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Why are guitars made out of solid wood?
December 22, 2007 7:56 PM   Subscribe

Why are solid-body electric guitars almost always made out of solid wood?

Numerous consumer products have benefited from advances in materials science over the years. Examples would be tennis rackets, rifle stocks, kayaks, and skis. I know there have been electric guitars made out of clear acrylic plastic before, but I've never heard of guitars being made out of materials like Bakelite, fiberglass, carbon fiber, fiber-reinforced plastic, Kevlar, or even simply laminated wood.

Have other materials been tried and they all sound terrible? Or do the musicians and manufacturers embody a certain conservatism in this regard?

I've known a number of guitaristists over the years, and not one of them has been able to give me a satisfactory answer to this question.
posted by Tube to Media & Arts (19 answers total)
Becuase wood is cheap, plentiful, beautiful, light and traditional for instruments? The electric guitar dates back to .... I think Les Paul? Did he invent it? Wikipedia will clear that up, but it's before the advent of other or man-made materials. The do-brow (spelling?) is stamped steel, so it's not unheard of to have other materials. As for more modern instruments, the Steinberger was made of graphite, and Lou Reed and Rupert Quine used a lucite guitar at one point, which I think is coming back into use. Roland had a cool guitar that was plastic, I think.

So, I think just tradition.
posted by skybolt at 8:10 PM on December 22, 2007 [1 favorite]

I have no idea personally, but maybe you should talk to these people. They make instruments out of (among other things) "unusual materials such as as phenolic, aluminum, bell brass, masonite."
posted by BT at 8:11 PM on December 22, 2007

Robert Quine
posted by Wolof at 8:13 PM on December 22, 2007

Steinberger guitars are all composite, and they remain some of the best guitars I've ever played. They're stable, solid, smooth, and other nice "s" things.

So Id say the wood thing is mostly about being cheap and traditional.
posted by ochenk at 8:27 PM on December 22, 2007

Mojo? Manufacturing costs? The feel/heft expected when playing a guitar?

[Disclaimer: I practice bass guitar on a dilettante level.]

Let us clarify that many "solid-body" guitar bodies are not single slabs o' wood carved into guitar shapes, as the name might suggest. They are often composed of slabs of wood glued together. This is not a bad thing. I hope that guitar bodies are glued together with the grain alternating so that they don't warp so much. Electronics are a big factor here.

I used to frequent Fender-centric forums. I suspect that much of the issue relates to tradition and research/development/funding/marketing.
posted by bonobo at 8:37 PM on December 22, 2007

Blackbird Guitars are made from carbon fibre.
posted by seymour.skinner at 9:01 PM on December 22, 2007

Wood is plentiful, sounds good, and is relatively inexpensive. What other material meets those criteria?
posted by artdrectr at 9:13 PM on December 22, 2007

Most of the other objects you mentioned see dramatic benefits in terms of weight, strength, etc, from using man-made materials. Weight would not be so much of an issue for a guitar. Strength is almost irrelevant. I don't know much about guitars, but for a solid-body electric, I'd imagine the effect on the sound would me neither minimal nor as dramatic as the benefits to rackets, kayaks, or what have you. Visual aesthetic is a consideration, but definitely secondary. So, lacking any compelling reason, it's probably just too expensive for most people's tastes.
posted by gauchodaspampas at 9:14 PM on December 22, 2007 [1 favorite]

Dan Armstrong Plexi guitar.
posted by The Straightener at 9:17 PM on December 22, 2007

Even though it's electrically amplified, the body still does vibrate with the strings. So you don't necessarily want to save weight, as with the examples of carbon fibre or whatnot. The heft and mass is a desirable feature that adds to the tone. Not to mention that wood is much cheaper and easier to work than any of those modern composite materials.
posted by Rhomboid at 9:24 PM on December 22, 2007

Conservatism has got to be part of it. A majority of electric guitars people buy are classic Fender and Gibson models or copy their design. Even a lot of the rest look pretty similar. There are plenty of designs using alternate materials, but not many get bought because of the intense traditionalist streak among players.
posted by abcde at 9:57 PM on December 22, 2007

Thank you all very much for the responses. It looks like carbon fiber is a legitimate material with which to make a solid body guitar. The aluminium guitar is really mind blowing! I wonder what it sounds like...

I guess I perceive a discontinuity, as so many rock musicians feel compelled to break away with tradition yet still use instruments that are not particularly radical or innovative (to my non-guitar playing mind).
posted by Tube at 10:27 PM on December 22, 2007

Switch makes guitars out of "Vibracell", some kind of polymer.

Also, Ovation has made acoustic guitars out of composites (and wood) since 1967.

Overall, it seems like a combination of tradition and lack of benefit - you can buy a $100 low-end made-in-China guitar from Fender, and if they could save money by switching from wood they probably would.

Nobody's wishing for guitars to be lighter, so the only reason to use alternate materials would be for a unique look or sound, and that would be a hard sell to such a traditional market.
posted by mmoncur at 10:55 PM on December 22, 2007

The first portable electric guitar, the Rickenbacker Electro Spanish (Model B), was made of Bakelite. Click on the picture for more information and a little audio bit which, unfortunately, doesn't have any record of how it sounds.
posted by The Bridge on the River Kai Ryssdal at 12:27 AM on December 23, 2007

Because non-wood guitars fail on the market. There's always something futurustic and neat inthe guitar world, like the Parker Fly but they never take off. I think you dont have an understanding of guitar player culture. Its heavy into traditionalism (ironic?) and force of habit. Certain guitars, namely strats and les pauls have a legendary status and most players gravitate towards them. Its seen as painfully uncool to move towards some new device. Image is very, very important to these people. A guy with a les paul slung over his shoulder is cool. A guy with a Parker Fly is a nerd. Its really that simple.

Also the traditionalism translates down to effects pedals and amps. You'll see some pretty ancient technology in pedals with a lot of distrust towards the digitals devices. If Jimi hendrix has made a popular sound using pedal x, y, and z, then an up and coming guitarist is going to completely ape those sounds and effects until he develops a more original tone.

Lastly, its not just all traditionalism. Wood guitars are more complex than you think. Theyre usually multilayered and have been in development for decades. That les paul you buy at the store has had thousands of man hours just working out the best way to keep up sustain. Not so sure about the parker fly. Tube amps actually do sound different than digital modeling amps. Lots of guitarists think this difference is better.
posted by damn dirty ape at 6:57 AM on December 23, 2007

I have to take issue with gauchodaspampas. Weight is critically important. I bought an SG instead of a Les Paul becuase those darn Les Pauls are HEAVY! Who wants to go lugging that thing around over your shoulder?

The ohter main fator for me is width of neck. Can I get my fingers around it? I'm a bad player, so wrapping my thumb over the top becomes important.
posted by skybolt at 8:23 AM on December 23, 2007

Wood is lightweight, easy to work, shape and finish, and the finishes available are pleasant to touch, which is important in a musical instrument. Its specific heat is fairly low meaning you can play a wood guitar in temperatures where a metal guitar would give you frostbite. It's also fairly inexpensive in low end guitars, and in high end guitars it is often incredibly beautiful. It's also difficult to conceive of a material better suited to setting brass frets in than wood; Parkers use stainless frets in their necks, because stainless frets don't wear (brass do) and you will never, never reset a fret in a Parker composite neck without totally frotzing the structural integrity of the thing. (Parkers stay in tune much better than ordinary wood guitars; there is a lot less compliance in their structure in terms of their response to changes in temperature and humidity.)

There's a holy war, sort of like abortion and Mac/PC, about whether electric guitar body and neck material and construction affects the tone at all; it's clear to me that it does, and that the differences are small enough that most reasonable people, and all people who play with distortion, will never care about them. I can tell you for sure that the folks who make the Parker Fly have spent many thousands of hours thinking about the tone of their instrument. And if you really want to see a vitriolic debate that makes the Arab-Jewish conflict look positively tame, get on a Gibson players' website and post something like "What's up with the tone chambers in the body of the LP Supreme, that's a bunch of horseshit!"

Incidentally, of the materials you name, the only one I've not heard of a guitar being made out of is Kevlar. I do recall seeing a guitar with a Kevlar-weave top laminated onto its body for decorative purposes. It was marketed as "bulletproof guitar," tongue-in-cheek as so much else in the electric guitar world.
posted by ikkyu2 at 9:35 AM on December 23, 2007

Chiming in with what has already been stated, it's about tradition and the fact that a lot of the machinery designed to build guitars is based on working primarily with wood.

That said, there are certainly adventurous luthiers who have had success with other materials. Many folks consider the Veleno guitars from John Veleno to be the Stradivarius of electric guitars. The Velenos were totally aluminum, which contributes significantly to sustain - but also results in a heavier instrument. I would agree with skybolt, my 1970 Les Paul Custom is waaaay too heavy, which is the reason I'll be selling it soon. And those Dan Armstrong lucite monsters have the same weight problem - they'll break backs without breaking a sweat.

And given that the Parker Fly has been mentioned here, I've owned one since they first came out, and it really is quite something, light as a feather, the neck is just about perfect and it looks very cool. The two major issues with that instrument are the placement of the volume control (too close to the pickups) and the sad, sad pickups. Anyway, not to derail the thread...

There are also some examples of guitars with aluminum bodies and wood necks. I own a lovely Las Paul-shaped Fouke Industrial Guitar like this one. The body is made from a composite with chambers, the aluminum consists of two full plates on the front and back, bolted all the way around. The neck is wood, and the overall tone is really quite unique, a lot like a National Resonator guitar.

And just for fun, in the realm of wooden electrics, there are wackos like Alex Csiky, who builds truly amazing and unique instruments from just about any type of wood he can find. He's built instruments from Ikea pine tabletops and a weird laminates. Any of you into custom guitars should take the time to look through his site, he's quite the character, and I can personally attest to the amazing quality of his instruments.
posted by dbiedny at 4:49 PM on December 23, 2007

I think it depends on what trends are in music at a given time. For instance, Kramer made some guitars with aluminum necks in the 70's and 80's, and at the same time you had comapnies like BC Rich and Jackson making more radical designs, and experimenting with different types of electronics. That's also the time period when things like the Parker Fly and Steinberger guitars were introduced, Roland developed guitar synth technology, large rack systems with complex effects were all the rage, etc.

At the time, music was moving away from simple three chord rock to more complex, showy styles (prog rock, hair metal, etc.), and people were interested in experimenting with new sounds. Plus the big 2 guitar makers were having a lot of QC issues at the time, which creates opportunities for new companies who need to separate themselves from the crowd.

Most guitar based bands these days are looking for more vintage tones, and you get that from a guitar made the old way. Those that aren't mostly go for the down-tuned chugga chugga stuff, so the innovations now are 7 string and baritone guitars that give you that deep bass. When people get more experimental again, you'll see new materials come into play.
posted by InfidelZombie at 1:09 PM on December 28, 2007

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