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Tone Tip: Wood Resonance, The Secret to Superlative Tone

Dave Hunter | 09.10.2008
A lot of ingredients work together to form the precious tone that issues forth from your electric guitar, but however much time and consideration you have put into pickup and hardware selection, the way in which the wood components resonate together remains the make-or-break factor that determines the voice of your instrument. We examined tone woods in general in one of my earlier Tone Tips, It All Starts with the Wood, but this time I want to offer a few pointers to help you pinpoint the guitars that are really happening resonance-wise.

The first step in determining whether or not a guitar has got it together in tonal terms is to give it a thorough acoustic check-up. I’m talking purely electric solidbody or semi-solidbody here, but of course if you play any guitar unamplified it will perform as an acoustic instrument, and the extent to which it excels or falls flat in this effort will tell you a lot about how it will sound plugged in and cranked up, too. This is all really a matter of learning how to assess the structural and resonant virtue of an instrument; you can try it with guitars you already own, or apply these techniques when you are shopping for that important new instrument. 

Weight plays a part in this equation, but is generally secondary to the virtue of the build and whether the wood itself—whether on the heavy side or the light—is working with the resonance and harmonics of the guitar, or against them. A well-built example of a well-designed guitar should live up to its potential as an instrument. Some slightly inferior examples of otherwise great, even legendary, guitars do occasionally see the light of day, of course, and this isn’t always the result of any great “mistake” that was made in the manufacturing process. Sometimes a piece of wood just doesn’t want to be a guitar … it wants to be a park bench. When that occurs, you find that the acoustic tones of body and neck fight each other and just don’t vibrate in harmony, or the guitar simply throws out less-than-flattering peaks, nulls, and dead spots that hinder the acoustic voice of the instrument, and as a result, it’s plugged-in performance. Let’s take a look at some methods of discerning an electric guitar’s acoustic performance.

First, put guitar X on your lap in playing position, strum a first-position chord, and feel the tip of the headstock with your right hand while still holding that chord with your left (reverse these if you’re a lefty). You should feel a significant amount of vibration there, almost a surprising amount of movement in some cases (note that set-neck guitars exhibit a bit less of this by nature, and set-neck semi-acoustics a little less still; this doesn’t indicate a lack of toneful resonance, but is just characteristic of the breed, so you need to assess like against like, as far as overall resonance is concerned). Now, strum again and feel the strap button at the lower end of the body, and also the treble-side lower bout (the edge of the guitars near the controls). These regions should vibrate too, a little less than the tip of the headstock perhaps, but you should feel something there. Next, pluck just the open G string and check these same locations: on the really resonant guitars, you should still feel some action there. Put your ear to the bass-side upper bout (the upper “horn” or shoulder of the guitar) and play a little. You should hear a full, round, even voice, which might even be surprisingly loud on a really toneful guitar. It should be rich, deep, and woody. Ideally, you shouldn’t hear anything that’s too boomy, or too choked and spiky, or harsh in its treble response. 

Finally, just play the guitar in a range of styles, all up and down the neck, and listen normally. It might not be real loud, but should be full and even and lively—and in some cases, might be louder than you’d think for a solidbody electric, when you give it your full attention. Play both chords and single notes and hold them, and listen to how long the guitar sustains, and whether the decay has a pleasing character.  Does it sound good to you and make you want to play? Does it represent a quieter version of the kind of tonality that you’d like to have at the core of your sound when amplified? If so, you could be onto a winner. On the other hand, if it sounds dead, dull, uneven, or as if different harmonic elements in the acoustic resonance are fighting themselves, you might want to pass it by and pick up the next example. Once you locate a guitar that is really happening acoustically, you can almost always achieve what you want in amplified tone with the right set of pickups. If the wood resonance is fighting you, however, the best set of pickups on the planet won’t correct the ills that are coming out of the heart of the instrument. 

First-call LA session guitarist Carl Verheyen passed one of his own guitar-buying tips along to me when we were working together recently. Carl said that when he approaches an instrument hanging on the wall in a guitar store, he plucks just the B string, then grabs the lower treble bout of the guitar (around the region of the jack socket) to feel if there’s any vibration there at all. If there is, he takes it down and plays it further. If there isn’t, he passes it up. Experiment with playing acoustically as many electric guitars as you can get your hands on, put some thought into wood resonance, and see what you discover. It’s the first step toward nailing the really great tone machines out there.