Anyone who plays a Telecaster, Stratocaster, Les Paul, PRS or Rickenbacker will quickly notice that they all have a distinctive sound. The sounds of these different guitars are legendary and iconic. We associate them with the music and artists we love. So what goes into these guitars that make them sound different from each other? They all have 6 strings (well most do) and are made primarily from wood (well again most are). So why do they sound different? Which aspects make a difference?
I have read for many years how some makers, players, collectors and guitar buffs with claim that ONLY the pickups matter or that its the “tone” wood or that its the nitro finish…
Well in my opinion there are many reasons a Telecaster sounds like a Telecaster. Putting classic PAF pickups on a Telecaster does not make it sound exactly like a Gibson Les Paul.
Surely, if you mount your pickups close to the strings, plug it into a loud amp with a bunch of effect pedals it is harder to distinguish the guitar’s individual sound or character. In this scenario you may be able to mimic a different guitar you have in your head. You will be hearing more the sound of the amp, pedals and pickups. The guitar’s character is NOT gone, but masked somewhat. Angus Young still sounds like he is playing a classic SG even at arena volumes. So this is not what I am aiming at.
Surely what amp and pedals are used affects the signature sound of a particular player. This does not explain how many people can pick out what particular guitar model is being played on a record. When you here Texas Flood played by Stevie Ray Vaughan do you not clearly hear a classic Fender Stratocaster played by a master?
So what are the things that make each guitar have a certain sound? What makes a Strat have a Strat sound and a Les Paul sound completely different? When Joe Bonamassa puts down one of his Les Pauls and plays a Telecaster we all hear the difference.
Why does a Telecaster sound different from a Stratocaster as they both have single could pickups and are both Fender designs? Guitar buffs can usually tell what type of guitar is being used when listening to a riff they hear. Did you ever wonder why this is?
I will not bother with amps and pedals in this discussion as I think that it is pretty obvious these make electric guitars sound different. I am talking about “guitar” sound, characteristics and tones, not “amp” sound and tone. Although it is agreed that they do work together on what we perceive as tone. Here I am more strictly talking guitars.
Each one of these attributes affect the tone and distinguish the sound and characteristics of a particular guitar. In the end we are all “Chasing Sound” as Les Paul once claimed.
For electric guitars the pickups make a huge difference in the sound, but not the only difference. If pickups where all that mattered putting humbuckers on a Telecaster would make it sound exactly like a Les Paul from my earlier example. Well I have had Telecasters with humbuckers and they didn’t sound (or play) like my Les Pauls.
Pickup variations is a discussion you can have they will last a lifetime. So I will just point out the basics. Most early Fender guitars have single coil pickups. Single coil pickups tend to be a bit noisy and have a clear articulate sound.
P90 pickups used on early Gibsons are also single coil pickups but tend to be a bit darker sounding and do not sound like Fender single coils. Nor do they sound like Gretsch or DeArmond single coils.
Humbuckers deploy to two coils to cancel the hum we associate and why they are called humbuckers. They tend to sound darker and not as bright. Some would say not as articulate. There are so many variations of pickups and then add to wiring for coil splitting, coil tapping, phase reversal and series/parallel schemes that the choice and tone possibilities are endless.
If the pickup is potted with wax can affect the nature of its sound. Adding a metal base plate and what the base plate is made of is also a factor to consider. If the pickup is mounted to the bridge, pickguard or screwed into the wood this can affect the sound cannot be overlooked.
Pickups are also available as passive or active. The active pickups have electronics that need power and these guitars generally sport a battery box on the back. Needless to sat active pickups and guitars with built in pre-amp sound different than passive pickups that more commonly found.
Pickup placement is a big factor as well. A neck pickup will sound different the the bridge pickup even if it were the exact same pickup as it is “picking up” the string vibrations and guitar vibrations from a different location. Try picking your strings at the bridge and comparing the tone when closer to the neck. Quite different where the vibrations are started.
Pickups can be turned like the bridge pickup on a standard Stratocaster and it makes a difference. Rick Tuner Model One (Lindsey Buckingham played these) guitar allows for the pickup to be rotated to the “sweet spot” as adjusted.
How many pickups also matter. Not only due to the wiring schemes and how they are used together, but as they pull on the steel strings. Pickups use magnets. String are steel and are somewhat magnetic. So it is good reason to realize the magnets in pickups depending on placement, strength and how close they are to the strings will affect the strings vibration due to the magnetic pull. Some say a one pickup guitar like a Fender Esquire sounds different due this reasoning.
The scale the guitar uses affects the sound the guitar makes. Scale is measured from the nut to the bridge saddles. Fender typically uses a 25 1/2 scale. Gibson uses 24 3/4 and PRS for instance picked one in the middle (not by accident) at 25-inch. Fender Mustang has 24-inch scale.
One of the reasons Telecasters sound different than a Gibson SG is scale. As you will see there are many reasons, but scale cannot be over looked. Baratone guitars have a longer scale as well and its not just the tuning that makes them sound different.
Just listen to a violin, viola, cello and a double bass. Scale and size make a big difference in this example. Same for mandolin and a mandola.
Ask a Bass player if a short scale Bass like Sir Paul’s Hofner Violin Bass (30-inch scale) sounds the same as his Rickenbacker 4001 (34-inch scale). No sir, it is not just pickups, wood and finish!
3) Tone Wood
Tone wood is something that does not actually exist. Try going to the lumber yard and asking for it. There are certain woods that many agree are better for making guitars and attribute to the tone desired, hence we call them “tone” woods. So absolutely the material the guitar is made from matters in how it sounds.
I have read guitar collectors claim that it does not matter what the guitar is made from… that if a guitar was made out of granite it would sound the same as wood. They claim ONLY the pickups matter. Well barring a bad back and painful neck I completely disagree. If this was so all guitar makers would simply make plastic guitars with changeable pickups. My guess is the people who claim this would be mounting the pickups as close to the strings as possible and plugging into a loud amp stack and pedal board at ear splitting volumes and many of us listening could not even tell it was a guitar being played.
Anyway, I will take them up on the challenge as I want to see them play a granite guitar!
Plenty of nice guitars have been built that do not even use wood. Like the composite and graphite material in Steinberger and Parker Fly guitars, the lucite on classic Armstrong guitars or the aluminum guitars made by a few makers. The discussion is not about what wood or even if it has to be wood. Nobody thinks a steel or aluminum National or Dobro guitar sounds like a Martin or even a wooden version of a Dobro. The point is that the materials used make a difference.
All materials have a certain density and characteristics that make guitars sustain and sound differently. My ash bodied Fender has different sustain and ringing characteristic then my mahogany bodied Gibson. Different again from korina, pine, maple, basswood, alder, cedar, cherry, spruce, rosewood, ebony, koa, zebra wood, etc.
Woods also have a different timbre. Korina has been said to sound sweeter in its midrange than Mahogany. This is generalized of course because one piece of Korina will likely sound a bit different from another piece korina. Moisture content and how it was dried will make a different as well as how it grew and its density. Age of the wood could be factor as well due to these same reasons.
Plenty of places to see high end guitar makers “tone” or tune wood tops on fine acoustic arch top flat top guitars by knocking and listening. Is it hard to image that even solid body guitars are affected by what it is made out of?
4) Hardware and String Path
The hardware that comes in contact with the strings and what path the strings use matter. Telecaster with strings that go through the body change the sustain and characteristics and make it sound different and play different than a Telecaster with a top loader bridge (ask Jim Campolongo).
The make up of the hardware matter as well. Swapping out a tremolo block on a Stratocaster for a different one can make a pretty good difference on the way it sounds even though the term block is well passed the string saddles. Guitars with a fixed bridge or a floating tremolo will sound different. Bigsby will sound different than a Floyd Rose or vintage tremolo bridge just being mounted to hold the strings and not even doing dive bombs.
The age old debate of three barrel or six string saddles on a Telecaster and Les Paul with wrap around tailpiece or tune-o-matic bridge come to mind. The do sound different and play different. This can also affect intonation.
Some claim tuners play a role in tone other than just tuning capability. Locking tuners especially can have some sort of factor.
It is basically impossible to get a guitar to play in precise tuning at all frets and open strings. Intonation can is generally set so the guitar can play relatively in tune at the open strings and and at the 12th fret which is the halfway point of the scale of the guitar. There are special nuts and fret systems that can greatly improve the tuning around the fretboard. Average guitars especially the vintage ones have nothing like this installed.
Intonation or the approximation of it will change the sound of the guitar.
The type of strings used will make a difference in the sound of any guitars. Not all strings are made of the same material. Some are coated, flat round and of course string gauge matters.
Older strings on early electric guitars had wound G strings and that makes them sound different. The early Beatles used flat round strings as many jazz players do. These have a different sound and are associated with the people and styles that used them.
Neck size and body size also affect tone. Shape may have less affect, but mass, thickness and size matter.
Guitars with larger fatter necks add to the sustain and sound a guitar will make. Jimi Hendrix was said to believe that the 1970s larger headstock on the Stratocaster changes its sound somewhat. I have heard Robin Trower make the same claim.
The material the nut is made out of matters more than you may realize. These materials made the physical contact between the strings and the guitar. Metal nut will sound different than one made from bone, plastic or composite material.
Guitars with zero frets sound different on open strings and are a closer match for fretted notes. This adds to guitar tone on some Gretsch guitars for instance.
Might sound obvious, but different tunings with the same fretted notes will also sound different. This can be attributed to string tension and fretted position.
The same note played higher up the neck sound different from the one fretted closer to the neck. One reason when you play a riff in a different location on the neck even in the same key it will sound different than the original riff. If you want to sound like your hero play the riff with the same fingerings.
10) Neck Joint
Most Fender guitars have a bolt on neck. Most Gibson guitars and a set neck. Some guitars like Gibson Firebird have a neck-thru construction. The way the neck joins the body of the guitar makes a great deal of difference in the tone.
Some vintage Les Pauls are said to have a longer neck tenon when they were made and many feel this helps tribute to a difference in sustain and tone. I agree with this.
11) Solid, Hollow or Chambered Body
The way the wood sustains the vibrations of the strings will be greatly affected by if the body is either solid wood, hollow or chambered. Sound hole, F-hole or no holes matter a great deal.
Does anyone think a Gibson ES-175 sounds exactly like an SG even with the same PAF Humbuckers? One reason a Gretsch Duo Jet sounds different than a Les Paul is it is chambered besides having different pickups, scale and hardware.
One of the most discussed attributes of sound is how much affect the guitar’s finish has on it. I would think it is hard to argue that if you put a thick poly finish on an acoustic guitar it would dampen the sustain and sound of the guitar. So if you agree that the way an electric solid body guitar vibrates has some affect on its sound, why anyone would think this does not matter what the finish is?
I have a Epiphone Casino and like John Lennon’s it has had its thick poly coating stripped and the guitar sanded down to the natural wood. I can assure you it greatly changed the sound even plugged into an amp. Like John I think it improved the guitar quite a bit.
I have old style thin nitro finished, thicker modern poly finished and even sparkle finished Telecasters all with similar hardware, similar pickups, same wood type and same exact strings. When played acoustically (not plugged into an amp) the thin skinned nitro finished sound quite different than the others for example. When plugged into an amp it is less apparent, but still there.
When car makers want to make cars quieter the spray a thick undercoating to the fenders that tend to vibrate and make the road noise louder. So I would say finish matters!
Gibson and PRS have claimed this for years as other guitar makers and many try to keep their finishing technique a secret or at least unique from their competitors.
13) Pots and caps
The value of the volume and tone potentiometers and capacitors have a big affect on tone. Generally, the higher the value of the pots the brighter the will sound. Popular values are 250K, 500K and 1 Meg although you might find a few variations. Audio taper and linear taper versions are found and they both are different in the how the pot works as you turn the knob in the rate it changes the value of the load.
No exact rules in this regard. Fender for instance used 250K pots on the Blackguard Telecasters and by the 1970s were using 1 Meg pots. The later Telecasters tend to be brighter and depending on what you are looking for in sound may fit. Most Gibson guitars with humbuckers will have 500K pots, but I have seen other values in some of them. Unfortunately, I think some of the major guitar makers may change the pots they are using based more on supply cost than sound.
Tone control capacitors value and type can vary a lot. Most Blackguard and older Telecasters use .47uF or 5uF tone caps. Stratocasters tend to use 22uF. But you will find several other values. Some guitars will have no tone control or caps at all preferring to go straight from the pickups to the amp. This will change loading and tone even when compared to a tone control at its minimum setting. I have an Esquire set up so one position on the switch bypasses the tone control and capacitor. This gives it a small lift in volume and a different sound. I also have a Fender Cabronita Telecaster with TV Jones pickups and no tone control.
The type of capacitor used is a long discussion with many having their own opinions for what is best. Bumble Bees, Orange Drops, Disc Ceramic, Oil and Paper, Mylar, Sprague Electrolytic, etc will be debated on their merits forever. Caps come in different voltages as well as values that some claim this affects tone. I think we can mostly all agree is that what cap is installed makes a difference in tone.
Frets can be super jumbo or smaller like some of the Fender vintage ones. Frets can also be made of different metals like stainless or a nickel-copper. Frets can affect touch when playing. Playing on jumbo frets pressing a bit too hard can also affect the tuning of the fretted note.
Although I do not think what frets you have will affect tone a great deal, but it affects setup, string action and touch and that cannot be overlooked.
A great deal of the tone is in the “hands” as they say. Eric Clapton sounds like Eric Clapton no matter what guitar he is playing! Carlos Santana rocked with Gibson Les Pauls and SGs in his early days when Paul Reed Smith was in high school. But you still know it is Carlos when he is playing his favorite PRS.
Guitar’s generally have volume, tone and even modeling knobs to emulate other instruments (like my Line 6 JTV-59), but not one of the guitar makers have come out with a “Talent” knob. If they did we would all be lining up for one.
A player’s touch and playing style can not be overlooked or over estimated. If I had the exact guitar and rig as BB King (easy enough to buy) I STILL would not sound like the blues master.
Bottomline, if you want to sound better… practice. Hopefully you are not like me where no amount of practice has made me a guitar hero quite yet.
The discussion can continue forever on just how much each one of these attributes affects sound in the most meaningful way or for the desired tone. But it is hard to make the argument that any of them has no affect at all. Personally I think they all affect the way a particular guitar sounds. Why a Gibson Les Paul sounds different than a Gibson Firebird or Flying V.
When I first check out a guitar I like to play it acoustically even it it is a solid body so I can hear what “the guitar” sounds like. You might be surprised just how much you can learn from this. Easiest thing to change on most guitars is the pickups and wiring. Second is hardware and nut. If the guitar does not play or sound well a setup can help. But if the guitar is built from sawdust and put together poorly it is probably not worth your time.
Nothing against sawdust as there may be a great guitar made from this! Not sure.