Everyone agrees … older string instruments generally sound better, and feel better than their modern counterparts! They almost breathe life! They have a feeling of life, a “vibration” that often turns into musical magic! You can really feel an amazing instrument vibrating with itself when you play it. That’s what we are talking about! If you’ve ever been as lucky as you can pick Fender Stratocaster © 50s that was played well or the Martin® Acoustic era in the 1940s, then you really experienced tonal nirvana. If you are a smart player, chances are you are well aware of this elusive tone! The strange thing is, not all older instruments have these characteristics. This is a phenomenon in all brands, regardless of the bad or the disadvantages. Just because an guitar is old doesn’t always mean that it will sound very good, although in general it will sound better than a new instrument.
New instruments rarely have this character, not even expensive custom shop instruments! Even the instruments with the highest prices available today promote their construction features, good finishes and fantastic looks. They often promote the resonance and beautiful nuances of their guitars. Although all this is true, in fact, they are still new instruments, which they want to destroy. However, some old guitars that have spent most of their lives in a closet or under the bed do not have this sonic magic. They often don’t sound much better than newer instruments and are built with quality. What happen?
Until now, most experts have agreed that old and old wood, which has dried up for years, significantly contributed to the guitar’s sonic signature. Musicians will pay a premium price for their guitars to be built from old or older wood, or wood that is saved from old buildings; then made to look old, similar to a vintage instrument. But this effort may still not guarantee that the instruments produced will offer a tone that is difficult for them to need. Usually not. Many players often choose appearance rather than tone. Why do that when you really can have both!
Experienced Luthiers will evaluate many factors when choosing wood for premium guitars. They realize that each family of wood and individual pieces of wood have unique characteristics. They often use a “tap test,” where a piece of wood is hit with a knuckle, fingertips or another piece of wood and the resulting tone is observed. They will critically listen to attacks, resonance, harmonics, sound speed, ringing and other factors. Some will take this further and evaluate the sonic characteristics of wood through sophisticated software analysis. The point is … all wood has sonic characteristics that cannot be denied and for the most part, these evaluations are subjective.
Sound is produced when the energy from a vibrating string is transmitted through the saddle and bridge to the solid-body guitar itself, or to the top of the acoustic instrument. “Tone” produced is a combination of many factors, the most important of which is the type of wood itself. Mahogany, Swamp Ash, Alder, Korina, Maple, Spruce, Cedar and others have different sounds. In addition, each is available in many varieties from different locations. It is best to use a piece of wood without a glue connection that will inhibit this critical vibration. Even a two-piece body with a single glue connection can cause vibrations out of phase or suddenly be stopped, limiting their ability to reproduce the desired tone. Some pieces of wood are suitable for good furniture, but generally not for good musical instruments.
Another important factor that affects the tone is the final result applied to the wood itself. Thin nitro-cellulose or oil layer / stain will allow the wood drying process to continue. The wood really breathes through this finish! They protect and beautify wood without obstacles, allowing all natural sonic properties to be available. Modern fish such as Polyurethane, polymerized oil and others actually put a grip on the wood, encasing it into an impenetrable casing, prohibiting further healing and dampening vibrations.
It was said that playing the instrument really opened the cellular structure of wood, making it really sound better as we got older! Wood is sensitive to changes in moisture, generally holding less moisture because it continues to heal over time. Wood tends to be more stable and brittle when it dries. Tubular wood cells that once contained resin or water, now dry and shrinking for years, functioned as mini “concert halls” where vibrations echoed throughout and collectively projected what we consider to be amazing tones! Wow!
Fine wood instruments need to be played regularly and consistently to develop their true sonic potential. This is no secret! Guitars, violins and pianos built with quality all increase with age and often, playing continuously. You already know this to be true. A good instrument requires “break-ins” from time to time. Wood needs to be massaged generously by vibrations created through active and consistent playing of instruments. The more you play and enjoy your good instruments, the greater your sonic prizes!
If you are looking for this grail of holy tones, then simply buying a quality wooden instrument or even a building built with old wood is not enough. All of the above factors must be included in the construction, maintenance and feeding of your instrument. Well-designed and literally stringed instruments created to produce beautiful music, continue to develop sonically from year to year. Let go of this sonic magic, listen carefully and feel true tonal nirvana that increases every time the strings are removed.