The biggest influence on a guitar's tone is it's wood body (mass and wood type),
neck, hollowed out space, paint finish, bridge, nut, and strings. The pickups also
play a big role for the guitar's sound, but can only shape the basic acoustic sound
of the guitar before it is even plugged in. You will find in most mass produced guitars
that the wood connection between the body and neck is likely painted, rough and not
making a good transfer of tone from the neck to the body. It is easy enough to just
sand both the body and neck just enough to make a smooth connection, but not too
much or else the set up process is made difficult or nearly impossible via action
and intonation, or even cause fret buzz. The types of woods used and their sound
characteristics are listed below. A link to Warmoth’s "Wood Types" is included because
I think it does the best job describing wood characteristics on a scale of warm to
bright. Listed below are the most common wood types and their tone characteristics.
Some may say wood doesn’t have any bearing on tone, except acoustics. I beg to differ
on that claim more than those people will ever know.
Common Wood Types
Agathis: Sometimes referred to as commercial mahogany, a very soft
wood that has a well balanced tone for the price, but is not like mahogany in a tonal
quality sense, and is not a great choice for guitar. Cheaper mass production guitars
Alder: Has an overall rich sound with lots of bottom end and upper midrange,
is also very lightweight.
Ash: Usually Swamp Ash, is very comparable to alder in
use, such as Fender Strats, but has a brighter sound with more pop. Ash is also
referred to as the “musical wood” and the sound characteristics vary from one piece
to the next.
Basswood: Often used as a cheaper substitute for alder, like Agathis,
is used widely in mass production guitars for its midrange tone characteristics.
Basswood also has a different tonal quality when compared to alder and ash.
in the body and neck, fairly heavy, packs a punch for metal and rock with lots of
high and low end. It adds a thicker warmer sound to the high and low end. Mahogany
is common to mass production guitars, but is a more expensive choice.
used on fret boards, tops, and necks, has a faster attack than rosewood Maple is
very strong and is in the brighter tone range. Maple is the most common wood found
in a guitar except for use in the guitar’s body.
Rosewood: When used in fret boards
is very resonant, with a tone that is similar to mahogany, has a solid bass and
midrange, has tone characteristics that ring like a piano. Maple and Rosewood are
the most common woods used for fret boards.
Ebony: Is is very dense wood, and is
very comparable to maple, but doesn’t require a finish. It has a very percussive
and sharp attack, with a stronger tone than maple. This wood is common in mass production
instruments, but is a much more expensive choice than maple.
Other Tone Enhancer's
The other modifications that benefit tone are changing the nut and bridge. Graphtec
TUSQ nuts provide great tone transfer, and improved sustain a ton for the Pacifica.
I also installed locking tuners and a vintage style X-Bridge. The combination of
these products kept the guitar extremely stable, and all the strings stayed in tune
quite well compared to the way it used to. Some guitars come with a fairly decent
bridge already. I chose to replace the bridge with an X-Bridge because the X-Bridge
has a larger mass, the saddles allow the strings to move freely, and the X-Bridge
also acts like an additional bridge pickup. For the customized guitar I chose to
keep the X-Bridge, but had a custom neck built with an Earvanna nut made with Graphtec
material instead of a plain TUSQ nut.
The Earvanna nut has the same benefits as the TUSQ nut, but it also cures the small
intonations that pop up all over the guitar before the twelfth fret. I did a vast
amount of research to justify getting an Earvanna nut for the guitar, but from what
I have heard myself it is worth it because I spend most of my time below the twelfth
fret. There is also a You Tube video below that demonstrates a Strat after the Earvanna
nut was installed. In the guitar lessons link you will see someone playing a black
guitar that has the first and second frets bent in small kinks. I’m not sure how
easy it would be to play a guitar like that, but that is another method to cure a
guitar’s natural intonation problem.
If you do any research on chambered or hollowed out guitars you will find they have
an exciting open tone quality to them. This can be accomplished somewhat on a cheap
guitar that you already own that has a generic tone, and really isn't your favorite
guitar. I would recommend doing this procedure at your own risk and to use common
sense. It takes only one second to ruin your guitar completely if you do not do
this properly. I have heard of people drilling holes in their guitar and getting
great tone. To experiment with this myself I used a brand new 5/16" auger bit on
a cordless drill and drilled several small holes on either side of the pickup compartment.
When the guitar was put all back together, it seemed to have less of that thin bright
sound and became very warm and open sounding. Not bad for a crappy agathis body.
CAUTION: If you are unsure about this, don't do it. At any point in drilling you
could crack the guitar if you go too deep or if you force the bit too much, but it
works if you are careful, use a sharp bit, and use forward and reverse to prevent
the bit from grabbing the wood and splitting it in two.
The information provided above is the biggest factor that makes up the personality
of your guitar. When someone chooses a guitar they look for certain types of wood
for the neck, fingerboard, and body to give them the sound they are looking for.
It may also be to a players preference to use a vibrato bridge, or a hard tail bridge.
The hard tail yields more tone transfer and sustain over the vibrato, but the vibrato
can be adjusted flush to give good sustain and use of the tremolo bar. The set up
of the vibrato is again a matter of personal preference. I have seen vibratos floating
so bad in guitars that the string tension can be dropped just by pressing your hand
on the bridge. This is not a bad set up, just something that the particular guitar
player likes to use it for. Check out the book “How to Make Your Guitar Play Great”
in the store link. It shows numerous tips for professional setup of your guitar,
and even gives you entire setup specs that many popular guitarists use on their own
guitar. You will find each of those guitars is setup differently. for Other than
the hard physical characteristics of the guitar, the internal electronics plays a
big role as well. This is especially true for the guitar's capacitors.
Capacitor's Effect on Tone
A capacitor is an electronic / electric device that stores electrical energy via
two conductive plates separated by a non-conductive dielectric. It has two very
distinct characteristics, it stores DC voltage applied to it for a period of time.
If an AC voltage is applied, it’s ability to pass through the capacitor depends
on the frequency of that voltage. For the guitar's pickups, this AC voltage is very
small and has a range of different frequencies that make up the tone that you hear.
In my efforts to pull together information about this subject I have found several
contradictions for which size or even type of capacitor to use. The big picture
is that the pickup type, tone character of the wood, and personal taste of the guitar
player makes this "value" vary quite a bit. I have known people to prefer a small
capacitor value, such as 0.01uF, for their tone circuit. They say that it provides
a more useful range of tones as the pot is turned down. The standard cap values
used in most modern guitars is 0.022uF and 0.047uF. Fender's ,single coil guitars,
have 0.05uF caps in the tone circuit and Gibson's guitars, using humbuckers, have
a value of 0.02uF. I have found that the typical 0.022uF cap has a good tone range,
but the 0.047uF allows the guitars tone to get even lower as the pot is turned all
the way down, almost too low to be useful for my particular guitar set up. With
my guitar modification I experimented with a total capacitance that allowed a low
warm tone, but did not go too far and get muddy. If two capacitors are hooked up
in parallel, then the total capacitance of the two is equal to their sum. I chose
to use a typical 0.022uF cap and connected a 0.02uF cap in parallel. You can find
a single capacitor that is close to this value, but not exactly. I have found this
particular value useful, allowing a good tone range on the knob, and when turned
all the way down, the guitar is very low and warm, but not muddy. This particular
set up works for me mostly because my guitar mod has humbucker pickups. In certain
cases a particular pickup manufacturer, such as Lace, may suggest using a 0.022uF
cap for their particular pickup. If you see any notes on the pickup wiring diagram
that strongly suggest a certain value I would follow it or at least try that value
first. You can also benefit from trying a small value such as 0.01uF, or an in-between
value like 0.033uF.
The physical type of capacitor to use in a guitar is also argued quite a bit from
different sources all over. I have seen people that say they are in the "know" profess
that it is only the value of the cap that makes its tone and not what material it
is made of. From my own knowledge every little piece of matter from a peanut shell
to a piece of wood has its own resonant frequency. For example quarts crystals in
electronics, are cut in a certain way to make them vibrate at a certain frequency.
This isn’t meant to say that the vibrations are making the capacitors tone, its just
that different materials add their own unique coloration to the tone. A tone cap
in a guitar isn’t in any position to add anything to the sound, but only can take
away from the original tone. What it takes away can contribute to the overall sound
you hear, and that would possibly explain all of the weird micro phonics associated
with them. There are some expensive caps out there, so make sure you are getting
what you pay for. To prove or disprove these theories is as impossible as arguing
politics. In my own experimentation I have found ceramic capacitors add very harsh
glassy tone to the guitar. I swapped those out with a polyester film capacitor and
got much better results in comparison. The number one capacitor that seems to be
the main choice for modern guitars is the Sprague Orange Drop capacitor. They are
only slightly large in size and made with a Mylar dielectric.
I have seen a demonstration on You Tube where a guy has a card with various sized
Orange Drop capacitors glued to it. He uses alligator clips to quickly connect these
to the tone control while the guitar is working, and strumming chords for comparison.
This is a great way to find what value of cap suits you best. The thing that interested
me was that he also had a few odd-ball capacitors to try as well. He had used a
vintage oil paper cap, a polyester, a ceramic, and a vintage wax paper cap. When
I listened to the different sounds they all made I couldn't help but notice the vintage
oil paper cap stood out with a very warm distinct tone quality. To follow up on
this discovery I found that there are many capacitors out there, like black beauties
and bumble bees, that are being sold for a hefty price. The prices varied quite
a bit for the same capacitor type, so I shopped around. The vintage paper in oil
capacitors are also much larger in comparison to modern caps, which can be a drawback
when you try to jam all the components in your guitar. The size is a result of their
max voltage rating, which has no effect in the guitar circuit world. In my custom
guitar I actually experimented with an 0.01uF AmpOhm paper in wax , a 0.01uF Mojo
paper in oil, and a 0.01uf Mylar Black Beauty. All of the pickups tested on a Z
meter equally, and they all had a different quality. I am planning on building
a 12 position Varitone guitar pedal with three of each value as proof positive that
the difference exists. Types of guitar capacitors are pictured below so you can identify
them. Check out the You Tube demonstration, below, for the sound that different capacitors
make. You can hear for yourself and decide whether they sound the same or not.
Polyester film and Metalized Polyester Capacitors (Mylar)
Bumble Bee Capacitor (Oil / Paper) or (Mylar / Foil)