Tonewood – Does it Really Make A Difference?

Tonewood - Gibson Memphis

Australian Student claims different tonewood in electric guitars make no difference to the tone

The word ‘Tonewood’ has an air of magic in the world of guitars. Certain woods are hailed for the tone they imbue to the guitar. Whilst in an acoustic guitar, the effects of different woods on tone is quite apparent, there has always been a section of the guitar world that has been sceptical of how much effect it has on a solid body electric guitar.

Australian student Matthew Angove has aimed to prove conclusively how much tonewood contributes to the overall tone of an electric guitar. Analysing the response of different guitars with the same pickups and strings in a lab, he seems to be arriving at the conclusion that it doesn’t make a difference. Speaking on ‘theage.com’ website he states,

‘I was surprised at just how identical they were because the guitars were very different in shape’.

How much can be read into this study? As a wise man once said, ‘It’s good to be open minded, but not so open minded that your brains fall out…’

Here’s the science… I mean music part…

We’re a pretty open minded bunch here at Dawsons, but I suspect that you’d be hard pressed to find any player who would agree with Angove’s claims that tonewood makes no significant difference. Consider comparing a rosewood Telecaster with an Ash Telecaster and a regular Alder bodied Tele- I feel (and I don’t think that I’m alone) that there is a very significant difference in tone between these guitars. This isn’t my mind playing tricks on me, I’m sure…

Again, I’d like to reaffirm that I wouldn’t question this tonewood research without seeing the finished report, but  sweeping statements such as…

‘The field I’m in is musical acoustics – the physics of musical instruments. I’m a guitar player and it turns out there’s been very little research done in the field on the electric guitar … I don’t think many electric guitar players tend to be academics! A lot more classical musicians are academics, and I think they tend to look at their own instrument’,

…don’t exactly fill me with faith. Are we to expect a similar level of assumption and generalization within the work itself? Hmmmm….

Gibson Les Paul Standard 2012 Heritage Cherry

Only time will tell whether this is a truly valid piece of study on electric guitar tonewoods, but I can hear guitarists ‘sharpening their knives’ as we speak… Brace yourself, Mr. Angove.

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About Joe

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  1. T.C. de Jong says:

    I wouldn’t be surprised if it makes no difference.

    Let’s take a loot at what actually produces the signal:
    It’s the vibration of the strings in the magnetic field of the pickups, causing magnetic flux and therefore a current to run in the pickup’s coils. This current is the signal that gets amplified and is what will produce your tone.

    The way the wood resonates with the string has no influence on this occurrence. The would is not magnetic, so therefore doesn’t interfere with the strings.
    You could argue that by the way the wood resonates, it alters how the strings vibrate, but if the strings start vibrating at a different frequency that simply means they’re out of tune. You could also argue that the vibrations in the wood slightly move the pickups around relative to the strings, but apparently that movement is insignificant.

    Different pickups cause different sounds because of the differences in their magnetic fields, the number of wrappings per coil, and the position of their coils relative to that of the string (which influences where the string moves through the field and therefore alters the current that will start to run). Placement higher on the neck also gets different tone because the strings vibrate with a higher amplitude (*not* a higher frequency) the closer they are to the center of the neck.

    It also confirms different strings do have a different sound, because strings made of different metals or alloys will have different magnetic properties.

    It all fits.

    Now I’ll just wait for my carbon fiber Les Paul.

    • The way the wood resonates DOES change the way the strings vibrate, but it does not change the “frequency.” Remember, the sound you hear coming from any single note on a guitar is not composed of just one frequency, but a combination of many frequencies sounding at different volumes. This is because the string is not only vibrating back and forth between the fret and the bridge. There are smaller vibrations happening between the physical nodes of the string (these nodes are located wherever you normally fret/tap a harmonic at any fret). The biggest of these vibrations makes the loudest frequency (the one you hear when you pluck the string) but all of the other vibrations/frequencies are still heard and create the timbre, or tone, of the string. The magnetic pickups, of course, pick up all of these smaller vibrations.

      So how does the wood affect the strings’ vibration? Well, we know that the wood vibrates along with the strings (obviously). Anything that vibrates along with the string dampens it in some way. Different vibrations are dampened (attenuated) to different levels. The vibrations that do get dampened by the wood (and by how much they are dampened) are determined by the grain of the wood. If a different wood with a different grain, and therefore different damping properties, is used, then different vibrations will be attenuated. This changes what is picked up by the pick ups, and therefore the electric signal that goes to your amp.

      So, the way the wood resonates does alter how the strings vibrate, but it does not change any frequencies; it changes how much you hear of the different frequencies that make up the tone. Now, I’m sure that the effects that different tonewoods have on a guitar are exaggerated. That, or it may be difficult to truly characterize a tonewood when you consider everything else that affects the vibrations of a string. However, it should absolutely make sense that the wood affects the sound of an electric guitar.