How does electric guitar composition affect its tone?
February 25, 2007 3:08 PM   Subscribe

Why do different electric guitars have different tones?

Using for the sake of simplicity an example comprised of three different Gibson guitars with identical pickup models (Gibson '57 Classic PAF reissues): a Les Paul, and SG and an ES 335. Generally speaking they are each distinctive sounding. The Les Paul will sound thick and bassy, the ES will sound slightly sweet and the SG will sound bright.

Why is this? Is it because of the composition of the guitars themselves (the maple top of the Les Paul, the semi-hollow body of the ES) effect how the signal is generated by vibrating strings, or are the pickups in essence, picking up the vibrations from within the guitar?

This is probably more a physics question than a music question, but I have often wondered about it.
posted by psmealey to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (12 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I can't offer any detailed explanation, but according the the wikipedia, yes, your hypothesis is correct. The pickups on a hollow-body electric guitar pick up a combination of string and body vibration, whereas on a solid-body, the pickups register mostly the string vibration. It's a safe bet that differences between different solid body guitars are in fact due to their different compositions. There is no way to completely isolate the string vibrations from the vibrations of the rest of the instrument, so even on a solid body that doesn't vibrate much, its composition will still make a difference.
posted by gauchodaspampas at 3:22 PM on February 25, 2007

This is one of the most contentious topics known to man - I'm serious, it's like abortion, gun control, and Mac versus PC. I've seen beautiful friendships destroyed by this discussion.

Don't expect to get a definitive answer.
posted by ikkyu2 at 3:23 PM on February 25, 2007 [1 favorite]

Having said that, I found this site entertaining and potentially relevant. Don't miss the animations of vibrational modes and the explanation of their relevance to preferential damping/accentuation of certain string vibration frequencies.
posted by ikkyu2 at 3:25 PM on February 25, 2007

I know wood makes a huge difference on basses at least. Changing the fret board wood can make the tone softer/harder/with more sustain.
posted by devilsbrigade at 3:26 PM on February 25, 2007

If you want to know more, I happen to be aware that the archives at Birds and Moons and Guitargeek are full of discussions about this very thing. Searches on keywords like "tone," "wood," and "ikkyu2" may prove fruitful.

Or you may just end up tearing your hair out and resolving never to think about this again.
posted by ikkyu2 at 3:37 PM on February 25, 2007 [1 favorite]

Extending what devilsbrigade wrote, many bass players dislike carbon fiber necks (or integrated CF neck/bodies) because of their 'dead' tone. Others prefer the sound, or find a relatively neutral string tone easier to shape to their liking through electronics.
posted by ardgedee at 3:41 PM on February 25, 2007

This is one of the most contentious topics known to man - I'm serious, it's like abortion, gun control, and Mac versus PC.

true, how true, especially if you ever let a name fall into the discussion.

vibrations and harmonics are complicated and getting good sound is as much an art as a science, and then there is preference for what constitutes good sound. add to that that things change over time. does a Stradavarius violin played today really sound the same as say ten years after it was made?

if you want a nice investment, spend some money for a nice classic guitar, treat it with care an twenty years from now that guitar that you paid $5k for today will be worth $50k, and that is better than you will get in the bank, but it only works for the really sought after stuff so don't cheap out.
posted by caddis at 3:59 PM on February 25, 2007

Guitars are wonderful things, because everything down the line, from the angle of the head relvative to neck (therefore, how firmly the strings are pulled against the body), to the type of material the speaker cones in the amplifier are made from, can change the sound. There are so many dimensions to play with.

As some of the links above probably suggest, there are lots of ways vibrations can be created. Sure, in an ideal world, you pluck a string, string vibrates in a sine-wave, pickup produces a sine-wave.

In reality, you pluck a string, string produces something that isn't a sine wave, due to the exact construction of the string (there are loads of different sorts). Vibrations from the string resonate through the guitar, which resonate back to the string, and the exact composition of these tones depends on the shape, wood type, hollow-or-not-body, size of the guitar.

So, yes, the pickups are only picking up the vibrations of the string; but the vibrations of the strings are affected by the construction of the guitar.
posted by Jimbob at 4:04 PM on February 25, 2007

They'll be picking up vibrations of the body, too, just because they're mounted in the body.

More precisely: the pickups produce a signal that reflects the vibration of the part of the string nearest them, relative to the pickup itself. To a first approximation, a magnetic pickup can't tell whether it, or the string, is what's moving.

If you lay a guitar face down on a bed to damp the strings, and knock on the back of the body, you will hear a sound from the pickup. Turn your amp up loud enough and you should even be able to make it feed back. I'd expect a hollow-body guitar to make louder, deeper sounds than a solid-body when you do this, and be easier to get feedback from.
posted by flabdablet at 4:44 PM on February 25, 2007

caddis, that's a really intriguing idea if you're serious. By "classic," do you mean a guitar that is already (as of today) no longer in production and therefore sought after as a classic? Which models do you mean and where would one go to research more about this?
posted by lorimer at 3:46 AM on February 26, 2007

Fender Strat, pre-CBS buyout
Older Gibson Les Pauls

Do your research before you invest and if the market tanks and you lose money don't blame me; you would still end up with a bitchin' guitar though.
posted by caddis at 8:50 AM on February 26, 2007

Fender Strat, pre-CBS buyout
Older Gibson Les Pauls

Both of those will be great investments in almost any economy, but I have seen pre-CBS beater Strats go for upwards of $12,000. Mint ones, if you can find them (most are horded by collectors since the 1980s) I have seen for more than $25,000.

As for Les Pauls, I think you can find some 60s and 70s models in approximately the same ballpark as the pre-CBS strats, but mint pre 1960 Les Pauls will cost close to $100,000 today if not considerably more.
posted by psmealey at 5:02 PM on February 27, 2007

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