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

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

Tonewoods, however, are extremely important for acoustic instruments. That being said, most "knowledge" of tonewoods available to guitarists is a myth. It is a stereotype or a sort of wood-bias.

It is true, that different wood-species have different structures, yet there are other extremely important aspects when it comes to the density and properties of the wood; the climate, the soil, the humidity when the tree was cut, the way it was cut, the way the wood was stored and dried.

If you don't trust me, go ask a luthier specialized in acoustic instruments; I've talked to both a guitar maker and a violin maker who have said that the correct storage can make a cheap piece of spruce sound great, just like bad storage can make the most expensive piece of koa sound dead and dull.

But, back to the main topic:

The other great influence is the scale length (the distance from the nut/bridge to the 12th string).

Basically, a string tuned to the same pitch will have less tension on a shorter scale (e.g. the Les Paul 24-¾'') and a shorter scale results in a warmer, yet muddier sound.

On a longer scale (e.g. the Strat/Tele 25-½'' ) the string would have a higher tension and the sound would be clearer (especially the low end), but harsher.

This is, to oversimplify it slightly, because of the partial vibrations being less emphasized due to a shorter distance to the 12th fret and the strings vibrating with less tension, leading to a decreased amplitude of the higher order overtones on the shorter scale.

Remember those hard-to-find natural harmonics I told you about earlier? They are easier to be found on a longer scale instrument because of this effect (and because of there being more distance between such points on a longer scale). Bass players use them from time to time, and most bass-guitars have a scale of 34''.

A Baritone guitar with longer scale length

The scale-length physics are the same for acoustic guitars, don't worry, yet, while having a classical one and a parlour sized one, I, like most guitarists, don't really know their scale length and I'm too lazy to measure.

I hope you've enjoyed our journey so far! This time, I do not have any homework for you, but a "riddle", now that you know the long and short of guitars; why do bands of extreme metal genres (Crowbar, High on Fire, Amon Amarth, Nile...) use 24 ¾'' scale guitars when tuning down to b-standard tuning, instead of using baritone guitars with a 27'' scale to get more clarity and a more defined low end?

Sleep on it, meditate on it and write me your guess.

See you next time!

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