There’s a lot that goes into a guitar’s signature tone. There’s the pickups – of course – as well as the makeup of the wood, not to mention the type of body. But beyond that, the weight of the instrument also plays an integral role. And just as there are those who swear by either single coils or humbuckers, there too is a debate over what sounds better – a lighter guitar or a heavier one. The general consensus among guitarists says that a lighter instrument will resonate better in response to the full spectrum of string vibrations and thereby yield a more musical sound, consisting of brighter highs and a more “open” tone. On the other hand, heavier guitars are generally praised for their richer, fuller sound which is due to the relatively massive size of the wood used to anchor the pickups, strings and in a way, the tone itself.
And much like going analog or digital, there are good arguments for both lighter and heavier guitars with plenty of examples for each. Before the early ‘80s, it was pretty common for a Gibson Les Paul to weigh in as much as 12 pounds. This heavy ax was responsible for all of the sonic impact, depth and clarity that can be found in music from artists such as Led Zeppelin, The Sex Pistols, AC/DC and even Boston. Looking at the other side, the popular Fender Stratocaster and Telecaster that dominated the early ‘60s each were about 6 to 7 pounds and is known for being the instrument behind the sounds of classic music from Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd – a sound which cannot be denied its greatness. So, with that said, it’s obvious that great, classic sounds come from both lighter and heavier guitars.
As far as which sounds better, by now you should know the answer depends on a player’s tonal preference. A lot use both, which is the reason why many guitarists use multiple types of guitars. But you still have to keep in mind that that a large 12 pound guitar might get uncomfortable after an extended period of play and I you’re not comfortable, you won’t be playing at your best. So for many, a lighter guitar might be there preference simply because it feels better while playing, regardless of the quality of the sound.
Getting deeper into the debate between lighter and heavier guitars and which players prefer, it’s not always the actual weight that’s the determining factor, but the wood which is used. Take mahogany and maple for example; both are heavy woods that when added together make for a very weighty guitar that most users will admittedly find uncomfortable. But even with its crippling weight, the bottom-heavy tone of mahogany married to the energetic high-end snap of maple creates such a vibrant and lush tone that – regardless of the weight – has become an industry standard, aka, the Gibson Les Paul. Still though, Gibson was well aware of their popular heavyweight and actually tried to mitigate the problem without affecting its inherent tone. From 1982 to 2007, every American made Gibson Les Paul was redesigned for weight-reduction by removing 2 or 3 pounds of mahogany from the inside before the maple cap was bound to the body. Since 2007, the company has gone even further by introducing a lighter-weight chambered body that can be as much as 5 pounds lighter. While not everyone was pleased with the change as they argued it had an adverse effect on tone, many welcomed the difference and embraced the new articulate sound from the lighter Les Pauls.
Moving on to other tonewoods, alder, ash and basswood tend to be lighter. Furthermore, each also reinforce, reflect and conduct a different signature pattern of frequencies which in turn significantly influence the sound of any guitar constructed from them. So, with that said, it is the tonal characteristic of the wood and not the weight that has conveys the tone. For example, the popular Fender Stratocasters and Telecasters unabashedly rely on the clean transparency of ash and the balanced spectrum of alder for their tone as much as they do on their signature single coil pickups or even the body design itself for that matter. You’ll still be able to find a Strat or Tele that weighs a couple of pounds more than the average, but even then, it will still sound very much like a Strat or a Tele.
But in the end, it’s the quality of the wood that has a much greater impact on tone than its actual weight. Just like no two trees are 100% identical, two pieces of similar wood will not have exactly the same sonic properties. While older, lighter, better-seasoned wood will probably make a better instrument, the good news is that the basic quality of wood used by the big guitar makers is not much of an issue. Otherwise, two guitars made from the same batch of wood may have noticeable differences in their weight, tone and character – something that would cause huge headaches for guitar players and manufacturers alike.
In the end, the best way to find out which guitar is best for you is not by its weight but by which suits your needs best, whether that means how it feels in your hands or sounds to your ears. Trust me, when you find your perfect ax, it will be love at first sight, or rather, first strum!