Get this guitar to sound like that!
January 8, 2015 2:23 PM   Subscribe

I have an old Art and Lutherie Ami (parlour guitar), and a relatively new LXME little Martin with pickup. I like the sound of the A&L better, but the Martin is more versatile and more comfortable to play. Is there anyway I can set up the Martin to sound more like the A&L?

The Art and Lutherie guitar has a bigger body and probably way more broken in. The strings are super old though. The sound is just generally rounder, warmer, and fatter than the Martin. The Martin sounds ok on its own but just a bit too thin and bright.

I don't really know enough about guitars to know if the difference in sound is caused by 1) difference in body size 2) possibly difference in strings/string gauges or something else. But I would really like to just figure out a way to make the Martin sound bigger, rounder, and tubbier, so that I can just have one guitar.

Any thoughts/ comments/ ideas are welcomed!
posted by redwaterman to Media & Arts (4 answers total)
Response by poster: also I always lean more towards fingerpicking than strumming if that's relevant.
posted by redwaterman at 2:25 PM on January 8, 2015

Best answer: As an acoustic instrument, each of the the guitar's physical characteristics contributes towards its overall tone. Body size, body shape, the materials used to construct it -- especially the top, as well as the materials used for the saddle and bridge, the bridge pins, the nut, the fretboard, and the strings -- these all add up to make your guitar's tone what it is. A few of these can be changed -- sometimes easily, sometimes not -- to alter a guitar's tone.

For acoustic guitars, you generally need to accept as a given that you won't be changing a guitar's shape or the materials used to construct its body and neck. So a guitar with a large body (or a small body) will always have that working for it or against it, as the case may be.

That said, these are the components that are easy to change, in order of "ease":

1. Strings
2. Bridge pins (the hard pins that secure the ball end of the strings to the guitar on non-classical acoustic guitars)
3. Saddle (the hard bone or plastic part of the bridge the strings rest on, and which transmits their vibrations directly to the body)
4. Nut (the slotted bone or plastic piece that butts up against the fingerboard at first fret and raises the strings above the fretboard)
5. Frets

(I'll leave off tuners, as these shouldn't affect your tone unless yours are loose or damaged)

Strings are super easy to change, and can have a dramatic effect on a guitar's tone. The strings you choose can make a guitar's notes either sharper and more defined, or rounder and more harmonically rich, or somewhere in between. Each string manufacturer seems willing to tell all sorts of tall tales about how their strings were made in caves by Trappist monks pursuing a singular tonal quest, but in spite of the hype, there are differences between brands and within brands. You might want to spend some time on a site like and poke around a bit, and maybe invest $50 in 8 or 10 different sets of strings from different manufacturers, and see if anything appeals to you. Accept that with strings, you may need to kiss a lot of frogs to find the prince.

Bridge pins, the saddle, and the nut each play an important part in the tonal clarity and sometimes harmonic complexity of the instrument. I think you can learn a lot by browsing through Bob Colosi's site, Bob makes custom saddles (for what I'd describe as reasonable prices, but YMMV), but his site also does a great job of explaining how the materials of these parts help shape the final tone of the instrument. Worth reading even if you don't want to change any of these components on your guitar, just so you can have an informed discussion with your local shop or luthier.

In my own recent experience, I have a rather dull sounding acoustic guitar (a modest Ibanez AEL10) that I've been coaxing towards a more vibrant tone, and that has lead me on my own search for strings, bridge pins, and a saddle that together produce a brighter and more articulate tone, which is not exactly what you are after. But I can tell you that it has been a fruitful search, and I have made some big strides towards the sound I want by trying different strings, harder pins, and a harder saddle. I haven't messed with my guitar's nut yet, but I may tackle that this year.

I've had to try a lot of strings, a new saddle, and some new pins while searching for the right ones. I've asked a lot of questions on various guitar forums, but after checking out various recommendations, I still need to let my ears and fingers tell me what works and what doesn't. You will have to do the same. Most folks have not played dozens of different brands of strings, or tried different bridge pin and/or saddle materials, and this is where a good guitar shop and/or luthier can be of great help. Depending on where you are located, you may have one of those nearby, or not too far away. It may be worth the drive to talk to someone in person about your guitar.

Good luck! I am not sure you can make a small bodied guitar ever sound like a big bodied guitar, but you can make it sound different, and perhaps different enough from its current tone to meet your needs. But there is no magic one-size-fits-all cure, short of replacing the entire guitar. You can make the above tweaks, but you will have to accept that you can only change the tone within the range of what the guitar's body and the materials with which it is constructed will permit.
posted by mosk at 3:13 PM on January 8, 2015 [7 favorites]

mosk has absolutely nailed it, but just to add a couple of thoughts;

The Art and Lutherie guitar has a bigger body and probably way more broken in. The strings are super old though. The sound is just generally rounder, warmer, and fatter than the Martin.

Old strings are definitely "warmer" than new strings - which is to say that new strings have some amount of "brightness" or "zing" that goes away as the strings accumulate dirt and begin to corrode (from exposure to the oil & dirt of your fingers and just in the general environment.) So you could kind of wait and see if the Martin strings warm up a little more over time.

Of course the catch is that older corroded dirty strings are more likely to break, and to have problems maintaining tune, so you can't really count on old strings as the key to your best sound. Some people feel that coated guitar strings start out with less brightness than regular strings, so maybe that's something to try.

the difference in sound is caused by 1) difference in body size 2) possibly difference in strings/string gauges or something else.

There's also differences caused by the bracing of the top of the guitar; each manufacturer has their own specific method and pattern of bracing.

And expanding on mosk's mention of the materials, it seems that your A & L has a solid spruce or cedar top, with laminated back & sides and a maple neck. The laminated sides and back are essentially plywood, it's a guitar-building technique that's been used for decades. Your Martin, though, is something fairly new and different. The back, sides, and top are made of a man-made material called HPL (High Pressure Laminate), which is AFAICT a mix of paper, resin, and possibly wood fiber merged into a solid material by high heat and high pressure; very similar to Formica or some flooring materials, actually. The Martin neck is made from Stratabond, which seems to be another kind of composite where lots of very thin strips of wood are laminated together. "Standard" guitar necks, like your A & L, are usually made from either a single piece of wood or 2 to 5 pieces glued together.

Lots of people seem to like the HPL Martins, and they've been using the material for a few years now, but I think even people who like the HPL guitars would say that 1) a solid-top guitar is more likely to "break-in" and warm up over time & with playing, while an HPL guitar will have largely the same tone over its entire lifespan, and 2) given that it's such a new and different material, it's going to be hard to predict how to fine tune the parts of the HPL guitar for different tone - you'll kind of really have to rely on your own trial and error process, rather than finding much in the way of accumulated knowledge about how to tweak these guitars.
posted by soundguy99 at 10:25 PM on January 8, 2015 [2 favorites]

If you can find a really good local luthier (I'd look for a locally owned music shop rather than a chain like Guitar Center for something like this) if you happen to be in near Bloomington, MN I have a recommendation for you. You might be able to bring the guitars to them and pose the same question to get some ideas on what combination of the things Mosk outlined above might help (though you'll probably never get them to sound the same). They may or may not have any specific ideas but I think it would be worth asking.

Otherwise I'd stay by just trying lots of different kinds of strings. Strings are somewhat cheap and they wear out anyways. Sometimes I try different kinds of strings just because they'll sound a little different.
posted by VTX at 9:05 AM on January 9, 2015

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