Does it seem a little quaint to anybody else that in this age of GPS navigation systems that literally talk you through directions to anywhere in the world, cell phones that can surf the net while simultaneously crashing the NY stock exchange, and 24 hour blogosphere in which the words Denise Richards and juggernaut are found in the same sentence, that one of our primary forms of entertainment comes from a plank of wood with strings on it. On the surface this can seem more than a little anachronistic, but there is more to a guitar than meets the musician's bleary eye. Without a doubt the single most important factor in the tone of a solid body electric guitar is the wood (woods) that it is built from. In this article we will take a walk through the very soul of your axe.
While there are many different woods that make up boutique guitars, I will focus here on the most common ones found in large retailers' stores. If you are looking for some crazy exotic wood, I will assume that, a.) You already know what you want, or b.) You have enough money to blow through till you learn. The easiest way to discuss the different tones of different woods is to think of poles, as in the north and south poles. On the one side we have maple, which has a very bright tone with lots of high end sheen. On the opposite side we have mahogany, which has a soul so dark only Dick Cheney would dare to plumb its depths. Most other tone woods will fall somewhere between these two. Alder has a well balanced tone with a sweet midrange, and crisp sparkle. Ash is a slightly more robust tone with a little more omphh. Basswood is considered by many to have the most desirable tone with a good blend of sweet mids, high end sparkle and low end chunk. Poplar is also very common in strat type designs, with a slightly brighter tone. There are many other woods used in electric guitar bodies, but those listed represent the most common ones found at your local guitar shop. Since the majority of the guitar's mass is found in the body, it plays the greatest role in determining a guitars tone.
When it comes to the woods that make up the necks and fretboards, you will find the list to be short. The vast majority of Fender-ish guitars (ie. Jackson, ESP, Ibanez, Suhr, Vigier, etc.) have maple necks. Most Gibson-ish guitars have mahogany necks. As stated before these are pretty much opposites in terms of tone. This explains why guitar players usually feel the need to pick sides in the guitar wars. You will also note that fretboards have only three really common woods: rosewood, maple, and ebony. While Fender-ish guitars can have any one of the three, nearly all guitars from Gibson-land have rosewood fingerboards. The tone of rosewood is much warmer than maple, as is ebony. When taken together all of these component woods will give you a pretty clear picture of what a guitar sounds like even before you plug it in. In fact, even without plugging a guitar in you can get a sense of its sound by just giving it a little tap with your knuckles. You will immediately hear the difference between different woods.
So when you have digested the different sounds of these woods you should be able to predict the tone of a guitar just by hearing the woods it is made from. For instance, a guitar with a mahogany body, mahogany neck, and rosewood fingerboard will tend to have a very dark tone (ie. Gibson Les Paul). So dark in fact that you will often find a maple cap on top of the body wood to both improve the aesthetics, as well as to brighten the tone. A guitar with an alder body, maple neck, and maple fingerboard will sound relatively bright. Switch out the maple fingerboard for rosewood, and you will add more warmth, bringing in a more balanced tone. Keep in mind; I am talking in generalities here. Two guitars made of the same kinds of woods can still sound significantly different, but I am talking general flavor of the tone here.
So why bother taking in this information. You are going to put in some really hot pickups when you get the guitar home anyway. And you have a really kickin' amp setup. Why does it matter what kind of woods the guitar is made of anyway. All I can say is that the soul of a guitar is in the wood. It's kind of like when you get a new suit tailor made. It makes you look great, but you are still you. In other words, all the custom amps, pickups and effects in the world won't make a strat sound like a les paul, or vice versa. Knowing what sort of wood recipe you like will help you to navigate the sea of guitars available, and guide you to the one that is just right for you. After that, all that is needed to attain a godlike tone is to lock yourself in the practice room until your fingers can snatch the pebble from Steve Vai's hand.
Scott Allen is a 1996 graduate of the Musician's Institute, G.I.T. He currently teaches guitar to 65 to 70 students weekly at Northridge Music Center.
His latest CD is entitled "III", featuring his impressively fluid playing, with a style marked by an incendiary sense of phrasing.