Over the years I’ve read several articles related to tonewood and whether or not it makes a difference as to how an electric guitar sounds. There are those who are convinced it does and those who think it has no affect whatsoever. Is there really a scientific method in which to test this theory?  I ran across an article the other day where different pieces of tonewood (all the same dimensions) were tested with the same type of strings and pickup. The audio signals were analyzed and recorded.  Although there was an audible difference between Alder and Swamp Ash, was this because the string was plucked a little differently or was it because the strings on each piece of wood had a different tone sonically?  Was it because the density of that piece of Alder was just different than another piece of Alder as compared to the Swamp Ash or could it have been that the anchoring points of each string were slightly different? There are so many variables involved with how a particular guitar sounds that it’s really difficult to know how much the actual tonewood affects the overall sound.

Knaggs Keya
Knaggs Keya

So why is it that some people say vintage guitars (1950’s and 1960’s) sound better than modern day guitars? There are many luthiers today that, when trying to replicate vintage guitars, do so by kiln drying the wood they use to build the guitars. Electric guitars built in the 50’s and 60’s are very old and, thus, the wood they are made of is very old. As wood ages for that many years it dries out. Some say that wood which is drier is more resonant. I would have to agree with this but does that create a direct correlation as to the overall tone of the guitar? Based on the variable scenarios that make up the tone of a guitar, it’s really hard to say? If we were to pick up a piece of Mahogany from 1959 and hit it with a wooden spoon it would probably sound different than a piece of Mahogany from 2015. The audible differences would be much more apparent sonically due to the noise of the wood when hitting it with a wooden spoon. However, does the sound that each piece of wood makes create a tone that is better than the other? Would the older, drier piece of Mahogany sound better than the newer piece of Mahogany or will it just sound different because it is resonating differently? Additionally, will each piece of wood sound as different when incorporated with all the other components of a guitar after it’s built versus when hitting it with a wooden spoon as a slab of wood by itself? Again, this is all subjective!

1959 Les Paul
1959 Les Paul Reissue

Keep in mind, a test like this is very simple as we are only trying to differentiate between the sound two pieces of wood make! Things get really complicated when we add the following components into the mix:

  • The type of bridge and how it is anchored
  • The type of nut and how thick it is cut
  • The type of pickups and how they are wound and mounted
  • The type of strings and gauge of strings
  • Whether it is a set neck or a bolt-on
  • Nitro finish or poly finish
  • One piece body or two piece body…

…and so on, and so on! In my opinion, I have noticed the most difference in the tone of a guitar when changing the pickups. Two different sets of pickups can change the tone of a guitar drastically. Does that mean that I could take a cheap set of pickups and install them in the Knaggs Keya pictured above, one of the most finely crafted guitars made today, and it would sound bad? In my opinion, yes, it would not sound as good. Conversely, would that be the case if I installed that same set of cheap pickups in the 1959 Gibson Les Paul reissue also pictured above? Again, in my opinion, yes, it would not sound as good as the original set of PAF’s designed for the guitar.

Humbucking Pickup
Humbucking Pickup

My point is this. Great Luthiers who build guitars do so with the idea that each component that goes on the guitar is designed to compliment all the other components of the guitar, including the wood. A well crafted guitar would not be designed with the idea that it will sound it’s best with a set of inferior pickups or any other component for that matter. This is a debate that will probably go on for ages and I don’t suspect that it will be resolved any time soon as it’s really a matter of opinion. The bottom line is that when choosing a guitar, does it sound good to you? Is it well crafted and does it feel good in your hands? Does it play like butter or do you struggle to hold a chord? Does it make you a better player or want to give up and go back to your day job? All these are considerations when choosing a guitar that’s right for you!

1957 Fender Stratocaster
1957 Fender Stratocaster


Given that this is a blog and open for debate I encourage our followers to chime in. Give us your opinion as we would really like to hear what you have to say! Click on the “Leave a comment” link below and tell us what you think!



Chris Van Tassel