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This question may appear slightly open ended, so I'm trying to word it as carefully as possible to keep it on track.

Looking to change pickups in my basses lead me to looking at Seymour Duncan pickups. On their website they recommend pickups for various configurations including the wood of the guitar body. Now, I'm not trying to draw a conclusion, but to my mind these seems like an over-analysis of the tone in the guitar that a pickup would sound better in an alder bodied instrument. So my question is basically, what factors contribute to the tone of a guitar (electric) and to what extent?

Edit/Extra: I'm less interested in effects after the guitar itself. I have effects pedals, I know I can do crazy things in there. I fear this is my mistake as when I cut question and answer I left off my line about amps. I'd prefer to focus on how much the construction of the instrument itself affects tone and less on amps as it's fairly obvious you can shape the signal after it has left the jack output of the guitar. Thanks.

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May I suggest you trim this down into just a well defined question. If you have your own opinions to add as an answer, go ahead and do that. –  slim Aug 6 '13 at 13:02
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Done. Was basing it off other sections that ask for research in question. Hopefully it's more clear now. –  Folau Aug 6 '13 at 13:37

7 Answers 7

Your hands, your soul and your ears. after that you just play with the gear to find what you like. People use Telecasters for metal and sound great, and nobody had metal in mind when they designed those things.

I'll give one sweet piece of advice because I discovered it accidentally and no one ever told me this. After playing humbuckers in a Paul for years I discovered that they sound clearer and better pretty much cranked as high as they can. Just back off when you hit a fretted string and fine tune from there. Nothing from a store is set up that way and a guitar tech swapping my pups set them too low as well.

That guitar is screaming like an angel now but after the new tone excitement wore off I still found it sounds like me.

Your soul, Practice, Practice, Practice and keep it Fun

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Guitar tone is greatly influenced by the frequency response of the pickup, and position. For instance, you can tell apart a neck pickup tone from a bridge tone, regardless of the amount of distortion. Similarly, you can tell a bright pickup apart from a muddy one. You can also tell a semi-hollow tone from a solid body, as well as differences in string gauge: for instance .009 to .042 strings cannot sound anything like Stevie Ray Vaughan no matter what, short of digital signal processing (that may be available next year, not now).

Tone doesn't come from any one thing: it is spoiled easily by one weak link in the signal chain. Some parts of the signal chain don't really contribute to the tone, but they have to carry it, and so if they are not in working order, they will wreck the tone.

For example, a speaker cable doesn't have tone, but if it is broken and intermittent, it wrecks your tone. Dirty, oxidized or low-quality jacks, plugs, switches or potentiometers anywhere in the signal chain will wreck tone, and you may be led astray trying various irrelevant (and perhaps expensive) fixes to the problem.

The elements of the chain which have tone are the strings, pickup, body and hardware, instrument cable, preamplifier/effects, power amplifier, speaker cabinet and speaker.

We cannot really say which one is the major one, because it depends on style. Suppose you want to play metal rhythm guitar. Obviously, the pickup is important. For instance, if you use a neck pickup, you will not be able to play the chunky palm mutes; you probably want a bridge pickup. And not just any pickup, but probably one with a smoothly rolled off high end: not too shrill, but not completely lifeless in the high end, either. The pre-amp is important, because it produces the right kind of distortion and applies EQ to shape it. But if that distortion isn't modified by the resonance of a cabinet being driven by the power amp in the right way, it will just be a buzz.

Distorted styles depend on the amplifier to a greater extent than clean styles. The heavier the guitar tone, the more finnicky it is to get the tone right live, as well as to capture it while recording, and the issues almost always have to do with the amplifier rig: its distortion circuits, EQ, power amp behavior, cabinet and speakers.

In clean guitar, the pickups and guitar build are a big deal. A hollow-body jazz guitar played in the neck position is a different animal from a Telecaster played bridge. The different tones are loved for what they are, and not just as inputs to a distortion circuit. However, clean tones still greatly depend on the amplifier. The output of a passive pickup does not sound good if it is amplified using a hi-fi amplifier and speakers. And of course, clean tones are influenced by effects. Reverb does a lot for clean tones, recreating the ambience that is missing in the electric guitar (particularly solid-body). A popular effect applied to clean guitar is compression. Compression is the key element in some clean tones, which depend on it as much as heavy styles depend on the distortion.

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The humble guitar lead (cable) only got a cursory mention. It's the ONLY connection from guitar to amp.Whilst lots of players use good leads, lots use cheap ones.These often strangle the signal from a guitar, and thus the tone doesn't migrate properly to the amp.So, I think leads ought to be high on the list.

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While it's true that the guitar cable has a (horrendously) strong influence on the sound, this has surprisingly little to do with the actual quality of the cable. A cheap cable will typically have a bad shielding and thus bless you with lots of hum and other noise, but that doesn't really affect what you hear from the guitar; OTOH the one parameter that's crucial for the guitar sound – the capacitance – varies throughout cables of all price classes. Anyway, +1, since it contributes indeed very strongly to the tone. –  leftaroundabout Aug 7 '13 at 20:22
    
Thanks, but what quality, or cap. figures, should we be expecting in a quality lead? (If price is not the defining factor.) Actually, we're off target here, as OP asks about GUITAR make-up, not POST-GUITAR, but it's still relevant. (To me at least!) –  Tim Aug 7 '13 at 21:23
    
You can't say "such or such capacitance is good, or bad". It is not really post-guitar, because what the capacitance does is it affect the pickups' resonance. Now, in some guitar/pickup combinations that frequency may be rather too high by itself; then a cable with big capacitance might make the sound warm/pleasant. If the resonance is already too low, then the same cable will make it undefined/muddy, while a low-capacitance one might bring out unexpected brilliance. See "what causes the difference in cord quality between brands" on AVP. –  leftaroundabout Aug 8 '13 at 11:06
    
Thanks for the info. I thought guitars had their own caps integrally, so would this affect things too? Using a D.I. box may also have an effect. What about active pick-ups? –  Tim Aug 8 '13 at 11:33
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@leftroundabout I see my comment is wrong indeed. It is the source impedance, of course, which forms a voltage divider with the capacitance of the cable. Active pickups have a low source impedance, so the capacitance of the cable matters less. I don't see what I was thinking there. –  Kaz Aug 13 at 21:46

I would roughly order the contributors to electric guitar tone as:

  1. Amp and effects
  2. Body type (solid, hollow, semi-hollow)
  3. Tone knobs in the instrument
  4. Pickups and their position
  5. Picking method, and player's touch (fingers/picks/plectrum; plectrum type)
  6. String gauge and type
  7. Bridge type (floating vs fixed)
  8. Neck construction (through-neck or bolt-on)
  9. Body material
  10. Neck/fret material
  11. Bridge/nut material

... and I would say that the impact falls off significantly after no. 5.

I have no doubt that there are people with "golden ears" who, under carefully controlled conditions, could tell these woods apart in a blind test. But any variation in the more significant factors would make it impossible.

Of course different woods have different characteristics. MDF, as you noted, would soak up vibrations and kill sustain. Differentiating between the sounds of two different hardwoods, however would be very difficult.

As you've seen, people get wonderful tone out of electric instruments with crazy shapes (look at the wild "Super-Yob" guitars played by Slade's Dave Hill) and cheap wood (cigar box guitars).

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Absolutely. An effects box, even analog, can take the fundamental frequency of the incoming notes and turn it into just about any waveform & overtone (and even undertone) series you want. –  Carl Witthoft Aug 6 '13 at 15:49
    
I strongly disagree with your low placement of the mechanical items. Yes, some people get wonderful tones with weirdly-shaped instruments – but just because some unusual shapes happen to be acoustically much more similar to the standard shapes than you'd think from the look. OTOH, if you equip a strat with the exact pickups of a Les Paul, same amp configuration, it won't sing like one. If you put steel strings and single coils on a classical guitar, it'll be completely unusable as an electric guitar and certainly not sound anything Fender-like. –  leftaroundabout Aug 6 '13 at 16:53
    
@CarlWitthoft: yes, but then you also won't hear anything of the strings, the pickups, the tone knobs, or the playing details. –  leftaroundabout Aug 6 '13 at 18:56
    
@leftaroundabout No argument; just that there are folks "out there" who create their sounds that way. The famous Deacy Amp is one such example. –  Carl Witthoft Aug 6 '13 at 19:22
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You left out one of the very most important contributors to tone: scale length. On your list above, I'd place it at #3 (and demote body type to #4). –  Alex Basson Aug 8 '13 at 1:10

Tone quest = simplify the signal chain with the most optimal gear that can cover clean to mean (dirty) tone.

I am not going to cover pedals as to keep this simple and I will use the Blues model wherein the guitar and amp are one instrument:

Strings-->guitar body-->pick ups-->preamp tubes-->power tubes-->speakers-->cabinet

Example:

DR Strings PHR10 Pure Blues Nickel Medium Electric Guitar Strings, Gibson wrap bridge SG with P90 pickups,

Dual amps that can be played a/b or a, b with a foot switch.

Amp 1 for dirty: Fender 1959 Tweed Deluxe (5E3) with NOS Telefunken preamp tubes, Matched RCA NOS 6V6GT power tubes, Ted Weber version of a vintage Jensen P12Q.

Amp 2 for clean: Fender 1965 Deluxe Reverb with NOS Mullard GZ34 rectifier, NOS Telefunken preamp tubes, and a matched pair of NOS RCA 6V6GT power tubes, into a Weber California 12" speaker.

Note cabinets are finger jointed pine, vintage Fender 1959 to 1965 will do, also Larry Rodgers' replicas are spot on.

Pix of example [note: amp 1 is not a vintage Tweed Deluxe but a replica built to fit inside a 1965 Deluxe Reverb Cabinet, matches amp 2 on right in size.]

enter image description here

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IMO, This is the best of a bunch of subjective answers for a question that some consider voodoo and religious. Still, I think all of these answers underrate playing style and how you pick and how you finger the notes. Listen to SRV play something with a pick and then switch to fingers. Lenny is a good example. Wes Montgomery is also very distinct in this respect. –  JimR Aug 7 '13 at 11:30
    
@JimR, you are 100% spot on, truly 100% of good tone starts with the players body, arms, hands, fingers, however, most people assume this when answering this question and will focus on the gear. SRV had a heavy emphasis on the string size too 13 !!! –  filzilla Aug 7 '13 at 19:30

td;dr: Pickups are over-rated.
Hmm, I'm sure I did this rant somewhere before...


As you already say, many factors contribute to a guitar's sound. And from the start, the sound is all mechanical vibration, so obviously the body etc. can't be neglectable. Clearly, the mechanical parts matter more in acoustic guitars than in electric ones: there, what you hear actually has to pass through the wood.
In solid-body electrics, the impact of the wood is deliberately minimised: a heavy solid body just won't move much to the string vibrations, therefore not much energy is dissipated from the strings, and since the pickups are right there you'd think you get always pretty much "the pure string sound". But the mechanical parts are still significant: with an actual solid rock as body and neck, the sustain would be much longer than in any guitar. The way in which the notes decay and which harmonics stay longer than others is really important, more on that later.

Then there are the pickups. Each of them doesn't pick up all the string's sound, because the partials have different "shapes" as standing waves on the string. For instance, a pickup underneath the 24th fret (if there was one) cannot pick up the e' partial on the E string, the a' partial on the A string etc. This has a substantial influence on the sound, and interestingly on each string in a different way.

The pickups themselves are ridiculously simple: a bit of wire, wound around some magnets. Since it's quite a lot of windings, the coil has a rather high inductance. That single value does almost completely suffice to classify a pickup's sound! Why it is important: an inductor, combined with any capacitor (such as the one at the tone-pot, or just the guitar cable!), forms an LC resonant circuit. Together with some inevitable resistor damping (the volume pot, the amp input...), you get an RLC 2nd-order resonant low pass filter. That is a very simple but quite effective "equaliser" circuit, very familiar to all synthesiser players. Guitarist mostly know in a form with very high resonance: the wah-wah pedal! As we all know, this greatly (or horribly) affects the sound – that's why the pickups have, sure enough, a strong influence on the sound. But really, that's pretty much all there is to them. You could in principle just use always pickups with very low inductivity (that makes the filter ultrasonic, i.e. it sounds completely neutral) and simply plug the guitar into a synthesiser's state variable filter before anything else. Then you could at any time switch between a fat P90 sound and a thin telecaster-pickup (and you'd notice that this still doesn't make a Tele out of a Les Paul, because the bodies vibrate too differently!).
For humbuckers, there is in fact one more point: these use two points of the string simultaneously, so the standing-waves-stuff works out a bit differently. But that's not such a strong effect as most people think: the "fatter" sound of humbuckers is mostly because they have a higher inductance, yielding a lower resonance frequency.

Then of course there is at least the amp, possibly some pedals before it, which do mainly two things1:

  1. Shape / equalise the frequency response. This happens mostly through filter circuits akin to (but almost always more sophisticated than) the LP12 filter that's called pickup. All of this can emphasize or attenuate certain harmonic partials or noise components, but it can't really change what frequencies there are to begin with, or how they change in time.

  2. Distort the signal. That has multiple consequences: you can get "new" harmonic contents (perhaps better described: clone some frequency components into their harmonics), you get intermodulation effects (the characteristic power chord growl, or the undefined mud-sound when you play full chords through heavy distortion), and the dynamic range is compressed. The stronger these effects are, the less you hear of the guitar's original sound

however, it still matters a lot what you give in: if some harmonics are pushed particularly strong into the distortion, those components will be spread particularly strong through the frequency spectrum, making them much more audible. That's why pickups seem to be particularly important for distorted sounds: their simple single resonance frequency will often dominate where the distortion kicks in. But again, the pickup doesn't produce these partials, it only boosts them. If a guitar is mechanically not able to support a steady sound in the range of, say, 4 kHz, then a pickup where that's the resonance peak will result in an unpleasant, short clang from the distortion, while a good Strat would be able to make a cool screaming lead tone of this. If you put the resonance lower (perhaps 2 kHz), the same Strat might sound rather dull, because those partials simply decay slowly and don't sound very interesting by themselves. OTOH, that's the very range where Les Pauls unfold their characteristic sweet singing tone, but that originates from the body and neck.
This is probably what Seymour Duncan are aiming at with their recommendations for various wood types. It's certainly the reason why these pickup/body combinations are most popular. But definitely there isn't one right pickup for each guitar. I'd rather see the pickup as a powerful but crude selector for what you want to center your sound around. Replacing the pickups isn't a very effective way of doing this, if you want to switch this between songs or even during one. Since it's only passive filtering in any case, you can always approximate it quite well with extra EQing before the distortion. Or you can do a trick: changing the inductance is, resonance-freq-wise, equivalent to changing the capacitance. Normally, the capacitance is main split up in two parts:

  • the guitar cable. Urgh! Who wants that to have a strong influence on the sound?

  • the tone pot capacitor. That part is almost disconnected when the tone pot is fully up, then "attaches" the circuit when you close it. Unfortunately, in between there is the resistance of the tone pot itself, which damps the resonance, so this capacitor can't really be uses to control the boost frequency.

A solution to this is an active circuitry right in the guitar. Strangely, guitarist seem to have some kind of allergy against this idea. One reason is probably that the most prominent manufacturer of active pickups, EMG, has famously taken it to the extreme: the EMG81 has a frequency responce you can't reproduce with passive pickups. Most other manufacturers do the opposite, just leave the resonance where it is "traditionally" (but in a way that it won't change with the outside capacitance, which isn't all that great either).


1I shan't talk about more complicated effect pedals here – of course you can go to arbitrary length with those; at some point you will only hear the effects and not the guitar at all...

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I'm curious as to your line "and you'd notice that this still doesn't make a Tele out of a Les Paul, because the bodies vibrate too differently!" as this is exactly what I'm looking for. Could you expand on that point a little please? –  Folau Aug 7 '13 at 8:44
    
What exactly do you mean – which types of guitars have which acoustic properties (from the body), which types of pickups emphasise which frequencies, or...? –  leftaroundabout Aug 7 '13 at 9:00
    
Yeah, so my question was mostly about what I see as a bit of over-analysis of the sound a guitar makes. I'm unconvinced of the of certain aspects of the guitar, such as wood types, body shapes and some details. To my mind, these will contribute to the sound, but only a tiny amount. If I were to take my P Bass setup and put it in a J Bass body I'd expect to get a P Bass sound out of it, put a strat setup in a tele and I'd probably think you'd get a strat sound. I've had completely different bodied basses that sound very similar because they use similar pickups, electronics and parts like that. –  Folau Aug 7 '13 at 9:17
    
Well, the Fender instrument serieses, particularly the bass models, are indeed very similar mechanically. Strat vs. Tele also isn't all too different, but still notably – the Tele twang comes from the body, and probably wouldn't really work with a vibrato system. The very low-inductance pickups further emphasise it, but you could probably hear it through Strat PUs as well, so no Strat sound. I haven't tried that, though. What I know is, for instance, that it's almost impossible to get a proper sweet jazzy sound with a bolt-on neck solid-body guitar. –  leftaroundabout Aug 7 '13 at 10:32
    
My tele still twangs ! The Bigsby fits after the bridge, so vibrations from the strings go through the body as on a vib.-free guitar.As far as I know, the vibrations stop after the bridge, so whatever is fitted behind should have little effect on sound picked up-by the pick-ups. –  Tim Aug 7 '13 at 15:10

Here are my thoughts (as requested separately):

Assuming we keep a fairly standard, balanced amp EQ (I don't want to drag amps into it particularly) there are some factors which will have a major impact on the tone you get. I am by no means an authority on this, but I can generally tell the difference between a Fender Precision Bass and a Fender Jazz Bass due to the different pickup configurations. To my mind, the pickups are the main thing that will affect the tone.

We also have elements like the strings, bridge and major electronics, all of which contribute to the tone a reasonable amount. New strings sound alot more crisp and bright compared to dull, old ones for example.

As to the body and neck. The body will clearly affect the sustain provided by the guitar. Coupled with the bridge I can see a difference based on the design of the body, type of bridge (string-through etc). I have played a neck-tru bass and that had incredible sustain on the sound. So I'm convinced that the body will affect your results.

Where I'm unconvinced, and this is partly down to a limited number of instruments played, is when I hear people saying that the wood of fretboard has an impact on the sound. I mean, yes, I bet it does on some level, but is it truly noticeable enough to be non-trivial? The frets themselves I will accept will have a say in what you get out, and I'm ruling out fretless basses, but to my mind the actual wood of the fretboard doesn't have much of a say in what goes on. As for the body I'd say it's fairly obvious making it out of MDF wouldn't be a great move, but a decent bit of wood is a decent bit of wood.

Stradivarius seemed to have his very particular ways of making classical instruments, and as someone who played Cello for 10 years I know that the wood of that can make a huge impact, but in that case the wood itself is part of the inherent design of the instrument, whereas I find the wood of my electric bass is more just a convenient way to hold all the bits together. You see plenty of weird and wonderful designs all of which sound awesome, providing the rest of the hardware is up to the task.

What I would love to see is a whole series of double-blind tests to see if a variety of people, from average Joe to a professional musician, could tell me what wood my guitar was made from based purely on the sound. This is something I could never afford, but the results would interest me greatly, as I genuinely don't know the answer. Could someone tell me if a bass had a maple, ebony or rosewood fretboard? Or whether the wire was a modern style or vintage Fender cloth-coated wire?

So I guess I'm looking for people's thoughts on this. I'm not claiming what I'm saying is gospel, as I haven't the experience with instruments in the detail to know the answers. All I have posted is my lunchtime musings on the matter, and whether people would stand by Seymour Duncan's claim that they prefer a certain wood for a pickup.

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