Wednesday, October 19, 2011

What are the important factors in guitar power and tone?



I suppose all luthiers think about this question constantly in their career. Here is my list:

1.)  Having and properly selecting high quality wood that has been properly seasoned.  This is often where intuition and/or technology can make a difference in meeting the tonal objectives of the player.  I tend to use my experience in an intuitive way but I do value technical testing of my woods.

2.)  The design selected for the guitar whether it be a Torres-Hauser, double top or lattice sets the luthier out on very different process journeys in the shop.  Of course most of us specialize in one school or another and this makes all the difference in the final outcome.  Every luthier and every guitarist have ideas as to preferences and there are many details that can make or break the ability of the guitar to perform as hoped.

3.) - Joinery is a term I'll use here to describe the process of properly milling, and mating the guitar component surfaces with adhesive/glue.  This involves preparing the surfaces to finely judged measurements and then gluing and clamping in the best manner possible.  This is a complex effort and it is easy to effect power and tone in a negative way if not accomplished correctly.  Just as an example I believe that the decorative elements such as purflings and bindings can have quite an impact and is a reason why I prefer to keep these features simple and hopefully elegant.

4.) - How the guitar is set up has a lot to do with how the guitar plays but also how it produces volume and tone.  An improperly shaped string ramp in a nut can make a miserable sound while a high fret or poor intonation just adds to the impression that an otherwise excellent guitar makes for the guitarist.  At my last count there were over two dozen string makers each offering several varieties of types and tensions.  Finding the "right" string type often is a matter of finding what the guitar and the guitarist is happy with and has a fair amount to do with a satisfying instrument.

5.) - All that said I find that a guitar can sound very different from day to day and I don't know if it's my hearing, the environment or the guitar.  I have learned to not make judgements in one sitting about the quality of a guitar.  This is a luxury afforded by having the guitar in my studio for a period of time and one important to consider when you only have one opportunity to test an instrument. 

In this category I would comment on the age of a guitar.  Since I am a guitar maker I am used to hearing a brand new instrument on the day it was first strung up and comparing it over the next several days as it accepts string tension and understands that it is a guitar so to speak.  Also I often get to hear my guitars as they play in over a period of years.  I can testify that a strongly played instrument that is several years old is a far better example than when it is new.

Finally, there is the environment the guitar is played in and whether you're the listener or the player.  These are important considerations and well beyond the scope of these brief comments but I'll close by saying that a guitar that projects it's sound out to the audience might indeed sound pretty modest to the player sitting behind the instrument.  In order to judge the power and tone of the individual instrument you may wish to evaluate it both as a player and by listening to it out front in various environments.

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