs a barking and too much lightweight open-pored timber in the mix and you can end up with mud. Mix them together and you have sweet harmony..
All my best,
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