Everyone agrees… older stringed instruments generally sound better, and feel better than their modern counterparts! They almost breathe life! They have a live feel, a “vibe” that often transforms into musical magic! You can actually feel the exceptional instrument vibrate in unison with itself as you play it. That’s what we’re talking about! If you have ever been so fortunate to strum a well-played 50’s Fender Stratocaster© or a 1940’s era Martin® Acoustic, then you have truly experienced tonal-nirvana. If you are a discerning player, chances are you are well-aware of this elusive tone! The oddity is, not all older instruments possess this characteristic. This is a phenomenon across all brands, regardless of infamy or lack thereof. Just because a guitar is old does not necessarily mean that it will sound exceptionally good, although it generally will sound better than a new instrument.
New instruments seldom possess this character, not even high-priced custom shop instruments! Even the highest priced instruments available today promote their construction features, fine finish and fantastic appearance. They often promote the resonance and wonderful feel of their guitars. While all of this may indeed be true, in reality, they are still a new instrument, aching to be broken-in. Still, some older guitars that have spent most of their lives in a closet or under a bed do not possess this sonic magic either. They often do not sound significantly better than a newer, quality-built instrument. Why is this?
Until now, most experts have concurred that old, aged wood, drying over many years, significantly contributes to a guitar’s sonic signature. Musicians will pay a premium price for their guitars to be built from aged or older wood, or wood salvaged from an old building; then made to look aged, much like a vintage instrument. However this effort still may not guarantee that the resulting instrument will offer the elusive tone they crave. It usually does not. Many players often opt for appearance over tone. Why do that when you can actually have both!
Experienced luthiers will evaluate many factors when selecting woods for a premium guitar. They realize that each wood family and individual piece has unique characteristics. They often employ a “tap test,” where a piece of wood is struck with a knuckle, fingertip or another piece of wood and the resulting tone is observed. They will critically listen for attack, resonance, harmonics, sound velocity, ring and other factors. Some will take this much further and evaluate the wood’s sonic characteristics via sophisticated software analysis. The point is… all woods have undeniable sonic characteristics and for the most part, evaluation of such is subjective.
Sound is generated when the energy from a vibrating string is transmitted through the saddles and bridge to the solid-body guitar itself, or to the top of an acoustic instrument.The resulting “tone” is a combination of many factors, the most important of which is the type of wood itself. Mahogany, Swamp Ash, Alder, Korina, Maple, Spruce, Cedar and others possess their own distinct sound. Furthermore, each is available in many varieties from inherently different locations. It is also best to utilize a single piece of wood with no glue joints which will inhibit these critical vibrations. Even a two-piece body with a single glue joint can cause vibrations to be out-of-phase or abruptly terminated, limiting their ability to reproduce the desired tone. Multiple pieces of wood is appropriate for fine furniture, but generally not for fine musical instruments.
Another critical factor affecting tone is the finish applied to the wood itself. A thin nitro-cellulose or oil/stain finish will allow the wood’s curing process to continue. The wood literally breathes through these finishes! They protect and beautify the wood without inhibition, enabling all of the natural sonic properties to be available. Modern fishes like Polyurethane, polymerized oils and others literally put a choke-hold on the wood, encapsulating it in an impenetrable casing, prohibiting further curing and dampening vibration.
It is said that playing the instrument literally opens-up the cellular structure of the wood, allowing it to actually sound better as it ages! Wood is sensitive to changes in humidity, generally holding less moisture as it continues to cure over time. Wood tends to become more stable and brittle as it dries out. These tube-shaped wood cells that once housed resin or water, now dried and shrunken over many years, serve as mini “concert halls” where vibrations reverberate throughout and collectively project what we perceive as wondrous tone! Wow!
Fine wooden instruments need to be played regularly and consistently to develop their true sonic potential. This is no secret! Quality-built guitars, violins and pianos all improve with age and frequent, continuous play. You already know this to be true. Fine instruments require “breaking-in” over time. The wood needs to be generously massaged by the vibrations created through active and consistent playing of the instrument. The more you play and enjoy your fine instrument, the greater your sonic reward!
If you are in search of this holy grail of tone, then simply buying a quality wooden instrument or even building one built with aged wood is not enough. All of the above factors must be incorporated into the construction, care and feeding of your instrument. Well-designed, well-made stringed instruments were literally created to produce wonderful music, continuing to sonically evolve year after year. Unleash this sonic magic, listen closely and experience true tonal-nirvana that improves with every pluck of the string.