Four guitars I made from Holly, Walnut, Apple, and Pear woods:
These four guitars are all constructed the same, with the same pickups, and they all sound very different. Here's a quote from Lindy Fralin in his interview in "The Guitar Pickup Handbook" by Dave Hunter: "Being a pickup-maker I'm very aware - because I've put together dozens of guitars - that the wood is every bit as important as the pickups. You can never discount the importance of how a particular piece of wood vibrates. If it either soaks up a certain frequency or resonates at a certain frequency, of course it comes out of the amplified instrument."
The term "tone wood" is used a lot in the guitar world, but since all woods have tone shouldn't it be "good tone woods"? The top four woods used for making electric guitars are mahogany and maple for Les Pauls, and alder or ash for Strats. These are good sounding woods. I just wanted to try something different. I decided to try wood from trees that people get along with, figuring that a pleasant tree would make a pleasant sound. So far the experiment has been a success.
The guitar pictured above is one I made years ago, from ziricote wood. Very beautiful, but toxic. I got a headache that lasted three days from the sanding dust. It's also extremely dense which gave great sustain, but I was never happy with the clean tone no matter what pickups I tried. It does sound good with heavy distortion, and the customer who bought it found it perfect for his style of playing.
After the Ziricote guitar I decided to choose the wood based on how the tree makes me feel, rather than its dramatic grain pattern. Holly has always been a favorite tree of mine. Holly is traditionally associated with forgiveness and protection from anger (the Christmas wreath on the front door), and is an important member of the Bach flower remedy system. So I wondered if a holly guitar would have good vibes, and good tone.
Two winters ago the heavy snow broke one of the holly trees in our back yard. I rescued the trunk from the tree removal guys, cut it and dried it, and made the guitar out of it. Player feedback is "yes" it is a good vibe guitar. John Lee (chineseirishman.com) has borrowed it for 9 gigs so far. Here he is playing it with Le Bon Temps Krewe at Ragtime in Clarendon:
(Thanks to Erica Horn for the photo: http://www.cozmikphotography.com/ )
The Holly guitar in its natural habitat.
I'm guessing no one had ever heard a holly guitar before. So I started thinking about other woods to try. "Yes may I help you … what flavor guitar would you like?" A while back the apple tree in the back yard died, and I had rescued some of that wood. So at the request of a friend I made an apple guitar. It has the sweetest and brightest tone of the three.
Next up is walnut, not from the back yard. Another beautiful and fragrant wood. Walnut, like holly, is part of the Bach flower remedy system. This guitar has a wide range, going from jazz to ZZ Top. "This guitar is a rocker" - Alvin White.
Pear. I made this one for Joe Pollock (www.joe-pollock.com), who liked the tone of apple but needed a left handed guitar. I had trouble finding more apple wood so we decided to try Swiss pear, and he ended up liking it better. Pear has been used in the past for harps, recorders, violins and guitars. It has properties that just make it sound great. Here's a video of Joe playing it the day it was finished: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sdih3D4JleI
Here's what my fellow guitar maker and friend Johnny Rushmore had to say about it: "Swiss Pear - the best !!! I can't wait to join you in a guitar made of Swiss pear Daniel - Bravo , I heard your last guitar and I freaked out !!!! My wood supllier in CA. told me " you have not heard a guitar till you hear one made Swiss Pear " Since that statement 3 years ago I been wanting to hear one and now you did it !!!! You rock man !"
Another of Johnny's inimitable quotes: "I got to say this cause it needs being said - The fruit woods and the nut woods are like tone to the bone! Really distinct sounding influential tones too - different species different sound - like God touches each wood differently !"
All these guitars get a compensated nut for better intonation on the "cowboy" frets. I couldn't find a left handed Earvana nut so I had to make one out of bone for the pear guitar. This involved cutting 1/16" off the end of the fretboard then notching the b string back 1/32" and the e sring 1/16".
The tops are finished with a French polish, a technique from the classical guitar world that lets the wood vibrate freely. On the walnut guitar I filled the pores with a mixture of shellac and pumice (volcanic glass). Then ...
The Beethoven Treatment
If Ella Fitzgerald could break a glass with her voice, my stereo can certainly move around a few wood fibers:
I like to use Beethoven string quartets and classical guitar music to vibrate the wood for about 30 hours. I first came up with the idea of treating the guitar body with music several years ago when I was building a custom Strat made with a new unfinished ash wood body. I had tested the pickups out on another guitar to find the combination I liked. To my surprise when I put them in the ash wood Strat the neck and bridge pickups sounded almost the same … bright and slightly brighter, lifeless, and dry.
I knew that classical guitars and violins improve as they are played, but this was a big solid piece of wood that hardly vibrated when the strings were struck. So … I put it on top of a stereo speaker, turned it way up loud, stepped outside hear if the neighbors might call the police, and then drove away. I blasted it for about 6 hours a day for 5 days. (Later at a PRS event Q&A session Howard Leese, the guitarist for Heart, told me he used to put his guitars in front of an amp in the garage for a month. "They need music.")
The results were better than expected. After the "Beethoven treatment" the neck and bridge pickups sounded very different from each other. The neck was warm and vocal and the bridge bright and lively. The middle sounded better as well. If I was comparing the sound of the guitar before and after the 5 days I might have just thought it was my imagination. But this was a problem that had actually been fixed over the week. It went from a guitar I hated to one I really liked.
Later I found this NY Times article When Violinists Play, Their Violins Improve. To my ear the tone gets "broader", with more harmonic overtones. I've also tried a device called the ToneRite that vibrates the wood silently, but I think music does a much better job.
There are several beautiful videos on YouTube showing the effect of music on particles, causing patterns at different pitches. Here's a link to a good one: "Cymatic Experiment".
After hearing about my guitars Pierre Sprey came over for a visit, and helped me with some upgrades for the pickups. We stayed up till late tinkering in the shop, problem solving, listening to guitars and amps. It was great fun. Pierre is the genius behind Maple Shade Studios. Anyone interested in sound systems and recording should visit his fascinating website http://www.mapleshaderecords.com/index.php)
Pierre was insistent that the pickups should be stable, not floating on the usual adjustment springs. Here he is pondering the problem:
He spent years designing a method to drain unwanted vibration out of stereo systems. From his website: "Mounting your gear—amp, CD player, music server, turntable, etc.—on a really good platform transforms the sound. Surprisingly, maple platforms are much warmer, clearer, punchier and more detailed than granite, slate, glass (the worst), myrtle or exotic hardwoods, or any of the hi-tech damped composites—based on 20 years of my painstaking, head-to head listening experiments. Adding brass footers to drain vibration out of your gear into the maple doubles the good effect."
A guitar pickup is reading the movement of the strings through its magnetic field, so the string's signal gets distorted if the pickup is moving as well. When mounted on standard springs the pickup is free to wiggle all over the place. The problem:
Here's the solution I came up with:
I had already installed chrome plated brass pickup rings instead of the usual plastic ones. So I cut and sanded strips of wood to fit very tightly between the top of the pickup and the brass ring. Now the pickups are very stable. (Pierre also suggested I put small brass washers under the pickup rings. He said that points of contact have better vibration transfer than large flat areas, with less "reflection and distortion".) The overall sound improvement was more dramatic than I had expected. Louder, clearer, more sustain.
After playing these new guitars the customer who owns my Ziricote guitar requested the same mod for his pickups. I was pretty amazed by what he had to say about the improvement, especially about the 60 cycle hum.:
The mod you crafted for my humbuckers is the single most dramatic mod I have encountered. The clarity, quiteness, tone and sustain makes my guitar sound better than any guitar I have ever played.
Clarity: Every note rings more true. There is more transparency in the signal as the mod took out the muddiness coming from the humbucker. This is VERY apparent when playing chords. Each note stands on its own a little more- much like a great compressor would. I recently sold my $200 Rothwell Love Squeeze compressor because your mod works better at having each note stand out than the compressor does. This is especially noticable when I play hammer-ons in chords on songs such as "Purple Haze."
Quietness: I had been frustrated with the 60 cycle hum that I would get on my electric guitar before. It would dampen when my hands were touching the strings but was a bit nerve racking to play on stage because I would have to quickly kill the volume so that the hum would not come through the mix -especially when using distortion and effects. I tried to use a power conditioner thinking that the issue could be with the power supply. There was a very slight difference, certainly not satisfying. This was also true of the $110 Boss NS-2 Noise Suppressor pedal I added *try* and eliminate the hum. As soon as I got my guitar back from you, the humbucker 60 cycle hum was gone. It makes no sense to me. What I do know is that I can focus more on my music now when I play.
Tone: My guitar sounds like a different guitar now. The highs are higher, the lows are lower and the mid-range frequencies are not as muddy. There is a brightness that my guitar did not have before. To get more tonal variation, I had bought the $110 MXR 10-Band EQ pedal. It did bring more variation but also added unwanted noise. I have not touched it since your mod because my tone knobs vary the sound more than before (again, highs higher, lows lower). When I turn the tone knob down, it "warms" the signal like some sweet Ruby Tubes for a beautiful tone.
Sustain: Notes are holding longer than ever before. I did a non-scientific sound test using a stopwatch to see how long my high 'e' and low 'e' would ring for until I could not hear them any longer. The high 'e' lasted for 15 seconds and the low 'e' lasted for 33 seconds. Wow. I tried this on another electric that has a similar tail piece and humbuckers to my own and the high 'e' lasted for 8 seconds and the low 'e' lasted for 17 seconds. Like I said, my tests were not scientific, but I can tell a big difference. At a minimum, notes seem to hold longer than other electrics. This makes it more fun to solo when I want to let a note stand out and for atmospherics when I want to create funky sounds that ring out (think "Explosions in the Sky").
Not only do I have more room on my pedal board now from the pedals I no longer need, my guitar now has more clarity, no hum, more tonal variation and more sustain than any electric guitar I have played. I am amazed by the results and never imagined that one mod could impact my axe this much.