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TheLowDown

A luthier's experience with tonewoods

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From a recent Fender report regarding the use of Ash in their bodies:

"When we were redesigning some guitars, we made these exact guitars out of the same everything, same necks, same parts - changing just one thing on each one. We did ash versus alder to hear the differences. Ash was my tonal preference, it has a little more of a scoop in the mids. Alder has more of a peak. 

“I would say ash has a great sound, especially when you are jamming at home by yourself. When you are playing with a band and need to cut through, the alder has a better peak and allows you to claim more space in the song. But there’s a warmth to ash, that’s what people love about it.

 

You can pull three or four guitars made on the same day and they will all feel and resonate differently… that’s the beauty of it

"Alder is a more consistent and occupying sound in the mix. It’s just a matter of preference. Every piece of wood is different. Recently, we had six of Tom Morello’s guitars lined and we were going through them with Tom and each one sounded a little different, just because of how the neck and body come together. 

"It’s like a recipe, you can make it time and time again, it will always be a little different. Wood has its own character, you can pull three or four guitars made on the same day and they will all feel and resonate differently… that’s the beauty of it.”

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1 hour ago, TheGreek said:

 

"It’s like a recipe, you can make it time and time again, it will always be a little different. Wood has its own character, you can pull three or four guitars made on the same day and they will all feel and resonate differently… that’s the beauty of it.”

Using their logic, buying a guitar or bass is a complete lottery. As to hearing a more consistent tone from a particular wood in a band mix, I call snake oil.

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I assume Fender are talking about Swamp Ash here, a lovely tone wood in itself but different to a degree with Ash as in  European/UK Ash which is generally a heavier and tonally different to swamp ash. I've used both 'types' of ash for bass building but usually go for Ash with its slightly 'tighter mids'. Swamp ash though is an easier wood to work on and still sounds great. I'm not so sure with the Fender idea of Alder over Ash.....but theres another discussion!

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On 26/02/2021 at 08:14, ped said:

Good to see the old ‘tone is in the fingers’ comment doing the rounds again. It’s true that varying your attack and hand position can alter the timbre of a given sound, but you simply cannot make a P bass sound like a 70s Jazz with your fingers unless you use said fingers to install pickups 😂

Unless you run it through so much dirt you can't tell much but the approximate note you've hit!

On 26/02/2021 at 08:51, Bigguy2017 said:

Yup, pickup position and type are a major factor in how a bass sounds.

I think of that as the "voice" of the instrument as much as the strings or the preamp.

On 26/02/2021 at 08:53, binky_bass said:

Within the realms of what's possible on your bass, fingers can alter THAT tone/timbre, but obviously you're not going to get a double bass to sound like an Alembic no matter how much you claim you have magic fingers! 

Thumb muting and a filter pre will get you close enough for most situations, but you're right. Especially if it's a bowed part! :laugh1:

On 26/02/2021 at 20:03, 4000 said:

The problem with the ‘science’ of this is that other science, that everyone hears things differently. Which means you’ll never get agreement either way. 

This. We play the instrument based in part on how it feels to us. So it's no surprise some people will prefer the "sound" of thicker necks, or any other property - they find them better suited to them, even a blind tester can feel the bass. 

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4 hours ago, mybass said:

I'm not so sure with the Fender idea of Alder over Ash.....but theres another discussion!

Fender used alder for purely pragmatic manufacturing reasons. It was inexpensive, readily available, easy to work, took finishes well and was not too heavy.

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28 minutes ago, Dan Dare said:

Fender used alder for purely pragmatic manufacturing reasons. It was inexpensive, readily available, easy to work, took finishes well and was not too heavy.

Alder was chosen for efficiency alright. Not the cheapest or easiest working but a lovely balance. Fairly cheap & plentiful locally at the time. Cheap & quick to work (didn't eat tools by blunting them too rapidly, or burn with power tools as easily as maple, or require too much grain filling). Plus it's a decent hardwood and holds screws very well. Density and other concerns were much less important. As long as it didn't impact sales margins or production.

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Nobody seems to have mentioned seasoning of the woods, most bespoke custom order basses from reputable luthiers will pride themselves on using older seasoned woods, Schack for example kiln dry there necks and have also pressure resin impregnate them to prevent them taking on moisture after manufacture.

My custom shop P bass sounds great - only because I have paid a premium for them to select the best woods and a quarter sawn neck, its still has standard 60 year old designed pickups and a bent metal bridge. No fancy pre-amp.  So I am in the camp for quality wood sounds good and will show out. 

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Posted (edited)
16 minutes ago, deepbass5 said:

Nobody seems to have mentioned seasoning of the woods, most bespoke custom order basses from reputable luthiers will pride themselves on using older seasoned woods, Schack for example kiln dry there necks and have also pressure resin impregnate them to prevent them taking on moisture after manufacture.

No instrument manufacturer, save perhaps the worst El Cheapo merchants, uses unseasoned or green timber. It will all be kiln dried at the very least.

Edited by Dan Dare
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how about Yamaha exposing their basses to hours of musical vibration in their factory to simulate years of playing, the aim to line up all the woods molecular structure to be in line and vibrate in harmony to those notes to be played on it. Just as an old violin or 60's P bass. Good wood selection helps with this, hence the term tone wood. electronics and string choice can ruin this but not enhance it. High mass bridge can help bring out what is there, along with expert set up.

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19 minutes ago, Dan Dare said:

No instrument manufacturer, save perhaps the worst El Cheapo merchants, uses unseasoned or green timber. It will all be kiln dried at the very least.

The quality will be down to what they can get away with at the price ( well it was straight when it left the factory)

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39 minutes ago, deepbass5 said:

how about Yamaha exposing their basses to hours of musical vibration in their factory to simulate years of playing, the aim to line up all the woods molecular structure to be in line and vibrate in harmony to those notes to be played on it. Just as an old violin or 60's P bass. Good wood selection helps with this, hence the term tone wood. electronics and string choice can ruin this but not enhance it. High mass bridge can help bring out what is there, along with expert set up.

Those 60's P basses were built with plentiful and/or cheap wood, not carefully selected wood. Fender were and are in the mass-production game. Besides, all the old Fenders seem to be good ones these days, even the ones which barely had a note played on them. How has their molecular structure changed?

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39 minutes ago, Doctor J said:

Those 60's P basses were built with plentiful and/or cheap wood, not carefully selected wood. Fender were and are in the mass-production game. Besides, all the old Fenders seem to be good ones these days, even the ones which barely had a note played on them. How has their molecular structure changed?

The basses whose necks have survived under string tension were clearly pretty decent, especially the skinnier Jazz profiles had to be fairly good timber. Most of the bad ones are gone within a decade I'd imagine.

 

1 hour ago, Dan Dare said:

No instrument manufacturer, save perhaps the worst El Cheapo merchants, uses unseasoned or green timber. It will all be kiln dried at the very least.

I imagine it would all be kiln dried, not for long term stability, but so it'll not shrink too much before it reaches the customer and will take the paint reliably! I don't think it'll be all that consistent in terms of how dry it is all the way through. I doubt they do a Ken Smith (I seem to recall) and leave the neck blanks sitting for months or years in a climate controlled environment to ensure perfect stability!

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21 minutes ago, PlungerModerno said:

I doubt they do a Ken Smith (I seem to recall) and leave the neck blanks sitting for months or years in a climate controlled environment to ensure perfect stability!

That's one of the things you pay Ken Smith prices for. It doesn't alter the fact that any half decent instrument (maybe not outright El Cheapos, as I pointed out) will be made from reliable materials. 

1 hour ago, deepbass5 said:

how about Yamaha exposing their basses to hours of musical vibration in their factory to simulate years of playing, the aim to line up all the woods molecular structure to be in line and vibrate in harmony to those notes to be played on it.

Talk of leaving instrument timber for years for the "grain to align" or exposing it to vibration to "make it resonate properly" is all part of the sales pitch (some may even say snake oil) we're fed by those eager for us to spend our money on their wares.

Aren't I the cynic?

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Posted (edited)
7 hours ago, Dan Dare said:

Talk of leaving instrument timber for years for the "grain to align" or exposing it to vibration to "make it resonate properly" is all part of the sales pitch (some may even say snake oil) we're fed by those eager for us to spend our money on their wares.

Aren't I the cynic?

There was this similar thing with violins where it was postulated that old violins had vibrated for so many decades that they got better and better. Also this notion was flip-flopped with a similar notion about repairs and new layers of lacquer.

Yet in a double-blind test violinists proved unable to discern an Amati, Guarneri or Stradivari from recently built violins.

Bummer! 😀

 

Edited by BassTractor
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2 hours ago, deepbass5 said:

how about Yamaha exposing their basses to hours of musical vibration in their factory to simulate years of playing, the aim to line up all the woods molecular structure to be in line and vibrate in harmony to those notes to be played on it. Just as an old violin or 60's P bass. Good wood selection helps with this, hence the term tone wood. electronics and string choice can ruin this but not enhance it. High mass bridge can help bring out what is there, along with expert set up.

19 minutes ago, Dan Dare said:

That's one of the things you pay Ken Smith prices for. It doesn't alter the fact that any half decent instrument (maybe not outright El Cheapos, as I pointed out) will be made from reliable materials. 

Talk of leaving instrument timber for years for the "grain to align" or exposing it to vibration to "make it resonate properly" is all part of the sales pitch (some may even say snake oil) we're fed by those eager for us to spend our money on their wares.

Aren't I the cynic?

But would we agree that there is a difference in "feel" between a "played in" instrument and one that's brand new? I think that's what the Yamaha vibration treatment is seeking to achieve. I think three of us on BC have separately owned a Yamaha P35 which has been through such a treatment and all of us felt that it was a fantastic bass in terms of sound and feel (sadly that particular one was a touch on the heavy side, which is why we all ended up moving it on).

And let's face it some basses "sing" in a way many others can't touch. Neck through, top notch electronics, fantastic craftsmanship all play their part in making that sound available to the bass player and, yes, a KS does bring all of that to party. Superbly.

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19 minutes ago, BassTractor said:

There was this similar thing with violins where it was postulated that old violins had vibrated for so many decades that they got better and better. Also this notion was flip-flopped with a similar notion about repairs and new layers of lacquer.

Yet in double blind tests violinists with triple hearing difficulties proved unable to discern an Amati, Guarneri or Stradivari from recently built violins.

Bummer! 😀

Fixed 😉

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If the different tonal qualities of wood had an obvious effect there wouldn't be so much argument and debate over them.

That fact that people can't agree whether there's any audible effect is evidence in itself that any infuence on the tone of the plugged in instrument is marginal at best.

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6 hours ago, BassTractor said:

There was this similar thing with violins where it was postulated that old violins had vibrated for so many decades that they got better and better. Also this notion was flip-flopped with a similar notion about repairs and new layers of lacquer.

Yet in double blind tests violinists proved unable to discern an Amati, Guarneri or Stradivari from recently built violins.

Bummer! 😀

Yes but plugged-in, amplified solid body instruments are a more complex mix of factors than a purely acoustic one

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Re drying - most manufacturers worth their salt will have stored it to some degree so it’s not green - granted the ‘better’ ones will start with better wood and allow seasoning for longer - this as people say will make the fit better, remove moisture content.

Re Vibration and Thermal treatment - the molecular structure of wood does change over the years and it’s all to do with the porous structure, these micro holes are present to transport water and nutrients when living but also will denote the resonance as well as the solid bits.

The optimum conditions and process of this has been evaluated and researched Sandberg and the University of Brunswick or Braunschweig have done it (I think it’s that university) and also there is a gentleman in Finland Juha Ruokangas who makes fine guitars who also studied this and there are published articles. He does a nice presentation on it.

It does make a difference to the sound and feel of the wood and therefore to the instrument as a whole, that may be something you like or it may not. If you don’t like or can’t hear it, it doesn’t mean it’s not there.

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Posted (edited)

There does seem to be an obsession with what is the ‘major’ influence, and thus discounting various other bits

Its like one gentleman said about it being a recipe, it’s a combination, that little tweak of lime juice at the end of a dish, or the fact you caramelised the onions as opposed to normal frying them could be the thing to give it a lift

Edited by Cuzzie
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Posted (edited)
8 hours ago, Al Krow said:

Fixed 😉

Funny, but we are talking pros here, and we're not talking about say the deepest, richest violin that Guarneri ever made vs. a run-of-the-mill beginners model from Stagg.

Here's what I think I remember from this test: probably performed during the 80s, involving pro violinists, probably comparing with so-called "exact" copies, feelings of bewilderment and (unnecessary) shame and a willingness to keep this test a secret.
I'm aware this is spongey, but deemed it best to mention it anyway. My guess is the info is on the webz somewhere, but I haven't bothered searching for it.


BTW, I'm neither in the "tonewood is important" camp nor in the "tonewood doesn't matter" camp. To me it's physics  -  physics I know little about, think a little about and wonder a lot about  -  and I distrust confirmation bias and snake oil.
 

Edited by BassTractor

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Posted (edited)

Isn’t tonewood just a generic catch-all term for a raft of different woods used to make musical instruments? 
If you are interested in grain then yes the choice matters. 
I would think that a luthier’s choice of tonewood would be less to do with the tone of the wood and more to do with the type and appearance of the instrument they are making.

In terms of my own mucking about at home the different necks on different instruments make a subtle change in tone. Would this be noticeable in a live venue? I doubt it. Would it sound different played on the toilet?

All changes to an instrument IMO may influence the sound it makes, how significant that change is will be open to debate.

Edit: The use of luthier implies small, bespoke builds. Large manufacturers will be more concerned with supply, costs and consistency amongst other things when selecting tonewood.

Edited by tegs07
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33 minutes ago, tegs07 said:

Isn’t tonewood just a generic catch-all term for a raft of different woods used to make musical instruments? 
If you are interested in grain then yes the choice matters. 
I would think that a luthier’s choice of tonewood would be less to do with the tone of the wood and more to do with the type and appearance of the instrument they are making.

In terms of my own mucking about at home the different necks on different instruments make a subtle change in tone. Would this be noticeable in a live venue? I doubt it. Would it sound different played on the toilet?

All changes to an instrument IMO may influence the sound it makes, how significant that change is will be open to debate.

Edit: The use of luthier implies small, bespoke builds. Large manufacturers will be more concerned with supply, costs and consistency amongst other things when selecting tonewood.

Indeed tonewood is a generic term

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Posted (edited)
1 hour ago, Cuzzie said:

 

Indeed tonewood is a generic term

Thanks for confirmation.

So basswood is a good tonewood as is mahogany and Ash. If I was a luthier and was tasked to make a solid colour light weight bass I would pick basswood. If I were building a heavy dark wood instrument then mahogany if I wanted stain and oil to highlight the grain then Ash.

All tonewoods, all different instruments and I am pretty sure they would all sound slightly  different as well.

Edited by tegs07
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