One issue that headless designs seem to cause that I’m not aware has been solved yet is an easy to use tuning system. I tried a Strandberg recently and found the tuners at the bridge were really stiff and just not comfortable to use as you have very little leverage on them compared to a traditional tuner on a headstock.
The tuners on my Mayones Hydra are quite free and accurate. They are definitely not stiff.
The only this is that the intonation is a little tricky to adjust but, apart from that, it’s all good.
I have no opinion in this because it’s not an area in which I’m knowledgeable but I do have a question: Different woods are known to give guitars different tones. Cheap woods are used in cheap guitars that tend to not sound too great. You wouldn’t make a guitar out of pine, for example. A good wood like mahogany, which is used in Gibson Les Pauls, is known for giving them great sustain. Since Steinbergers are not made from any wood at all, how does the tone and sustain of a Steinberger compare to the tone and sustain of a high quality guitar made from mahogany or alder?
The current Steinbergers are made of maple. A Capital Records studio guy from the 80’s/90’s once let me play his Patrick Eggle guitar, all maple. His theory was you can always add warmth, but you can not remove it. Maple is brighter than mahogany, but mids and lows can be eq’d in, but hard to take out. Wood does has an effect on tone, but then again, John Suhr tells of seeing EVH play a Steinberger with rusty old strings and still sounding like Eddie. Again, wood and materials do play a part in the tone, but the idea of “tone being in the hands” is somewhat true, too. My “tone”, if you will, tends to be brighter regardless of if I’m playing a strat or a PRS or a Strandberg, hums or singles, 6L6’s, EL84’s, EL34’s, 12 or 10" speakers. A good eq always helps me to fatten it up (I currently use Source Audio Programmable EQ), as well as speaker choice (Tone Tubby 40/40’s for me). So many variables come into play. At the moment I’m living in Thailand, and my choice equipment is in the States. I have a headphone rig to practice with., cheap…really cheap. Mooer GE100 for eq, verb, delay, choruses, and a Hotone Legacy Nano British Invasion, at the moment headphones only. Getting a speaker cab this week. Eq’ing everything right, I can still get a fat singing tone. Not for the stage, but that’s not what I’m using this set up for. Much of the tone comes from the hands, I’m more and more inclined to believe.
This actually isn’t true.
Pickups are not microphones, and are only sensitive to the overtones present on the strings themselves. There is no mechanism by which any vibration of the neck or body can interfere with the vibration of the strings, since the oscillations on the strings are transverse waves and the vibrations in the instrument are compression (longitudinal) waves.
By far, the biggest factors in the timbre of an electric guitar are the pickups, the design and method of construction, the properties of the strings themselves and how the strings are excited into oscillation.
Even then, the electric guitar is not a harmonically complex instrument, which is easily verified by plugging a guitar directly into a DAW without any amplifier modelling. The non-linearity of guitar amplifiers gives rise to most of the harmonic complexity, by harmonic distortion. I don’t mean distortion in the way guitarists mean distortion here, but in the way a physicist does; the output signal of the amplifier is very different from the input signal. Harmonic distortion happens at all times in a guitar amplifier, even with a “clean” sound.
The bridge and fret materials are most important, since the vast majority of string energy is reflected at the endpoints. Scale length matters, and contrary to “common knowledge,” there is more bass with 25.5" scale of a typical Fender than the 24.75" scale of a Typical Gibson. The neck to body joint must be well constructed or there will be significant losses in string energy.
The solid-body electric guitar was designed to not resonate, as this results in feedback when playing through powerful amplifiers.
While changing the woods used in an electric guitar (keeping the design and all other materials fixed), will change the resonant properties of the neck and body, the change to the resonances is small. Again, pickups are not microphones, and the oscillations on the strings are a transverse wave.
The woods used in electric guitars are not so drastically different, and excepting something bizarre like balsa, most woods would be perfectly acceptable construction materials for guitar-making.
Cheap guitars tend not to sound good because they have poor quality pickups and poor quality bridges.
The majority of woods used in guitar manufacture are cheap, and the few that are not are expensive due to limited supply because of deforestation and cutting caps due to treaties like CITES. Demand has also steadily increased since the the '50s and '60s too.
No woods were prohibitively expensive for use in commercial guitar manufacture when Leo Fender introduced the Telecaster and Stratocaster or when Gibson introduced the Les Paul. Leo Fender, wasn’t even consistent with the species of wood he bought for guitar manufacture in the early years, he just wanted to get suitably dry wood of any species in bulk as quickly as possible.
While mahogany is a suitable wood for guitar building (as most woods are), the primary reason why mahogany was considered a “good wood” for guitar buildng in the '50s and '60s was because large quantities of it were available at the time, and because it was inexpensive.
Gibson Les Pauls sustain because they have powerful pickups and because the heavy body is nearly acoustically dead. Resonance of the body and neck would reduce sustain. A Les Paul sounds and sustains the way it does because of the design, construction and pickups, not because of some special properties of mahogany.
A Les Paul made of alder will sound and behave like a Les Paul, and a Stratocaster made of mahogony will sound and behave like a Stratocaster (and I have, in fact, played all mahogany Strats).
People have, and they sounded just fine. Les Paul’s original “the log,” which he built himself and which was the starting point for the design of the Gibson Les Paul, was made of pine. Many early Telecasters and Stratocasters were made of pine too, as I mentioned, Leo Fender didn’t care what species of wood was used. As an example, Eric Johnon’s “Virginia,” which was his main Stratocaster from the late '80s until the late '90s, was a 1954 Strat with a pine body. The primary reasons pine isn’t commonly used in guitar building are because it dents easily and doesn’t take paint well.
Steinbergers sound different because they’re constructed differently. Most came with active EMGs from the factory, which I’m not the biggest fan of, but I’ve played others that have had the pickups changed and I thought they sounded great. Also, sustain is incredible, far more than a Les Paul.
If an electric guitar is designed to be more acoustically resonant, as in the case of a hollow of semi-hollow guitar, then wood species has more of an effect, though it’s still small, and still not predictable. Acoustic guitars are a totally different conversation.
The idea of certain species of wood being “tonewoods” for electric guitars is a nonsense claim that is not back up by any reputable, repeatable, double-blind testing with sufficient controls. Moreover, it’s not even well supported by physical reasoning.
It’s a sales pitch, and guitar companies have a vested interested in promoting this idea as truth. It is resulting in deforestation and it is the primary reason why insufficient effort has been put into researching alternative materials.
Hey Tom, that was very informative. I appreciate the time you must have put into writing that. Thank you!
No problem, it didn’t take that long to put it together. I type quickly.
Glad you appreciate it.
Tom, you seem to know your stuff with the tone wood issue but I had a question about a couple things you said.
My understanding was that resonances in the body would steal energy, albeit possibly very little energy, from the strings and could affect the tone. I think you’re saying that the body can’t affect the tone and then subsequently saying that it can. Could you say a bit more about how the resonances of the body and the strings interact and how the type of wave of each affects that interaction?
The assertion that the vibration of the neck or body can’t interfere with the vibration of the strings seems suspect to me. If that were true, vibrations of the strings wouldn’t set the body and neck vibrating, which a very simple experiment should show is false.
Folks pull out knives arguing this point online. In fact they pull out chainsaws and cut up guitars to demonstrate the opposite of the assertion… I’d suggest leading with a video of an experiment proving your point.
Construction matters. I think it’s our personal experience with resonating guitar bodies that leads us to false general impressions about the materials.
As for “Cracking the Steinberger,” if anybody wants to give me one, I’ll happily give it a home. Was very disappointed that they seemed to disappear after their short lived heyday in the eighties. The transition to Gibson described in this thread explains why the not-so-awesome, “Steinberger-ish,” started to appear. Bump on checking out some of the alternative options out there. Get ready for constant questioning along the lines of, “where’s the head?”
I wonder what the balance was like on the originals. Fwiw, I’d choose a wood to offset the neck weight.
No problem. I’ll try to help as best I can.
What I’ve said is that there is no way that the vibrations of the neck and body, which are compression waves (also known as longitudinal waves) can interfere with the oscillations on the strings themselves, which are transverse waves.
The issue is my use of the term “interfere,” by which I’m specifically referring to interference of waves. This wikipedia article gives a basic outline of the physics.
First, we must understand that a vibrating string is a transverse wave, composed of a fundamental frequency and overtones, which are multiples of the fundamental. For example, the A string of a guitar is tuned to 110 Hz, and the overtones are the multiples of these frequencies according to the harmonic series (so 220Hz, 330Hz, 440 Hz). We hear the fundamental of 110 Hz as the pitch.
The amplitudes of the overtones relative to the amplitude of the fundamental is the tone. The ratios of amplitudes change from the point the string begins vibrating to the point when the string stops vibrating, these are aspects of decay. There are attack frequencies not related to the fundamental which decay almost immediately, these are aspects of attack. The timbre of the instrument is the sum total of tone, attack and decay for every note on the instruments range.
Ok, back to the string. When plucked, a string is slightly displaced at a particular point, and when the string is released, a pulse moves from that point in both directions along the string. When the pulse reaches the string endpoints (the bridge, fret or nut), the overwhelming majority of the string energy is reflected back into the string and results in the pulse being returned along the string in the opposite direction.
A small amount of energy is transmitted into the string endpoints which begin to vibrate at the same frequencies as were present on the string. This transmission results in a compression wave in the endpoint, which is transmitted into the neck and body and dissipated into the air.
The amount of reflection and transmission at string endpoints depends on the material and mass of the endpoints. For an electric guitar, this means the bridge assembly and the frets. Electric guitars have heavy steel bridges and nickel steel frets. Reflection is massively favored. Only a small amount of energy can be transmitted to the bridge, and less to the body. The heavy steel bridge isolates effectively isolates the string from the body, and much of the energy transmitted into the frets is absorbed and damped by the player’s hands.
In principle, the resonant properties of the neck and body could slightly alter the decay characteristics, by selectively absorbing some string frequencies more than others. This essentially does not happen in practice, since the bridge isolates the strings from the body so effectively. If it were even perceptible (which it isn’t), it would absolutely not be a primary factor in determination of tone. It would also be extremely unpredictable and in no way characteristically determined by specific choices of wood species.
Essentially no energy moves back from the body to the bridge, or from the bridge back to the strings. The solid-body electric guitar is practically an acoustically dead instrument. It was specifically designed to be acoustically dead.
Eventually, enough energy is dissipated that the string stops ringing. How long this takes, well that depends on construction an materials.
If by some coincidence the endpoints and the neck or body resonate at a particular note, the amount of energy transmitted into the body and air will be much higher for that specific note only, the note will be audibly louder acoustically and it will decay immediately. This is undesirable. It’s also very unlikely to occur for any note, and it can’t happen on every note.
Remember also that a pickup is not a microphone. It only detects the harmonics present on the strings themselves. It cannot hear the vibration of the neck or body at all.
My bad, I didn’t realize you were talking about actual wave interference. There’s clearly a transfer of some mechanical energy from strings to body, which is why I was confused.
Unless I’m mistaken I believe a good example of this effect is “dead” spots on the neck where the sustain and tone of the note is noticeably different on some instruments at the “dead” spots. This effect certainly makes it easier to believe claims that the neck material has an effect on the tone.
I liked a lot this information you shared. I would love you to comment on acoustic guitars and “tonewoods”. You might even create a new thread.
Nerd mode on:
If I remember correctly, transverse and longitudianl waves don’t interact only when the system is infinite in size. Since every guitar is finite, a little bit of energy transfer between the two types of excitation should be possible (note I’m talking about interaction not interference).
But then again, as a physicist I would be totally happy to model a guitar as infinite or ball-shaped
EDIT: I should probably read all the posts to make sure this hasn’t been said before, but my desire to write it was too strong!!
EDIT2: @Tom_Gilroy, reading your latest post more carefully (great post!), am I correct in concluding that the tone is (almost) fully determined by bridge, frets and pickups? E.g. I could approximate very closely a Tele sound by installing Tele pickups, frets and bridge on a Les Paul?
Sure, a dead spot is an example of a string endpoint and the neck or body both having a resonant frequency near a note in the guitars range. This is not a desirable outcome, electric guitars are designed to minimize the likelihood of this. It’s rare enough to find a good quality electric guitar that has any dead spots, never mind multiple deadspots.
The primary reason the neck can have a bigger effect than the body is because the frets are less effective at isolating the string from the neck than the bridge is at isolating the string from the body.
I might write something on the differences between acoustic and electric guitars when I have time.
Yes, in principle. There have been some pretty clever experiments performed by “tonewood” debunkers that address that. No interference in possible, and the interaction that is possible is essentially negligible.
The strings, bridge, frets and pickups, are the primary determining factors in tone, but scale length matters also. Lower overtones are expressed more on a longer scale, and the higher overtones are expressed more on a shorter scale.
Construction matters. If you built a Les Paul with a 25.5" scale length, a Telecaster bridge and Telecaster pickups, I really doubt anybody could reliably distinguish it from a collection of Telecasters in blind tests. At that stage, however, it’s not really a “Les Paul” anymore. To accommodate a Telecaster bridge on a Les Paul you’d need to alter the neck geometry significantly, for example.
Can we get some sources on this? I’m not challenging your conclusions vis-a-vis wood not mattering much – they ring true to me, pun intended – but if we’re going down this road I’d like to see who built it.
This was quite a hot topic on YouTube a few years ago. A lot of videos were made in support of each side.
The central idea of the “tonewood debate” is that the particular species of wood used in guitar construction is a significant, if not the most significant factor in determining the tone of an electric guitar. It’s suggested that a specific species results in specific, identifiable character.
This type of claim can be tested directly, and it can also be studied using blind tests. It’s absolutely crucial that the test be controlled properly. For example, it’s not sufficient to build one guitar from maple and another from mahogany, with different hardware and pickups and test. Even if the hardware and pickups are of the same type in each case, there will still be variance in those components, and usually significantly so in the case of pickups. The instruments would need to be built and then tested using the same pickups and hardware with all adjustments like string height, etc, controlled for.
Moreover, several guitars for each wood species would have to be built. You can’t just compare maple to mahogany to each other, you have to have to compare each to itself also. If it were found that all maple guitars behaved similarly, all mahogany guitars behaved similarly and both behaved differently from eachother, then that would be evidence for the central tonewood claim. Again, if true, this would be easily verifiable both directly with equipment and in blind tests.
It’s also absolutely crucial that the “guitars” tested actually approximate a real solid-body electric guitar. A thin plank of wood with two saddles nailed down at either end and a string poorly attached to it is not a solid-body electric guitar. A solid-body electric guitar is rigid enough to to support the string tension of six heavy gauge strings tuned to pitch. It has a heavy steel bridge. It typically would have a mass of between 5 and 10 pounds and scale length of between 22" and 27".
This might seem like an extraordinary experiment to demand, but it isn’t. The idea of tonewood for an electric guitar is a positive claim, and the burden of proof is on the tonewood believers to supply that proof. The standard for proof required is the same as it has always been. No guitar manufacturer, or other supporter of the tonewood claim has ever performed any experiments with this degree of rigor and published their findings.
Wood varies significantly within species and often two pieces of woods from the same species are more different than two pieces are different species from a materials perspective.
There is then another claim, which is that specific wood species is not a significant factor, but that the resonant and acoustic properties of a solid-body electric guitar is significant in determining it’s timbre when amplified. This can also be tested.
Debunking tonewood claims is relatively easy compared to attempting to prove them. People have cut chunks of the necks and bodies from electric guitars with table saws, massively altering the mass and resonant properties of the guitar. People have replaced the wooden neck or body of an electric guitar with replacements made of concrete, cut stone, acrylic, graphite or carbon fiber, epoxy soaked cardboard and a host of other materials. The guitars do not sound significantly different after being cut to pieces or after having the wooden components swapped out. There is only a slight change in tone when the guitar is no longer rigid enough to support the string tension, either due to excessive damage or overly flexible material.
I can’t remember the names of everybody involved. Some of the better known debunkers were two channels called WillsEasyGuitar and DKGCustom, both of whom performed careful experiments to address specific claims made by tonewood supporters. I think most of their videos on the topic are still available.
Most of the videos made by the tonewood supporters amounted to little more than appeals to authority or ad hominem attacks on the debunkers. The few tests performed which were supposed to validate the tonewood claim were either performed improperly or were willfully dishonest.
Thanks for this detailed reply. I’ve been out of town for a few days, or I would have acknowledged it earlier. Cool stuff, I’m going to look into it.
So the discussion about neck-joints affecting sustain/tone is bunk too?