Itâ€™s easy to forget that a guitarâ€™s tone is much more than just its pickups and the pedals you use with it. Choosing the right body and neck wood is crucial for getting just the tone you want and having the basics in mind when youâ€™re buying a new guitar can avoid a fatal decision and greatly improve your tone.
Iâ€™m always puzzled when I see people going into a guitar store and insisting on a guitar purely based on its finish and/or the fact that their hero has one similar. Although I can understand the fascination Iâ€™m amazed that one can spend all that money without having the slightest clue of what oneâ€™s really buying. I mean, you want to know whether a couch is leather or cotton and not just black or white donâ€™t you?
Thereâ€™s no right or wrong but you could end up with a guitar that both feels and sound quite different to what youâ€™d expect. A common error is also to assume that wood only matters when you buy an acoustic guitar. It might matter more but thereâ€™s a reason why they use different wood in different guitars. Itâ€™s because it matters for the tone and playability for that specific model.
In terms of Davidâ€™s tones youâ€™d probably want a Strat or a Tele. With the right pickups it doesnâ€™t really matter that much – apart from the Tele not having a tremolo system â€“ but letâ€™s concentrate on the Stratocaster. Davidâ€™s two main Strats, the red and The Black Strat, has an alder body and a maple neck. In the 70s the Black Strat sported a maple neck with rosewood fingerboard.
Alder is used in most Fender Strats mainly because of its light weight and itâ€™s easy to finish due to minimal grain lines. Alder is also the most neutral sounding of the commonly used wood types with a full tone, well balanced lower end a hint of mid range.
Swamp ash, or southern ash, is considered as the most musical wood and itâ€™s often preferred by the more demanding players. Its high density makes it a bright sounding wood with a strong punch and rich sustain.
Basswood was often used for Japanese Fenders in the 80s and 90s. Although a soft wood that doesnâ€™t handle abusive playing that well, it has a rich warm tone with a smooth sustain. Basswood has long been favoured by jazz musicians and it can also help to balance a bright punchy maple neck.
Maple has a distinct bright punchy tone – a perfect match for the slightly darker alder body. The characteristics of the maple neck played a huge role in defining the sound of the 50s and early 60s with the surf and Shadows instrumental bands.
Maple neck with rosewood fingerboard
Rosewood is soft and warm sounding and perhaps a bit more versatile wood than maple. Often preferred for blues and classic rock the rosewood is a nice companion to alder and also adds a warmer touch to the bright ash.
The lacquer or finish is also important but perhaps even easier to dismiss. Vintage Strats and Teles had and still have nitrocellulose lacquer. This adds a warm balanced touch to the guitarâ€™s sound. Cheaper Mexican and Japanese models often have polyester finish, which is slightly thicker and brighter sounding. In terms of aging the nitro ages more naturally with wear marks and small dings while polyester cracks like egg shell if you smash it against a table corner or drop it to the floor. The thickness of the lacquer also effects the tone and most companies offer so called worn or faded models to simulate the warmth that a worn down finish produce.
This is no rocket science and you shouldnâ€™t let it ruin the fun of buying a new guitar but it definitely pays off trying a couple of different models, bodies and necks and not getting too caught up in the model and colour. Always trust your ears!
Iâ€™ve always been fond of basswood and think it has more to offer than both alder and ash but again it depends on how you want to use the guitar. The combination of the rich basswood body and a punchy maple neck fits my Gilmour tones nicely while I prefer the slightly warmer alder body and rosewood neck for my Airbag tones.
Whatâ€™s your choice?