What Shapes The Tone of An Electric Guitar?
When you hear a great song featuring electric guitar, you are usually struck by the tone the guitarist gets out of his instrument. You may wonder what goes into giving a certain guitar its unique “voice.” Let’s look at some of the factors that contribute to an electric guitar’s tone.
The wood used to create the instrument is possibly the most important factor in creating tone. Wood grains are what resonate the sound within a guitar. Here are examples of woods commonly used to manufacture guitars, and their corresponding sounds:
Basswood is a readily available, relatively inexpensive wood used mostly in the manufacture of lower-end and beginner’s models. Basswood guitars tend to create a clean tone. Ibanez and Fender are among the luthiers using basswood in their entry-level product.
Dark and beautiful, mahogany also produces a deep, rich, full tone. This wood is used frequently for manufacture of higher-end guitars such as the Gibson SG and the legendary Les Paul. Mahogany bodies are often used with P-90 or humbucker pickups.
Another wood used primarily for guitar bodies, it is light like basswood but harder. It makes for more complex tones than basswood. It is used on high-end guitars such as those made by PRS and Fender.
A light wood with a corresponding clean tone, maple is often used to make guitar necks such as those on Fender’s Stratocaster and Precision Bass.
Rosewood is a lovely wood used primarily for fretboards. It has a dark color and a smooth feel preferred by many guitarists.
These are the more commonly used woods, although walnut, ash, and more exotic woods such as Koa and Bobinga are frequently used, as well. Check out your local guitar retailer to find out what is available.
Electronic pickups are made up of electric coils and magnets, and are largely responsible for shaping the guitar’s tone. Let’s look at some of the more common examples.
Probably the most common pickup, the single coil pickup produces bright clean tones. This pickup is widely used by Fender for its renowned Stratocaster and Telecaster models.
This pickup thickens the tone and gives it some “bite” or “crunch”. Gibson uses these for some SG and Les Paul models and Fender uses them on many of their guitars.
P-90’s are “jazzy” sounding pickups with brighter, more transparent sound as contrasted with the thin, crisp single coil sound. It has a good mid-range tone. These are also used on numerous Gibson SG and Les Paul models.
Many guitar manufacturers offer models with various pickups and combos. It is wise to test several models at your local musical instrument shop to find out what tone or tonal combinations work best for your style.
Hardware and Other Components
Though hardware might not seem as important a component in the manufacture of a guitar’s tone as wood or pickups, it also plays a crucial role. The “action” refers to how high the strings are from the neck. Not only can it affect ease of playability, it can also affect the tone. The action is set by the position of the bridge on your guitar. Many guitarists learn to set the action themselves, but for beginners, it’s a good idea to talk to your local music shop and have them set up your guitar to match the tone you are looking for.
Other components that can affect the tone include the tuners, the strings, even what pick you use! Explore and enjoy the many tones available to you.