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It makes sense to me based on having some knowledge of physics that on an acoustic guitar the body (and neck, bridge, etc) materials and design has a huge effect on what the guitar sounds like.

But on an electric, as I understand it, the strings don't resonate much with the body (and neck, bridge, etc); they're just there to oscillate a magnetic field on the pickups, and besides the body (and neck, bridge, etc) is usually pretty solid anyway so not much change for the small force of fingers on strings to resonate such a dense object.

Is that correct? Do different electric guitars have significantly different sound purely as an effect of their bodies (and neck, bridge, etc)?

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Related questions that might interest you: music.stackexchange.com/questions/11556/… music.stackexchange.com/questions/2224/… –  Ulf Åkerstedt Dec 6 '13 at 22:32

8 Answers 8

On a solid body guitar the body shape and wood don't matter much. The most important thing about a guitar is the mechanical impedance as seen by the string. The string start vibrating and the rest of the guitar sucks out energy at different rates at different frequencies. This is determined by the mechanical losses in the overall force chain: bridge, body, neck joint, neck, & saddle. The body itself is rigid and hard and so the mechanically impedance of the body is small as compared to the other contributors.While a slab of mahogany as a lower impedance than a chunk of Alder, both are small as compared to the impedance of the other parts of the mechanical chain, so the differences don't matter much.

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Thank you; I guess I should have asked about "the whole guitar" which I thought was called the "body". It appears that you are talking as if the "body" doesn't include the bridge, neck, saddle, etc. Care to revise your answer? –  themirror Dec 6 '13 at 21:55
I would contend that a maple-capped Les Paul vs. one without the maple would have a similar sound, however, a Les Paul made entirely of maple would not sound similar to one made of all mahogany. The woods are very different in their density resulting in a large difference in the brightness of the guitar's sound. –  the Tin Man Nov 24 at 18:09
When vibrational energy reaches a joint between two materials with different mechanical impedance, some energy will be reflected in phase, some will be reflected out of phase, some will be converted to heat, and some will be transferred; the extent to which the different behaviors occur will depend upon the materials in question. The mechanical characteristics of parts of the guitar which receive significant vibrational energy will affect the sound; mechanical characteristics of parts which don't receive significant energy, won't. –  supercat Nov 24 at 23:04

It depends on who you ask. Some musicians swear up and down that one tonewood is far above the rest. While the woods and materials involved do affect the sound, its so slight that most people could never tell the difference.

The pickups and strings are what really control your sound on the electrics, as does other factors such as pickup height, string gauge/type, etc...

As far as playability, thats purely on the build of the guitar, as a poorly built guitar will feel and play like a poorly built guitar. It may sound just as good as that $4000 custom built top-of-the-line premium guitar, but it will NEVER feel like it.

The only thing that the 'Body' consists of, is a shaped slab of wood with no hardware in it. Hilmar was correct to list each part separately because they're all unique parts of the guitar(making a special case for neck-thru guitars, where the body includes the entire neck), and as such, fulfill unique tasks. Your question is somewhat broad, but not unreasonably so.

You won't notice so much difference in tone between woods, only your sustain (Although, string age and bridge construction both factor in as well) will really be affected, but its hard to pinpoint it as just the tonewood or just the bridge, or just the strings, as they all weigh in on the equation.

Basically, with the right parts and enough patience, you can make a piece of plywood sound close to a $4000 guitar, but your hands will absolutely notice the difference, where a listener won't hear it, especially not one who hasn't trained their ear.

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There is a lot of misinformation in this post. The body material has an impact on the tone of a solid body guitar. Put simply, the body material adsorbs vibrational energy, this attenuation is non linear, different materials will absorb different frequencies by different amounts. –  Fergus Jan 19 at 2:57
Whether joe blogg can identify these differences is something that needs rigorous proof, your anecdotal speculation does not suffice. As for the ply wood guitar example, the 'feel' of a guitar is obviously made up of it's physical dimensions and characteristics: The nut width, the neck profile, the balance, the body contours, the neck radius, the string height, scale length, fret material etc etc all of which are measurable and reproducible on another guitar, regardless of it's cost. They aren't exclusive, magical attributes that are only available on $4k guitars. –  Fergus Jan 19 at 2:58
@Fergus, I wouldn't call it misinformation as I never explicitly said that it doesn't, merely that I've found that electronics and build quality are what affect the tone the most. It does affect it, anyone who says that it flat out doesn't is a fool, however the differences are minute between most wood used in guitars. If you wish to nitpick, even the paint or laquer will affect the tone in an minor way, but no one's ears are going to hear it. –  WeRelic Jan 19 at 6:31

Paul Reed Smith has videos available where he talks about the effect different woods have on the sound of his electric guitars.

(starting about 2:47 into the video)

He demonstrates by tapping the rosewood neck and fingerboard and mahogany body blanks. If the wood was pine or balsa it wouldn't sound anything close to what you'll hear as the wood resonates because the wood would absorb the vibrations instead of resonate with or reflect them.

Instrument builders over the last several hundred years have learned that certain woods have certain effects on the instrument's sound, whether it's a drum, a clarinet, a violin, a piano, or a guitar. The density of the wood controls its sound, and its ability to resonate and reflect or absorb the vibrations caused by the string vibration, or the column of air, or the strike of the membrane. The builder relies on those to control the sound of the instrument.

The woods aren't just ornamental, as the idea that wood has no affect on the sound would imply, otherwise we wouldn't see so many common uses of certain woods for caps or bodies.

(starting about 1:30) has more on how PRS guitars are picky about the wood and that it affects the tone and 4:30 for PRS himself talking about the wood affecting the sound.

Similarly, Rob Chapman discusses how wood affects the sound of his guitars in

One of the things I do when auditioning new guitars is to play them without plugging them in. That lets me hear how the guitar itself affects the sound. Take two identical electric guitar models that are identical in their wood types, play them "acoustically", and you can often hear differences, even though the strings, frets, tuners etc. are supposedly the same. At that point, the difference is very likely the wood.

So, don't discount the effect of wood and wood quality and a luthier treating it right.

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It's worth noting that both proponents you cite have a financial interest in the perpetuation of that notion. –  Lyle Nov 25 at 21:02
It's also worth noting that, as a musician for over 30 years, and having had numerous different electric guitars, including multiple examples of Les Pauls, Stratocasters and 335s, all identically configured, and having picked them from many others on the walls as I was auditioning them, that individual instruments do have their own sound, in spite of attempts by the manufacturers to maintain consistent quality and tone of the instrument. Wood varies, and until we get rid of the wood we will see the response of the instrument change because of it. –  the Tin Man Nov 25 at 21:24
I didn't state a position either way, but if I were to be influenced in either direction it would be through a more rigorous demonstration and not the anecdotal accounts and appeals to authority that predominate both camps. –  Lyle Nov 25 at 21:33

Some electric guitars are "lively" and sustain forever while others "die like dogs" (even with brand new strings)?

I used to wonder about all of this too until I was offered an explanation by a wise old bass technician.

He told me that what makes all of the difference is not the type of wood used but rather the relationship between the "notes" produced when you turn the guitar over and tap the neck and the body of the guitar (with the tip of a finger - On a guitar that's made of more than one piece of wood then the section that has the bridge is the crucial part)

If the difference makes what you tap sound like a set of bongos then the chances are that you've got a "live" one? He went on to explain that it was about "sympathetic" wave forms and strong intervals like octaves and fifths versus an unsympathetic combination of notes that would fight each other and cause the picked notes and chords to die sooner.

He also said that this explained why so many old fender necks from the early days ended up attached to a different body to the one that they left the factory with. Simply by swapping necks it is possible to turn two "dogs" into guitars that will sustain for ages.

This works for me and explains why when playing without an amp some guitars are "putter downers" while others long to be played?

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The question is "does the body of the guitar affect the tone?". The tone is composed of many frequencies which are present on the vibrating string. I believe there are two things that need to be answered to know if it does.

  1. What is the amplitude of the reflection coefficients at the two boundaries (the nut and the bridge) from 0 to 20 kHz on two identical guitars except for one parameter ( i.e. their bodies made from different wood)? If this is known, then it would let us know how much of a particular frequency makes it through the boundaries and how much is reflected.

  2. When the guitar is strummed, the body vibrates and therefore the pickup vibrates. This will affect the magnetic field around the pickup. The physics is the same (Faraday's law) regardless of which is moving relative to each other( i.e. the pickup can move relative to the string or the string can move relative to the pickup to cause a change in the magnetic field and thereby a change in the voltage). How will the vibration of the pickup change the output voltage of the pickup, and is it different on the two guitars?

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Good idea to consider the vibrations of the pickup, but I don't think that really makes an audible difference on a solid-body. –  leftaroundabout Nov 24 at 23:09

I don't know if the material and construction of the body and neck lead to non-trivial differences in the sound achieved or not. The vibrations travelling through the materials clearly will behave differently but whether that difference is non-trivial compared to how the strings interact with the nut and bridge, the pickups & electronics, I have no idea.

But what I can say is that if it is the case, then this will be affected by holding the guitar, and how your hold changes as you play. If you grab a vibrating metal rod, the vibrations stop almost instantly as your hand damps them. The same effects would affect your guitar... how tightly you hold the neck, where you hold the neck, etc. When you play a standard F on the first fret, and then play a D using the F-shape on the 10th fret, you will be affecting differently the way vibrations travel through the guitar and how they are damped. If you just pluck an open string with your hand grabbing the neck, and repeat without touching the neck at all, you would/should hear a difference in this case.

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The debate about tone woods is basically a sort of religious war - the sort that arises between people who are perhaps overly passionate about a subject. Like Macs and PCs, VHS or Beta Max, GM or Ford, it's just one of those things that is going to divide people.

Seems to me the science leans towards the 'negligible difference' guys (and I suspect 'negligible' is a better answer than 'none'), but there is a very small amount of actual scientific, controlled, experimental evidence to prove the case either way. The Chapman video is an attempt to show what most people in the business of selling the difference between a $300 guitar and a $3000 guitar believe to be true, but on it's own it's not good enough. Guitars may have identical specs, but without testing more guitars to see the random difference from guitar to guitar based on differences that might arise in manufacturing, it means very little.

To do a test that could actually be scientifically accepted, you'd need to test the sound of a guitar where the only thing that changes is the wood. All other variables have to remain the same. Same nut, same bridge, same setup, same wiring, same glue, same screws. Two 'identical spec' guitars are not close enough - it needs to be the same guitar with nothing changed but wood.

A better test would be to simply screw a pickup to a block of wood and set up a single string (not need for a nut or bridge - a couple of knife edges would do. Record the sound wave accurately using a computer oscilloscope via a pickup, not a human ear through YouTube. Change the wood - but nothing else. Everything else needs to stay the same to the millimetre or less. Look at the magnetic 'sound' wave produced by the cable (no need to actually listen to sound, as that's just adding variables introduced by an amp).

Repeat with many versions of the test woods, not just one subject. Compare the variation in tone produced by 'guitars' with the same wood vs variation between woods, and see if the difference is statistically significant.

My guess would be that, properly tested, the difference would be negligible. My reasoning is that solid body electric guitar pickups, and indeed solid body guitars, were designed specifically with the intention of NOT resonating. Early guitars had massive feedback issues - so they cut out the resonant boards, and designed pickups that were meant to 'pick up' only the magnetic distortion created by a moving string, and nothing else. But that is only my hypothesis completely untested by valid experimental data. I doubt anybody has done a proper test, but I'd be interested to see one if they have.

As a control you might include a variety of 'strings' which are stung to some sort of non-resonant surface that is not wood at all, to prove you can actually reproduce multiple instances of identical sounds in identical circumstances when something is set up by human hand.

What we have instead are some very angry people (who, by the by, should maybe consider getting out and relaxing more) competing over whiteboard drawings to 'prove scientifically' one side or the other. Real scientists know that the proof is through experimental data, not whiteboard hypotheses, however well constructed.

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After all that testing, if you establish that there IS a difference, then consider if that difference is as great as a quarter turn on one of the amplifier's tone knobs before arguing tone wood actually contributes significantly to the complete guitar tone and timbre. –  fred2 yesterday
Actually - this is close. You'd need to do more to test fully (the meat of this starts at about 29 minutes where you see different woods side by side): youtube.com/watch?v=1mH5hwLkxCI –  fred2 yesterday

Wood is the most important. If you don't believe it, compare the Gibson Les Paul, SG and 335 models. They have the same hardware, pickups, scale etc. The only difference is body wood, yet they sound completely different.

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Comparing those three models and saying wood is the only difference completely ignores the construction differences of an ES model vs. a solid-body along with body weight. –  the Tin Man Nov 24 at 18:06

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