Monday, September 16, 2013

Tonewoods Part Two

Last week we talked a bit about tone woods, and what most guitar manufacturers use, and why they use that specific type of wood. This week I would like to talk about the 'other' wood used on the acoustic guitar, that being the soundboard.
The soundboard on an acoustic instrument is the top of the guitar, or the part of the instrument you would rest your hand on to play.
Though they can differ from manufacturer to manufacturer, the majority of the folks that build them use spruce as a soundboard.
The reason for spruce? That word 'resonance' returns again at this juncture in our story. It's how the wood vibrates and transfers sound to the sound box. Guitar builders have tried many other woods over the years, like poplar, maple, cypress, cedar, birch and many more as a sound board, but time and again 'spruce' seems to be their first choice.
Spruce can be somewhat fragile so it is usually the premium select grade that is used here. It can't have knots or wavy grain or other anomalies. That would simply change the tone.
A soundboard must be consistent in grain and is usually book-matched with a similar piece to make up the soundboard on an acoustic instrument. Book-matching means taking a piece, usually hewn from the same part of the tree, and glueing both pieces together, side by side. This makes the wood resonate better, and cosmetically is more attractive on the instrument. Some builders choose to laminate their soundboards using a combination of varying pieces, and glueing these together, but those guitars are usually low end, or guitars that are painted, so as the laminations aren't as visible.
There are many different types of spruce, but the choice of most builders usually comes down to three, Sitka, Englemann, and Adirondack, with the majority of this wood coming from Canada, the U.S. and Europe.
To get the proper 'timbre' (pardon the pun...that is not timber) or resonant tone, these soundboards have to be seasoned very gently, as drying of the wood too quickly will only go on to cause cracking and other issues down the road.
Some guitar builders, and I will use Martin again for an example, also take this a step further and reduce the thickness of their soundboards in certain areas to create more volume from the instrument and differing tones, depending on where one would strum the instrument.
Nonetheless, I could go into great detail on this subject, and still come up with the same common denominator, and that is soundboards can vary in dimension and type of wood used, but they all do basically the same thing, and that is amplify the instrument through the sound box and back out the sound hole, or 'F' holes if it is an archtop guitar.
Cedar can also be used as a soundboard in guitar building. Though it is used mostly to build classical instruments, it is also starting to be used more and more as a soundboard by some popular steel string builders as well.
Cedar is a little more 'dull' in sound in comparison to it's spruce cousins, but the right type and thickness of cedar can feature similar tones to spruce. Cedar is a very fragile, delicate wood, and must be conditioned with care before being used as a soundboard. Some cedar is found in Canada and the U.S., but the majority of the cedar used to build fine quality instruments comes from European countries, and also from Norway, Sweden and Finland.

Electric instruments are not as fragile as their acoustic relatives, and the choices of woods for their make up can be much the same as acoustics, and much different at the same time.
Some electric builders, like Gibson, PRS, Gretsch, and quite a few others, also tend to use mahogany for the production of the necks and headstocks on their instruments, and in some cases, the bodies as well. Some of these builders utilize a 'set' neck design, which shares a lot of the same characteristics as the dovetail on the acoustics. The neck is set, or glued onto the guitar in such a fashion that it marries the body in what looks like a mortise and tenon joint. Kind of like over-lapping one onto the other. The guitar is notched out to meet the neck extension, and that is glued together directly below where the
neck pickup is mounted to the instrument. The advantage of this is 'tone'. Massive tone!! And that is started at the headstock, where the strings attach, transmitted through the neck and fretboard and directly into the body of the instrument. Disadvantages?? Well, if you ever have to remove the neck, because it might have suffered a broken neck, or requires a neck reset, you are pretty well out of luck here.
You would have to bring it to a certified luthier to have the neck removed, repaired and replaced on the instrument. Sometimes, it's just as easy to buy a new guitar, for what the repair is going to cost.

Fender, on the other hand, doesn't do it this way. The bulk of the guitars and basses Fender makes, all feature a 'bolt on' neck, which really isn't bolted on at all. It is screwed on to the body. So, I am not too sure where that term ever came from. Some builders, like myself, prefer to bolt the neck onto the body. That is achieved by installing threaded inserts into the neck and instead of using wood screws, you would use machine screws, or bolts. This adheres the neck better to the body, thusly improving tone, and there is less chance of the neck moving if the headstock gets bumped, or the guitar suffers a fall.
Fender's choice in woods did vary, but only slightly. Fender is very traditional with what woods they use to build their guitars.
Fender necks are usually always made up of select rock maple, and their fretboards are usually, either rosewood, or maple.
Fender bodies can be made up of a multitude of different woods, but their stock instruments are usually made up of either 'Alder” (American clear poplar) or Swamp Ash, though Fender has also dabbled with other woods for their bodies, like Koa, White Ash, Walnut, Rosewood, Cherry, Curly or Flamed Maple and Mahogany.
I have built a few guitars of my own recently, where the bodies were built for me by a friend of mine in California at Matt's Woodworking. His name is Keith Brommerich. These guitars were solid one piece walnut. They turned out beautiful. Walnut has to have one of the prettiest grains I have ever seen, and these guitars come to life with just a little light finishing on the bodies. They also come to life when they are played, and sound unlike anything I have ever heard before. Thank you Keith.
Fender, unlike Gibson and others, uses single coil pick ups in their guitars. Some argue that regardless of what wood is used on the guitar, by using single coils, one doesn't change the tone, or sound of the guitar. Well, I really don't believe that to be true. I believe that anytime any pickup is somehow fastened to an instrument, the sound is changed by the type of wood that the pickup is attached to. Ash sounds different than alder, and Cherry sounds different than walnut.
Gibson, with their humbucking PAF design pickups? Well, that is a whole new ball game.
Gibson knew what they were doing from the get-go, by using the all mahogany body and the humbucking pickups. That was just the sound that everybody was looking for at the time. And the heavier the guitar, the better the tone. Though wearing a 13 pound guitar all night is not what I would call appealing at best, Gibson has sold some guitars, and continues to, even to this day. The Les Paul or the SG hasn't really changed in look a lot, but they have in sound. Why? Well some brilliant engineer at Gibson decided to take what was already great and put his spin on it, and came out with the natural series, the weight relieved and the chambered series guitars. Guitars that look the same, but don't sound the same. Mainly because they removed from the guitar what mattered most. The wood. It is seldom at best you can get a solid wood anything from Gibson. In trying to save the planet, it seems they forgot about what matters most...the tone!! And what makes the tone? A combination of things, with the wood being number one. Pure and simple.
Though Fender has changed some of their lineup of instruments, they haven't changed their basic guitar design and principle. That of course being what Leo Fender started years ago when he would hand select the neck and bodies himself for his guitars. Don't mess with what works. Gibson needs to take a good hard look at this, and go back to what they used to do. Again, don't mess with what works.
That is also why you see companies like PRS, Carvin,and MusicMan, building some great guitars. They are just simply doing what companies like Gibson used to do, and are doing it a whole lot better.
Their quality control is better and more consistent and they make their guitars out of what matters most....real wood.
That's all for this week. Have a good one. See you next time.
Brett McNaueal

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