The Guitar Thread

Guitar Tonewood Comparison! - Can You Hear The Difference?

I could hear a slight difference between the guitars, and I correctly identified the guitars in all three of the blind tests, which only has a one-eighth chance of happening by accident. I like the sound of the basswood body with the maple fingerboard better than the sound of the alder body with the rosewood fingerboard.



  • I've been kinda wanting a guitar that I could feel free to tear apart. My guitar is too nice to subject to my rank beginner luthiery. (It's a Michael Kelly Hourglass that I've had for quite a few years now, since my last spasm of wanting to learn the guitar. It looks like this one.) I've also wanted something that's physically lighter and more comfortable for long practice sessions. My guitar looks pretty and sounds OK as far as I can tell through my little practice amplifier, a Peavey Rage 158, but it's a fat slab of mahogany that gets heavy after a while. (Perhaps I will name it Elsie.)

    Lo, after I got interested in basswood because of it's lightness and how it sounded in the above video, I found this thing online. It's under $60 postpaid, and the reviews on YouTube aren't half bad. I couldn't resist and bought one. I certainly won't feel bad if the urge to modify it strikes and I accidentally destroy it. I suspect that I'll at least have to re-do the frets.

  • All of this makes me want to take up guitar myself.

    I do need to get some drums for the kiddo at some point. Plus the wife has a bass. That gives me ideas, but I really don't need to turn into the partridge family up in here. ;-)

  • edited August 2019

    I'm still enjoying trying to learn the thing. I still can't switch chords fast enough to play anything correctly, but I'm still improving slowly.

    If you give it a shot, the first couple weeks are the worst as your finger tips toughen up. They keep getting tougher after that for some weeks, but the real pain is only in the first two weeks or so. You also slowly start to figure out how to position your hand better to get less wrist pain.

  • edited August 2019

    Well, my less-than-$60-postpaid guitar has arrived. First impressions:

    The finish is pretty good, There are a few scratches in the pick guard. You can see some scuff marks in the sanding. Overall, it looks good. For sixty bucks, I was prepared to accept anything that looked better than a rotten plank.

    The neck appears to be entirely unfinished. I like that, for now at least. Once my hand begins to sweat, it has a tendency to stick to the glossy finish on Elsie's neck. Some of the review's I watched before purchase expressed worry that an unfinished neck might be subject to a greater risk of warpage. I lack the experience to judge.

    The neck is somewhat thicker, as in the distance between the fingerboard and the back of the neck, than Elsie's.

    The hardware is pot metal. For the price, I didn't expect anything else.

    The frets are nicely rounded over. There is nothing sticking up to cut your hand. I checked for high spots with the edge of a credit card, and I found nothing obvious.

    The fingerboard is some kind of engineered "rosewood." It arrived desiccated, and it soaked up a whole bunch of the F-One oil I applied to it. It looks much better now, but it's rougher to the fingers than Elsie's real rosewood.

    Out of the box, the action is set quite a bit higher than Elsie's. I've never adjusted a guitar's action before. It will be an adventure.

    It is noticeably lighter than Elsie, which is one of the things I wanted it for.

    I plugged it in to the Peavey Rage and played a few chords. It sounded OK to me, but I lack educated ears. In any case, it's good enough to practice with, which I mostly do unplugged anyway.

    The biggest problem that I've noticed so far is the tuning keys. They are garbage. They have a tremendous amount of backlash, and they don't at all turn smoothly. Tuning this thing up is a real chore. When I start modifying the guitar, they will have to be the first thing I change.

    In my totally inexpert judgment, the tuning keys are the main thing that keeps it from being a good guitar for a total beginner, as in someone who has never touched a guitar before. Trying to tune it would cause them needless frustration.

    Overall, my early judgment is that the guitar is a tremendous value. I wanted something that is lighter to put in long practice sessions with and that I feel free to take apart and fiddle with. It completely serves both of those functions.

    Heck, for someone looking for a project, the assembled guitar is cheaper than a lot of kit guitars. Spend the money you save on a loaded pick guard, for instance, and a better nut and decent tuners.

  • A few more observations:

    I've now lowered the action on the new guitar. So far, there has been no fret buzz. I think it can go a little lower. It appears that the job the manufacturer did on the frets actually is pretty good.

    The width on the new guitar is one and eleven-sixteenth inches compared to Elsie's one and five-eighth inches. That one-sixteenth of an inch makes a surprising difference. My fingers fit noticeably better.

    I've now done some chord and spider exercises. I don't like the new guitar's extra neck thickness. I'd like to sand it down a little. This isn't a flaw in the guitar, just a personal preference.

    The neck on the new guitar isn't as sticky when wet, but I think it needs something to make it feel smoother. One of the reviewers on YouTube gave his guitar neck a coat of car wax. Does this strike you as reasonable?

    The neck of the new guitar has a big heel where it attaches to the body and about an inch and one-eighth above. It would improve the guitar to remove that inch and one-eighth of heel and blend the wood down to the curve of the neck.

    The intonation of the new guitar is pretty good. It's slightly off, but adjusting intonation is a fussy process, and I don't yet have it zeroed in according to my electronic tuner. Still, it's closeness makes for a pleasant surprise.

    My first impression remains. This thing is an excellent value. That they can sell it, shipping included, for under sixty bucks is nigh jaw dropping.

  • Well, I was trying to intonate the new guitar when the tuning machine for the low E string gave up the ghost. They really are total crap.

  • So, does anyone have any recommendations for tuning machines, or more importantly, bad tuning machines that I should avoid?

  • I wasn't aware of machines other than tuning forks or youtube I guess. I learned something new today.

  • Assuming you're not pulling my leg: "Tuning machines," in my totally non-expert opinion, appears to be the now-preferred term for tuning pegs on guitars other than classical guitars. It appears -- and I'm just speculating here -- that they say "tuning machines" to distinguish tuning pegs that are geared from the tuning pegs on classical guitars, which are literally just wooden pegs.

    The UKers actually call tuning machines "machine heads," hence, the name of the Deep Purple album.

  • Heh. See, I usually heard those referred to as tuning keys.

    Machine head makes me think of the Bush song before the Deep Purple album.

  • This is my son's guitar instructor:

    He's big into metal and plays in several bar bands, but the classical gigs pay 2-3 times what a bar gig pays (so he tells me).

  • The order I preferred them was B > C > A. In which order do you prefer them? Come up with your choice before you watch the reveal video.

  • re: tuning heads -- avoid hipshot. they're cool but you're not there yet. grover and schaeller have the older/best reputation, gotoh right behind. kluson is ok. fender and gibson stock are ok. grover/schaller/gotoh have locking tuners, which, if you've got a guitar with a tremolo on it, you definitely want to consider (as opposed to a locking nut, which honestly is a giant pain in the ass.

    if you find yourself in the market for a cheap instrument, facebook marketplace and craigslist are still the old standbys

  • re: chords -- look up the CAGED method of chord theory for guitar (ie, those are the 5 basic shapes, that you can move up and down the neck. most easy/terrible punk is based on the A and E shapes, moved up and down the neck.)

    also, 5 strings isn't necessarily bad -- keith richards plays his open G tuned guitar with 5 strings (tuned -GDGBD). it takes a bit of getting used to, but i've been playing in open G for a few years now and really liking it.

  • edited September 2019

    @Dave said:
    re: tuning heads -- avoid hipshot. they're cool but you're not there yet.

    Dang it. Of course, I've already installed Hipshot staggered locking tuners on the thing. By shopping around I did manage to find a set for $55, which is cheaper than what they usually go for.

    I also replaced the nut with a Graph Tech TUSQ XL. I messed up the nut installation -- I made it too short -- so I had to order another one that arrived yesterday. Fortunately, the nuts don't cost all that much, and I bought the guitar in the first place to have one that I could feel free to destroy as I learned.

    I am afraid that I might be coming down with guitar acquisition syndrome. I've already been designing an experimental guitar in my head. It would be impractical for a professional musician, but it would be fun to play with. I'm pretty sure that I can hold off at least until I actually learn how to play. Maybe if I work really hard for a full year I'll reward myself.

    So far, my fantasies include:

    • lightweight, Strat-style body
    • roasted maple neck with an ebony fingerboard
    • stainless steel frets
    • high-gear-ratio locking tuners
    • Graph Tech TUSQ XL nut
    • Graph Tech string trees, if necessary
    • hardtail bridge
    • classic Tron-style pickup near the neck
    • a hotter Tron-style pickup near the bridge
    • maybe a P-90 in the middle position

    Now, it starts to get freaky:

    The Tron pickups would each have a switch that turns on the coils either in series or in parallel and also splits the coils so that either one coil or the other is on. It also would have an off position.

    The P-90 in the middle would have its own on-off switch.

    If I'm doing the math right, that should give a total of fifty different pickup combinations to play with. (Five possibilities for each Tron, two possibilities for the P-90, (5)(5)(2) = 50.) One of those is all off, however.

    But wait, there's more. Each pickup would have its own volume and tone knob, but instead of the tone knob being wired to a single capacitor, it would be wired to a rotary switch that is wired to an entire selection of capacitors, If each rotary switch is wired to six capacitors (or five capacitors and one empty spot), that gives you a total of (6)(6)(6) = 216 capacitor combinations.

    Forty-nine practical pickup combinations times 216 capacitor combinations equals 10,584.

    That's not even taking into consideration the settings on the volume and tone knobs themselves. Because they are usually continuous, they are theoretically infinite, but that is greatly reduced in practical use. I've noticed that it's difficult to hear the differences among some settings of tone and volume.

    If you want to go full mad scientist, I've seen some push-pull rotary switches that have a total of twelve positions. You could wire up a total of twelve capacitors (or 11 plus none) to each tone knob for a total of (12)(12)(12) = 1728 different capacitor combinations. Times 49 equals 84,672. You couldn't practically explore every tonal possibility in a lifetime.

    Now, add in a few pedals. Bwahahahahahahahahahahahaha.

    Anyway, it's just a fantasy that wouldn't cost a fortune to do if you did the labor yourself. If Guitarfetish pickups are any good, the most expensive single piece would be the fancy neck. If you have to go to someone like TV Jones to get good pickups, it would be pricier, but still cheaper than an American made Gibson.

  • edited September 2019

    @Bill said:

    The order I preferred them was B > C > A. In which order do you prefer them? Come up with your choice before you watch the reveal video.

    Finally got around to listening to this... Direct-in, I couldn't really hear a difference. Through the amp, I think I agree with your preference, but I couldn't say if I really came to that judgment on my own, or if I was influenced by your stated preference.

    Having said all that.... My speakers are of resonible quality, but I can't exclude that they mask the differences between the three... Also, I can't say if I have a finely tuned ear for such things.

    In my limited experience, noodling around on my guitar and years of lessons for my son (who is on his second guitar)... there are a thousand things that have a far bigger influence on the sound of an electric guitar than the wood it's made out of. Even the neck would have a bigger influence than the body wood.

    Probably, the player is at the top of the list... I'm sure a virtuoso player could make a more interesting and cool sound with a guitar made out of a fence post and pick-ups made from copper wire wrapped around nails, than I could with a $5,000 Gibson Les Paul.

    Perhaps that's a bit of a straw man argument, but we've got a couple of different amps in the house (a Marshal MG15CFX and a Fender Mustang 1), and there's way more variation in sound and tone from those amps than you'd find in the subtleties of guitar construction.

  • Yes, from what I've read/watched tone wood is way down on the list of things that make a difference. I'm surprised that it makes any difference at all. I would have guesses that two pickups held up by a strip of Styrofoam would sound exactly the same as two pickups expensively cradled in Hawaiian koa, but the wood does seem to make a subtle difference when one tries to control for everything else.

    One thing the makers of these videos can't control, however, is that they are aware of the wood they are using even if the viewer isn't. It's possible that their own knowledge is affecting their playing in ways that they don't notice.

  • I just realized that messed up the math on my fantasy guitar. The math is technically correct, but it is counting some capacitor selections for when the pickup would be turned off. The capacitors would be different, but they would make no practical difference because the pickup wouldn't be contributing to the sound. Therefore, the practical number of combinations would be somewhat lower, but it would still be a large number.

  • edited October 2019

    I've been studying music theory. One of the reasons that I wanted to learn guitar is so that I could learn music theory. I've always wondered why some sounds are musical and others are not. I don't find it difficult, but I've noticed that the numerous guitar teachers who put up lessons on YouTube act as if their viewers are going to have to be prodded to reluctantly learn some theory. No doubt the instructors are recalling experiences with their students.

    I'm pretty sure that their students dislike theory not from any inherent difficulty of the material, but because music terminology and notation are insane. One supposes that the reasons for this are a historical accident, that the terminology and notation built up as layers of makeshift adaptations of an existing system that couldn't be abandoned because too much was already invested in it, but the effect is one of purposeful obfuscation.

    For example, the building block of musical sound is the semi-tone or half-step. An octave is built of twelve semi-tones with the thirteenth semi-tone being twice the sound frequency of the first semi-tone. In mathematical terms, each semi-tone differs from the preceding lower-in-pitch semi-tone by a factor of the twelfth root of two. Now, this might be confusing to someone who has never been taught roots, but it makes perfect mathematical sense if you want the next octave to start on a pitch exactly twice that of the preceding octave.

    The choice of twelve semi-tones is just a pragmatic convention. I understand that some Middle-Eastern musical systems use twenty-four, but twelve seems adequate given that musical instruments have to be constructed to make these frequencies. The definition of octave is based on the fact that a pitch and a second pitch twice the frequency of the first strike persons as being in some way essentially similar. (This is based on the wave nature of sound, and it isn't necessary to go into it.) There is an arbitrarily chosen standard pitch -- the A above middle C is defined as 440 cycles per second -- that can be used to define all of the other musical pitches. This all makes sense.

    But notice that the obfuscation is already starting to creep in. If the semi-tone or half-step is the essential building block, why do you call it a semi-tone or half-step? Shouldn't you just call it a tone or step and be done with it? Why call something else a tone or step and make the building block half that?

    And then there is this octave business. Oct means eight, if an octave is made up of twelve semi-tones with the thirteenth serving as the end of one and the start of the next, what does eight have to do with it? Well, you see, there is this thing called the major scale that serves as a reference scale to which all other scales are compared, a scale being a defined subset of semi-tones chosen from the semi-tones of the octave. (You soon learn that scales can be made up of any combination of the notes of the octave -- this statement is itself a simplification -- but that only a few are commonly used.) A major scale is a subset consisting of seven semi-tones, plus an eighth twice the frequency of the first, that are chosen from the octave by a fixed rule. Hence, the octave is called the octave because it's being compared to the major scale, which is the archetypal scale, and the major scale is seven plus one.

    This all kinda makes sense, but it serves as a mental burden that one must remember in order to keep everything straight. But soon one learns of something called the chromatic scale. The chromatic scale is the subset of the octave that uses all twelve plus one semi-tones. One wonders why the chromatic scale, considering that it contains all the semi-tones of the octave, isn't used as the reference scale to which all the others are compared. I assume the reason is historical.

    So, we have the major scale which is made up of a defined seven plus one subset of the twelve plus one semi-tones of the octave. The semi-tones of the octave are given names based on the letters of the alphabet: A, A#/Bb, B, C, C#/Db, D, D#/Eb, E, F, F#/Gb, G, G#/Ab -- twelve names in all. (The # sign is pronounced "sharp" and the b sign -- it's not actually a lower-case B, but that is a convenient keyboard approximation -- is pronounced "flat.") The names separated by the / sign are different names for the same semi-tone. For example, A# and Bb are the different names for the same physical pitch. Why two names for some of the semi-tones? It appears to be for ease of musical notation, which itself is an illogical mess. Furthermore, why mess around with these #s and bs? Why not give every semi-tone it's own letter, A through L. Again, as far as I can tell, it's for reasons of notation. Why not at least be consistent and put a B#/Cb between B and C and a E#/Fb between E and F and eliminate the letter G? I think that one has something to do with the Greeks and the medieval church or something.

    Note that this naming inconsistency means that most of the letters are two semi-tones apart, but B and C and E and F are only one semi-tone apart. You simply have to memorize the inconsistency and deal with it.

    It is insane. It isn't difficult. It's just nuts.

    And then there is the naming of the musical intervals...

  • I got deep into music theory for a project, and to be honest it's mostly a lot simpler than I expected. That is, the basics that theorists pretty much agree on is simple, and the stuff that isn't simple seems to all be hand-waving and nomenclature.

    Anyway Bill, basically all the stuff you're complaining about just comes down to music theory having been invented by western piano players. We could all think in chromatic, it just wouldn't be useful - when was the last time you heard a song that uses it? And similarly, the logic behind using seven letters is the same as that of the piano key layout - it (approximately) maps musical space onto alphabet-space and physical space. That is, two notes that are separate by a given musical interval (e.g. a third) are usually separated by the same number of letters, and roughly the same physical distance on the keyboard. As such, we could use a 12-letter naming system but it would be like playing a piano where all the keys were the same size.

    A lot of people have invented alternate systems, but I think the main reason none of them catches on is that it doesn't really make much difference. They're all equally messy, so the world mostly just picked one and stuck with it.

  • The popular blues scale isn't just a subset of the major scale, and there are three minor scales, two of which aren't subsets of the major scale. So the chromatic scale isn't used in its entirety, but a lot of popular music draws from it. This complicates the musical notation, forcing the use of accidentals.

    Consider, if they used a six-line musical staff with each semi-tone having its own letter or number, they could give every semi-tone in the octave its own line or space on the staff and eliminate the necessity of key signatures and accidentals.

  • @Bill said:
    The popular blues scale isn't just a subset of the major scale, and there are three minor scales, two of which aren't subsets of the major scale. So the chromatic scale isn't used in its entirety, but a lot of popular music draws from it.

    The nation isn't meant to minimize accidentals or simplify chromatic music (which really isn't common). It's there to simplify tonal music for piano players.

    if they used a six-line musical staff ... eliminate the necessity of key signatures and accidentals.

    Here you go, play with that notation to your heart's content. As an exercise, write out a piece of unknown music in that notation and see how long it takes you to figure out what key it's in. (It will be much harder than doing the same task in common notation.)

  • edited October 2019

    @fenomas said:
    Anyway Bill, basically all the stuff you're complaining about just comes down to music theory having been invented by western piano players. We could all think in chromatic, it just wouldn't be useful - when was the last time you heard a song that uses it?

    and my personal favorite

  • Er, to me chromatic scale means atonal. Is there something else for it to mean?

  • I'm honestly not sure who is more confused at this point? When I hear 'chromatic scale' I think of Master of Puppets or most Megadeth, Yngwie, it was all the rage in the 90s when everyone was shredding

  • that and Phryggian I think mostly because the name sounded cool

  • edited October 2019

    Beats me. It sounds like maybe you're talking about songs with occasional chromatic runs? My point was that western music doesn't have, say, whole songs that are chromatic, and that's why the notation doesn't cater to it.

  • What they call chromatic sounds atonal, but I don't see why you couldn't write tonal music using the chromatic scale as the basic frame of reference. Suppose the reference scale is a chromatic scale in which the notes are numbered 1 through 12. If you wanted to write something in a major scale, you would simply pick a subset of the chromatic scale that followed the rules of a major scale. For instance, you could pick 1, 3, 5,6, 8, 10, and 12 as your primary notes. If you wanted to use a borrowed note, this method would have the advantage of simply allowing you to use the note without having to write in any accidentals.

    Written out vertically, each octave you were using would have its own staff, or partial staff, if you didn't need all of the lines. You could label the staff or staves you are using with the exact octave, and every line or space would represent the same note, instead off the lines of the bass staff and treble being different.

    Right now, instead of using an octave designation, they use a horrid hack of writing some instruments on either the bass or treble staff but have them actually play in a different octave than the one indicated. If I'm not mistaken, some instruments don't even shift a whole octave. They have to play notes other than the ones indicated.

    Anyway, it's just a though experiment. I know the world isn't going to change. It just strikes me that much of the difficulty in music theory comes from the terminology and notation rather than any inherent difficulty of the subject.

  • this method would have the advantage of simply allowing you to use the note without having to write in any accidentals

    Staff notation uses accidentals because they're useful. Avoiding them isn't a benefit. They allow the musician to instantly see what key a passage of music is in and all the places where it departs from that key.

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