One of the most annoying and stupid phrases discussed in the Electric Guitar Gear Enthusiast World (mostly dominated by men or really young men with enough time to be worked up by such things) is the idea of “tonewood.” Supposedly electric guitars made of different kinds of wood sound perceivably different when played through a guitar amp. This has become an ideology and a supposed, raging internet “debate” (there is no debate; one side repeats actual facts and asks for evidence, and the other repeats thought-stopping catch phrases). But no one lists all the facts in one place, while still acknowledging a few valid nuances.
And the artists who work with instrument makers on signature models don’t want to upset their revenue stream, so they repeat the party line that tonewood is worth paying for, even when this can be easily demonstrated not to make sense, based on the instrument makers’ own claims and marketing (see the very last point especially)!
My thinking on tonewood has become ever-so-slightly more nuanced with a few key facts I learned, and some historical context.
- Historically, before electricity, tonewood has always been a real thing for instrument builders for centuries, not just guitars: oboes, clarinets, violins. Any instrument made of mostly wood. This explains where the myth’s foundation in actual truth came from: about two or three centuries ago, when wooden instruments made tones using only or mostly wood, not other means (electromagnetism).
- Of course tonewood choices affect the tone of 100% acoustic guitars.
- Choice of tonewood also definitely affects the weight of solid body guitars, which may affect the sustain, in the sense that a really crummy, too-light guitar might vibrate the body instead of staying in place (unlike the ideal immovable heavy benches in Jim Lill’s video about the electric guitar he built using a workbench and an air gap).
- Wood choice probably affects the tone of fully hollow-body electric guitars with electromagnetic pickups, like early Gibson ES guitars. Wood choice likely also affects the tone of semi-hollow-body guitars with EM pickups, or at least the sustain of the notes. If not, then why are semi- or fully hollow bodies with EM pickups even sold?
- Historically some wound electromagnetic pickups existed and still exist that are non-potted, meaning they are not dipped in wax at the back, to muffle vibrations from the body, and they are somewhat microphonic. An example is a Gibson Les Paul with PAF pickups. When you connect such a solid body guitar to an amp and turn it up, and then mute the strings with the left hand and tap the body near the bridge with the right hand, you can hear a tap tap sound coming out of the amp. So if the strings are not vibrating and the pickups make a sound then the tone of the tapping sound they make is affected by the wood and weight of the guitar. That all sounds plausible. However, it is not clear how much this is covered up by the string signal when the strings are vibrating, or if there is a measurable connection between body vibrations and string vibrations. I would believe it when people do a controlled experiment. But I am open to that possibility because it is plausible.
This much of tonewood is a real phenomenon.
- Inasmuch as a set of pickups are not microphonic whatsoever (if this is possible), the wood itself is transparent to EM radiation and cannot affect the current in the wires going to the amp unless the solid wood affects the vibration of the strings at the bridge and nut (or fret, or glass or metal slide). This seems unlikely as demonstrated by Jim Lill’s detailed video. Especially considering the much larger effects of:
- Pick shape, size, material, vs. fingers touching the strings (the debate in classical nylon-string guitar circles about playing with the nails or with the flesh of the fingers is demonstrative); string material, string age, string gauge, scale length / tension; pickup placement along the string, pickup height from string, pickup design and construction (which has a huge and measurable affect on the tone, which is not really in question by anyone); bridge design and materials; nut design and materials; fret materials and height and shape.
- However, a lot of these effects (besides pickups and scale length) pale in comparison to drive pedals, preamp design and tone stack, and especially the part that makes the sound and moves actual air: the cabinet, speakers, and microphone. These parts ship with frequency response curves because the effects on the signal can be easily measured. As Glenn Fricker points out, tonewood doesn’t ship with frequency response curves. Even if tonewood affects tone, it is such a small effect as to be completely buried by the other factors listed above. Unless you have a guitar that is hollow (or you have somewhat microphonic wound electromagnetic pickups, but only maybe and even then only slightly).
- There is no way in hell fretboard materials can affect tone on solid-body guitars because the fretboard does not even touch the strings. I would bet a lot of money that no blindfolded luthier can beat a deaf person (who can cheat and use their eyes) and tell apart by ear (more than chance) two guitars that have been constructed perfectly the same and only vary in fingerboard material. (Assuming the luthier cannot tell by touching the fingerboard while blindfolded or building in some touch-based method of identification.) No way in hell. (Especially under high gain.)
- I would concede that a luthier or high-quality manufacturer could claim to be unable to make two identical guitars from the same materials that could be confused by ear. They may claim that variations between the two guitars may be perceptible to the blind. In which case, I would claim that tonewood fretboards are even less likely to produce measurable tone differences if individual guitars already have that much variation, even with the same materials and manufacturing. Variations attributed to fretboard materials would more likely be explained by this kind of natural variation.
- I am willing to believe that for a fretless guitar or bass, the material of the fingerboard affects the tone, but not as much as other factors mentioned, or round-wound vs. flat-wound strings, where the fingers are placed away from the bridge, how hard the strings are struck, amplifier and cabinet, etc.
- On the whole, tonewood selection only matters in solid body guitars if you care about: weight, aesthetics (assuming not painted), resale value. But not for the actual sound. Just buy different pickups, change strings, scale-length, number of frets and hence pickup placement, pickup height, etc. If you are buying a painted body guitar especially, choose the wood based on weight and price and ergonomics and comfort, not any other factor.
- Why are cheap solid-body guitars with more pieces in the body (3, 4) considered a negative compared to “nicer,” more expensive one or two-piece solid bodies, but fancy 11- and 5- and 3- piece necks are considered a good thing, but a one-piece neck is considered lower end? This makes no sense unless the neck materials have < 1% effect on tone. If that is the case, then multiple pieces in the body also has < 1% effect on tone. And the choice of fretboard wood probably also has less effect then the entire neck (since neither the neck nor the fretboard touch the strings), which is probably also < 1% effect on tone.
- The difference in prices for fancy multi-piece necks is because of aesthetics and not tone. This paradox of “more body pieces bad” / “more neck pieces good” seems like a hokey, arbitrary tonewood myth, which is obvious guitar maker marketing shining through. Aesthetics, premium materials and higher labor costs for higher prices makes sense, but conflating wood aesthetics with tone when the effects cannot be measured (or rather, when the effects can be measured and are shown to be nonexistent or negligible) could be considered unethical.
“It is difficult to get a man (luthiers) to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” (Upton Sinclair) For centuries, before electricity, luthiers were right that tonewood mattered. However, they stopped caring if it still mattered when the tone was not created acoustically any more but was created electromagnetically. Tonewood mostly doesn’t matter any more for the reasons they claim it does.