Does wood affect the sustain of electric guitars
How much does the guitar shape affect the sound?
... and which components are also relevant for the sound?
(Image: © shutterstock / 576741019 / Author: Anita Poli)
Since the creation of the electric guitar, various body shapes have established themselves on the market, which are often based on historical models such as the Fender Telecaster, the Fender Stratocaster or the Gibson Les Paul. The hard & heavy sector has also given players some special creations over the decades and many guitar makers are always experimenting with new designs.
In today's workshop we want to investigate the extent to which the body shape influences the sound and which components are ultimately decisive for the sound.
A historical look at different constructions and shapes
The first electric guitar in solid body construction came on the market in 1950, was presented by Fender and, after an initial name change, was henceforth called Telecaster. A little later, the Stratocaster followed and Gibson, the other big name in the American guitar business, did not stay idle for long and followed up with the Les Paul. As already mentioned at the beginning, all three models were from then on significant influencers for the further development of the electric guitar. The first steps, however, were made by acoustic guitars with a vaulted ceiling (archtops) that were equipped with one or more pickups and are now commonly referred to as hollowbody jazz guitars.
The Telecaster has been manufactured by Fender since 1950 and is considered the first mass-produced solid body electric guitar.
If we start at this point in the development with our question, it can be stated that the different body shapes of the instruments from this time clearly had an influence on the overall sound, especially when one takes into account the acoustic components of these models. Back then there were guitars that were built with and without a cutaway. The cutaway on the body made it easier to play in the high registers, but at the same time also took away some of the body's mass and thus limited its acoustic vibration properties under certain circumstances. Furthermore, the bodies were of different depths. Some models were slimmer and others very expansive, which of course - as with flat-top acoustic guitars - also had an effect on the acoustic sound behavior.
Due to the hollow body, however, these guitars were quite susceptible to feedback and with the advent of rock'n'roll, the significantly lower susceptibility of solid body guitars to feedback was also one of the reasons for their triumph.
In addition, so-called semi-resonance guitars established themselves, of which the Gibson ES 335 is probably the best-known model. Due to a sustain block inside the body, these models were very limited in acoustic terms, similar to solid body models, and thus also significantly less susceptible to feedback.
If you now take a closer look at the body design of electric guitars, you can see that different body shapes have to be at the back in terms of their influence on the sound. Much more important is the choice of pickups, woods and other components, which we now want to take a closer look at.
A special characteristic of the ES-335 models is their semi-hollow body.
Typical types of wood used in building electric guitars
The first models from Fender and Gibson mentioned above were also very influential in the choice of wood for electric guitar construction and are still so today. The body of a Telecaster or Strat is often associated with ash or alder, and the Les Paul with mahogany. The SG, also from Gibson, is traditionally made of mahogany, but has a slimmer body and the maple top typical of the Les Paul is missing, which is noticeable in both weight and sound.
The body of a semi-resonance electric guitar like the ES 335 is also made of laminated wood and, thanks to its construction, has a tonal character that many players like to use across styles. So this model is welcomed by rock guitarists as well as in the blues and jazz context.
Otherwise, the Les Paul with its choice of wood is generally described as having a warm and darker tone with a lot of sustain, which harmonizes very well with distorted sounds. The Strat or Tele, on the other hand, stand for the typical "twang" and a lively sound. The neck connection is also partly responsible for this, because the glued-in neck of the Les Paul stands for more sustain, while the Strat and Tele are made with a screwed neck. But the choice and size of the wood in relation to the neck should not be underestimated either. Whether you also use a rosewood fingerboard, for example, is also reflected in the overall sound.
In the case of the electric guitar, the choice of material is much more decisive than the shape. However, since electric guitar construction is still very conservative in its orientation, a certain body design often stands for typical sound ideals and thus mostly also for the corresponding woods.
Influence of pickups and hardware
The pickups are without question very important for the sound of an electric guitar, which by the way can also be associated with one of the two big players in the American guitar business in the historical development of solid body electric guitars. Single coils with their crisp and wiry sound stood for Tele and Strat, humbuckers with their warm and softer tone for the Les Paul.
The boundaries are now fluid here. Many manufacturers like to offer a mixture of both concepts and a Strat or Tele is now partially or completely equipped with humbuckers if necessary. Gibson's Les Paul and other humbucker guitars are now often equipped with the so-called split coil function, with which only one of the two pickup coils can be activated and the respective humbucker works as a single coil. But the tonal influence of the hardware, i.e. bridge and saddle, should not be underestimated either. So it's worth experimenting here.
By the way, our author Robby Mildenberger made two very informative tests about the influence of different bridges on the electric guitar some time ago.
In summary, it can be said that the body design or the shape of the electric guitar undoubtedly has an influence on the ergonomics and playability, but does not have as much effect on the sound as an acoustic or jazz guitar. The pickups used, the choice of woods, the neck construction and the hardware are much more decisive for the vibration behavior. Nevertheless, with the majority of electric guitars, provided they are based on traditional standards, the ideal sound they represent can often be read from the shape.
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