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By passive acoustic performance, I mean the acoustic performance while the guitar is not plugged into an amplifier.

Nowadays, stompboxes, postproccessing applications, and other electronic audio processors are able to change the sound of electric guitar any way the player wants. So, why are some guitar players still choosing an electric guitar by its passive acoustic performance? Is there any sound characteristic of an electric guitar we can't postprocess?

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    I don't think any guitarist uses an electric guitar without plugging it into something. You're asking on the premise that the guitar is not plugged in. Maybe a translation problem?
    – Tim
    May 24, 2021 at 15:52
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    @Dekkadeci - of course they mean it - but is that relevant to this question? I may play unplugged to practise, but rarely do. Might as well use some apparatus - amp., pedal, looper, et al... and, for performance? No-one's going to hear it !
    – Tim
    May 24, 2021 at 15:59
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    Personally, I've always found I want a Strat to sing on its own, without the amp. A Les Paul just doesn't seem to matter. [& everything in between] My best Strat was a '64; weighed nothing, sang like a bird. My worst is a Squier 50th Anniversary, weighs a ton, sounds like rubber bands on Plasticine, plugged or unplugged. [Of course, I could have bought 70 Squiers for the price of the real '64, both technically 'second hand']
    – Tetsujin
    May 24, 2021 at 16:12
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    @Tom I see this question as presupposing that the acoustic sound of a solid-body electric guitar is a good basis to judge the plugged in sound, which I think is true. So the question seems to be about whether we need to judge the acoustic sound at all if the plugged in sound can be so manipulated. My answer is essentially “because we don’t always want to manipulate it that much, and even if we do we can’t manipulate it to make it sound like a higher quality guitar sound that hasn’t been manipulated.” May 24, 2021 at 18:30
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    @toddwilcox Oh, okay! I had the feeling that the clean sound (is without any coloured amplifier or pedals) so partly pickups response, was the initial intention of this question but reading it again I have to say that I feel your way now... Anyway you got my vote already ;)
    – Tom
    May 24, 2021 at 21:15

3 Answers 3

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You can’t make a bad guitar sound like a good guitar no matter what processing you have. You can completely change the sound to something where it’s not possible to tell whether it’s a good or bad guitar. Sometimes people want exactly that. I find that the very popular Mesa/Boogie Dual Rectifier amp makes every guitar sound identical.

But some styles of music and some guitarists call for hearing the actual tone of the guitar itself coming through the amp. John Mayer is a famous example of someone whose tone is often very bare and really shows how his fingers and guitar sound. For him and anyone like him, the acoustic and the mechanics properties of the guitar itself will have a big impact on the final tone that comes from the amp, because there is minimal processing being done.

If you want to hear the guitar, the best way is to not process the sound very much at all. Trying to make it sound like a guitar with processing is just going to make it sound like a processed guitar, at best.

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  • Your first paragraph seems to be a contradiction. You can't make a "good" and "bad" guitar sound the same... unless you plug it into an amp and effects loop that makes them sound the same. The only conclusion here is that you can make a "good" guitar and a "bad" guitar sound the same (or, more to the point - that the acoustic nuances of the instrument cease to be terribly important for some styles of music). +1 for the rest of it, of course, but I think the whole first sentence is just confusing and wrong.
    – J...
    May 25, 2021 at 23:35
  • @J... It seems like you think it IS possible to make a bad guitar sound like a good guitar. I've never heard that done before, but I confess it could be theoretically possible and I'm just not aware of how to do it. I know hundreds of things that won't make a bad guitar sound good - I own and/or have played various quality guitars through various quality amps and effects and I've never heard a guitar that has a poor inherent tone sound like it has a better inherent tone after any kind of processing. May 26, 2021 at 1:16
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    @J... Making a good guitar and a bad guitar sound the same is completely different from making a bad guitar sound like it's a good guitar. Maybe that's what's confusing about my first paragraph. When a bad guitar and good guitar sound the same after processing, it's because the processing has removed all of the original sound of the guitar and all you hear is the sound almost "re-synthesized" - like the processing has removed all of the timbre of the guitar and only preserved the pitch and then imposed a new timbre on the note. May 26, 2021 at 1:18
  • Making a good guitar and a bad guitar sound the same is completely different from making a bad guitar sound like it's a good guitar Then I guess we are at an impasse. If two things are the same then they are not different and they are like each other. I find that the very popular Mesa/Boogie Dual Rectifier amp makes every guitar sound identical. I agree, and it seems so do you. I also agree that not all guitars can create all possible sounds. I think that is the best you can salvage from the opening statement.
    – J...
    May 26, 2021 at 9:07
  • @J... Maybe an example: A 1993 Peavey Predator Strat clone into a clean Fender Blues Deluxe sounds like plastic being scraped with an ice pick. A 2003 Fender Custom Shop Relic 65 Stratocaster into a clean Fender Blues Deluxe sounds like the souls of Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan have possessed your body and are singing in perfect harmony through the amp. The same two guitars plugged into a Mesa Dual Rectifier on channel 2 modern with the gain cranked both sound like a Mesa Dual Rectifier. A Mesa Dual Rectifier does not sound like a good guitar, it sounds like a good amp. May 26, 2021 at 13:09
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To add to @Todd_Wilcox ‘s fine answer consider this:

If you pick up different guitars and play them without an amp do you notice differences? Maybe one has a body where you can feel the resonance and another not as much. Maybe one sounds beefy and one tinny. One might have very good sustain of all the notes where another might have dead spots and even another might have notes that die out very quickly. Others might have varying degrees of action height and neck relief which will affect how the instrument plays and sounds.

Even though a pickup only gets the magnetic signal produced by the vibrating strings (unless the pickup is microphonic, a whole other discussion) factors like the quality and type of wood, construction and setup will affect what that vibrating string sounds like before it even gets to the pickup.

If a guitar doesn’t sound good with nothing but a 1/4” cable directly into a clean amp I’d rather move on to the next one rather than start running it through pedals. Also, A guitar with a good fundamental tone will sound better than a mediocre one when you start to add effects and processing to it.

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    I just want to emphasize and possibly clarify one point in this answer: It's rare that the sound coming out of a musical instrument has to do only with the actual sound-producer, because there is a feedback of vibrations ("feedback" in its general-purpose sense, not screaming amplifier feedback). With string instrumented, the vibrating string causes the wooden instrument to vibrate, which then changes the vibration of the string, which affects the vibrations in the wood, and so on.
    – Mars
    May 25, 2021 at 15:09
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It's much more efficient to start with a guitar that already sounds how one wants it to sound rather than trying to correct the sound of the guitar with electronics, or post-processing in the case of changing the sound of a recorded guitar.

Furthermore, guitar players simply prefer guitars that sound good to them. As a player, I very frequently pick up one of my electric guitars to practice or try to work out an idea I have in my head or even aimlessly "noodle" and I'm much more inclined to play a guitar that sounds good to me unplugged than one that does not.

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