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I know that on an acoustic guitar the sound is produced by the strings vibrating the top or soundboard and that the type wood used on the soundboard and body of an acoustic guitar will be the biggest determining factor of how the guitar sounds.

But on a solid body electric guitar, the vibration of the strings is converted to sound through an electrical process whereby the magnetic pickups detect the vibration of the strings and translate that vibration to an electrical signal sent to an amplifier. And for the most part - the quality of the sound is dependent on the quality of the pickups and the amplifier.

But does the type of wood used to build the body or the neck or any other part of a solid body electric guitar have any significant effect on the way the guitar sounds?

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The answer is "yes", because virtually every part of an electric guitar affects the quality of the sound to some degree. Electric guitarists agree that the selection of woods in the body, neck and fingerboard make significant differences in timbre (the distinguishing characteristics of the tone and sound).

(When we talk about the characteristics of the sound of a certain kind of wood, or of any musical instrument as a whole, we use the French term "timbre" (pronounced like "tam-ber") and this should not be confused with the English term "timber" which refers to logs of wood cut from trees.)

The Warmoth guitar company in the USA builds "bespoke" solid bodies and necks one-at-a-time according to the specifications of the purchaser. Warmoth has tables and charts which discuss the relative merits of different kinds of wood and what effect they have on the overall sound of the guitar.

Warmoth Body Wood Options

Warmoth Neck Wood Options

The species of wood is not the only factor; the quality of the piece of wood being used also matters a great deal. Wood harvested from young trees tends to have inferior timbre (sound quality) compared to wood of the same species harvested from old trees. How old is optimal varies with the different species of wood. Wood that has been harvested and stored for several decades tends to have superior sound to wood that is used to build an instrument shortly after the tree has been harvested. So the best tone-woods are from old stocks that are aged by decades. Since this difference in quality has to do mostly with the amount of moisture in the cut wood, some builders try to accelerate the process of aging the wood by baking the wood at low temperatures in kilns to remove the moisture from inside the wood.

It is also true that certain species of woods are chosen for their beautiful grain patterns and color rather than exclusively for their timbre. Some guitar customers want to see the natural grain of the wood, while others seem to prefer wood that is painted with "automotive" colors which hide the grain.

I should also mention that many high-end solid-body bass guitar luthiers build bass bodies that use a bewildering combination of pieces of different species of wood sandwiched and glued together. These luthiers usually claim that their unique combination of several different species of wood impart a unique tonal quality. Personally I think this is going too far, and these kinds of basses are more interesting for the visual appeal of the beautiful woods rather than any discernible improvement in tone. But these bass luthiers are successful, so it must mean that their choices are pleasing to their customers.

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If we separate out the effects you could see,

  • The body/neck wood could absorb energy from the strings, causing the sound to decay faster (and with preference for certain frequencies)

  • The body/neck wood could then retransmit energy back into the strings, again possibly with preference for certain frequencies due to resonances in the wood

  • The body/neck could pick up acoustic energy from the air and transmit it to the strings

  • the body's resonances could cause the pickups to vibrate, affecting the motion of the strings relative to them.

I suspect that all of these effects are somewhat unpredictable unless you also consider the bridge, nut and tuners and the way they are mounted; The way the wood is sawn and glued; the way the pickups are mounted, whether you have a 400w amp ten feet away, how tightly you are holding the guitar to your body, and so on.

It would be very hard to do a traditional experiment to prove whether wood made a predictable difference - you'd have to build two guitars identical except for the wood, or try out a selection made of one wood, and a selection made of another, and see if there were any commonalities between the groups. Alternatively you could do some computer-based analysis. All difficult to do, and the people with the resources to do it (luthiers and instrument manufacturers) have a vested interest in letting people assume that carefully-chosen woods can make a predictable difference.

It's even difficult to do blind tests - how can you give someone two guitars to play without them knowing which is which? What if the resonances feel different when you're holding it?

All in all, I think it's inevitable that wood has some effect - but I don't think it's easy to know what that effect is!

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    I'm sure some of the bigger names in manufacturing have done just that - used different woods for exactly the same bodies etc. So a comparison may not be too difficult. – Tim Mar 4 '15 at 11:41
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    Definitely, but if doing a comparison of just two instruments they really need to be exactly the same apart from the wood. If one has the nut glued in a bit tighter, and the bridge screws tightened another half turn, that could change the acoustic coupling between strings and body - and of course different samples of the same type wood can have different mechanical properties, so for that reason too it would be good to have a few examples of each and then set up a blind test to see if there was any statistically-significant difference between perceptions/measurements of each group. – topo morto Mar 4 '15 at 12:17
  • I believe that the wood must re-transmit some vibration back to the strings as you say. That would explain why certain woods sustain better than others. The strings vibrate the wood and the wood in turn vibrates the strings like a continuous feedback loop. Interestingly, the link in @Costagero answer - is a vid of the controlled experiment you described. – Rockin Cowboy Mar 4 '15 at 20:21
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The wood used in a electric guitar will add body to the pure vibrating string sound.

My luthier once told me that the wood you use is like a landscape and the pickups are like windows through which you observe it. If the landscape has some beautiful sections, but your window can only let you see the ugly portions of it, you have a problem.

The strings are what the pickups actually "see", so keep in mind that the wood isn't directly affecting this landscape. It acoustically affects how the strings ring.

Anyway, the type of wood contributes to the possibilities for your tone, along with things like hardware and the playing by itself. The pickups select some tonal qualities.

  • If you have to use a bad pickup, you can use wood to compensate it in some way. For instance, a bassy pickup that acts like a low-pass filter can be somewhat compensated with a very bright wood that doesn't emphasize low frequencies;
  • Using a type of wood known for a richer sound will let the pickups do their best work: A perfect landscape will stay perfect when seen through any window;
  • Active pickups are like larger windows, and they can also emphasize certain aspects of your tone.

In general, darker types of wood will provide more lows than highs and things like maple and ash would do the opposite. Check this out, as suggested by leftaroundabout, for a comparison between dark and light wood.

Think of the wood as the element that will provide the body - sustain and release times - of your tone. Different types of wood mean different colors in this body.

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    I really like the 'window on a landscape' idea, very poetic! I think calling having the wood as the landscape is a bit questionable, though, as the thing the pickups 'see' directly is the strings. Maybe our window looks over the sea (the strings) and the body can be the moon, causing the tide to run in and out? No? Ok, I never was a poet... – topo morto Mar 4 '15 at 19:13
  • You are right. The string vibration is affected by the type of wood, and that's what the pickups "see"... That makes your analogy pretty good! – Costagero Mar 4 '15 at 19:19
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    I think the interaction between the wood and strings would be more accurate way to describe this - the wood affects what the strings are doing. I don't see how the interaction between the wood and pickups would in itself, make any discernible difference. But plus 1 for the link which is pretty much the controlled experiment suggested by @topomorto – Rockin Cowboy Mar 4 '15 at 20:16
  • I just edited the answer. Tried to improve it by making this point clear. – Costagero Mar 4 '15 at 20:31
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The question is a bit of a red herring. Clearly the "electric guitar" is not an acoustic instrument and as such its tone is primarily determined by the amp and other factors in the set up (or more precisely, could be determined by...).

The pickup is picking up changes in magnetic flux from the vibrating string which is converted into an AC current in the pickup coil. The pickup cannot pick up what isn't there and the pickup has its own response curve that accentuates some frequencies over others. Any damping in the instrument will affect sustain. The type of bridge will change the harmonic content of the vibrating string too. From a basic physics point of view each and every piece of the instrument will have an impact on the tone of the guitar and the sustain. This is what anyone should expect. Neck through body versus bolt on will also have an effect. The real question is can you tell. This is where the question gets muddy in my opinion.

Many people consider the solid body electric to be an ideal rigid boundary that simply supports the strings. This is fair to some degree. But if you compare a solid body Les Paul to a plastic or acrylic solid body to one made of marble or other stone I think you will hear a difference provided all are played through the same gear and set up. But a stone guitar is an extreme that most will never experience. The slight deviations in guitar manufacturing are not as likely to make as big a difference. Since you can shape the sound any way you like with electronics it isn't really a useful point. Even if the choice of wood had an effect you can compensate for it electronically. The only way the comparison is fair is if you ask, is there an noticeable difference in tone and sustain between a solid Maple and a solid Mahogany with exactly the same shape, same electronics, same set up etc. And that doesn't really happen. Fender vs Gibson has different electronics, hardware, neck etc.

An example of something that will affect sound that cannot be addressed with tone shaping is solid body versus hollow or semi-hollow body.

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