Music

Study suggests wood type has little effect on guitars' sound

Study suggests wood type has l...
The study found that guitars made from six different types of wood were almost identical in sound quality and playability
The study found that guitars made from six different types of wood were almost identical in sound quality and playability
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The six guitars which were used in the study
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The six guitars which were used in the study
The study found that guitars made from six different types of wood were almost identical in sound quality and playability
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The study found that guitars made from six different types of wood were almost identical in sound quality and playability

According to many musicians, in order to have the best sound possible, an acoustic guitar has to be made from the "right" type of wood. Unfortunately, such wood often comes from endangered, unsustainably-harvested trees. A new study, however, suggests that wood type makes essentially no difference.

For the study, a team from Britain's Lancaster University contracted luthier Roger Bucknall (of Fylde Guitars) to build six steel-string acoustic guitars.

All of these were identical, apart from the type of wood used for their back and side plates. "Varying widely in availability and price," those types consisted of Brazilian rosewood, Indian rosewood, mahogany, maple, sapele and walnut.

The six guitars which were used in the study
The six guitars which were used in the study

Fifty-two guitarists were then brought into a dimly-lit room to play each of the instruments – they also wore welding goggles, to ensure that they couldn't see which guitars were made from which type of wood. When they assessed the sound quality and playability of the guitars, their ratings for all six were very close.

Additionally, when 31 of the guitarists were asked to identify which instrument was which based on its sound and feel, they had considerable difficulty doing so.

"Overall our results suggest that the back wood has a negligible effect on the sound quality and playability of an acoustic guitar, and that cheaper and sustainable woods can be used as substitutes of expensive and endangered woods without loss of sound quality," says Lancaster's Prof. Christopher Plack.

Source: Lancaster University via AlphaGalileo

11 comments
Jesse Gunn
This is a really idiotic study. Every lutheir knows the most important tone wood is the top. The is the part that vibrates the most with the strings. Changing the sides has next to zero impact on sound, while the back will have some impact, but the MOST important part is the top and they were all the same! *facepalm*
MerlinGuy
I love this. Once again no one can tell the difference. Sound is one of the most easily analysed features so if there really was difference someone would have proven this decades ago. I suspect those that believe in tone wood also have 10s of thousands of dollars worth of guitars.
Brian M
Think the biggest difference between the expensive guitars using 'exotic' woods and those that aren't, is that they are just generally better made. As simple as that. Its possible that the vibration qualities of the different woods will alter the tone, but as another commentator said this is measurable. Biggest difference is in build quality and strings used and of course it will always sound better if you paid more for it!
RFM
@Jesse Gunn: While what you say is true (that the soundboard's characteristics have the greatest impact on tone), I think you missed the point of the article. Many species used for backs/sides sets are unsustainably harvested and CITES regs are ever more stringent. Luthiers will spend on species that they think will improve tone--based on 'old-world rule-of-thumb', not research. The greater density of the specie used for sides creates an impedance mismatch with the top. Impedance mismatches result in standing waves, which prevent a good portion of the energy to be transmitted into the sides. The energy gets reflected back toward the soundboard.
SteveCarl
Antonio Torres made a guitar with the back and sides of papier mache in the 19th century and proved that the top is all that matters. https://www.classicalguitardelcamp.com/viewtopic.php?t=29408
robert64
Drivel. Yes, there are suitable replacements for some tonewoods, but you'd have to be tone deaf if you can't tell the difference between rosewood, mahogany and maple.
larry00
I can't agree with this study at all. Over the years I have owned three Martin D-18's and three D-28's. All were dreadnoughts, all had Sitka spruce tops. All were within five years of each other age wise. The internal construction was the same. The D-18's had mahogany back and sides, the D-28's had Indian rosewood. The difference in sound between the two woods was obvious to even a non-player. Currently I own one each of a 2016 D-18 and a D-28. Identical, except for the back and side woods. Again the sound difference is dramatic. Both very good sounding, but very different to anyone who has played them. Most Martin players I know accept as fact that mahogany and rosewood are two different guitars.
Joel816
Very curious results, but they neglect to mention the effects that age has on certain types of wood as well; some species weather better than others. Also, some wood species carry much higher tensile strength per their weight, allowing lighter weight guitars, which usually translates to larger vibrations, more air movement and bigger sound, with stiffer woods holding longer sustain. Thing is, as a 20+ year guitar player, I've been doing this same test in just about every guitar shop I've ever stepped into for years. I'd be interested to have these same test subjects go through Taylor's line with the same body styles; say a grand concert but then go from a sapele to a rosewood, or to a koa or a mahogany or sassafras and still say there's no difference. I doubt they could.
Johannes
@Jesse No, it's not idiotic. Most quality acoustic guitar makers rank their products (tonally and price-wise) on the basis of how much of the body of the guitar is made from "acoustic" timbers. So a basic instrument will have soundboard only, next up soundboard and back, then soundboard back and sides for a premium instrument. This study shows that the basic guitar will sound insignificantly different from the premium version. In my experience, there's more difference in sound from one guitar to another nominally identical, guitar, than between those made from different timbers.
ljaques
Yeah, just make the whole thing out of cheap, plainsawn, pine plywood,, and everyone will be happy. Well, except those who like to see nice woods, exceptional grain figuration, and like a different tone from different face and neck woods. Just more horse puckey from the worshipers at the COGW.