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Most articles on tone state that electric guitar pickups have a major - or even the greatest- influence on tone. It is also typically said that tonewoods make a small difference in tone.

So why is it that a Les Paul and SG sound substantially different? (For this purpose, let's assume both are equipped with the same pickups, wiring, bridge, strings, neck, fretboard material, are non-chambered, etc.)

If tonewood makes a minor contribution, the maple cap on a Les Paul should not matter much.

Shape and mass are otherwise obvious differences between the Les Paul and SG. Do one or both of these explain the differences in tone?

Suppose the answer is mass. Non-chambered Les Paul Standards typically range from 8-10 lbs, yet - when the electronics, etc., are all identical - they generally sound very similar.

How does all this factor into the conventional wisdom about the most influential contributions to tone?

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    The maple cap definitely makes a difference. Some might disagree, but I can hear the difference. Nov 7, 2021 at 17:14
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    "For this purpose, let's assume both are equipped with the same pickups, wiring, bridge, strings, neck, fretboard material, are non-chambered, etc." Are there two guitars for which this is true, so we could hear this comparison?
    – Edward
    Nov 7, 2021 at 19:39
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    Also, the pickup placement on the two models is different, so we're back to the "#1 influence" on tone.
    – Edward
    Nov 7, 2021 at 19:39
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    You are assuming too much. All kinds of factors influence the sound of an electric guitar, including manufacturing variations in the pickups, the electronics, the fretwork and the setup. So even if you equipped an SG and a Les Paul with the same pickups and electronics, and you could tell a difference (which you haven't demonstrated yet!), you would have to take, let's say, five SGs and LPs each and show that you can tell them apart. THEN you can read gitec-forum-eng.de/the-book and start investigating the relevant differences; and they're probably not in the wood, or the shape. Nov 8, 2021 at 7:45
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    This is the hot button topic for guitar fans. No two guitarists agree. It all makes some difference. I think that the pickups make the most difference, but I don't have the strongest evidence to back it up. But that question is far more valuable as a hand-grenade to throw into musician conversations than it is as a guide for your tone quest. Nov 9, 2021 at 4:04

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Pickup placement has a massive effect on tone. Moving a bridge or neck pickup just a few millimeters causes an audible difference. Mass of the body also has an effect. Both are at play here. The former will only effect the plugged in tone, but differences in physical construction (body mass, woods, construction etc.) will also be audible when played acoustically.

Short answer, but sometimes it is just that simple.


edit, to expand a little:

Were you to find (or build) a les Paul made of the same wood, with exactly the same pickups, strings, scale length, electronics, the same bridge etc., and exactly the same pickup height and placement (in mm from the bridge), the differences in tone you were hearing would be primarily due to the heavier body of the les paul.

This does in fact make a difference; when you strum a chord and let it ring, the strings and the body and coupled and resonate together; in layman's terms, one vibrates the other and vice versa, and they "feed into" each other. This means that the construction of the body affects things like sustain, and tone (as different frequencies are emphasised by a different resonating body).

(and indeed not just the body, the entire guitar, but SGs and LPs have the same style neck joint and similar necks, so that's not really relevant here)

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    They both have glued necks, but the joint isn't really the same. In LP neck goes much deeper into the body. Nov 8, 2021 at 21:43
  • good point. In that case, it may well also have a non-negligible effect too
    – Some_Guy
    Nov 8, 2021 at 21:44
  • Technically it’s not so much about mass, but about density, then also about hardness, grain structure, shape... The primary effect the wood has on the tone that certain frequencies get dampened. But this can stem from many different sources, such as soft joints, the nut and the bridge, &c.
    – Lazy
    Nov 9, 2021 at 0:45
  • Actually, in an electric guitar, the string and the body don't really resonate with each other. The body is something like 1000 times heavier than the string, so the amplitude at which the body vibrates is also minuscule compared to that of the string. Also, the body dampens vibrations, rather than resonating - if you tap an electric guitar's body, you get a "tok", not a "tschhhh". So the body is more like a sink for the vibrational energy of the string - once it leaves the string, it is essentially lost to the amplified tone (which is generated only by the movement of the string). Nov 9, 2021 at 6:41
  • If you think about the physics, the mass difference doesn't mean that the body and neck don't resonate, just that the resonance must happen at higher modes. And if you tap a body with Stratocaster-style vibrato, it makes a definite "sproing" sound in addition to the "tok".
    – ojs
    Nov 9, 2021 at 14:54

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