Over the past few years debate has raged on the internet over whether the wood used to build an electric guitar has any influence on the sound (tone) the guitar produces.

The proponents of ‘no effect’ have tended to use engineering principles, pointing out that the sound produced by a guitar is caused by steel strings vibrating between the nut and the bridge causing an electrical impulse in the pickup which in turn is amplified to a volume that can be heard by human hearing.  As the strings are, in effect, isolated between the nut and the bridge the argument is that the building material for the guitar has no effect at all on the sound produced – although many do accept that the materials used for the nut and bridge can affect the overall tone.

Their opponents point out that the nut and the bridge are attached to the rest of the guitar and claim that the material used for the guitar has an effect on tone due to the wood (or Perspex, or plywood, or whatever is used) ‘damping’ the tone by absorbing some of the vibrations.  If you don’t believe that the vibrations from the strings pass into the wood, place your chin against the guitar’s body and strum the guitar!

There is also sometimes a claim that the body material can have a ‘reflecting’ effect.  This is slightly harder to understand, since the mechanism by which this is meant to work is not explained clearly and may simply be a case of the body material resonating at a certain frequency and so not damping that frequency produced when the strings are struck.

‘Classical’ and ‘acoustic’ guitar manufacturers of the early-mid twentieth century tended to use specific woods – such as mahogany and spruce – for guitar building, as there is no doubt at all that guitars not reliant upon electronic pickups for their sound instead rely upon on the shape of the body and the resonance of the woods used.  So when these same manufacturers began to produce electric guitars obviously they tended to use the same materials because they knew how to source and use them and they were unsure or simply didn’t think of the possibility of whether the type of wood used in building electric guitars would affect the sound.  And, of course, guitar players may have reacted badly to being told that, although their older guitars were made of ‘exotic’ woods, the new-fangled electric guitars were made of cheap woods but were still very expensive.

In addition, it is unlikely that the manufacturers would be willing to take a risk by experimenting with cheaper materials:  their aim was to sell guitars, not act as an experimental station for the new guitars.  In fact, the experience of Gibson – who decided to halt the manufacture of the ‘Les Paul’ due to poor sales and try a new body shape with the SG – demonstrates that a radical change in guitar materials would likely have a detrimental effect on sales.  It was only with the guitar boom of the sixties that manufacturers began to experiment in the hope of producing guitars made from cheaper materials which could be mass marketed at a much lower price.

It is almost certainly at this point that the more expensive producers began to justify their prices by the reference to expensive ‘tone woods’ – which in reality were simply the woods they had been using since before electric guitars became popular.  This is reflected to this day by many of the magazines produced to satisfy the huge public demand for information concerning guitars.  In my – admittedly limited –experience such magazines tend to focus on the ‘big-name’ brands such as Gibson and Fender.  In fact, I have recently received the latest edition of one magazine which included a 2018 calendar with pictures of guitars.  Despite the plethora of guitar manufacturers, the 13 pictures consisted of:

3 Gretsch

5 Fender – including three telecasters

3 Gibson

1 Harmony

1 Martin

Hardly a representation of the vast array of guitars available!

In addition, the magazine appears to have ‘bought into’ the tone wood claim, as evidenced by their constant use of phrases such as ‘woody goodness’ when reviewing guitars.  Or is it simply that they have been warped by their almost exclusive fascination with the top makers in the guitar industry and so have no option but to accept the tone-wood claim?

The answer is very unclear – both in the tone wood and the guitar journalist position.

So do I have an opinion on this matter?  Yes, but it is not set in stone and may be modified by any sensible arguments based upon practical experience.  But for what it’s worth …

It may come as no surprise to my regular readers that my own view is a combination of the two opposing points.  Guitar reviewers who use such phrases as ‘woody goodness’ (which phrase I loathe with a passion) tend to use it at the start of the review when they play the guitar before plugging it in.  At this point it is the whole guitar that produces the sound – much like an acoustic but with far less volume.  They then plug the guitar into an amp and expect to hear some form of response due to the wood being used.

In my own experience this is unrealistic.  My view is that the wood used could have an effect on the sound of the electric guitar due to absorption and resonance.  However any such influence would be lost due to the impact of the other components of the guitar.  The nut, the frets and the bridge may have a small effect, but the wood used a tiny effect.  This is simply because all of these are dwarfed by the types of potentiometers, capacitors and – maybe most important of all – the pickups and the amp being used.  In summary, the combined effects of the electrical components will most likely swamp any tonal effect added by the construction material.  This is reinforced by the many videos on the internet showing the minor input of the body material, including a cardboard guitar shaped like a Stratocaster which sounds a lot like a Stratocaster because it has a Stratocaster’s pickups and wiring loom.

So my advice to guitarists obsessed with guitar tone and the input of ‘woody goodness’ is to stop being so fanatical.  Most of a guitar’s tone comes from the pickups and amps used plus the guitarist’s technique, so concentrate on learning to play the guitar.  My son is taking lessons and I’m learning from him.  I am finding that my playing – and hence my ‘tone’ – is being improved and changed simply by the way I use my pick and by my fretting technique.  Give it a try – you might be surprised!