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How much does wood choice affect the tone?

Discussion in 'Luthier's Corner' started by xush, Mar 27, 2002.

  1. xush


    Jul 4, 2001
    mobile AL
    I'd like to hear the opinions of our gracious experts on how much the different 'tone' woods actually affect the voicing of a bass.

    I just don't know what to believe. I hear differences in my basses, some of which are similar models with different woods. I just wonder what proportion is really the woods, compared to the electronics, finish, hardware, etc.

    I'm not quite sure I understand the physics of the whole equation: the p'ups 'read' the vibration of the string. I've heard different opinions on where the wood actually comes into the loop. I guess I'm wondering how much the wood really enters into that process, tonally speaking.

    I'd love to be enlightened...
    & thanks for all the input so far, this is shaping up to be a great forum!
  2. michael tobias

    michael tobias MTD

    Mar 21, 2002
    You have a good question. Wood has a large effect on the response of the bass, but I am basically to lazy to type out the entire answer, I will direct you to the following link which has 2 articles on my web site that go into great detail, and has the opinions of some other respected builders.


    The articles that will be on interest are "Quest for Tone" and "Pushing the envelope"

    That should give you a good insight to the question you ask.

    Best regards, MT
  3. FBB Custom

    FBB Custom TalkBass Pro Commercial User

    Jan 26, 2002
    Owner: FBB Bass Works
    Doesn't this seem to indicate that if he liked your walnut bass, the pickups and construction play (or inj your customer's case, are able to play) a bigger role in tone than wood selection?

    If the pickups and preamp are designed not to color the sound at all, then you're left with the other factors: woods, strings, hardware, construction.

    I'm inclined to think that the tone starts with the strings, since they are what is actually producing the sound. The other things in the resonant loop (the bass and its hardware) get a shot at coloring the tone that the string produces. The pickups and then the EQ are last in line, so they get a chance to really smash whatever coloration is provided by the woods and construction, if they are so inclined.

    As I consider myself the new kid on the block, I am really interested in what some of the veterans here think. Is mine a naive way of looking athe process? How do many of the common pickup and EQ setups (particularly Bartolini, which is what I use the most of) behave in terms of coloring the tone? What do you all think are the most tonally neutral pickup/eq setups out there?
  4. xush


    Jul 4, 2001
    mobile AL
    Thanks so much for the input so far. I've read some of those pages about the acoustic properties of tone woods before, very interesting stuff.

    I guess I'm a little confused as to the overall mechanics of the whole situation. The vibration of the strings is read by the p'ups and electronics. But the strings don't actually 'touch' the wood. The p'ups might come in contact with the wood, but just barely. The hardware is connected to the wood, but how much of the resonance/vibration is actually conducted by the hardware- as far as it effecting tonality? I cornfused!

    Is this making any sense? I understand the aspects of acoustic qualities of tone woods, with help from the referenced pages. But how do the 'acoustic' properties translate into 'electronic signal'? I apologize in advance if I'm missing some elementary factor here... and I offer profuse thanks in advance for all the time and input that's being shared with us!
  5. adrian garcia

    adrian garcia

    Apr 9, 2001
    las vegas. nevada
    Endorsing Artist: Nordy Basses, Schroeder Cabs, Gallien Krueger Amps
    oh, boy!!! we had a lenghty "discussion" about this on another board- and it got ugly even, it seems there are some that do not believe the wood affects tone at all- i am not one of these people- as a hopeless bass junkie- i have owned a few and played many more and always convince myself that the woods make a huge difference. i find it hard to beleive some one could play an ash bass, followed by a mahogany bass, and say they they dont hear a difference.
  6. xush


    Jul 4, 2001
    mobile AL
    OK, this is at the very least helping me to refine and focus my question (thanks again everyone).

    Perhaps what I should ask is HOW does the wood affect the tone? Not so much what do different woods sound like, but how does the sound of the wood actually find it's way into the 'tone'? How are we hearing the wood reflected in the amplified electric signal?

    Sorry for the vague meanderings; I'm still trying to wrap my head around this one. Every thread I've ever seen addresses what the wood sounds like, but I'm wondering 'how are we actually hearing the wood?'

    I realize there may be different opinions on the subject, I'm just trying to solidify my own understanding with the help of all you folks who have dealt with this for years. Thanks again for your observations!
  7. mikezimmerman

    mikezimmerman Supporting Member

    Apr 29, 2001
    Omaha, Nebraska

    You ask a very good question, and one that puzzles a lot of folks, I think.

    My way of explaining the way in which wood choices (and many other construction features) affect the tone is that when the string vibrates, the whole bass vibrates.
    The vibration of the bass itself in turn affects the way the string vibrates, because it may absorb certain frequencies more or less, or may just absorb a lot of the string's overall energy and cut down on the sustain, or whatever. That's why differences in sustain, tone, etc. caused by different wood choices and construction can be heard even when the instrument is unplugged. The final tone is not just a connection between the strings and the pickups, but the interaction of the whole system.

  8. pilotjones

    pilotjones Supporting Member

    Nov 8, 2001
    Good analysis, Mike Zimmerman. I'd like to make what is mostly a restatement, but maybe with a different slant.
    This is pretty long and somewhat technical (although I could go on longer), so please feel free to pagedown to see the next post!
    The tone does come from the string. This is, after all, what the pickup is "reading" (assuming it's not microphonic, of course). This is true regardless of the type of pickup. But there are two things going on here- the string is vibrating, and the PU is reading it.
    The second fact gives us a situtation we are more comfortable with. We know that different pickups read the string differently, and therefore will produce different tones from the same strings on the same bass, even if mounted in the same position.
    The vibration of the string is complex. On one hand, the material of the string, and its construction, will cause different strings to vibrate in different ways. The material, and perhaps the construction, will also cause them it to be read by the pickup in different ways.
    The way the string vibrates is influenced not only by the string, but by the anchor points. These are the bridge and either the nut or the fret or the fretboard and finger. You see, the string vibrates in one direction, and in order for it to vibrate back again, there must be a reaction force from the anchor points, or terminal nodes. Remember Newton's action-reaction law? This is it. But- this is not a simple equal and opposite reaction- the nodes "kick back" at the string in a way that is colored by thw what and how of the body, its parts, and its construction.
    This is not just about the bridge hardware and the frets or nut- it is also about the body and neck. In order to vibrate back and forth, and stretch in and out, the string must work against its anchor points. Two extreme examples would be 1) an extremely massive, extremely stiff bridge/body. This would reflect nearly all of the string's energy back to the string, unchanged. (I believe is was Fender, or maybe Gibson, who made a test instrument out of a block of granite. The sustain was said to be nearly infinite. But I wouldn't want to lug it around!) The other extreme would be a very low mass, low stiffness body- we can probably all imagine how poorly a foam rubber bass would sound.
    Wood and the other materials used in lutherie lie between these two extremes. Due to the material qualities of the wood, the construction by which it is put together, the size and shape, which influence its own resonance, the neck/body of a bass selectively attenuates (absorbs) some of the frequencies produced by the string (some of the many harmonics that make up the overall tone), and reflect back, sometimes even amplified, other frequencies. Plus, these reflected vibrations can be in phase withe the string vibration, which will make that overtone stronger and longer lasting, or be out of phase which will cause cancellation, and quick fade-out of that overtone. This is seen for example with dead spots on a neck- but even for "normal" notes, the vibration of the body is a major contributor to the perceived tonality of a note. While this is even more true of an acoustic instrument (try playing an acoustic guitar or piano while pressing a hand on the soundbourd, changing its damping characteristics), it is also true of solidbody instruments.
    Hope I have been of service to someone. I'll get off the soapbox now.
  9. Bruce Lindfield

    Bruce Lindfield Unprofessional TalkBass Contributor Gold Supporting Member

    I went and read these articles - pretty sure I've read the first one before in BP - but in the second one you said :

    "Things do run in interesting cycles. For a couple of years, neck-throughs were the hottest thing, and then bolt-ons make a big comeback."

    Is this why you went from mostly making neck-throughs to mostly making bolt-ons? Or are there other reasons for this, to do with the tone?

    Do you think this choice has an effect on tone - I know you mentioned sustain and the effect on the fundamental of the note; but does your choice of neck construction also affect tone?
  10. Shri


    Feb 25, 2003
    France, Paris
    I think it definitely has an effect on the sound ! i find NT to have a smoother sound with kind of compression and the BO to be more punchy and precise.
  11. rickbass

    rickbass Supporting Member

    I'm certainly no luthier....but I did extensive research when I had a custom built.

    You mention understanding "the physics." This article may very well be helpful to you, (Warning: It does involve some light physics) - http://www.suburban.se/Bassic_Physics/Bassic Physics.htm

    Notice at the end of the article, it says, "When you use wood, the properties of the individual piece has more impact on the sound than the wood species!" In other words, an alder/maple bass made by Rogue and an alder/maple bass made by a fine luthier will sound quite different.
  12. Shri


    Feb 25, 2003
    France, Paris
    just a question...i find the maple body basses to have too much bright sounds usually. Especially with an aguilar preamp... What wood would you use to get a warmer sound, darker but still with good highs of course.Rather a low mid sound.
  13. xush


    Jul 4, 2001
    mobile AL
    Wow. This thread is practically vintage! Almost time for the 2 year anniversary. And in all that time, this subject still remains a mystery to me.

    I enjoyed the link Rick, it was interesting. I get the feeling even the physics-minded researchers still see this subject as a bit of an enigma. They didn't want to get into it too deep, I notice.

    I guess that's the beauty of organic materials. You never know what you're going to get! sort of.
  14. Billdog


    Feb 27, 2003
    Austin, Texas
    The suburban site is really good. I would like to add that while I agree that the wood affects the tone, I believe the electronics (pickups, preamp, and amp) have the largest effect. There is proof of this at your fingertips. Just tweak a few knobs and you can make most basses go to extremes of the tonal spectrum. While one bass may not get you exactly what you want, most can at least get you close (in my opinion). This is because our tools for manipulating the electrical waves (pickups, preamps, eqs, amps, etc.) are much more powerful by at least a factor of ten than our tools for manipulating the mechanical waves (woods, hardware, strings, and even technique). Now I must defend myself. Technique, as Jaco and many others have said, is extremely important. I agree, however, it is important in a subtle way. I assume everyone knows that if you just move your point of contact on the string when playing pizz, you will affect the sound. However, it is a small effect that we musicians and other audiophiles understand. I am pretty certain that an audience would not notice a big difference if you altered your attack, but if you cranked your knobs all over the place, they would probably either cheer or cry. My last little note(yes, I know I'm long winded) is that I said the strings aren't as important as the electronics, but I do think they are quite important. I will now list what I think the order of most powerful tone changers is:

    1 preamps, eqs, and the like
    2 pickups
    3 technique
    4 strings
    5 necks (this includes material, neck joints, and in the case of bolt ons, body woods as well. Basically, any structural member between the tuners and the bridge)
    6 other materials (fretboards, tops, etc.)
    7 hardware

    I'm not sure where speakers and power amps come into play there, but I do know they affect the tone. This list may not be perfectly accurate (obviously) but I think it's a good general guideline. Sorry about the enormous post. And I'm very sorry I got so far off topic, but I figured that suburban site answered your wood questions pretty well, and I just had to shoot off my mouth for a while.
  15. rickbass

    rickbass Supporting Member

    Glad it's something someone digs, Mark.

    While on the subject of tone & wood, there's also a great article on a defunct company, Timbre Tech, that was owned by Steve Rabe of SWR fame and Michael Tobias. They developed a machine that simulated years of vibrations in the wood to improve the tone.

    Some of their customers, when the company was in business, included Eddie Val Halen, Aerosmith, and Jackson Brown. -


    I read somewhere that the reason Timbre Tech isn't in business any longer is that the balance sheet just wasn't working out........not that the technology didn't work.
  16. I did a google search and came across this article:
    "Physical Modeling Synthesis Update" by a Julius Smith at the
    Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA) at Stanford.


    The author claims that: "Electric intruments ... such as a ... solid-body electric
    guitar, can be modeled as nothing but a string and a pick-up..."
  17. pilotjones

    pilotjones Supporting Member

    Nov 8, 2001
    Initial reaction: Ridiculous!

    I'll read the paper and report back.
  18. pilotjones

    pilotjones Supporting Member

    Nov 8, 2001
    OK, I just got to the part you are talking about. The statement is offered with no evidence or explanation.

    The statement that solid-bodied guitars can be modeled as a string and pickup implies that all solid-bodied guitars using the same strings and pickups in the same physical configuration sound identical. We know that they do not. I guess that for the purposes and goals of the simulation, they are identical. Perhaps they do actually all sound the same to the people making the judgement that the computer model is sufficient.

    I find the statement to be reflective of fairly low standards of simulation.
  19. Suburban


    Jan 15, 2001
    lower mid Sweden
    Worse! Two alder/maple basses built by the same luthier out of different lugs will sound different! Maybe not so much, but still...
  20. pilotjones

    pilotjones Supporting Member

    Nov 8, 2001
    Worse again - Ken Smith has built two identical basses out of boards from the same trees and had them sound different!

    (And we know that with KS, it's not due to inconsistency of construction!)