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This is an article from Premier Guitar Magazine written by Terry Burton, founder of our favoire effects supplier, Strymon.
What could be better than having “true” bypass in your pedal? This sounds like an indisputably good idea, but in fact, it’s not that simple. The subject has been written about before, but there is such confusion regarding true bypass that it’s helpful to revisit it from time to time. When it comes to preserving optimum tone, how you bypass and wire your pedals can be as important as how you power your pedal. (For more on this topic, see “Powering Your Board” in the December 2011 issue.) Let’s take a look at how both true bypass and buffered bypass work.
The idea of true bypass is that when your pedal or effect is off, there are no electronic components whatsoever touching— and thereby having an influence on—your guitar signal. This sounds great in theory, but there are some practical problems with the approach. In almost all cases, guitar pickups are passive, high-impedance devices with a relatively wimpy ability to drive a signal. Think of it as a trickling stream of water rather than a pressurized pipe. It’s very easy to divert a trickling stream with a few small rocks, but not so easy to place those rocks in a high pressure pipe without them simply being blown out.
Because the signal coming out of a guitar is weak and easily influenced, even the wire in your cables and true-bypass circuits can degrade your tone. The degradation you may hear will manifest itself as a loss of high frequencies—or “tone suck,” as many refer to it. This is caused when a simple low-pass (treble cut) filter is created with a passive RC circuit. The “R”, or resistor, is the combined resistance of all the cabling in your rig. The “C”, or capacitor, is the inherent capacitance present in shielded cables. Each true-bypass circuit adds unbuffered cable length—and therefore more resistance and capacitance to the signal path—so they create an unintentional low-pass filter.
Another problem is that the 3PDT footswitches commonly used in true-bypass circuits are not optimized to switch low-voltage signals like guitar pickups. The side effect of this can be noise or pops when switching in and out of bypass. The physical distance between the input and output jacks and the switch can also exacerbate this switching noise, in addition to adding internal cable length. A better way to accomplish true bypass is to use a relay that’s optimized for switching small signals. Such relays can be quieter and placed in an optimum location in the pedal that minimizes cable length when the pedal is bypassed.
The other way that pedal manufacturers implement bypass circuits is, of course, with solid-state electronics. This is often done with FET switching circuits and is called buffered bypass or analog bypass. A simple truth that escapes many is that any pedal with active electronics in it automatically and by its very nature will include a buffer.
Now, the quality of that buffer can vary greatly from manufacturer to manufacturer, but when buffered bypass is done well, it can be a very good method of bypassing a pedal. It provides a robust and relatively silent form of switching. Buffered bypass has simply gotten a bad name over the years because of poorly designed buffered bypass circuits that color your tone.
Because of this, and for fear of any extraneous electronics hanging on to their guitar signals when bypassed, many players insist on only using pedals with true bypass. Players who use batteries in their pedals also have to worry that once the battery dies, not even the dry-bypass signal will pass through the pedal because it requires power to do so. One drawback of buffered-bypass circuits is that pedals not using low-noise components and designs can add a significant amount of white noise to the signal chain even when the pedal is bypassed. This can usually be minimized with a correctly designed bypass circuit.
So, what’s a pedal junkie to do? There is, in fact, a best-of-both-worlds solution: Place a good quality buffer at the beginning of your pedalboard signal chain. This can be in the form of a compact dedicated buffer, a clean boost set to unity gain, or even a pedal with a high-quality integrated buffer that you don’t mind leaving on all the time.
In my personal rig, I leave an optical compressor set to a very light compression level on all the time, and it serves as my up-front buffer. What the buffer does is transform the trickling stream that is your guitar signal into a pressurized fire hose of a low-impedance signal. This significantly minimizes any degradation that can be caused by having many true-bypass pedals or lots of cable in your rig.
Having a buffer up front becomes extremely important when using a true-bypass “looper,” a device that bypasses effects externally with multiple true-bypass effects loops. In practice, those devices add a ton of extra cable to your rig. Again, a buffer up front will minimize any harm they can potentially do and let you take full advantage of true bypass. In short, put a buffer first in the chain, trust your ears, and rid yourself of bypass anxiety.
This article is reproduced from a Gibson.com piece.
Many players give little thought to that thin, slotted strip of organic or synthetic material that lies across the end of the fingerboard and guides your strings on their way to the tuners, but the stuff your nut is made from plays a big part in shaping your tone. In partnership with the bridge saddles, the nut is one of the two “anchor points” that determine the speaking length of your string — the components that denote the break between the section of the strings that vibrates and makes all the sound and the “dead” portions — and it greatly affects both the way in which the strings ring, and the amount of vibrational energy that is transferred into the neck and body of the guitar.
Early quality acoustic guitars usually had bone nuts, and often still do, and this traditional material contributes to a warm, rich tone. Players are frequently surprised to learn, however, that Gibson electric guitars from the golden age of the solidbody — the 1950s and early ’60s — had nylon nuts. There are many formulations of this plastic, but the one commonly used was known as nylon 6/6. Although it sounds counter-intuitive and not at all a tone-inducing material, it actually did the job very well, and was a small but significant ingredient in some of the best sounding guitars of all time, and now the most expensive on the vintage market! A nut made from this hard, dense form of nylon is sturdy enough to be long wearing, and contributes to a surprisingly full, resonant tone.
At the lower end of the synthetic spectrum, some more affordable guitars carry nuts of solid or even hollow plastic. These aren’t generally considered to be tone-enhancing components, although they might be necessities of a certain price point. A well-cut plastic nut can still provide a decent sound and function, but in order to get the most out of the guitars they come on, many players choose to upgrade them to a nut made from bone, or one of the other synthetic materials that are popular today.
There’s a wide range of excellent replacement nuts available, many of which have been inspired by players who make heavy string bending or vibrato use a part of their playing styles. Graphite-based nuts provided an early form of self-lubricating nut that offered excellent return-to-pitch capabilities along with good wear and tone. The Graph-Tech company’s black Tusq XL nuts carry on this tradition, while their white Tusq nuts offer a more traditional-looking alternative. Super-slippery Delrin nuts have also become popular lately, and these are all good alternatives for players who either ask a lot from their whammy bars, or simply want nut slots to remain slick and snag-free.
Other modern synthetic materials that are not in the self-lubricating camp, but which still offer popular alternatives to bone, are Corian and Micarta. The former is the same material used for many kitchen counter tops, and is a hard yet workable substance that provides good sustain and pleasant all-round tone. Mikarta, a compound of phenolic resins, is a little softer and easier to work than bone, but still dense enough to provide a tonal upgrade on cheaper plastic nuts.
Whatever material you use to upgrade or replace your nut, if such is necessary, it’s important to get the job done right. This might look like a simple part that you could knock into shape with a hacksaw and a file, and in theory you can, but a poorly cut and slotted nut will impede both your tone and your intonation, so this is a job for a professional. Nut slots need to be not only spaced correctly, but cut to precise depths and at accurate angles too, so that all strings have the same break point at the front edge of the nut. The bottom of the nut needs to be seated firmly and tightly into the slot at the end of the fingerboard, too, or you will loose a lot of sustain and resonance. Look after your nuts, and get them done right when repair or replacement is required, and they’ll reward you with years of toneful and in-tune service.
This article is reproduced from a Gibson.com piece about their bridges and how tones are affected by different components.
An electric guitar’s bridge might seem like just another one of the fairly inconsequential details that make up its whole, but the type of bridge used plays an enormous part in shaping any guitar’s tone. Even if you aren’t likely to radically alter the bridge on a guitar you already own, knowing a little bit about the characteristic sounds of different types of bridges will help you narrow down what you’re looking for the next time you’re out shopping for a new instrument. Also, a better understanding of this simple but crucial component will help you avoid fighting against it — swapping pickups, string gauges and types, or effects and amplifiers even — in an endless quest to tweak an element of your tone that really can’t be changed, because it is set in stone at the bridge.
Your guitar’s nut is one of the two “anchor points” that determine the speaking length of your string. The bridge is the other, and between them they delineate the active and inactive portions of the string. Even though the portion between bridge saddle and nut is the only part of the string that vibrates, the way that the “dead” string behind the saddle is anchored will still have an affect on your overall tone. For this reason, the bridge and tailpiece really need to be considered together, whether they are separate units or one in the same.
There are a few basic factors that work in partnership to determine how any bridge will perform. The material the saddles are made from, and the lightness or solidity of both the saddles’ mounting and the tailpiece are all critical factors here. More solid designs at both points are often considered tonally superior, but that’s not to say that certain lighter, more movable or even “floating” designs don’t have their good points. In general, the solid anchor and saddle lends a depth of resonance and excellent sustain to the guitar, but the lighter arrangement can contribute a certain percussive “zing” or an overall brightness that many players like to hear in their tone. Let’s look at some specific types:
After a brief flirtation with a short-lived trapeze tailpiece design, Gibson’s first solidbody electric guitar, the Les Paul, used a bridge from 1953-’55 that has become known at the wraparound bridge (or “bar bridge”), also seen for longer periods of time on the Les Paul Jr., SG Jr., and some other models. It’s an extremely simple design, and although it offers limited intonation adjustment (next to none, really), it provides an extremely solid anchor point that contributes to great sustain and a warm, full tone. The gentle curve of the top of the bar provides a break point for the strings that isn’t as sharp as some designs that would follow, so the notes emanating from this bridge sound a little rounder and furrier, a character that many players really enjoy. (Note that a compensated saddle ridge was added to the top of many later wraparound bridges, and this helped to improve intonation somewhat, as well as adding a little more definition to the tone.)
Tune-o-matic Bridge (or ABR-1) & Stopbar Tailpiece
Gibson’s next advance in bridge design arrived in 1954 in the form of the Tune-o-matic/ABR-1, which has usually been partnered on non-vibrato solidbody electrics with a stopbar tailpiece, which is really the same hunk of steel or aluminum as a wraparound bridge. Used as a tailpiece, this unit again makes an extremely solid anchor point, and the Tune-o-matic likewise provides a solid and precise bridge and saddle unit. This arrangement gets a little more definition and clarity into the tone, for two reasons: the strings see a sharper break point over the sharper tops of the six individual saddles, which are likewise not coupled to the body quite as firmly and immediately as the simpler wraparound bridge. In addition to its tonal considerations, the Tune-o-matic also offers the flexibility of accurate intonation adjustment for individual strings.
Floating Bridge & Trapeze Tailpiece
Most hollowbody electrics and many semi-hollows carry a “floating bridge”, that is, a bridge that is mounted on a wooden base (usually rosewood or ebony) and held against the guitar’s top by the pressure of the strings, rather than being permanently attached. The hollow or semi-hollow nature of the guitars they appear on means they are also usually partnered with a trapeze tailpiece. The combination contributes to an appropriately round, warm tone that suits the nature of the guitars they are mounted on—the classic jazz set up, in other words, although such guitars have been used for rock and country, too. The saddle atop such bridges was traditionally a one-piece wooden saddle, again made from rosewood or ebony, and further enhanced the warm, woody tone of these guitars. A Tune-o-matic bridge later appeared on the floating wood bridge bases of many Gibson models, and added a little more bite and definition to these guitars.
The vibrato tailpieces commonly used on Gibson guitars serve to lighten the anchor point a little, and therefore alter the tones of the guitars they are mounted on (even when not in wobble action). Some players like this change in and of itself, while others feel it “thins out” their tone a little. On hollow, semi-hollow, or arched-top solidbody guitars, a Bigsby tailpiece mounted trapeze-style at the end of the guitar body—with or without further support mounts on the body top—is usually the unit of choice. These tend to soften the resonance and sustain a little, while adding some snap and zing to the tone, the change being more dramatic with the Bigsby units mounted at the tail block only. Some SGs came with factory Bigsbys that mounted directly and solidly to the top of the guitar with four wood screws, and these provide a firmer anchor point than some of the other designs. Flat-bodied Gibson electrics often carry Maestro vibrato units, which get their action from a piece of U-shaped steel that acts as a spring. These also decouple the anchor points from the guitar’s body somewhat, and decrease tonal depth and resonance slightly—which again, isn’t necessarily a bad thing, depending upon the sound you’re seeking. Vibrato tailpieces will be accompanied by Tune-o-matic, wraparound, or some other bridge types, and these will further alter the sonic results, as discussed above.
Tone sculpting can be a tricky business as soon as you start to get more than just a couple of pedals in a chain. Here is a handy guide as to basic effect categorization. This is the normal preferred order for each category of effect withe examples of specific effects that fall into each category.
Distortion and Boost
- Clean boost
- Treble boost
Of course the first rule is to break the rules. Knowing the conventional wisdom provides a starting point. It is almost always the case that the time effects will sound better at the end and, if you have multiple time effects then the longer ones often work better first - and so reverb ends up at the very end of the chain. Tone shaping is not so critical and can often fit in anywhere with little impact on the sound. That is until you start using heavy fuzz or distortion with serious filtering such as a wah. Swapping these two around can make for a completely different sound (and quite possibly one of them will not sound good). A classic configuration for old shcool fuzz/wah combinations is to have the fuzz feed into the wha. Whilst modulation would normally follow distortion, swapping these two around can make for some intersting variations and this is a good place to experiment. Beyond this there are certain fuzz pedals that are highly sensitive to their place in the chain. Early fuzz pedals, particularly germanium units (and their modern reproductions) don't like to be placed after a buffered signal (any pedal that is on and any non-true bypass pedal whether it is on or off). Getting complicated?
If you have one, the tuner (which obviously is not an effect) should go before anything else in your chain. And then there is the placing of your volume pedal. If it is being used simply to vary the loudness of your sound, or for swell effects, then likely the volume pedal will be best at the end of the chain; all it can do there is change the level of your effected signal hitting your amp. However, it can also be used, like your gutiar's volume control, to change the way that your guitar signal impacts your other effects. The obvious one here is where the volume is placed before the distortion section to variably 'clean up' the distortion. This provides for precise control over the amount of distortion that you will be getting. A variant of volume, and a classic effect that is often overlooked, is tremolo. The rules for this are the same as for the volume pedal - put it at the end. But it might make more sense to put it befor you time effects, so that your echo/reverb continues to ring out even when your tremolo pedal cuts the volume to nothing. Of course some people will want the tremolo to sound as big as possible and killing the echo and reverb will definitely do that. Yes, it is complicated. Go experiment.
Everything you wanted to know about the different woods used in acoustic guitars
Why is it that different woods are used for acoustic guitars, and how do these woods affect the sound of the instrument? In the past, there was less opportunity for confusion on this issue, since most guitars were made of mahogany, rosewood, maple, ebony, and spruce. But with the dwindling availability of traditional tonewoods, particularly those cut from old-growth forests, major manufacturers and smaller luthiers have been compelled to consider the use of alternative species of tonewoods- some of them common and others decidedly uncommon. This article looks at the strengths and weaknesses of the woods most commonly used today for tops, backs and sides, fretboards, and bridges.
Differences between woods can be as mysterious and complex as differences between people. Even within a species, no two pieces of wood are exactly alike. Environmental conditions, genetics, the age of the tree, annular growth patterns, grain orientation, curing conditions, and so on all have an effect on the tonal properties of a piece of wood. In addition, tonewoods respond differently in the hands of different makers. They can also take on different characteristics when used in different models of guitars-even those built by the same maker. And whether a particular wood sounds good or bad depends partially upon who’s doing the listening. So any attempt to sort out distinctions between tonewoods can only be offered from a relatively subjective point of view.
When evaluating tonewoods, luthiers must take into account a wide variety of factors, some of which can be inscrutably subtle, and most of which are likely to vary in priority from one luthier to another. I tend to place a good deal of importance on a couple of elements that, when viewed together, illuminate much of my own understanding of tonewoods.
Velocity of sound refers to the speed at which a material transmits received energy. Simply described, plucked guitar strings transmit energy to the bridge. The bridge in return oscillates one surface of a ported enclosure, setting up sound pressure waves that eventually reach the eardrum. In order to contain this chain reaction, one must design an efficient ported enclosure and then make it out of materials that facilitate the transmission of the vibrational energy. Lively materials-those with a high velocity of sound, or low internal dampening-make the best facilitators.
There are a number of ways in which luthiers judge the sound velocity of wood. The most common method is to hold the wood at a nodal point, tap it, and then listen for the response. (Nodal points are analogous to the locations on a guitar string where natural harmonics can be played.) The difference between a high and a low velocity of sound can often be so apparent that one demonstration is usually sufficient to teach an apprentice how to select most of the good sets out of a given stack of wood. Sometimes a piece of wood is so lively that it doesn’t seem to matter where you tap it or where you hold it. I remember going through a large stack of aged Brazilian rosewood from which I was able to make my selection the moment I lifted a piece off the top of the pile; rubbing one piece of wood against another was enough to make the best sets ring!
In addition to testing for velocity of sound, luthiers also make use of the tapping technique to listen for harmonic content. Like a string, a piece of wood is capable of producing a fundamental tone and an array of harmonics. Though the presence and strengths of individual harmonics are distinctly influenced by changes in the geometry and mass of the piece of wood, elements such as clarity of tone, relative harmonic complexity, and high, low, or mid bias can readily be discovered by holding and tapping a piece of wood in a variety of ways.
Each part of the guitar seems to play a role, be it significant or subtle, in determining the tonal characteristics of the instrument. In very general terms, the top, or soundboard, seems to affect the guitar’s responsiveness, the quickness of its attack, its sustain, some of its overtone coloration, and the strength and quality of each note’s fundamental tone. Most luthiers (but not all) believe that the wood chosen for the top is the single overriding variable that determines the quality of tone of a finished instrument.
Spruce is the standard material for soundboards. These days the most commonly used species is Sitka, due to its availability and to the high yield from its characteristically large-diameter logs. Quartersawn Sitka is quite stiff along and across the grain; high stiffness, combined with the relatively light weight characteristics of most softwoods, is a recipe for high velocity of sound. A strong fundamental-to-overtone ratio gives Sitka a powerful, direct tone that is capable of retaining its clarity when played forcefully. Sitka is an excellent choice of topwood, then, for players whose style demands a wide dynamic response and a robust, meaty tone. On the other side of the balance sheet, the lack of a strong overtone component can result in a "thin" tone when played with a relatively light touch-depending, of course, upon the design of the guitar and the other woods used in its construction. The break-in period for a new Sitka guitar can also be longer than that of other spruces.
The most common alternative to Sitka is Engelmann spruce, another domestic western species. Engelmann is often more expensive than Sitka due to the lower yield from its smaller logs and because most logs have a spiral-grained structure that renders them unsuitable for proper quarter-sawing. Engelmann is considerably lighter in color than Sitka spruce, lighter in weight, and usually less stiff, resulting in a slightly lower velocity of sound. Engelmann also tends to exhibit a weaker fundamental tone, although it produces a noticeably broader and stronger overtone component. It is therefore a good choice for players who require a richer, more complex tone than can be obtained from most Sitka tops, particularly when the instrument is played softly. The downside is that Engelmann tops can have lower "headroom" than Sitka tops, which is to say that clarity and definition are often sacrificed when the guitar is played loudly.
European or silver spruce, the spruce of choice for makers of classical guitars, shares a number of characteristics with Engelmann spruce, including color, lightness of weight, harmonic complexity, and fullness at the lower end of the dynamic range. Because of its visual similarity and significantly higher cost, its name has been affixed more than once to a piece of Engelmann spruce by unscrupulous (or uninformed) wood dealers and luthiers. European spruce differs from Engelmann in its potentially quicker response and greater headroom. The availability of anything better than mediocre European spruce (which is easily exceeded in quality by the better grades of Engelmann-a commodity that is still readily obtainable) is sharply limited, unless the boards are selected at the source in Europe.
Eastern red spruce, also known as Adirondack or Appalachian spruce, was the primary topwood used by American manufacturers before World War II. Its use was all but discontinued due to over-harvesting of the resource but has recently been reintroduced thanks to 50 years of regeneration and to the legendary status that this traditional tonewood has attained. The small size of most logs and a shortage of wood conforming to market preference for even color and regularity of grain conspire to keep the price of red spruce extremely high.
Red spruce is relatively heavy, has a high velocity of sound, and has the highest stiffness across and along the grain of all the topwoods. Like Sitka, it has strong fundamentals, but it also exhibits a more complex overtone content. Tops made out of red spruce have the highest volume ceiling of any species, yet they also have a rich fullness of tone that retains clarity at all dynamic levels. In short, red spruce may very well be the Holy Grail of topwoods for the steel-string guitar. If players and builders were able to overcome phobias about unevenness of color, grain irregularity, minor knots, and four-piece tops, many more great-sounding guitars could be produced while the supply of potentially usable red spruce is still available. Old-growth woods are disappearing so fast that such an attitude change will need to be scheduled sometime in the near future, unless the majority of new guitars are to be made of synthetic materials.
Before leaving the spruces, I should mention bearclaw figure, or hazelficte-a delightful pattern in the grain occasionally occurring in all species of spruce. Bearclaw, like the curl in curly maple, is a rippling of the longitudinal fibers, which divides the surface of the wood into shimmering patterns. Unlike the even waves that usually occur in maple, bearclaw usually appears on asymmetrical or randomly broken patterns. This phenomenon almost always occurs in older trees that have dense, stiff grain structure and high sound velocity. Thus bearclaw is usually a reliable indicator of the better examples of tonewoods within any given species of spruce.
Western red cedar ranges in color from honey brown to light chocolate. It has a quickness of sound that exceeds any of the spruces, a higher overtone content, lower fundamental content, and lower stiffness along the grain. Additionally, cedar tops require a significantly shorter break-in period than spruce tops, a phenomenon that a few dealers of new guitars are beginning to pick up on.
Since World War II, cedar has been used extensively by makers of classical guitars. Cedar-topped guitars are characteristically lush, dark-toned, and bursting with flavor. They are often less powerful in projection than their spruce cousins, however, and they tend to lose clarity near the top of their dynamic range. Having enough bottom end is never a problem for a cedar guitar, although preventing the sound from getting muddy sometimes is. Because of its pronounced weakness along the grain, I find cedar to be used to its best advantage in smaller-bodied guitars or with non-scalloped braces. Redwood is usually darker in color than cedar and often displays the same general tonal characteristics, leaning slightly toward darker tones, less definition in the bass, and lower velocity of sound.
Koa and mahogany have been used for soundboards since the ‘20s, and makers have recently begun to use maple. These hardwoods have in common a relatively low velocity of sound (as compared to softwood tops), considerable density, and a low overtone content. They therefore tend to produce a solid tone-though not an especially rich one-and respond best at the upper end of the dynamic range. Mahogany-topped guitars exhibit a strong "punchy" tone that is well-suited to country blues playing. Koa has a somewhat more midrangy tone that works well for rhythm and truly shines in guitars made for Hawaiian-style slide playing. Maple, in particular, having the lowest velocity of sound of the three, can be downright flat-sounding-a blessing in disguise when a guitar is amplified at high sound-pressure levels.
Back and Sides
Besides serving to form the enclosure of the soundbox, the back and sides of the guitar also act as a sympathetic resonator whose oscillations contribute greatly to the harmonic mix. When judiciously selected (with due consideration given to design criteria and the other tonewoods used in the instrument), the back and sides can have a tremendous effect on the overall tone of the instrument.
Brazilian and Indian rosewood have an extremely high velocity of sound and a broad range of overtones. The rosewoods, as well as their various rain forest cousins-cocobolo, kingwood, morado, and the like-have strongly pronounced low overtones, usually the lowest resonating frequencies in the entire guitar. These lows help to create a complex bottom end and to impart an overall darkness of tone to the instrument. Strong mids and highs serve to reinforce overtones generated by the top, contributing to a fatness of tone on the upper registers. Guitars made of rosewood also have a pronounced "reverby" tone, caused by a strong, clear set of sympathetic harmonics with a delayed onset and slow decay.
I’ve found that Brazilian rosewood has everything that Indian rosewood has, only more. I say this with great trepidation in light of that species’ likelihood of extinction within a couple of generations. An international embargo on trade on Brazilian rosewood products guarantees that the relatively few sets remaining in this country, which may be used only on domestically sold guitars, will continue to spiral in price as the supply dwindles.
Mahogany and koa have relatively high velocities of sound when considered as materials for backs and sides and thus contribute much to overtone coloration. Lacking the low-end frequencies of the rosewoods and also their sustaining reverberation, these woods have an altogether different sound. Where rosewood guitars can be thought of as having a "metallic" sound, mahogany and koa guitars are better described as sounding "woody, although the harder, more dense examples of these woods can take on some of the characteristics of the rosewoods. Between the two, koa seems to have a little more fullness in the midrange, while mahogany tends to favor the bass (to some extent) and the treble.
Maple and walnut tend to be more acoustically transparent than other tonewoods, due to a low velocity of sound and a high degree of internal damping. That is to say that they allow tonal characteristics of the top to be heard without the addition of extraneous coloration and may even serve to attenuate some of the overtones emanating from the top.
The harder, denser examples of these woods, such as sugar maple and black walnut- particularly quartersawn examples-tend to lean slightly more toward the tonal direction of mahogany, while softer examples, such as bigleaf maple and claro walnut, tend toward greater tonal transparency. Curly, quilted, or bird’s-eye figures do not seem to have much effect on the tone of the wood, but they can be used, like bearclaw, as an indicator of other properties. Quilted figure, for example, occurs most often in softer species and is best displayed when the wood is flat sawn-two characteristics that tend to produce higher damping properties.
Fretboards and Bridges
Players of electric guitars with bolt-on necks have long been hip to the fact that neck and fretboard materials can have a significant bearing on tone. Maple necks can impart a bright, poppy tone that can do much to reinforce the top end of a large-bodied guitar, while mahogany necks help push the overall palette into a warmer, more woody tonal range.
Fretboard materials also exert an influence on overall tone, although they probably act more as icing on the cake than as a layer of the cake itself. Brazilian rosewood fretboards and their denser rainforrest counterparts add sparkle and ring, and Indian rosewood fretboards can help fatten up the midrange. Wenge, a dense, dark-colored African hardwood unrelated to the rosewoods, has tonal properties remarkably similar to those of Brazilian rosewood.
Ebony, the traditional fingerboard material found on violins, classical guitars, and high-end steel strings, has the lowest velocity of sound of all the woods commonly used in lutherie and has definite damping characteristics. This may not prove to be much of a problem for large-bodied guitars made out of red spruce or Brazilian rosewood, but it may be something to consider when designing smaller guitars, particularly those using some of the less resonant woods for tops and backs.
Bridge materials, like fretboards, cannot make or break an instrument, but they serve to enhance or edit the tonal contributions of other materials found on the guitar. The woods discussed above-ebony, Brazilian rosewood, and Indian rosewood-contribute similar tonal qualities when they are used as bridge materials as when they are used for fretboards.
It is important to remember that wood, when considered generically, can be responsible only for certain aspects of the tone of any guitar. Equally important are the design of the guitar, the skill of the maker, and the quality of the individual pieces of wood from which the guitar is made. Species selection can, however, be a determining factor in the creation of a very special guitar or a guitar designed for a specific purpose.
We here at Ludlow Guitars are big fans of the California Guitar Trio. One of us was lucky enough to go and see them when they were in New York playing at BB Kings on 7th March 2011. They were backed up by, and played with, the excellent Montreal Guitar Trio, who are well worth checking out.
The CGT have played a variety of instruments over the years but now two of them are playing Breedloves. Breedlove Guitars, is run by Kim Breedlove who hand makes his extraordinary guitars in Oregon. We have played a few of these guitars over the years and they have all been very fine instruments; well worth auditioning if you get a chance to play one. We note that Breedlove was recently purchased by Bedell Guitars, which acoustic instruments we proudly carry here at the store. Check out our Bedell page and the Great Divide guitars from the same company.
We would like to acknowledge the passing of the great Gary Moore. One of the defining guitarists of a generation seen by a young want-to-be guitar player now member of the Ludlow Guitars team, back in the mid-'70s. Gary, in more recent years, was a user of Bare Knuckle Pickups which we proudly carry here at the store.
Gary Moore, 1952-2011 R.I.P.
Ever since we had a secondhand one of these guitars in our shop a few years back we have been thinking about how we could get this line into the store. It has taken us a while but better late than never.
Don't let the fact that many of these instruments are made of metal put you off. They sound like just a really good guitar but aren't made of something as easily damaged as wood. James Trussart is one of the few builders who has broken the mold of traditional guitar making. Working with steel as the primary material, he produces guitars that are as unique in appearance as they are in tone.
Trussart’s creations are designed to have the look and feel of a vintage instrument with the added appeal of a metal construction. His "Rust-o-matic" technique (a term coined by Billy Gibbons regarding Trussart’s unique finishes) involves leaving the guitar body exposed to the elements for several weeks, allowing it to corrode before treating it to stop the corrosion. He then sands it to replicate years of distress, and then finishes it with a clear satin coat.