Why do different woods produce different tones?

Discussion in 'Luthier's Corner' started by Dickie_uk, May 15, 2012.

  1. Dickie_uk


    Aug 13, 2011
    They obviously do but can't think why?

    I guess an electric bass works according to Faraday's Law? Where a conductor (string) moving in an magnetic field (pickup) induces an electric current in the pickup circuitry???

    If the string is vibrating between two fixed points, I don't really understand how the material of the guitar can effect how the string vibrates, apart from how ridgid the string is suspended, as in a thru neck? I.E. More ridgidly suspended, more sustain?

    But perhaps different woods do effect how rigid the string is held?

    Please enlighten me, I'm a curious soul :)
  2. chriscrob

    chriscrob ozellomusic.com Supporting Member

    Mar 24, 2008
    Atlanta, Georgia
    I'm generally a skeptic about these things but I'm not really convinced it makes that big of a difference.

    Yes, a $2000 bass made from super nice wood (generally) sounds better than a $200 bass made from super cheap wood.

    but the $2000 bass almost always has better pickups/tone circuit/nut/bridge/tuners/everything. My guess is very few people have objectively tested their super nice bass that sounds so nice because it smells of rich mahogany with all of the parts from a first act P bass copy.

    If the frets are ok then sound wise I'll take the First Act P bass copy with the insides from Lakland P bass copy over the Lakland P bass copy with the first act's insides. Wood MAY help but in my completely uneducated opinion, the other stuff is way more important.
  3. Musiclogic

    Musiclogic Commercial User

    Aug 6, 2005
    Southwest Michigan
    Owner/Builder: HJC Customs USA, The Cool Lute, C G O
    The question is truly subjective, and for the staunchest belivers takes on almost mythic properties. Carl Thompson said it best as far as I am concerned, "All of these wood genuises telling you that 1 wood or another will give you said sound, and said dynamics is all guess work, nobody really knows what any piece of wood will do, they don't know anymore than I do, and that ain't much other than a well built instrument will sound much better than a poorly built one" - Carl Thompson

    Pretty much says it all as far as my 30 years in the business goes ;)

    Good luck on your quest
  4. Bassamatic

    Bassamatic keepin' the beat since the 60's

    The pickups and strings are supported by the woods that resonate differently, causing small variances in the string vibration that you hear as a quality difference.

    How much? Hard to say. My instrument authority says that a high-mass bridge cancels out most of the effect from body resonance. I feel that these are used more now to compensate for the lack of good, old-growth woods that did have a good sound.
  5. This is opening a huge can of worms. I think of it this way: Imagine you took a solid steel bar, 12" square and 6' long and made a bass out of it, with strings, bridge, tuners, and a pickup. Pluck a string. The steel bar is so massive and stiff that it is unlikely to absorb much, if any, string vibration. So, in theory, the pickup would get every possible harmonic and nuance of string vibration, with the most possible sustain, with the steel bar contributing nor detracting from the sound in any way.

    Next, transfer all the parts onto a simple pine board, and pluck again. The much less dense and stiff board will vibrate quite a bit, absorbing certain string harmonics and (perhaps) reinforcing others, thus altering the nature of the way the string vibrates, which is in turn 'heard' by the pickup. The pickup itself will even vibrate slightly, further complicating things(but in an actual guitar I believe this effect is extremely minimal).

    Your typical electric bass or guitar falls somewhere in the middle of these extremes.


    Someone will be along soon to tell me I'm mistaken.
  6. pilotjones


    Nov 8, 2001
    This is all good.

    The string and the whole of the substrate to which it's mounted form a mechanical resonant system. The parts of the system, in both their form and material, determine the dynamic properties. The string design obviously has more effect on its vibration than rest of the systems, but it all contributes.

    As Musiclogic said, if not in those words, trying to assign hard relationships of materials to tones is problematic and controversial. Such relationships are subjectively evaluated, without standards of definition or expression, and potentially anywhere from existent to nonexistent.
  7. smogg


    Mar 27, 2007
    NPR, Florida
    I'm not crazy, I'm just a little unwell
    The resonant fundamental and harmonic content of "the wood" is most noticeable in acoustic instruments (including drum shells). If you want to know what the wood your bass is made of sounds like, (unplugged) rest your ear on the top horn and strike a sting. You will hear and feel the "sound" of that piece of wood.

    The differences between alder, ash, mahogany, & walnut for example may be subtle but still noticeable. IME/IMO (to my ear) it's about mid-range content that in turn defines how open or subdued a particular wood may sound. Thus you hear comparisons such as "Ash gives top end bite" or "walnut gives it warmth" for example.

    As always YMMV ;)
  8. baileyboy


    Aug 12, 2010
    IMHO, pickups have the most affect on a bass' sound. That stated, there is no shortage on TB of experts that have the auditory abilities of a bat that will disagree.
  9. sricks3


    Dec 6, 2007
    Augusta, GA
    Different pieces of wood will have different resonant properties because those pieces of wood were once living things supporting a huge list of very complex bio-chemical processes and growing in different environments at different times.

    This means that one piece of rosewood and one piece of alder will almost certainly have different resonant properties, but (and here's what people tend to forget) it also means that two pieces of rosewood will also almost certainly have different resonant properties. Of course, the extent of these differences will vary in the same way that you could find two people who look very similar but also find to people who look very different.

    The extent to which these resonant differences play a role in the sound of an instrument depends on the whole system that is the instrument, its player, and the environment around it. Assuming that the instrument is being played by the same person in the same place, we can conclude the following:

    In the case of an acoustic instrument, the sound that the audience hears is primarily the resonance of the air inside the instrument which is a result of the vibrations of the wooden acoustic box which is induced by the vibrations of the strings. Therefore, the wood should have a considerable impact on the overall sound of the instrument.

    In the case of an electric instrument using magnetic pickups, the sound that the audience hears comes from the amplifier which is fed from the magnetic pickups which is induced (literally) by the movement of the strings relative to the magnetic field of the pickups. In this case, the wood is still part of the system. It has some effect (maybe small, maybe large) on the way that the strings vibrate, and it can even cause the pickups to move in minute amounts relative to the strings. Strictly speaking, this system has many more components that could each affect the overall sound than the acoustic system does. Therefore, the affect of the wood on the overall sound will be somewhat diluted as compared to the acoustic system.

    IMPORTANT NOTE: This is not to say that the wood does not affect the tone of an electric bass. In fact, i have specifically stated that it DOES affect the tone but by what degree is difficult to tell.
  10. sricks3


    Dec 6, 2007
    Augusta, GA
    Well crap, while I was typing my ultra wordy response, pilotjones gave a very succinct and very good explanation of his own. In short, read his. If your eyes still want more words, read mine after you read his.
  11. hennessybass


    Oct 11, 2008
    Bayou City
    I will just comment that last week I bought a new P-Bass. A '62 American Vintage model. I had my hear set on a 3 tone sunburst finish. The store had two of them. 3 tone sunburst, and Olympic white. I played both for a long time. Same bass, but sounded totally different from each other. I ended up buying the white one.

    Unless someone can argue that the finish made that much difference in the sound, I think it's gotta be the different pieces of wood... and these were made of the "same" wood.
  12. smogg


    Mar 27, 2007
    NPR, Florida
    I'm not crazy, I'm just a little unwell

    I like wurdz :p
  13. sricks3


    Dec 6, 2007
    Augusta, GA
    Lol, thanks, smogg. Apparently I do, too.
  14. http://www.guitarnation.com/articles/calkin.htm

    I'd love to link this properly, but my phone doesnt seem to want to. It's an article titled "the heretics guide to alternate lutherie woods" written some time ago, and essentially states that after many many decades of making instruments... woods don't play a huge role. Even in acoustics. The fact is that the potential difference in sound between a maple and mahogany bass is no further seperated than the difference in sound between two different mahogany basses. Even if made by the same person. Mostly, its the hands that build it that effect the sound. Two sadowskys sound closer together than a sadowsky and an alembic, even if they had similar electronics. Different people create different instruments and even if using different wood combinations, its much more easy to listen to an instrument and identify the luthier, than it is to identify the wood composition.

    Keep in mind I'm paraphrasing, and this is only one mans opinion (and his convert) but I personally agree. I could pick an alembic out of a lineup, but not the maple. And that's the electronics, you could argue, but that's only giving credence to the argument that the wood didn't significantly change the tone.
  15. smogg


    Mar 27, 2007
    NPR, Florida
    I'm not crazy, I'm just a little unwell
    There ya go. No two pieces of wood can sound exactly the same. All things being equal though, the two basses in question should have sounded somewhat similar to each other. I know in the past fender has used Alder and Ash on the same models depending on the finish. Unable to find a definite answer on body material for your bass.

    Q: What were the differences you heard between the two?
  16. ctmullins

    ctmullins fueled by beer and coconut Gold Supporting Member

    Apr 18, 2008
    MS Gulf Coast
    I'm highly opinionated and extremely self-assured
    Great story. Could also be the manufacturing tolerances, and/or the Fender employee who did the final assembly.

    BTW, the marketing departments of the major manufacturers play a huge role in perpetuating the cult of tone wood...
  17. Dickie_uk


    Aug 13, 2011

    Mmmm this is a good way to think about it. As one of Newton's laws says, "for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction" or something like that :)
    So when the string is travelling 'up' the bass will be going 'down' and vis versa.
    So as you say a higher mass bass would resist this more. I seem to remember seeing once (years ago) loudspeaker cabinets chiselled out of solid stone, I suppose for a similar purpose?

    One other reason I asked was wonder how differently the bass would sound if an open string was plucked when the bass was suspended on steel wires from the ceiling, compared to when held against the body?
  18. Maud


    Jan 2, 2012
    Down South (UK)
    Just to add to the debate, I can't afford expensive basses and I play two Yamahas mainly, an RBX374 and a BBG5S, I recently picked up a relatively unknown brand bass made of Bubinga with a through neck made of 5 ply Maple and Nato, it's made by Mania and looks absolutely fabulous, plus it was a steal. Now it 'should' sound really nice with those woods and a through neck, the hardwear and PUs look reasonable enough, about on par with my Yamahas so it 'should' sound better but it just doesn't. I really wanted to like it as looks ace but cheap painted Alder body Yamahas knock it into next week.
    Soooo, nice woods /cheap hardwear & PUs = Bad
    Cheap painted wood / better hardwear & PUs = Good

    ?????????????? Who knows :meh: ?????????????????
  19. smogg


    Mar 27, 2007
    NPR, Florida
    I'm not crazy, I'm just a little unwell
    My bass was in the $1200.00 + range when I bought it new. The body wood is ALDER. To my understanding Alder is considered a main stay premium tone wood that sets the baseline for solid body guitars & basses and has been for several decades.

    I could be wrong but, I don't think Alder is considered a "cheap" wood. Compared to something like Teak then yes it is inexpensive. But Teak makes for better furniture than guitars ;)
  20. I think the equation for tone quality goes like this...

    T = [100P + 20E + S + Ca]/A x 0.05T x 100X/R

    T; tone quality
    P; Player skill
    E; electronics
    S; setup
    Ca; amp/cabinet
    A; over acoustics
    T; timber
    X; expectations of hearer
    R; retail price


    Look timber definitely plays a part. Combinations (coz that's what it is) have an effect, but it's hard to measure as every bit of timber is different. The player, strings and electronics play a much bigger part.
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