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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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.)