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raycWelcome to a new Australian Musician series we’re calling ASK RAY, in which respected Melbourne guitar luthier and repairer Ray Carlton will discuss guitar-related topics and invite you, the reader to participate in the discussion, ask more questions and suggest other topics which Ray can cover. Here’s Ray’s first article for us on tonewoods. Say hi to Ray and feel free to join the discussion via the comments box below the article.



What’s the best tonewood for my new electric guitar?
Tonewoods and what they bring to the tone equation.
For the purposes of this article I’ll confine the discussion to solid body electric guitars. The question I am most often asked when mapping a specification for a new build is: What tonewoods will sound the best?. It is certainly a valid question and one worth exploring. The subject of tonewoods can be approached using a nuts and bolts method taking into account availability and cost. It also can be approached from what I call the “Mojo” perspective. Let’s just say that Mojo is an unquantifiable, magic quality. Both approaches are equally valid as long as the tonewoods chosen are of a quality consistent with building a fine guitar.

I have built guitars where a prescriptive list of tonewood underpins the specification.  Cost and availability considerations are ignored in order to obtain the required mix of the desirable tonewoods. The premise is that the prescribed tonewood mix enables the owner to feel a bond with the guitar as it is built from the most desired timbers. This will ensure that it will not fail to produce the fine tone expected.

In my opinion, the prescriptive tonewoods list is valid only in the Mojo sense. If the timber species your guitar is built from are important to you that is enough reason to be prescriptive. The stronger the bond you feel for the guitar the better you are likely to play it. There are of course some timbers that are just not suitable and in this regard you should rely on advice from your luthier.

Often a player’s tonewood preferences are not based on experience but on what they have read or on a formula popularised by a big name guitar manufacturer.  There is no doubt that there are many perceptions about the “tone” of certain woods and their effect on the way an electric guitar sounds. It is said mahogany brings a big warm tone. A rosewood fingerboard* (see paragraph at end of story about new laws regarding the use of rosewood) has a warmer tone than one made of ebony or maple. Alder has a slightly more mellow tone than swamp ash which imparts a bright tone. Swamp ash is seen as especially bright when it is coupled with a one piece maple neck. If you glue a mahogany neck into a mahogany body with a thick slice of maple glued on top, a thick punchy tone is always achieved.

I have found certain types of guitar designs have an inherent tone that is recognisable despite what they are built from. As an example, a Telecaster has an instantly recognisable tone wether it is a high end instrument or a cheap copy. The same can be said about LP and SG style guitars. The LP will sound slightly different to an SG but neither will be mistaken for a Telecaster. Obviously expensive custom shop models will sound nicer than low priced copy models.

My premise is this: If identical hardware and electronics are used in a high end model and in a lower priced copy, the tone of each will be very similar. If a blind AB test is conducted, using a single amp with unchanged settings; most players will not pick the high end guitar from the copy. I will go a step further and say that no matter what tonewood the guitar is made from, if the hardware and electronics are identical on two guitars of the same type, the tone from each will be virtually indistinguishable by most players.

For example; an alder Tele with rosewood and maple neck, sounds almost indistinguishable from the swamp ash Tele with one piece maple neck model, if the hardware and electronics are identical.

When choosing timbers for a new instrument I will select boards that show desirable attributes rather than by species. I will look for a certain tap tone and grain structure rather than a nice looking piece of mahogany. I have found that the species of timber chosen plays a very minor role in shaping the tone. The foundation stones of building fine solid body electric guitars are:

1.    Selection of structurally sound boards
2.    Precision cutting and fitting the instrument together
3.    Selection of the finest hardware and electronics.
4.    Exacting detailing and setup

Of course there are ergonomic and aesthetic considerations to be taken into considerations. At the end of the job the “Plain Jane” guitar carefully built from ordinary looking, readily available timbers will sound just as good as the one built from expensive, imported exotic tonewoods. I often say to my clients: If you want to use fancy timbers they will look fabulous but add nothing to the tone and plenty to the bill.

*New law from CITES in regard to use of rosewood.
In November 2016, CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) put over 300 species of rosewood and bubinga on their endangered species list. Now only certain species of rosewood can continue to be logged but with a strict permit process. What this means is that companies will no longer be able to afford to produce their lower end guitars using Rosewood. Plus, the higher end guitars with rosewood will be more expensive. Fender have recently made the decision to remove rosewood as a feature option on their Mexican made guitars for example. A new and involved documentation process means that if you want to sell a guitar which has rosewood on it and ship it overseas,  then you must provide paperwork to prove that the rosewood was either harvested before November 2016 or if produced post 2016, prove that the rosewood has been harvested legally. The changes have meant that many guitar makers are now seeking alternatives to rosewood

Ask Ray a question in the comments box
Ray Carlton is Melbourne-based luthier and guitar repairer

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