The Wood Doesn’t Make the Guitar


Does the wood make the guitar? The steel-string acoustic guitar is one of the most popular instruments in the world, and some guitar makers and musicians claim that the type of wood used to manufacture the axe can make or break the sound quality.

However, many of the types of wood considered "tonally superior" are rare, expensive, and unsustainable. Guitar manufacturers have attempted to use wood that is more abundant, but have struggled to find a replacement without sacrificing playability and sound quality.

In 2017, about 1.5 million acoustic guitars were sold in the United States, to professionals, noodlers, and amateurs alike — the industry certainly has an incentive to get it right.

Researchers at Lancaster University recently partnered with Roger Bucknall of Fylde Guitars. (He knows his stuff; he made his first guitar when he was 9 and has since made instruments for Mick Jagger, Sting, Keith Richards, and Pete Townshend, among others.)

Bucknall made six guitars using the same design and material specifications; the only change was the wood used for the back and side plates. He made guitars using Brazilian rosewood (the gold standard), Indian rosewood, mahogany, maple, Sapele, and walnut.

For the tests, the researchers brought in 52 guitarists, 18 professionals, 21 semi-pros, and 13 amateurs, who played the guitars in a dark room while wearing welding goggles. The musicians could only see their fingers and the guitar neck while playing, which prevented them from identifying the wood visually. The lacquer likely covered up the smell, but the researchers also put an air freshener in the room to mask any possible odor cues.

The tests revealed that most guitarists couldn't tell a difference, either by sound or feel — maybe that separates a good guitarist from a great guitarist.  

The researchers only used wood for the tests, not any of the other materials, like laminates or carbon fiber composites, that several guitar companies have already introduced to the market.

Ultimately, the researchers determined that cheaper, more sustainable woods can be used as substitutes without sacrificing sound or playability. No word on how a different wood could affect a musician's look, though, and some of the small differences in guitar performance may simply be a result of the manufacturing variability of the other components.

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