How Do Tone Woods Work?

Posted on by Peter

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.”

Written on July 12, 2012, by Peter

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  • Rabih_saad

    Very interesting indeed…..thank you for the explanation..
    I want to ask you what about the material that been laid on top of the guitar body..for exemple the paint and most importantly the clear coat itself. how that effect the resonance of the strings?


  • siliconbronze

    In any vibrating system (e.g. guitar), there are three sets of parameters at work. One set is comprised of the natural frequencies of the structure. These are the frequencies the structure tends to vibrate at naturally if tapped (i.e. like a bell). These frequencies are also responsible for preferentially amplifying input signals (e.g. string vibration energy) at these natural frequencies. Along with the natural frequencies are the mode shapes of the system, which are the configurations the system takes when vibrating at the natural frequencies.

    Also important are the damping ratios associated with each natural frequency. The damping ratios quantify how vibrational energy is dissipated. These must be measured to be known, they cannot be calculated.

    The sustain of string vibration is dependent on how the string vibration is coupled to the body, as we all know. The more stiff the nut and bridge materials and connections are, the less string energy  “leaks out” to the body of the guitar, and the string will vibrate longer. In an acoustic guitar, this translates into sustain at the expense of volume.

    Each type of wood has characteristic damping properties, but these are also affected by the geometry of the wood (size, shape, thickness, etc). The natural frequencies are also so affected.In fact, the damping of any structure is dependent on its mass and stiffness. All of these parameters can be measured, and the mode shapes of vibration can be animated on a computer.

    • Francisco C

      well, now talking about acoustics, damping is asociated with m/K ratio for natural freq of wood. so i would say that it is possible to modify natural freq by using topology optimization on body by adding or sustracting mass on solidbodies. on acoustic guitars it also depends on woodfiber orientation and microstructural properties. this affects wave conduction and sound reflection fenomena along the guitar.

      • siliconbronze

        I wasn’t accurate in my previous post – decay rate is dependent on natural frequency (sqrt(k/m)) and on intrinsic damping (commonly denoted by “c”). However, intrinsic damping is in general independent of k/m. Topology optimization is commonly done for mass minimization with natural frequency constraints – just not on guitars.

        • Francisco C

          well, i guess you are right. i am not aware of top opt done on guitars, just said that would be a nice approach to guitar design rather than traditional way. there’s a lot for me to learn about vibration mechanics but is also fun to research about the topic.

  • yes i too would like to know how paint affects tonality, sustain and resonance

    • resonator resonator

      Gibson has some great new Tone Polish too. I’m hoping it will give my 83 Strat that famous Burst’ tone! rotflmao.

      • Will Kupers

        Yeah. Right, LOL

  • Scott

    That article is the biggest bunch of B.S. ever posted.  LMAO  What a moron.

    • Mat

      Care to elaborate Scott? 

  • Rob

    “Many players ask: shouldn’t a solidbody electric guitar be immune to the acoustical properties of its materials?”

    They sure do…and OF COURSE the wood makes a difference! Just as you say- the strings are vibrating and attached to the wood, which is then vibrating slightly and feeding back to the strings. Almost any stringed instrument works this way.

    Actually, I think this kind of thing is one of the things that makes a guitar a great instrument- and electrics are no exception. I.e. the sound is not totally devoid of context and natural resonances that cause the tone to evolve in a natural way. Without this kind of thing, the guitar might just sound metallic and wrong!

  • Anybody ever done double blind testing to prove this theory?
    Also, is it just me or is anyone else having a spinal tap moment? I always hear folks talk about sustain, sustain, sustain, and they are usually the ones playing 32nd notes at 150bpm. This article talks about the need to wait for the note to bloom for a fraction of a second. Do notes last long enough for the timber to affect the timbre?

    • Mike Kelly

      I didn experiment with very conclusive results. I have a Peavey traced, poplar body, maple neck with rosewood fretboard and emg pickups with D’addario 10-46 XL strings. The guitar sounded ok, but sustain was terrible. So, I pulled it apart, translated all the measurements onto a mahogany blank and made a new identical body. I put the same pickups in, the same strings and tuned to the same pitch. The difference was immediate. I needed to reset all my eq and gain settings as it sounded so different, abd the sustain now goes fir so long I am able to play in a way I never could before. The tone and sustain are very different. So, I am convinced the wood has some effect on solid body electrics, because I have done it, experinenced it. You should try it. Also, feedback is now a lot more controllable and musical and I can move around and play with it rather than the old shrill squeal that used to happen with the poplar body.

  • resonator resonator

    Once you plug in, I don’t think any human could tell. Acoustically sure!

  • resonator resonator

    Agreed. They should also test their own theories, and publish their findings.

    • pCarssucks

      seymour duncan sells tonewood?

  • Will Kupers

    It surprises me again and again what nonsense they come up with to sell their tonewood

    • SeymourDuncanBlog

      We sell pickups.

      • Will Kupers

        You don’t say . Wow, surprised again.

  • Nick Car

    i have made huon pine . solid mahogany , thinline spruce on mahogany . maple on mahogany , walnut , alder ,
    solid spruce . each Are subtly different .

  • Andy

    Peter, how do you think Floyd Rose bridges play into this, as they are largely disconnected from the wood body of the guitar?

    • SeymourDuncanBlog

      With all of the vibrations essentially coming through 2 small contact points, it certainly takes a lot of the ‘wood’ out of the equation. Therefore, you would notice a lot less difference between body woods in a Floyd-equipped guitar.

  • Reyes

    The Pickup sound can be modify and adjusted with all the effects and brands, EQ, Amp brand and Speaker Type, even cables if you want, but how about an acrylic guitar body? the sound Sucks? or if you have a combination of woods, like some layers vs. 1 type of wood?
    What about the resonance of a Round body (like Les paul) or a Flying V or a Dean X shape, Do they sound different just because the sound resonance pattern is different?
    A good pick up and a good guitar should sound good enough for a average human,(like most fans) not purist or technically savvy, the one that every little part of the guitar will make the sound better. The Small differences on frequencies, or anything that you need to measure with technical devices and charts is secondary at the end is just Do you Like it or Don’t.