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Tone Tip: It All Starts with the Wood

Dave Hunter | 09.10.2008

However much you swap your guitar’s pickups, strings, and wiring configuration, tweak your amp, or revamp your pedalboard, you will never achieve the golden tone that rings in your head if you don’t take one tip to heart: it all starts with the wood. Sure, these are electric guitars, and all the electronic components in the sound chain will affect what comes out of the speaker, but they are acoustic machines first and foremost. Hit the strings with your guitar unplugged, and it still rings and resonates, and the sound you hear—even with no electronic devices attached—still defines the core of your tone. And to make sure this is the right tone for you, or to avoid fighting a tone with endless component tweaks that never seem to satisfy, you need to understand a little bit about how all that wood sounds.

Sure, your pickups pick up the sound, and your amp amplifies it, but even before they get to handle it, your precious tone has already been formed by the interaction of string and wood. Pluck a string, and you set into motion a transference of vibrational energy from the strings into the wood of the body and neck (via different coupling elements such as bridge saddles, nut, and frets). The spectrum of sounds kicked out by this acoustic interaction is the biggest determining factor at the heart of the sound that eventually reaches the listener’s ear, however you delay, spin, or distort it along the way. Let’s look at the characteristic voices of a few tone woods, and see how they contribute to our guitar’s sound.

When you’re talking Gibson, mahogany is frequently going to factor into the brew. And that’s a wonderful thing. This is the classic ingredient of the multi-wood body, and one of the most common neck woods also, but is very often used on its own in single-wood bodies. On its own in an SGLes Paul Special, or Les Paul Junior, mahogany’s voice is characteristically warm and somewhat soft, but extremely well balanced, with good grind and bite. It has the potential for good depth, with full (though not super-tight) lows, velvety highs, and a slightly compressed response. Overall, think round, open, warm.

Add a maple top to the mahogany body, as do a great many Les Paul models, and a blend of characteristics comes forward. The mahogany’s depth and richness remain, but the maple provides added snap, clarity, and definition. It also tightens up the lows and adds more cut to the highs. For many players this sonic evolution is highly desirable, whereas others might prefer the smoothness of the pure-mahogany design.

Inside the Veneer Tent at Gibson's Memphis facilityAnother classic yet quite rare tone wood, Korina, has a lengthy Gibson pedigree. This elegant, fine-grained wood, also known as African limba, was chosen as the wood for the super-collectible Modernistic Series guitars of the late 1950s, and lives on in the ’58 Explorer and ’59 Flying V available today from the Custom Shop. Korina possesses some similarities to mahogany, particularly in its warmth and resonance, but it also yields degrees of clarity, definition, and sustain that are all its own.

While these sum up the most significant Gibson tone woods, other species do occasionally contribute to the brew. Swamp ash lends the Les Paul Studio Swamp Ash a degree of twangy sweetness and a round, slightly scooped midrange, while the most common Gibson fingerboard woods, rosewood and ebony, even make their mark on the frequency spectrum. Rosewood generally helps to add a certain thickness and creaminess to the tone—warming up the voice of a maple neck, or adding depth and cohesiveness to that of a mahogany neck—while an ebony fingerboard, long considered an upmarket option, contributes tightness, brightness, and a quick attack.

Explore the myriad wood combinations in the Gibson lineup and see what’s right for you. Trying to finetune your tone without regard to what your wood is kicking out in the first place can be a frustrating venture, but learn to work with the organic template of each specific model, and you’re already swimming with the tide. Be at one with the heart of the wood, tune in to the voice that resonates deep within even the unplugged electric guitar, and you will go a long way toward understanding, and crafting, your own unique tone.