How Do Tone Woods Work?
What is it about mahogany that makes it sound so identifiable? And what about ash? Alder? Basswood? Each of these tonewoods (and many more like them) have their own clearly definable tonal characteristics, but not everybody knows why. Many players ask: shouldn’t a solidbody electric guitar be immune to the acoustical properties of its materials?
“Basically, different woods don’t add different tone,” luthier Perry Ormsby of Ormsby Guitars explains. “They simply absorb certain frequencies, which in turn affects the string vibration in a subtle way. For example, if you were to hear the initial one tenth of a second of a string vibrating, I dare say you couldn’t hear the difference between any two different timbers. But, as the timbers react to string vibration, and in turn vibrate themselves, this ‘feeds back’ to the vibrating string. This ‘feeding back’ from the timbers is instant, but the string reacting to it takes a little time, as it’s also fighting the initial impact of the plectrum striking it (which is also why a note is generally sharp, during that first instant after hitting the string).”
Ormsby continues: “So, let’s say you had mahogany, which is considered a warm timber. It would be absorbing the brighter frequencies. Maple, being bright sounding, absorbs the warmer spectrum.”
But what about neck woods and construction? Ormsby says that multiple piece necks tend to have less tonal influence on the string because the numerous pieces of the neck each have their own frequency, even if they’re the same species, or even if cut from the same plank of lumber. “These pieces of timber are each taking something from the string, and also fighting the subtle vibrations from each other, therefore dulling any effect they enforce back towards the string. Is that better? Well, that’s for your ears to decide.”