The Electric Guitar Body – Why certain woods are used and their different tonal characteristics

Pickups are a big part of the voice and tone of an electric guitar and you can improve the sound of a mediocre guitar with a pickup upgrade, but the tone starts with the wood. This time we’re going to have a look at what difference the wood used in the body of a guitar makes, and the characteristics of the main woods used in solid body electrics.

The prototype Fender solid bodies (Broadcasters) used Pine for the bodies, and you can now get aftermarket bodies made from pine. It sounds great but probably wouldn’t be one of the first woods people think of as a tone wood, but it does share a lot of tonal similarities with Swamp Ash which is what Fender used for the Telecaster and Stratocasters throughout the 1950’s. Pine has knots and is difficult to finish if there is a lot of resin/sap, it’s also prone to warping if not properly seasoned – which is why Swamp Ash became synonymous with 50’s Fenders and not Pine.

Before I talk about the tonal qualities of each wood, lets look at the reasons why specific woods are used and where they come from:

Trees grow more, and faster when there is plenty of sunlight and water, so the regions above and below the equator have the right conditions for speedy growth. Trees that grow in drier and less sunny climates grow more slowly and have higher densities (less water equals tighter grain; more water equals more open grain, a bit like the difference between a dry sponge and a wet one). Swamp Ash is wood taken from the lower portions of the trees which grow in swamps and so has its roots permanently submerged. When it dries out the wood has more air in it than Northern Ash, which grows more slowly and has a higher density. This is why Swamp Ash is lighter than Northern Ash. It’s also why Mahogany from Central and South America is prized for its tone.

In the Seventies, Fender continued to use Ash for bodies but this was sourced mainly from more plentiful (and cheaper) supplies in North America which explains why Strats and Teles from this era are some of the heaviest guitars made by Fender. The other “standard” tone wood used by Fender is Alder. Alder grows in North America and is medium weight with less highly figured grain, it is easier to work with than Swamp ash – which requires more grain filling before finishing. In general 50’s and 60’s Fenders with sunburst and blonde finishes (where the grain shows through the finish) used Swamp Ash and solid colours used Alder.

So now lets look at the different tonal qualities of body woods:

Northern Ash: Northern Ash has more midrange, pronounced highs, more punch and a tighter, less full bass. It is not as “warm” as Swamp Ash but can sustain well and can be more articulate when using distortion or high gain.

Swamp Ash: Swamp Ash sustains well, has a slightly less pronounced midrange, a warm full bass and soft pleasing highs. It is twangy, squashy and has a kind of compressed attack when you hit the strings hard. Single notes seem to “bloom” after the initial attack.

Alder: Alder is a good all-rounder, balanced lows, mids and highs, good sustain and a “woody” character to the midrange. It can be a bit brighter than Swamp Ash and has a full balanced tone on Strat and Teles.

Mahogany:  Mahogany can vary in weight depending on where the tree is grown. Medium weight Mahogany is what was used by Gibson through the Fifties and Sixties and probably accounts for the mystical qualities of the late 50’s Les Pauls.  To my ears Mahogany has a fuller and clearer bass response than Ash or Alder, more refined and articulate. Midrange is usually full and the highs less sparkly. It has a throaty-ness to the low and upper mids when you play hard. Think of a Gibson Les Paul Junior or SG and that is the tone of Mahogany.

Maple: Maple isn’t often used as a body wood because it is dense and therefore heavy, however we couldn’t talk about bodies without looking at the classic Mahogany and Maple combination. Maple is tight-grained; often with highly figured grain patterns, it has a bright percussive attack and sustains well. Bass response is tight with a hi-fi like punch but not much warmth. So if we combine a Maple top with a Mahogany back we get the punch, brightness and sustain of Maple with the low-end response, warmth and textured mid-range of mahogany. Gibson knew exactly what they were doing when they designed the Les Paul way back then.

Next time we will look at Neck woods and how they can affect the tone and feel of your guitar.

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The best way to sequence a pedal board

Before we start I’d just like to say that there is no definitive single solution, sometimes happy accidents can happen when you plug your phaser into your fuzz or your delay into your chorus, so try lots of different ways before you decide what’s best for your music. Having said that there are some general tips that most players will agree with so here goes:

Typically there are six types of effects;

1) Frequency/EQ like wah wah and equalizers

2) Overdrives & distortions

3) Modulation – chorus & vibrato

4) Time based effects like delay and reverb

5) Dynamic effects like Compressors & Limiters

6) and what I call “other” for want of a better classification eg tremolo, harmonizers, octavers

I find that I’m forever going from how-many-pedals-can-get-on-my-board to what’s-the-least-I-can-get-away-with; maybe that’s you too? It’s always a trade off though, as the more pedals and interconnects the more signal loss and tone-sucking, but the more tone options you have at your feet. A line selector can help here so that you can keep the minimum number of pedals in your signal path and then use the line selector to bring in a loop of effects only when you need them.

Ok, so what’s the best order for all your effects? first is often the wah pedal. You can try your wah after overdrives etc and some people use two wah’s one before and one after.

Next would come a compressor if you use one, you want this before any overdrives to avoid too much noise and a smoother sustain. If you put your compressor after your overdrive and have both switched on, the compressor will keep raising the volume and background noise generated by the overdrive/distortion.

With overdrives and distortions I like to arrange them so that I can use more than one at a time. I find that putting the higher gain distortions and fuzz first and then the lower gain pedals like overdrives and tubescreamers etc afterwards works best. What this does is allow the lower gain pedals to boost the signal. If you run a lower gain overdrive into a higher gain distortion, you can’t get the volume boost, you might get a bit more squash to the signal though. I use a clean boost pedal as well and I put this after the distortions so I can get a volume boost for solos.

If you use a harmoniser or octave pedal this would come next. They like a “dry” signal and don’t work as well with any modulation on the input signal. A compressor really helps even out the signal when using a harmoniser too. Put your Tremolo here too.

Next would come any chorus, vibrato, tremolo, flange or vibe effects. I prefer the sound of a chorused distortion to a distorted chorus (if you know what I mean). It also makes for a cleaner signal and lower noise overall when you have distortion and chorus/flange etc on at the same time.

Finally, put your delays and reverbs (in that order) reverb after delay sounds more natural and makes the delay sound bigger and smoother.

MOST IMPORTANT!  – Use the best quality patch leads you can get. Not much sense in forking out a fortune for your boutique pedals and using low quality cables to hook them up with. I’ve even known one guitarist who dispensed with patch leads and soldered all his pedals together using high quality oxygen free screened cables.

EQUALLY IMPORTANT! – If you use a power supply, get a regulated supply that can deliver enough current for the pedals that you use. Most supplies will have the maximum current load (expressed in miiliamps) and most pedals have the current draw listed on the base of the pedal or next to the power supply input.

N.B. Some old effects and boutique fuzzes with germanium transistors like to work off batteries and don’t like power supplies at all.

The SG: Inspirational SG Players and some useful info on the varying design, build and sound.

When you’re gigging every night and that Les Paul is getting heavier and heavier on your strap and your shoulder aches – it’s time to give an SG a go. First marketed in 1961 as the new Les Paul model, and soon after re-named the SG after Les Paul parted company with Gibson; the SG has been around for over 50 years in various incarnations.

My personal favourites are the P90 equipped guitars, either Juniors or Specials. There is something about the P90 and the SG design and construction that just sounds right. With humbuckers they’re still good (Angus Young seems to like them) but to my ears they can sound very bright with too much pickup and not enough guitar in the tone. A good alternative are the Mini Humbucker equipped SG’s that were popular in the Seventies.

Things I like are the access to all of the frets with the unique neck to body construction, the thin sculpted body and the light weight. The thinner body makes for a punchy, biting more mid-rangey push to the tone compared with the heavy bottom end of a Les Paul. Some classic examples of the SG tone are Angus Young (anything/everything) Eric Clapton on Live Cream vol 1 and 2, Ollie Halsall, Pete Townshend Live at Leeds, Derek Trucks, Carlos Santana at Woodstock, and one of my fave’s, Zal Cleminson with The Sensational Alex Harvey Band – check out the definitive SG tone on Snake Bite or Faith Healer.

During the mid Seventies Gibson reduced the angle of the neck joint to almost zero, this makes for a guitar that feels more Fender than Gibson, one thing I’ve noticed is that these guitars seem to be very resonant and sustain well. Possibly because the wood grain is aligned between the body and the neck? They certainly feel different to play than the standard SG with the more pronounced neck pitch.

2011 SG Neck Pitch:

1974 SG Neck Pitch:

On most humbucker equipped guitars the pots are 500Kohm which work well with Les Pauls which generally sound darker than SG’s, for a time Gibson fitted 300Kohm pots on SG’s and they definitely sound warmer and suit the guitar, especially with mini-humbuckers and P90’s. Worth experimenting with if you think your SG is too bright and you want a more “woody” tone.

Top Tip when buying a SG: One common complaint is that some SG’s are neck heavy and don’t balance well, so if you are in the market for one, try a few as they vary in weight and balance.

Les Paul : Classic Rock Tone and Common LP Quick Fixes

The massive crunchy guitar sound of the intro to TRex’ ‘Twentieth Century Boy’ first made me aware of the great Les Paul guitar tone and it still sounds great today. At the same time in the early Seventies, Mick Ronsons tone on the albums ‘Ziggy Stardust’ and ‘Aladdin Sane’ is also a benchmark for that British Glam Guitar sound. The combination of a Les Paul and EL34 valve powered amps is the tone of classic rock all through the Seventies. Think Paul Kossof, Mick Ralphs, Mick Ronson, Jimmy Page, Dicky Betts – it’s a long list so I’ll stop here. Many of these great guitar players used original 1950’s Gibson Les Pauls which were relatively cheap then, but they aren’t so cheap now! Without having to fork out mountains of cash, you can still achieve the great 70’s Les Paul sound. The essential ingredients in the tone are: LP style guitar, lower output vintage-style humbuckers and an EL34 valve amp (non-master volume) with not too much gain.

Pickups

Lets look at pickups first – on a Les Paul I like vintage style output humbuckers rather than high output, by vintage I mean typically a DC resistance reading of between 7 and 8 KOhms. A lower output pickup will have more treble and a clearer bass, the more wire you put into a pickup the lower the resonant peak and consequently, more mid-range and a squashed frequency range.

LP Design

Lets now look at the Les Paul guitar design itself. Mahogany body, a maple cap; typically half an inch thick and a mahogany set-neck. On a Les Paul the neck to body joint is very solid with the non-cutaway side of the body making a lot of contact with the neck. This means more sustain, greater transfer of bass frequencies and a thicker overall tone.

Compare a Les Paul with and SG and you can hear the difference that more wood and more contact between neck and body makes. SG’s fitted with the same pickups as a Les Paul will sound more cutting, less bass, more upper midrange bite and more treble. Not bad but different.

Amplifier

The third element is the amp, if you listen to Paul Kossof’s guitar tone on ‘Alright Now’ there is a lot of clarity and not that much distortion at all. The amp tone is relatively clean with the distortion coming from the power valves rather than overdriving the pre-amp. You can hear each string separately and the sustain is from his fingers and guitar, not from the compression you get with a high output pickup and a high gain amp.

Common LP Quick Fixes

A couple of regular irritations with Les Pauls are strings sticking in the nut and getting the right string angle behind the bridge. The D and G strings are the usual culprits for sticking in the nut, this is because they have the most acute angle as they pass over the nut, the secret is to get the nut cut properly so that the strings pass over at the correct angle and that it is the right depth and width for the string gauge used. Pencil lead in the nut slots also helps.

Some Les Pauls have a deeper carve to the top than others, this means that if the stop bar tailpiece is screwed right down the strings will catch on the back of the bridge before they pass over the saddles. The way round this is to fit the strings so that they wrap over the tailpiece (this is how it was designed to be done originally) This method reduces the angle of the strings behind the bridge with the tailpiece screwed all the way down.

Stratocasters Part 2: classic neck pickup tones from Dave Gilmour and Jimi Hendrix

Following on from the last Strat blog where we looked at the Hank Marvin bridge pickup tone, we thought we’d move to the neck pickup this time:

Dave Gilmour

Dave Gilmour has a reputation for a monster tone. He has used loads of different pedals and effects over the years but always has that immediately identifiable “Gilmour” sound. A few key ingredients (apart from his fingers, touch and phrasing) are a loud clean valve amp and stomp box pedals. This way the tone shaping is achieved with the pedals rather than having a high gain distortion setting on the amp.

He often used, and still uses Hiwatt Amps which have a full tight bass and bright top end with a balanced midrange.This gives a relatively neutral canvas for colouring the sound with overdrives, distortions and modulation / delays. He often uses two overdrives / distortion running into each other. In the Seventes this would often be a Big Muff (fairly dirty and fuzzy) into a Colorsound Overdriver (previous versions known as Power Boost).What this cascading does is add slight compression to the Big Muff and then boost the signal adding upper mid-range. The solo in ‘Time‘ is a good example of this tone.

Probably the best example of Gilmour’s strat neck pickup tone is on ‘Shine on You Crazy Diamond’, clean with a bit of overdrive/edge, compression, modulation (possibly a Univibe?) and delay.

The first solo in ‘Comfortably Numb‘ is another example, although sometimes he uses the middle pickup; switching to the bridge pickup for the second solo. One solo that sounds very Stratty but isn’t is the solo in ‘Another Brick in the Wall’, this was played on a Les `Paul with P90’s using the neck pickup and recorded straight into the mixing desk with no amp.

Jimi Hendrix

One of my favourite guitar tones is Jimi Hendrix, using the neck pickup on his Strat on ‘The Wind Cries Mary’. It sounds like guitar straight into the amp with the amp turned up loud and the guitar volume backed off. The tone has an almost acoustic guitar quality with the pick scrapes and finger noise all audible. The treble is very clean and clear and the bass sounds three-dimensional.

Both David Gilmour and Jimi Hendrix used 100Watt non-master volume amps which give a strat a really full powerful sound when they are turned up loud. This combination can turn the Strat bridge pickup into an instrument of torture if the treble is not turned down on the amp, however, the neck pickup just loves it. You get tons of clear bass, midrange so punchy that you can feel it and treble that is not ear-piercing.

If you can find one get an old Marshall Superbass 100 watt head, they are similar to the Superlead, apart from a few wiring differences in the inputs. They have less treble (not a bad thing) and slightly less gain. A strat through a Superbass and 4X12 cab is a gorgeous tone with the channels linked and the volumes at half-way; turn it up full and it’s an unbeatable blues tone, if a little loud!

Next time: Moving on to Gibson, The Les Paul.

If you’re a Dave Gilmour fan, I have built a replica ‘Black Strat’ which is for sale at The Little Guitar Shop. There is also a demo video of it on Youtube.

Stratocasters Part 1: Basic Set-up and the Perfect Hank Marvin Tone

I thought we should talk about Strats to complement the Tele post, my “I want one of those” Strat moments was when I first heard Sultans of Swing by Dire Straits. I was drawn to the honky, on-the-edge of overdrive in-between sounds that Mark Knopfler used on that first Dire Straits album in 1978. I got my first Strat in 1980, a natural finish with a fixed bridge and maple neck. It was a 1979 model that was quite heavy and although I loved it, it was never the best sounding guitar. I’m now lucky enough to have an original 1962 and some other Fender Strats, all with trems.

Basic Set-up

I always have the trem set floating about an eighth of an inch off the body, that way the springs add to the tone and squashy-ness of the attack, it also adds a bit of resonance. If you set your trem floating on a Fender you can hear the springs resonate when you play a B note anywhere on the neck.

It’s important on Strats to set the pickup height correctly, if they are too close to the strings, particularly on the bottom E, A and D, the magnets will pull the strings and the guitar will not play in tune, it gets worse as you play further up the neck. There is no set height for doing this, it’s more of a trial and error, as different pickups have different strength magnets;

Step1: First lower all three pickups, then raise the bridge pickup to approximately 2mm from the underside of the Low E string.

Step 2: then set the neck pickup as close as possible without it interfering with the strings vibration. You can observe the effect by looking closely at the strings vibration above the neck pickup. When the magnet is too close, it won’t oscillate freely; gradually lower the pickup until the string vibrates freely and uniformly (it’s best to do this with new strings and with the bottom E string fretted at the top fret).

Step 3: Finally, set the middle pickup height half-way between the neck and bridge.

The Perfect Hank Marvin Tone

One of the all-time favourite Strat tones ( particularly amongst Baby-Boomers) is Hank Marvin’s tone on the early Shadows records. Marvin famously used the first Strat in the UK; a Fiesta Red with Maple neck. The original Shadows records were recorded with Marvin using his Strat and a Vox AC15. The magic ingredients here are the original hand-wound Strat pickups which sound bright, not harsh and also have a much clearer bass sound than machine wound pickups. Of course the bridge pickup on a Strat bypasses the tone circuit and capacitor so it has a very clean, clear signal going to the amp.

Vox AC15’s are quite dark sounding amps compared to today’s higher gain valve amps so the combination of the bright bridge pickup and the unique Vox Class A valve tone gives that classic Shadows / Marvin tone. Let’s not forget the Meazzi tape echo that Hank used between his guitar and amp. Tape echo tames some of the very high treble and warms up the mid-range.

Final tip; use heavy strings and pick near the neck pickup and you should get close to the Hank twang.

Next time we’ll look at classic Strat neck pickup tones from Dave Gilmour and Jimi Hendrix.

(If you’re interested in hand-wound pickups then take a look at the hand-wound pickups page on www.thelittleguitarshop.com, there are also some demo videos of pickups I have made.)

Telecasters: why they are great and tips for achieving your desired Tele tone

I chose to talk about all things Telecaster in my first blog because (for today at least) they are my favourite. I remember as a 15 year old staring at pictures of a blond maple neck Tele in the Bells Musical Instruments mail order catalogue in 1973 (wondering where I would get £200). I ended up with an Avon copy which wasn’t bad but wasn’t a Fender. Status Quo use them, the solo in Stairway is played on a Telecaster, Keith Richards uses them….what’s not to like?I like the old pressed steel bridge rather than the current thick slab bridge, the steel interacts with the magnets in the pickup and gives edge and bite to the tone, it also contacts with the body wood differently and they sustain in a more musical way to my ears.   I also like three brass saddles rather than six individual saddles, with three saddles you get more pressure on the bridge improving sustain.Body wood is important too, a lighter body like swamp ash or pine makes for a warmer spongier attack and more twang. A heavier body like northern ash or heavy mahogany gives more bottom end and a fiercer treble.

A lot of Seventies Tele’s with heavier bodies and lower output pickups sound very jangly and make for a great rhythm tone, especially if they come with the 1meg volume pot. Changing pots to 250K will warm them up a bit. The neck pickup on Tele’s has stayed more or less the same since the 50’s; approximately 8000 turns of 43 gauge wire and Alnico 5 magnets. I adjust the height of mine so that they are as high as possible without the magnets pulling the strings on the bass side, this way you can get the volume balanced with the louder bridge pickup just right.

The original bridge pickups in the Broadcaster (before Fender changed the name to Telecaster) were slightly modified lap steel guitar pickups and had up to 9,200 turns of 43 gauge wire. By 1953 this changed to 42 gauge wire and the number of turns gradually reduced throughout the 1950’s to approximately 8000. The original pickups sound very different to the Sixties and current pickups, they are louder, more biting, have clanging bass tones and a juicy mid-range.

So if you want a clean, jangly Andy Summers tone then a pickup with around 8000 turns of 42 gauge wire like the Fender 60’s pickups will do the job. If you want more of a raucous chewy mid-range with lots of bite and edge, go for a pickup with more turns of 43 gauge wire; 43 gauge is thinner, so you can get more wire on the pickup bobbin which allows you to achieve very high trebles and accentuate the mid-range.

One final tip; if you never use the neck pickup, consider removing it or screwing it right down. One pickup Esquires nearly always sound more “open” than two pickup Tele’s because the strings vibrate more freely without the neck pickup magnets damping the strings vibration, try it, you might be surprised!

Next post: Stratocasters Part 1: Basic Set-up and the Perfect Hank Marvin Tone