Top Woods: Bass vs Guitar: Why the Big Difference

Discussion in 'Basses [BG]' started by Geoff St. Germaine, May 1, 2002.

  1. Has anyone other than me noticed that bass manufacturers, specifically custom luthiers, use more exotic and figured woods than guitar manufacturers do. On bass you get woods like buckeye burl, walnut burl, bow elder burl, figured redwoods, myrtle and so on. On guitars, all I have really seen are figured maple tops, primarily quilt and flame. Perhaps I just haven't noticed them.

    What are your thoughts on the reasoning for this? I am stumped. Perhaps it is the same reason you see 4 to 9 string basses, plus the 8, 10, 12, 15, 18s double/triple string basses and usually only 6, 12 and the odd 7 string guitar, though I know Conklin does 8 string guitars.

  2. thrash_jazz


    Jan 11, 2002
    Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
    Artist: JAF Basses, Circle K Strings
    Seems to me that a lot of guitar players have that tunnel vision "if it ain't vintage, it's crap" view. This would explain why manufacturers are a bit more reluctant to do crazy new things in guitar world - nobody wants to know.
  3. Dead on. Of the guitarists who are able to afford expensive gear, most of them are Baby Boomers who want to live out their childhood rock star fantasies. Thus, with guitars that cost over $1500, the attitude seems to be "forward to the 1970s!"
  4. Most guitar players are more concerned with tone than looks. Both communities hae their oddities - many guitar players will pay loads for something like an original Tubescreamer, while many bass players will pay loads for wierd looking woods and finishes.

    But the typical guitar player response would be "it doesn't matter what it looks like, the sound is what matters."

    I play both, but I don't like fancy woods myself.
  5. gyancey


    Mar 25, 2002
    Austin, TX
    Or it could be bass players rebelling against decades of image oppression. If you're stuck playing root-5 figures in a country band all the time why you might as well have a prettier instrument than the guitarist! (this mentality, although beneficial to instrument makers in terms of customer gullibility, has enabled some great art to occur....)
  6. Sorry, that's not true. If it were, why would guitarists pay $3000 for a Les Paul Custom that sounds identical to a $1000 Les Paul Studio? Plenty of guitarists pay ungodly amounts of money for cosmetic features that would have been considered "classy" in the '50s--multilayered binding, huge abalone fingerboard inlays, "10 tops" (why the obsession with flame maple?)...
  7. What string does an 8 string guitar add?
  8. The Conklin 8 string guitars usually add a high G.

  9. rickreyn

    rickreyn Supporting Member

    Jun 16, 2000
    Lutz, Florida
    Our guitar player needed a new guitar and we had one made for him of paduak wood. This dense wood provides for rich sustain. I don't understand all the nuances, but wood is just as important in guitar making, but more noticeable in bass playing IMO, since the more physical techniques can really take advantage of the qualities of the woods. Pickups are vitally important to guitar players and that's why we put in single coils and humbuckers with all the electronics we could cram in.
  10. rickbass

    rickbass Supporting Member

    Combining comments by luthiers with my personal experience, some of the reasons are;

    - Luthiers have found bassists to be much more experimental. As Ned Steinberger said, guitarists, even those in the custom market, ask for what has already been created/used before.

    - Luthiers also say that bassists will want to max out every element in a custom bass because they often own or use just two/a few basses. (Obviously, they never met a significant portion of the Talkbass membership)
    Guitarists tend to have many more instruments and don't go nuts over wood combos on single instruments.

    - Guitarists don't let the woods "speak" that much, (pickups and amps designed to color the sound and their effects unit addiction). So, why bother making guitars with exotic tone woods?
    Watching guitarists try out electrics they've never played before, I can't remember a single one of them doing two things many bassists do when we try out basses;

    1. Listening to the instrument unamplified
    2. Initially trying it with the controls and the amp set flat. They seem to go right for the tone controls

    - With so many more "classic" guitar tones than bass tones throughout history, they often are much more interested in getting the wider variety of classic guitar tones that were largely the result of the pups/electronics. For guitars, it was mainly just alder/ash/mahogany back then.
    For us, "P", "MM" and "J" tones take care of a lot of bass tone "vocabulary." We're more apt to look at wood as a means of tonal variation.

    I used to suscribe to "The ToneQuest Report," a publication for electric guitar tone-junkies. I never saw the subject of wood discussed once. It was all about diodes, tubes, capacitors, speakers, et al.

    Those are just sweeping generalizations for the sake of keeping this post more concise.
  11. Why don't you go do some empirical research over at the FDP? The sentiment I expressed is echoed again and again over there. As for the Les Paul thing, in my expereince it seems to be a combination of the Les Paul cache and a *perceived* difference in sound. Not knocking what you're trying to say, but I think in general, most guitar players are less concerned about the woods their guitars are built from.

    And I did say 'typical', not universal.

    I think Rick makes some very valid points.
  12. Back in my guitar-playing days (over for a while now), I used to read (godawful forum with a precious few skilled, experienced players). The question was often posed, "Why buy a $5000 PRS Standard 24 when a $1500 Les Paul DC Standard sounds and plays virtually the same?" The answer provided by even the Experienced Guys was, almost without exception, "Because the 10 top looks cooler, man." Of course, the best player on the site (I've heard his MP3s) used a $200 Fernandes Strat through a Zoom GFX708 and sounded like a million bucks.

    I definitely agree with Rick about guitarists' perceived approach to tone. The best bass builders say that the tone starts with wood; the best guitar-builders say it starts with pickups. Once you start factoring in modulation effects, somewhat-less-than-flat tone circuits, distortion, and the ungodly amounts of compression that so many players use (gotta get that Santana tone, after all), the sound of the individual guitar gets pretty much covered up anyway.
  13. Fuzzbass

    Fuzzbass P5 with overdrive Supporting Member

    I too have noticed that the only fancy wood guitarists seem to desire is flame/tiger maple. I took my MTD 535 to a big jam, and a PRS 10-top guy said (after pondering for awhile) that the "imperfections" (inclusions) in my burl myrtle top enhanced the look. But I could tell by the way he said it that he's the type of guy that considers Cyndi Crawford's beauty mark to be UNattractive. :rolleyes: :p
  14. RAM


    May 10, 2000
    Chicago, IL
    To each his (her) own, right? And, I think that's a beautiful thing;)
  15. Richard Lindsey

    Richard Lindsey

    Mar 25, 2000
    Metro NYC
    Well, you know, I'm as much a guitar player as a bass player (can you say multiple personality disorder?), and in fact I've been playing guitar longer, so maybe I have a different perspective from some of you guys.

    No offense, rick and Peter, but I have to say that I strongly disagree with the view expressed above. I've never, ever, heard ANY guitar builder of note say that tone started with the pickups. Hop on over to the Tom Anderson site, just as an example, and see how much time they spend talking about wood. Or go to the Warmoth site. Guitar players IME are just as concerned with the wood their instruments are made of as bassists are; the difference is that the palette of what's generally considered acceptable choices is much narrower than it is for bassists. And just as with bassists, you have, on one hand, the obsessive types who know every wood variant in use, and on the other, the ones who think swamp ash is the stuff that drops off the end of a Cajun's cigarette. And everything inbetween.

    As for the unplugged test, I personally don't think it helps you much, but guitarists are far from ignorant about it. I know dozens of guitarists who do it, and in fact there was a whole thread about it at the Hamer Fan Club recently.

    And I have to say--with love to all my TalkBass brothers and sisters--that tweaking guitar players for being in love with "fancy" wood sounds awfully funny in a forum where people are constantly posting pics of their new custom basses with 17 types of exotic wood!

    I'm not knocking wood-love *in the slightest*--hey, I have a custom bass on order too, what business would I have dissing wood-lovers? A beautiful custom bass is indeed a thing of great aesthetic pleasure, in more ways than one. All I'm saying is, the whole bass versus guitar--or bass OVER guitar--thing gets kinda old for me, especially when I'm not sure most bassists understand how guitarists work any better than guitarists understand how bassists work.
  16. The guitar builder who commented that pickups are the most important part of tone is the head of the custom shop at Paul Reed Smith. I wouldn't discount his opinion.
  17. rickbass

    rickbass Supporting Member

    No offense taken, Richard. Disagreement and other points of view respectfully expressed with the reasoning behind them , (as do you), is what maintains the vitality of Talkbass. If we all agreed on everything, I don't think I'd have stuck around here this long, nor would I have learned anything.

    Just to exonerate myself, I didn't state that any guitar luthiers/makers attribute a guitar's sound to the pups, exclusively.

    In fact, I think many guitarists are becoming increasingly aware of the tonal role woods play. Comments I've seen by some prominent guitar luthiers highlight the importance of the wood.

    What I don't see from guitarists, for the most part, is a significant awareness of wood's yet. Looking at what's on the market, it seems that guitarists are pretty much limited to the "usual suspects" - alder/ash/mahogany/maple. I'm sure if the general guitar population demanded more choices, the major manufacturers would have responded as of yesterday. As for bassists', I think the many neck-through basses offered have made us more aware.

    When it comes to tweaking the electronics of guitars or modding amps, I think guitarists are much more knowledgeable, in general.

    Nonetheless, I hope the vast majority of guitarists continue to ignore woods. If that gigantic market ever became "woodophiles," we bassists would have to pay much higher prices our fiddleback-quilted-flamed-stairstep-spalted-pommele Carpathian elm burl.
  18. Richard Lindsey

    Richard Lindsey

    Mar 25, 2000
    Metro NYC
    I hope Paul didn't hear him say that!

    I believe you that the guy said it, but it still makes little sense to me in terms of what PRS actually does. There's a reason the McCarty uses mahogany and the Swamp Ash Special uses swamp ash. And having played PRS hollowbodies with both spruce tops and maple tops, I can tell you there's a perceptible difference, and I'd be very surprised if Paul couldn't hear it.

    Maybe what the guy meant was that you can change the sound of a guitar more by using two radically different PUs than by using, say, ash instead of alder? If that's what he was getting at--which it may not be--he *may* have a point.

    But then again, take a Duncan Pearly Gates and stick it in (1) a Fat Strat and (2) a Les Paul Standard, and you have two very different sounds. And believe me, many many of us guitarists (to wear my other hat for a moment) know this quite well.