For a couple of years the topic of tone chambers has been a highly debated one. The general consensus is that having (a guitar with) tone chambers is ‘less’ than having no tone chambers. Little hard info can be found though on the reason why tone chambers exist, let alone why they have that reputation. Fortunately there is a lot of information on why there are tone chambers in the first place, and equally important, what those chambers look like. Tone chambers will be reviewed from two points of view. Firstly, the history of tone woods will be explored where the conclusion will be the reason to why tone chambers are necessary.
In order to understand tone chambers we must ask ourselves: what are guitars made of? The answer might seem logical and very straightforward, but appearances may be deceiving. Of course the answer is wood. But why? Why didn’t any manufacturer set out to create an instrument with metal as its main component, or perhaps carbon fiber or any other kind of exotic non-organic substance (or organic for that matters, like ivory or bone)? Because most materials we use nowadays weren’t available before the 1930s and because wood was abundantly available for millennia. Metal was available but before there were modern mining and metal crafting techniques, metal was just too expensive to be used for something ‘trivial’ as a musical instrument. Metal was preferably used for weaponry. You can chop down a tree with a metal blade but not with an axe of wood. So when the great pioneers of electric guitars were tinkering on guitars in the 1940s and 1950s, they used wood as their main material and that hasn’t changed until this day. The woods they were able to get ranged from very lightweight, air-dried swamp ash, alder and mahogany to heavier woods like walnut and maple. Differentiation of heavy pieces and lighter pieces was of course present but lighter billets were still abundantly available, so there was no need to pick heavy pieces.
As the years passed by the population grew and the consumption of electric guitars took flight with the advent of rock ‘n roll, rock and later on hard rock and metal. The guitar became the instrument of choice for suburban ‘kid on the block’ as it were, and the demand for guitars grew, and the demand for guitars hasn’t stopped growing to this day.
Unfortunately nature couldn’t keep up with the light woods. Soon the light billets were being used for the more expensive and exclusive guitars and the heavier billets were slated to be used in the cheaper guitars. This was a trend that was set in motion 40 years ago and continues to this day. Soon after the introduction of the heavier woods the demand for lighter guitars became prominent. To combat these complaints some manufacturers re-introduced across their entire lineup the lighter versions of the woods they used to use. Maybe not grown in the USA, but still, the heavy ‘chopping boards of years gone by’ were practically banished.
Another way to deal with heavy wood was to simply hollow it out. What first started as just some holes drilled at random somewhere away from the bridge and pickups evolved in 25 years to complex cavities in the wood, covered up with the classical topping for mahogany, a carved maple cap.
In short, tone chambers are essentially techniques to lower the overall weight of a guitar that’s made with heavy wood. Therein lies the caveat: critical guitar players generally want lightweight guitars and they want their guitars to be solid too because ‘that is how it was done in the golden days’. Human beings are nostalgic by nature. According to the historian John Tosh, nostalgia is one of the most common ways to view the past among the general populace. For the general populace it’s also the most logical way but unfortunately also the worst because nostalgia is by definition a rosy look of the past with no room for a critical view of the past itself. In the context of tone chambers that means: tone chambers are new compared to what was used and hence has to be bad, because if it were any good, it would have been used in those days.
There is something to be said for that argument, of course, but with that mind set a guitar that maybe sounds, plays and looks wonderfully is being dismissed pure on bare specs alone. The other reason that’s been given for tone chambers to be bad is that the wood is so heavy, it has to be bad and that tone chambers are there to ‘liven’ up the guitar (less weight means more vibrations, or so they claim) as a way to mask the bad resonating properties of the wood. This argument can be very strong, under the assumption that every guitar that’s light weight sounds great. Unfortunately low weight is no identifying specification: i.e.: not every lightweight guitar is spectacular. Under that axiom the argument can be symmetrically made that therefore not every heavyweight guitar sounds terrible. Fortunately there are plenty of examples for both cases.