Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Different woods for different tones

  Today’s article will cover the different woods that a guitar can be crafted from and the tonal qualities that come naturally with each type. Here is a brief list of the majority of mainstream woods used in the production of guitars!
Body Woods
Basswood is a soft wood with tight grains. Its relatively inexpensive of all the usual guitar woods, and it’s easy on router bits in the factory, easy to sand, and easy to seal and finish. The softness of basswood means that sharp highs are dampened and smoothened. That helps offset the tinny sound associated with knife edged tremolo contacts. The softness also fosters a weaker low end. It’s light in weight, but not because of large pores. Rather it’s low in mass overall. Deep, breathy sub-lows aren’t resonated in Basswood. The reduction in these outer frequencies leaves the mids pronounced in a hypothetical response curve. Its very suitable for the typical guitar range, and very suitable for lead guitar, because of its pronounced “out front” sound. Complex overtones are muted along with the highs leaving a strong fundamental tone.
Production notes: Japanese factories like Ibanez seem to get a tan colored, more uniform Basswood while other Asian factories get a more flawed yellowish basswood. And there seems to be a big difference in tone. A clearer, darker Basswood should produce more sound, while the yellowish lower grade seems to have more of the undesirable tonal qualities of Poplar. A hardtail emphasizes the reduced dynamics of the outer frequencies.
Alder is light in weight with soft tight pores like Basswood. But there is a large swirling grain pattern to it with harder rings and sections. So imagine a Basswood type texture but with harder rings peppered throughout. That adds to the stiffness, and the complexity of the tones. It retains more of the highs that Basswood softens, but also gives some room to the lows. You have a broader spectrum of tones, which leads to the perception of a little less mids than Basswood.
Production notes: Not much difference between factories, production.
Swamp Ash:
Not to be confused with Northern “Hard Ash” Swamp Ash has huge, open pores with hard and soft layers within each ring of the tree. So you basically have a very rigid skeleton with open and softer pores throughout. It is very resonant across the whole frequency spectrum. It has clear bell-like highs, pronounced mids, and strong lows. It has some random combing away of mid frequencies, which will vary the sound per guitar more than Alder or Basswood. Two Ash bodies are more likely to sound more different from one another, whereas Basswood and Alder are more consistent. A heavier piece, or a piece from higher up on the tree will be more dead and lifeless. More dull sounding, because the wood is harder and more uniformly dense. So the sweetness of the soft open pores is gone, and left is the compressed sound of a rigid, non-responsive wood, without all the brightness and sustain of a harder wood or the openness of a softer wood.
Production notes: An Asian mass produced factory guitar should be checked for weight, and openness of grain if the finish allows. Ash used at the big factories has a higher ratio of poor pieces than with smaller boutique builders, or other US builders, probably because it is a US wood.
Open grained with large pores, Mahogany has a more uniform grain pattern and density than Swamp Ash. Its density is constant within the ring and from one ring to the next. So it’s rigidity is inherent in its composition, not in a “skeleton” with soft sections in between. It’s constant density compresses the mids a little, and this can be considered a thick sound, because it does still produce good lows and low mids. Without the mids popping out, being responsive to dynamics, its more of a “wall of sound” Its not that it isn’t midrangey, because it resonates those guitar frequencies well, but its not as responsive to them as an Alder or Ash. It also combs away more upper midrange frequencies for a more nasal sound. It has a good balance of fundamental and overtones for higher register soloing. High notes are richer and thicker than Alder or Ash.
Production notes: There are many different kinds of Mahogany, and unless it has a sparkle to it like some of the Japanese and US guitars it will have a similar sound from one piece to the next. A nicer piece of mahogany has an iridescence to it usually combined with what looks like wide stripes, almost as if it’s been pieced together by multiple 1” strips. Catalog photos often reveal that the endorser gets a better piece than the production line.
A darker wood with Ash-like grains, but like mahogany, the density is uniform. It is harder and denser than Mahogany so the tone is brighter, but the open grains make for a complex midrange that seems to be compressed in some frequencies, but dynamic in others. There’s a nasal response to rhythms, while solo notes jump out. It has a lot of advantageous features of the other main guitar woods. It has a snappy attack and solid lows like Ash, but with smooth highs like Mahogany, and textured mids like Alder. The drawbacks are that it’s heavier, and more stubborn in its sound. It doesn’t respond to random pickup changes. The pickups have to be well suited to the guitar. A Walnut body will dictate the tonal signature of the guitar more than the other main woods. A heavy piece will dampen the mids to produce an overly nasal and lifeless sound, so it needs to be light and open grained enough to resonate the main guitar frequencies.
Production notes: Again watch for heavy pieces. The extra weight adds nothing good to the sound except perhaps more sustain. But sustain is abundant in Walnut already.
Oilier than Mahogany or Walnut, its denser than Mahogany but not as bright as Walnut, due to its actual makeup. It’s an oilier wood like Rosewood, and that dampens some highs in the attack. But then its density makes up for it a little. Think of the highs as present, but compressed. They don’t jump out like glass breaking. They are more omnipresent. And they are more in the upper midrange than the highs. That’s either a very musical sound for someone interested in fundamental, or a less expressive sound for someone into playing hard picking blues.
Production notes: Koa is rare, and it’s expensive with dramatic price fluctuations. It’s often a high cost upgrade. Figured Koa is very expensive, more rare, and cut for tops.
Somewhat of a “super-mahogany” or “mahogany deluxe” its grains are similar and so is its sound. It’s said to have a sweeter midrange, and be more responsive. Although the grains look similar the material itself is slightly less dense. So if it weighed more than a same-sized mahogany piece it would more likely be due to higher moisture content than higher density.
Production notes: Rarely used, it is more expensive and rare than garden variety Mahoganies. The price of a Korina guitar usually reflects this, plus a little extra markup.
Soft Maple:
Used extensively in Korea, it’s not as hard as hard maple. But it’s a little heavy, bright in the upper midrange, and dull sounding in the lows. The extreme snappy highs aren’t there either because the pores are so tight that the highs get compressed. Some redeeming qualities can be brought from it with the right pickups, if you like a brassy, searing upper midrange sound for the bridge or a dry, combed rhythm sound.
Production notes: Korean factories love it, for some reason it’s abundant and cheap for them. It’s harder on router bits than basswood, but they seem to be less concerned with clean, sharp cuts over there, indicating that they do not compensate with more frequent bit sharpening and replacement.
Hard Maple:
This wood “shouts”. It is loud with a strong upper midrange, bright highs, and tapered off but very tight lows. A pickup that produces good lows will find them in a Hard Maple body, but they will be tight and will not interact with a loud half stack.
Production notes: Very heavy and hard on tools, its rarely used in factories. It makes a good slim bodied guitar.
Very soft to the touch, it is extremely stiff for it’s overall density. Like Alder, it’s another wood with a hard skeleton and soft meat. So in a solid body, it will produce tremendous resonant, open midrange, while retaining high frequency attack, and having good low end breath. Because of the low density overall the sound wouldn’t be perceived as having less midrange than Basswood. The mids will be just as powerful and dynamic amidst the addition of clear highs and lows. Probably the most full frequency body material accepted.
Production notes: Rarely used because its softness requires a heavy finish, or a composite “shell” like the Parkers. The Parker isn’t the best representation of the sound of a Spruce body since there are many other unique construction methods and synthetics used in the Parker. Would work well with veneer caps or a top, and would offset some of the compressed sound you get with neck through construction.
Lacewood is a true multi-density wood. The rum colored skeleton is hard like Koa or Walnut, and the fleshy, grayish tan interior portions like Alder. The dual densities will augment different tones, while combing others out. It’s brighter than Alder, and richer than solid maple.
Production notes: It can be difficult to finish, because the sections absorb finish differently. Oil finishes and heavy poly finishes work better than a softer nitrocellulose or acrylic lacquer. The lacquer finishes will sink over time telegraphing the grain.
Extended Range notes: Another wood well suited for extended lows. Its dual density provides a good skeleton for keeping the lows tight. There’s less of a tradeoff to the higher strings because of the warmth of the softer sections.

As you can see, that was very descriptive giving the exact specifications of each wood. Depending on the tone you wish to achieve you may or may not want a certain combination of different wood. 

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