The naked body of a Stratocaster
Good morning music fans! Here at ProAudioLand, we always want to give our readers the best possible information in their quest for the perfect tone and what better way than to delve deep into the heart of what goes into a creating a signature sound. Yesterday, we talked about some of the best upgrades, tweaks, tips and customizations that can turn your run of the mill bass into a high-end, low-frequency workhorse worthy of carrying that backbeat for years to come. We discussed some specifics such as the instrument’s body and how that can affect certain traits such as playability and overall sound, the importance of regularly changing your strings in order to maintain a quality tone, some tips of general up-keep and plenty more. If you didn’t catch it yesterday, you can do so right here.
Alright, now today were going to be keeping that same spirit but moving on to another instrument – the one and only electric guitar. Pretty much the most popular instrument known to modern musicians, the guitar is possibly the most customizable and upgradable instrument that has ever been created with a list of variations and add-ons that just keep growing. And for newer guitarists out there – it can be a bit overwhelming to say the least, but it doesn’t have to be. By breaking down each of the main factors that go into a guitar’s tone and some of the more popular available customizations and upgrades out there, even the greenest of guitarists can take their ax to the next level!
Since there is a lot of information we have to cover, this will be broken down into two parts. Today, we will be focusing on the body of the guitar and leave the pickups, strings and other miscellaneous aspects for tomorrow. Alright, let’s get started!
The Tone in the Body
Alright, so this isn’t technically an upgradable part of a guitar since changing the body pretty much surmounts to changing the entire instrument itself but the following info should be helpful regardless, especially if you’re thinking about picking up a new ax. So, didn’t know that the body of a guitar has a lot to do with its tone? Well, you should, and most of you probably do because it’s actually very important. Depending on what kind of style or guitar sound you gravitate towards, the choice of body style – along with all of the other important components such as pickups – can either send you in the right direction or fling you in the complete opposite way.
Essentially, there are three main kinds of bodies when you’re talking about electric guitars. Aside from a few exotic hybrids, you have your hollow bodies, semi-hollow bodies and your solid bodies. Among the biggest factors associated with the body’s inherent tone has to do with how they handle resonance (which in simple terms means how they handle the sound bouncing around inside of the body). Here are their general qualities along with some of their inherent pros and cons:
Full Hollow Body – These tend to sound very thin and hollow with an acoustic type of vibe. Think of electrified country music with plenty of twang and you’ll get to see the picture. But because of the hollow nature of the body, sound tends to bounce around a lot. When played in a loud volume along with high gain distortion, the sound coming from the amplifier can reach the inside of the guitar, especially if the amp is facing the player. The result is a bunch of trapped sound bouncing inside of the body which is repeatedly picked up by the pickups in a sort of perpetual loop, resulting in that very unpleasant feedback sound. Unlike the kind of feedback that are caused by electric disturbances messing with the pickups, this type is directly a result of sound waves which is why it’s sometimes known as acoustic feedback. If you’re looking to play with clean settings, not overtly loud along with a little bit of gain, this guitar body might be the right one for you. Hard rockers, distortion freaks, metal heads and punk rock guitarists should probably look elsewhere.
Solid Body – If clean, semi-acoustic, bright, thin tones aren’t your cup of tea, a solid body might be more of your thing. Unlike hollows and semi-hollows, solids are the best body types as far as handling high gain resonance is concerned which is why they are among the most popular choices for hard rock and metal. As far as tone goes, these bodies offer a thicker, warm, fatter tone that goes well with distortion and loud volume levels. Combine one of these babies with some humbuckers and you can crank that amp to 11 with all of the high gain distortion you desire with little risk of acoustic feedback! Among the most popular guitars in this category are the Fender Stratocaster and the Gibson Les Paul.
Semi-Hollow Body – If the thin, brittle sound of a hollow body is a bit tame but the thick, fat tone of a solid body isn’t exactly your thing, maybe a semi can give you the best of both worlds. Think of this type as somewhere in the middle but a bit closer to hollow bodies. Although they can also suffer from acoustic feedback, they are not as prone as the full hollows and can actually handle a good amount of gain that might not fit metal, but can do wonders for rockabilly, roots rock and even some brighter forms of punk. It’s also a very popular body style for a lot of indie rock as well. A perfect example of a band that is well known for this type of semi-hollow body guitar tone is the Kings of Leon – specifically frontman Caleb Followill’s 1972 Gibson ES-325 which combines the thin, bright twang of a country guitar with the high gain crispness of a solid.
Remember that a player’s overall tone is made of up all of the pieces in your ax, not just one aspect of it, so while a solid body tends to give a warmer, thicker sound, combining that with light gauge strings and single coil pickups might result in something much thinner than you might have expected, but more on that a little later. A good example of this is the Fender Telecaster. While the body of your standard Tele is solid, the pickups give the guitar a very bright, thin and jangly feel that has found plenty of love with country guitarists who traditionally tend to go for semi and full hollow body guitars.
The Tone in the Wood
It’s not just the inside form of the guitar that effects tone as far as the body goes; the choice in wood plays a huge role too. A popular title given to woods commonly used to make instruments is “tone woods,” naturally. But remember, just like anything else on an instrument, whether or not the choice of wood contributes to a player’s sought after tone is up to the interaction with the rest of the guitar’s components. Here are some of the most popular tone woods around along with some of their sound characteristics.
Mahogany – This type of wood is a very pretty, dark to light golden-brown wood used for bodies and, less often, necks. There are many different types of mahogany, but they all have a uniform density, open grain and large pores. It accentuates bass and low-mid frequencies, and cuts high-mids a bit resulting in what some call a "nasal" sound. Also, this wood is known to produce a fat sound with nice harmonic overtones. Gibson Les Pauls are often made of mahogany.
Swamp Ash – This is the classic Stratocaster tone wood. It has inconsistent density between its rings with soft pockets scattered throughout, giving it an even frequency response with scattered drops in the mid frequencies. Different cuts of Swamp Ash are likely to sound different from each other due to the varying abundance of soft spots. Cuts that are from further up on the tree have a more uniform density and generally get the same mid frequency dips. This creates the perception of less exciting harmonics and bass. Usually, heavier pieces of swamp ash sound dull, and lighter pieces sound more alive.
Basswood – This wood is soft and has tight pores, which make it very economical to build guitars with. It has a very pronounced mid range, which is good for cutting through a mix. If you want a complex timbre, however, basswood is terrible. It has muted highs and barely any bass, which is all the more strange considering its name.
Alder – Similar to basswood but has a bit more highs and lows so its sound is a little more complex.
Maple – This is a very hard wood and makes for pronounced upper-mids and highs. The low end isn't left behind, though. Using other components that accentuate the bass frequencies produces a very tight bass sound.
Well, that’s all the time we have left today but don’t forget to come back tomorrow where we will be discussing all about pickups including the major designs and their tonal qualities as well as some of the most popular pickup mods around such as reverse-winding and over-winding. Not only that, we will also check out a few more pieces of the guitar that can affect tone, namely string type and gauge, along with a few other interesting factors.