Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Evaluating a Guitar in Tone Production Qualities

The following lists the character of guitar tone production as I deal with them from a luthier’s standpoint. To evolved players there are other subtle issues that only they can evaluate individually and that I can only respond to on a case-by-case basis. Examples of this are responsiveness of vibrato; hard or soft action, timbre of a string going up the fingerboard, et cetera.

Articulation - Note consistency fret-to-fret and string-to-string, balance and intonation are all features of articulation as I define the term. If you listen carefully to a plucked note’s overtones as it decays, you can often hear weak notes where the note is formed but is lower in volume than it’s neighbor and of less sustain. Wolf notes are notes that are very loud and have little or no sustain. These articulation issues often are cured as the guitar ages but not always. They are also features of very resonant powerful guitars. One has to make the decision as to whether it is worthwhile living with those problems if the guitar is of exceptional quality otherwise. I would be careful of this, as I have seen some players become so obsessively focused on the fault that they have to sell the instrument. It is possible for a luthier to correct or reduce these note problems if only to move the problem note to one that appears less in music.

Intonation problems can spoil how we relate to guitar sound without us even being aware of it. A luthier can sweeten a guitar considerably just by refining the intonation to seemingly minor degrees. It is beyond the scope of this paper to explain what intonation is but suffice it to say that individuals react to note pitch accuracy either not at all or with excessive sensitivity. If intonation bothers you on most guitars, put yourself in the hands of a very good luthier and don’t change guitars or string types very often.

Balance refers to how well the bass, mid-range and treble voices blend with each other during passages in music that pass through those voices. A guitar with a strong bass and treble but with a weak mid-range can be destructive to the interpretive objectives of the guitarist. To what degree the player can evaluate this feature is highly individual and is likely best listened to while playing set pieces in context rather than scales. Correcting a mature guitar with poor balance is a difficult job and usually involves adding or subtracting density and stiffness from areas of the top or back. One would be better advised to move on to a different instrument.

As a general comment I observe guitarists listening closely to a specific note and playing it over and over in isolation with the exclamation “Do you hear that?” When they would be better served listening to potential problems in musical context. Remember that the guitar strings are normally always ringing sympathetically from previous notes and that is how almost all tone production is experienced. To isolate a note by dampening other strings is inappropriate and an inaccurate diagnostic procedure except for the luthier troubleshooting an issue.

Separation/Responsiveness - Ability of inner voices to support contrapuntal work. Alternatively, it can mean how quickly tones are produced and projected. This feature in a guitar voice is often appreciated in music that is fast moving with a lot of notes where the player wants little or no competition with associated tones. Flamenco music would be at one end of the response/separation curve while Romantic classical music could be thought of as wanting long held notes with vibrato and sustain for example. More players are sensitive to this voice feature than they themselves know and I believe that highly responsive guitars make for a lively playing style with a lot of feedback. This category can only be deduced by playing passages of music where one can expect familiar behavior from the instrument. If it’s not there in the way the player wants or needs then it isn’t ever apt to develop in that individual guitar.

Sustain/Resonance - I suspect that while sustain is on every guitarist’s list of important instrument virtues it can really only be evaluated in conjunction with separation and responsiveness as described above. This is because long sustaining, resonant guitars are at odds structurally with the features that allow responsiveness. Sustain usually need stiffness and mass, which takes longer to develop while responsiveness requires less of those things. Sustain and responsiveness then become a balanced compromise and this is where I spend a bit of time with a client to try and make sure the guitar will satisfy the needs of the music being played. To be sure certain woods such as Brazilian Rosewood are capable of differing sonic behavior than say East Indian Rosewood and this knowledge becomes the luthier’s friend when selecting woods to suit a purpose. For example think of the vibrato. Guitarists begin a vibrato and have to get on it right away before the natural sustain decays away to nothing. An instrument with power and sustain will allow the guitarist to bring in the vibrato slowly and still have something left to be effective.

Sonority - In an overall sense often described as from warm to brilliant the way I position the term. E.g. Cedar is often thought of as warm and Spruce as bright or (ideally) brilliant. Since this is a highly subjective judgment, there is no right or wrong. If you think the guitar is warm and that’s what you want then you are going to be very happy.

Timbre - Subtle qualities of note character in the guitar voice. This is where the colorful wine connoisseur-like vocabulary occurs. E.g. “That guitar has chocolate basses” Surprisingly, I find that players can communicate quite well with these creative terms and if I cannot drift into being too analytical they are helpful and fun.

Power/ Dynamic Range- These are two related features of the guitar. Power is usually thought of as loudness or the ability to be heard at some distance. This is important for the professional player and should be almost a non-issue to 95% of all the rest of us. However there is something in human nature that values the loud guitar and no matter what anyone says it is the more powerful guitar that gets played. Luthiers and guitarists alike play word games with this descriptor and I’ll just make a few contentious generalizations:

A player should make choices regarding how powerful a guitar they want. If they play for their own enjoyment, choose the guitar that among other things sounds as powerful as is desired.

If you play out in un-amplified settings, choose the guitar that projects. For this you will need help from another player… other words get out in front of the guitar and listen to it from an audience perspective. I seldom see professionals paying enough attention to projection.

Cedar guitars often keep their sound around the player in an intimate manner while Spruce guitars brightly project their sound away. This causes many to believe that the Cedar guitar is louder. Having worked with concert guitarists as a concert manager, I believe that all other things being equal, Spruce guitars are heard better by most of the audience and they have much more color to boot.

Some guitars are a pleasure to play behind and some are not. Guitarists playing for their own enjoyment will enjoy a guitar more if they can hear it very well. One that gives them tactile or vibratory feedback while playing is also of value.

Some guitars that are superior concert instruments are less enjoyable to play behind because they project their sound forward so effectively. Many Lattice- braced Australian School guitars are examples of this type of instrument.

A Spruce guitar tends to provide those “singing trebles” more so than Cedar. Those singing trebles can be heard by the audience.

A Cedar guitar tends to deliver a big, warm bass to the player. Those big basses aren’t heard as well by the audience.

Dynamic Range as I define it is the usable range between low and high volume. For some guitars this span is small and there isn’t a lot of difference between normal playing volume and the loudest possible volume. This is the historical nature of the classical guitar. Guitarists over time haven’t had enough range of power available to them to take advantage of any interpretive possibilities offered by some other instruments. I believe that many contemporary makers are exploring the search for power for these purposes while retaining the basic quality of sound so revered in our instrument. In evaluating this quality in a guitar one will need help from another player and hopefully a player capable of exercising the instrument properly. It is very difficult to come to conclusion on several of the qualities detailed above by yourself

Color – The ability to provide effective tone variation for interpretive purposes is a natural virtue of the classical guitar. To be frank, I’m not so sure this is a very controllable factor by the luthier in traditional guitars and I suspect it is more a player skill than anything. Jonathan Leathwood while playing one of my Double Top guitars was searching for a certain color and it took some time. Eventually he did find the area on the guitar just “not where I was expecting it to be” I do know that when I go to our local classical guitar meeting, I always look for a certain player to demo the guitar as I know he can get great tone with a lot of color variation. In summary I believe that similar colors are available on every guitar but perhaps not in the same place or with the same stroke.

String Effects - Type and health of strings effect tone production. From the condition of the strings on guitars coming through my shop it appears that players aren’t sensitive to the terrific effect that strings have on tone production. The same can be said for dealers and retail stores for that matter. My own guitar instructor is pretty thorough in this regard and he will search for many months to find the right string for a new instrument while I have had other clients specify a certain string that the guitar must conform to. Which is the right method I’ll leave to the reader but I will resist certain string brands that are well known for intonation problems.

Keeping the intonation in mind, know that some guitars will intonate properly with certain types of strings but not with others. Just be aware of the possibility that you may not care for a certain guitar, which could perform much more, to your liking with the proper strings. This is a major issue when doing comparison guitar shopping. It may be that you could simply be selecting the best set of strings in the shop rather than the best guitar.

Set-up – How the guitar is set-up can have great impact on the quality of sound. Action at the nut and/or saddle can cause tone degradation, as can ill-fitting nut or saddles and their respective string slot ramps. If you listen closely to the partials of a plucked note coming on after the fundamental, sometimes you can hear a whine or irregular tone. Some people can hear this while others can’t. As a luthier I have had to train myself to hunt for these rogue notes as it can make the difference between a good and great guitar. I would ask for a luthier to check out a guitar before investing in it especially if you like a guitar except for a couple of issues. It is possible that they can be remedied.


Selecting the best guitar is a subjective matter but this doesn’t mean that it is a job to be taken on by your lonesome. As mentioned several times above try to team up with another competent guitarist for testing projection, dynamic range, timbre and so on. If there is a luthier in your area contact him to see what services he might offer you in evaluating a prospective instrument. Certainly I would attempt to convince the guitar owner or dealer to allow you the opportunity to play the guitar in your own environment over a couple of days. As a minimum take your existing instrument along to compare with possible candidates. There is an appeal about a fine instrument and as you go about evaluating a number of guitars, one of them will eventually speak to you in irresistible terms. I just hope that before you surrender you will have worked your way through as many items on the above list as possible.

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