Acoustic guitar builders love wood. They can’t get enough of it. Not just the right species of wood, but the perfect tree or cut or assembly all make huge differences in the sound of the finished product. That’s why folks like Collings, whose wood stockpile is pictured above, will talk at great length about the wood that goes into their guitars.
But on the electric side, it’s a little different. Most of the hype goes into playability or features. The marketing talk is focused on color choices more than on wood. It’s often an afterthought in the specs sheet, unless you’re paying for a premium figured top. That would seem to indicate that wood doesn’t impact tone all that much. Meanwhile, the crazy gearheads will tell you that body wood is everything and the alder for Mexican Strats is inferior due to uneven pores when compared to the US Strats, thus you’re a friggin’ moron if you buy the wrong one.
The reality is, wood barely matters. If at all.
Your guitar has pickups!
Once upon a time, like, in the 1950’s, guitar pickups were much more like microphones attached to the body than the pickups today. Modern pickups are potted, which means the wire coils are dipped in wax. This prevents pickups from causing all kinds of feedback1. You know you have an un-potted pickup if you can talk into it and hear it through your amp. You’ll also know it because even with light overdrive at louder volumes, it will squeal like a banshee.
Plenty of folks like un-potted pickups, although support seems to be waning based on what I see on gear forums. Wax potting vintage pickups is becoming a lot more acceptable, because the amount of noise you deal with is rough. 2
The point is, these old pickups would capture a lot of extra sounds. The resonance of the body definitely matters on un-potted pickups, thus wood made a difference. But if you’ve bought a guitar built in the last 50 years, there’s an incredibly strong chance this does not apply to you. Modern pickups (the 99% of them that are potted anyways) just capture the sound coming off the string. And the string is impacted by the bridge, the nut and your strumming. That’s about it.
Wood, in the end, becomes all about weight, looks and structure.
What DOES matter?
If you’re wondering what will make an impact on tone, here’s just a few things.
Things that have MORE impact on tone than body wood
There are certainly more important things than wood when it comes to shaping the tone of an electric guitar. Here’s some that I think nobody would argue have a greater impact than body wood:
- Post-guitar items (pedals, amp, speaker, cabinet)
- Picking style (type of pick, fingerstyle, etc.)
- Bridge (material[nickel vs brass etc.] & style [floyd rose vs fixed etc.])
- Strings themselves (different gauges and materials)
If you think about it, most of that list is things directly attached to the strings, thus impacting how they vibrate.
Things that also impact tone to a subjective degree
I’d listen to arguments on whether these impact tone more or less than body wood. I think in a lot of cases the answer is “who cares?” but the bigger point is to understand the sheer number of variables at play:
- tuning keys
- neck material
- fretboard material
- body composition (solid vs hollow vs chambered, etc.)
- pickup mounting (ring vs direct to body)
- finish (type of paint, type of clear, paint vs stain, etc.)
- neck attachment (bolt-on vs through-body, etc.)
I could go on, but I think most of these things are backed by people wanting to believe they matter more than any real science.
The point of listing this stuff off is kind of obvious, but one you should consider. It’s hard or impossible to take two guitars that are 100% identical minus the body wood and test tone side by side. But you can do that with say, an ash vs alder strat, I think. I don’t know that you’ll ever hear a difference. Even so, you can likely try changing your tuners or convert your ring-mounted pickups to be screwed straight into the body. You might want to hear a difference after doing that, but I don’t think you will.
At the extreme end, a fixed bridge guitar made of rubber might sound bad because of the body composition. But it might not sound as bad as you’d think. There’s a reason nobody really complains about the tone of Parker Flys or the goofy lucite Satriani guitars, and that’s because you can make a body out of just about anything and it will sound good as long as your pickups sound good. Heck, a plywood guitar with great pickups will definitely sound better than an expensive lacewood guitar with crappy pickups. I promise you that is true.
So don’t worry about body wood when you’re thinking about tone. Get the same alder body that most other guitars are made of, because it’s relatively easy on your back and can handle pickups that work for metal, country or anything else. Or spend more on koa or something exotic because it looks cool. But stop tricking yourself into thinking the tone will change once that guitar is plugged in.