Overview of Traditional Tonewoods Used In Electric Guitar Building

With the need for guitar players to be heard over big bands and in larger halls and not cause feedback, Les Paul invented the solid body electric guitar in 1940. His innovations caused the guitar manufacturing industry to rethink its ideas about tonewoods and guitar building

Fender Electrics:

 

Telecaster

One of the first people to capitalize on the new solid body guitar trend was Leo Fender, in 1950 with the progenitor of the Telecaster, the Fender Esquire. The esquire featured a single pickup, and in January 1951, Fender introduced a two-pickup version, called the Broadcaster. There was a problem, however, the Gretsch company had a product called a “Broadkaster,” so they sent Fender a letter   explaining that they considered the use of the “Broadcaster” copyright infringement. For awhile, while the company was deciding on a new name, the workers in the factory just clipped the word “Broadcaster” from the headstock decal. These guitars, with only the Fender logo on the headstock are commonly known as “No-casters”  But eventually, in February of 1951, the Fender Broadcaster became the Telecaster, the name by which it is known today.

Here’s a link to an example of  a Telecaster:

Fender American Vintage ’52 Telecaster Electric Guitar

Leo was a shrewd businessman and he used wood that was inexpensive, but still looked nice.

Esquires, Broadcasters, No-Casters, and Telecasters use Pine, Ash and sometimes Alder and Poplar. The classic examples of Telecasters have light bodies made of light Swamp ash.

Early Telecaster necks are solid Maple, with Walnut or Koa “skunk stripes” down the back, to cover the truss rod installation channel.

Starting in 1959, Fender started using Brazilian Rosewood for fingerboard material.

I’m going to step on some toes now…I don’t think the tonal characteristics of the wood of the solid-body electric guitar matters all that much. Here’s why: I hypothesize that in double blind tests, it would be almost impossible to hear the difference between a guitar made of Alder and a guitar made of Ash. I think the tone of the guitar comes mostly from the pickups. I know–I’m not making friends here…we need a definitive study to see if people can tell the difference, or if the difference that they think they can hear is just confirmation bias.

Stratocaster

 

In 1954, after taking cues from professional musicians that had been playing the Telecaster, Fender introduced the contoured and sleek Stratocaster.

Here’s a link an example:

Fender American Vintage ’57 Stratocaster® Electric Guitar

The Stratocaster used the same wood as the Telecaster:  Swamp Ash, Alder, sometimes Poplar for the body material, and Maple for the neck. In 1959, Fender started using Brazilian Rosewood for fingerboards.

Again. I think the sound of the Stratocaster has more to do with the pickups than the wood it is made of. Somebody study this, will  you?

 

Gibson Electrics:

Les Paul

 

After telling Les Paul they weren’t interested in solidbody guitars, in 1952, Gibson was feeling pressure to introduce a solid-body guitar to compete with the Fender Telecaster. They introduced the Ted McCarty-designed Les Paul Standard in 1952.

The Les Paul Standard has been through a number design changes. At first, the guitar had a trapeze-style tailpiece and P-90 pickups. In 1954, the tailpiece was changed to a wrap-around stopbar. In 1956, an adjustable bridge was added, to improve the intonation. In 1958, the P-90 pickups were changed to PAF humbuckers, and a new sunburst finish was introduced.

The wood used in the Les Paul Standard has always remained the same: the guitars have a Mahogany neck glued into a Mahagony body that has a carved Maple top glued to it.

Again, I think the sound of the Les Paul owes more to the sound of the pickups than to the wood, but I think the wood’s coloration of the sound is easier to hear.

In 1954, Gibson introduced the Les Paul Custom Guitar, known hereafter as the “Black Beauty.” This guitar also went through a number of design changes. At first, the guitar had a P-480 pickup in the neck position, and a P-90 in the bridge position. In 1957, both pickups were changed to PAF humbuckers. There was also a version with three humbuckers.

The Black Beauty has a Mahagony neck glued into a solid Mahogany Body that has had the top carved. The Black Beauty also features an Ebony fingerboard. Here’s a link to an example of a Les Paul Custom:

Gibson 1957 Les Paul Custom VOS Electric Guitar

When compared to each other, the Les Paul Standard and the Black Beauty do sound different—the Black Beauty tends to round out the high frequencies, making the guitar sound warmer in comparison with the Standard. The maple top of the standard, on the other hand, accentuates the highs and makes for a crisper treble response.

Les Paul Junior and Les Paul Special

As an entry-level, lower price-point addition to the Les Paul Signature Series, Gibson introduced the Les Paul Junior in 1954. The guitar featured a lone P-90 pickup in the bridge position and a  wraparound stop tailpiece.

The guitar’s neck is made from Mahogany, with an unbound fingerboard made of Brazilian Rosewood.

The Junior’s body was a simple slab of Mahogany with a flat top.

The Special, released in 1955, is largely the same guitar, the main difference being the addition of a second pickup in the neck position.

When compared to their Les Paul Standard counterparts with equivalent pickups, the Junior and Special versions tend to be a little rounder and more pronounced in the lowers mids, giving them a “growly” character.

Here’s a link to an example of a Les Paul Junior:

Gibson 1957 Les Paul Junior Single Cut VOS Electric Guitar

Here’s a link to an example of a Les Paul Special:

Gibson Les Paul Studio 60s Tribute Electric Guitar

 

ES-335

 

In 1958, in an attempt to find a middle ground between the dark-sounding archtop electrics and their comparatively bright sounding solidbody electrics, Gibson created the ES-335. The guitar borrowed heavily from Les Paul’s prototype “log guitar” and had a number of new innovations.

The ES-335 is the first semi-hollow guitar. It has a maple centerblock, but the “wings” are hollow.

The tops and backs of ES-335s are 3-ply laminated maple, pressed into the dish shape with a heavy-duty press.

The sides are the same kind of laminated maple.

The neck of the ES-335 is Mahogany with a Rosewood fingerboard, not surprisingly.

Here’s a link to an example of an ES-335:

Gibson Custom ES-335 Dot Electric Guitar

 

SG

 

Due to less-than-stellar sales of the Les Paul, in 1958, Gibson began designing a replacement that would bring down production costs. With a slimmer, flat-top Mahogany body, a neck joint moved closer to the bridge, and a thinner Mahogany neck with a rosewood fingerboard.

In 1961, the Gibson SG (SG stands for Solid Guitar) was introduced. The standard model had two PAF pickups, but there were various SG models with different pickup combinations.

When compared with all Mahogany Les Pauls, the thinner SG has a little more highs and high mids.

Here are some links to the various styles of SG:

Gibson SG 61 Re-issue Electric Guitar, Heritage Cherry

Epiphone G-400 Custom SG Collection Electric Guitar

Gibson Limited Run SG Gothic Morte Electric Guitar

VINT 1964 GIBSON SG JR

Present Day Electric Guitars And Materials.

 

Most instrument manufacturers have gained renown for copying the designs and shapes and materials of Fender and Gibson. Sometimes they make small improvements, such as change tuning machines and pickup configurations. Sometimes they become known for their finishes and paint designs. In the 1980’s especially, there was a trend that lots of guitar companies followed.  Basically, builders such as Grover Jackson, Wayne Charvel, Bernie Rico, Gary Kramer and the Japanese Manufacturer Hoshino, began making Stratocaster-Style guitars out of Basswood (sometimes called Lindenwood), Alder, or Mahogany, bolting Fender-Inspired Maple necks to them, painting them with metallic car finishes and installing Floyd Rose Vibrato Systems. These became the defacto rock guitars for the 1980’s and early 1990’s.

Here are some links to examples of those guitars:

Jackson DK2 Dinky Electric Guitar
Charvel Wild Card #5 Electric Guitar
BC Rich ASM Pro Electric Guitar
Kramer Striker Electric Guitar
Ibanez Prestige RG1550M Electric Guitar

When compared with Swamp ash and alder, Basswood guitars sound thinner, but tend to resonate fairly well.

 

–Again, this author would argue that  few people would be able to tell the difference between any of the woods used in comparable guitars with comparable pickups. When the guitars are played purely acoustically (i.e. not plugged in) , the differences become more apparent.

 

PRS:

 

In 1985, Paul Reed Smith started his guitar company, hoping to blend both Gibson and Fender elements to produce a guitar design that is now considered to be a modern classic.

The materials Smith chose to use are borrowed from the Gibson school: Mahogany necks with Rosewood fingerboards glued into Mahogany bodies with highly figured maple tops.

The PRS Custom 24 has the “tummy cut” carved out of the waist of the guitar to make if more comfortable to play. It also is thinner than a Les Paul and considerably lighter.

Sonically, the PRS is a nod to the Les Paul, but with a little more “shimmer” in the high frequencies—the Les Paul is thicker, in tone and material.

Here’s a link to an example of a PRS Custom 24

PRS Custom 24 Electric Guitar

 

Suppliers of Electric Guitar Tonewoods:

 

Body Blanks

 

Stewart McDonald Body Blanks:

http://www.stewmac.com/shop/Bodies,_necks,_wood/Electric_guitar_body_blanks.html

Luthier’s Mercantile Body Blanks:

http://www.lmii.com/CartTwo/thirdproducts.asp?CategoryName=+Solid+Body+Woods&NameProdHeader=Electric+Guitar+Body+Blanks

Allparts Body Blanks:

http://www.allparts.com/Bodiess/133.htm

Pre-cut Bodies

Pre-cut Allparts Bodies:

http://www.allparts.com/Bodiess/133.htm

Pre-cut Stewart McDonald Bodies:

http://www.stewmac.com/shop/Bodies,_necks,_wood/Electric_guitar_shaped_bodies.html

Pre-cut Guitar Mill Bodies:

http://guitarmill.com/guitarmill/?page_id=16&shopp_category=12

Pre-cut USA Custom Guitars Bodies:

http://www.usacustomguitars.com/index.html#

Neck Blanks

 

Stewart McDonald Neck Blanks:

http://www.stewmac.com/shop/Bodies,_necks,_wood/Electric_guitar_necks/Electric_Guitar_Neck_Blanks.html

Luthier’s Mercantile Neck Blanks:

http://www.lmii.com/CartTwo/Secondproducthead.asp?CategoryName=Neck+Woods

Pre-cut Guitar Necks

 

Pre-cut Allparts Necks:

http://www.allparts.com/Neckss/101.htm

Pre-cut Stewart McDonald Necks:

http://www.stewmac.com/shop/Bodies,_necks,_wood/Electric_guitar_necks.html

Pre-cut Guitar Mill Necks:

http://guitarmill.com/guitarmill/?page_id=16&shopp_category=10

Pre-cut USA Custom Guitars Necks:

http://www.usacustomguitars.com/index.html#

Again, if you’re new to the luthier game, I would start with a classic design–maybe build a few Fender style guitars using the pre-cut bodies and necks to gain some experience and build your confidence. Then graduate to cutting your own shapes out of blanks. The point is to go slow and enjoy the process.

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