Sonic Science: Do Woods Really Make a Difference To Tone?

Jawor Iwanow argues that there is more to tone than tonewood   25-Nov-12

Sonic Science: Do Woods Really Make a Difference To Tone?

Amped blogger Jawor Iwanow discusses the complexities of guitar tones, and argues that there is much more to tone than tonewood...

Welcome back to my blog, dear reader! I suppose, you've read the first part of this series, just like I assume, you've done your homework.

If you have not, or, if you don't quite remember the results, I'd say now is a good time to carry out the experiment.

You certainly may have noticed, that the closer your pick or fingers were to the 12th fret, the "warmer" your guitar sounded, the further away you were, the "brighter" its sound was.

You might wonder as to why I put those words in inverted commas. Basically, because this is a generalisation. How so? Simple! Depending on your guitar, strings and playing technique, you will always hear different things when you play the guitar.

Before we can ask "why"? We would have to ask "what" was different. And to do that, we need a bit of vocabulary.

"Warm" (many might say "sweet") in more physical terms would mean the fundamental and the "lower overtones" being louder, "bright" would mean more emphasized "higher overtones".

Now, those are, of course, pleasant sounds. When things become "muddy" or "dark" the fundamental sound is far too strong in comparison and you lose clarity. When your guitar sounds "brittle", "harsh" or "thin", the higher overtones are far too loud, compared with the fundamental sound.

So, what this boils down is an increase in the amplitude of the harmonics the further away you picked from the 12th fret.

This is, because the string vibrates not only as a whole, but in sectors; half of it, two thirds of it and so on. It's vibration creates standing waves, which we hear as harmonics. Everywhere where you can find an natural harmonic, you've found such a sector.

You certainly know natural harmonics to be located at the 12th, 7th and 5th fret. Those are the ones most easily produced, but there are natural harmonics close to the 3rd and 8th fret, as well as close to the 2nd and 4th (and even more) too.

To explain, why the harmonics are located close to the frets but not exactly above them, I would have to talk about tuning systems, which would be off topic here.

And, depending on where you pluck or strike, you enforce some of those "partial" vibrations. Exactly above the middle of the string (which happens to be your 12th fret), the fundamental vibration and the "half-string" vibration are the strongest.

There you have the least amplitude of the higher overtones, resulting in the darkest and warmest sound possible with your guitar/strings/technique configuration. The further away you get, the more the overtones gain strength, resulting in a brighter, sometimes harsh sound.

You may remember, that I told you, to preferably try this on an acoustic guitar the first time round, and then to move to an electric and change the pickup selector position on every repetition.

I advised you to do this because the string vibrates, as you already know, in standing waves. The ratio of the overtones changes, but they do not disappear and the pickups pick up the "local" signal they get.

This means, that even if you play above the 12th fret, the bridge pickup will not notice quite a lot of difference, since it is more prone to picking up higher-level overtones.

Also, "equalisation" changes the situation. When you scoop the mids for example, what you do is taking away volume from the "mids" fundamentals as well as from the lower harmonics of the "lows", whilst the "treble" is not affected.

Changing the "treble" (or "presence" on some amps too) affects your whole range, changing the lows affects almost only the lows.

While we all experience what I described while carrying out this experiment, it is not exactly the same with all of us. With some guitars, the transitions are "slower", meaning that it takes a few cm/mm more until one hears the difference, and there being less difference between the "extreme positions", even if the strings are of the same kind.

If you had not followed my advice and used electrical guitars, you would have noticed greater changes on a Stratocaster than you would have noticed on a Les Paul.

The Les Paul is know for its warm and fat sounds, whilst the Fender Stratocaster is famous for it's clarity and brightness. Most guitarists attribute the Paul's warm sound to the humbuckers and the mahogany body and the Strat's brightness to the single-coil pickups and the ash or alder body.

Now, while the pickups most certainly do have a great effect, the woods do not.

Yes, you read correctly. Woods do not affect the sound of electrical guitars. They don't change the way the strings vibrate, they don't change the magnetic fields of the pickups, they do not contribute to the sound at all. Myth busted. Deal with it.

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