Guitar pondering: how acoustics and electrics have a similar “tone spectrum”

Probably need to link this to the GOGT (Great Ongoing Guitar Thread) but it might warrant its own dialogue.

I have been stressed and swamped at work lately - no headroom at all for mental Doper breaks of significant size. But I have been working hard, stuff is happening, so there is a momentary lull - so I actually have a bit of headroom to geek out on guitars. Yay.

So, while all generalizations collapse under scrutiny, after pondering this for a while, I have come to some conclusions:


[li]Acoustic and Electric guitar players approach questions of tone in surprisingly similar ways[/li][li]That the body wood choice of an acoustic corresponds roughly to the amp choice for an electric guitar[/li][li]Both choices have a set of options that fall along a similar tone spectrum, from clean to crunchy[/li][li]Both share similar on-line geekery debates and snake oil gibberish and blind adherence vs. actually listening[/li][/ul]
Okay, lemme ‘splain:
[li]The choice of body wood for an acoustic is similar to the choice of amp for an electric guitar. I suppose this isn’t all that surprising – the body of an acoustic is its “speaker cabinet” (with the top functioning as the speaker). [/li][li]Acoustics – There two “traditional” wood choices – simply defined by Martin’s infamous model-numbering system: 18 for Mahogany – D-18, 000-18, etc.; and 28 for Rosewood – D-28, etc. (the further-up, more blingy models for Martin all had Rosewood; some lower models were Mahogany, and had Mahogany, not Spruce tops).[/li][li]The rule-of-thumb major difference between the two body woods had to do with the clarity of the sound – Rosewood tends to be crisper, clearer, with a ring in the chords as they fade out. You have to drive a Rosewood guitar pretty hard to get some distorted rumble into the tone. Mahogany tends to “break up” more quickly – the basic tone is warmer, with more pronounced midrange – but if you strum/pick a mahogany guitar hard, you get this “mahogany rumble” – driving the guitar hard, and the guitar handling it with a bit of a roar. (note: this doesn’t take the basic vs. premium pricing typically seen for mahogany vs. rosewood into account. That is more due to scarcity and the prettiness of RW’s grain supporting the branding of it as a premium wood. Most experienced players put pricing to one side when considering their tone-wood needs. In Bluegrass, mahogany is a lead guitarist’s instrument and RW is the rhythm players tool - that natural ring/reverb translates to lusher backing chords. Carry on.)[/li][li]That spectrum – from clean with a bit of ring/reverb to an overdriven, warm tone that responds well when pushed – that’s pretty much electric amp speak. 60’s Fender “blackface” amps own that clean-with-reverb surf sound, and have a nice break up around 6-7 on the Volume knob, but never really crunch hard (without pedals in front of the chain). Marshall-type circuits, which emerged from the earlier Fender Tweed circuits, respond well to overdrive.[/li][li]In both cases, with acoustic woods and amp makes and models, most of the other variants can also map to the spectrum. Maple is further out past Rosewood with a bright-but-dry/no-ring tone; Mesa/Boogie amps’ Rectifiers are out past Marshall with more notched distortion imposed on the tone. Again, this is a total over-generalization that would break down under scrutiny, but the concept is there. [/li][li]All of this is wrapped up in a bunch of gray areas, obscured by marketing and hype, and then snowed-over with online gibberish. But when you cut through the crap, the bottom line is that guitars/amps respond along a clean-to-overdriven spectrum and there are some basic rules of thumb about where guitars/amps lie along that spectrum. Each player needs to decide: a) if they give a crap about / need to understand this spectrum (many/most don’t as long as their basic music-making needs are met); b) what type of guitar/amp they want – where along the spectrum; and c) figure out how close they are to their ideal and adjust from there. [/li][li]That last one is the hardest, because all of this stuff is “rules of thumb” or even just plan hype. Some Rosewood guitars sound great as overdriven, rumbly acoustics; some Fender amps have great, crunchy balls if you stick the right pedal in between them and the guitar. And other factors such as appearance, portability/ruggedness, personal biases, etc., further cloud the issue. So you have to triangulate between what you think you want and what you are actually hearing – I don’t know about you, but this is harder than it looks.[/li][/ul]
So – is this coherent, or the ravings of a geekery-deprived guitar nut? Either way, if you made it this far, thanks for your patience. I feel better.

Just stumbled across this - could not be a more classic example of online gibberish. A 28-minute video, pretty darn well-produced, on a very well-traffic’d forum for purchasers of high-end acoustic guitars. Some highlights:

  • Completely ineffective invocation of wine comparisons. Rosewood is the Cabernet of tone woods. Mahagany is a merlot and Koa is a pinot noir - who knew? Now, what could that possibly mean, and how can I use that to improve my listening/playing skills? No clue.

  • Audio analyzers - each of the high-end guitars are played with their audio readout shown. It’s a graphic EQ type of read out. Now - which is “better”? Or, more broadly, what insights should I gain from looking at the moving EQ display? No clue.

  • Absolutely no discussion of the type of music one wants to play or what each guitar being demo’d is best-suited for.

A few interesting stories about specific woods, some of the makers, etc. - but that’s about it.


Way over my head I’m afraid, I’m at a level of “sounds/plays good or not” when judging guitars. I play classical and a little bit of steel-string to no great level, just for fun really.

Actually you missed a whole segment - classical guitars. It’s amazing what tone and to some extent volume, pros can produce on a classical guitar. Particularly in a good acoustic environment. I remember listening to Eleftheria Kotziaplay in a small wooden church (seating almost 100) totally unamplified and it was amazing. I’ve got no idea about the details of how her guitar was constructed though.

Oh yeah, they are their own category for certain, with their own “rules of thumb” regarding materials and construction…

Interesting thoughts there, WordMan. I’m pretty much where lisiate is when it comes to this stuff. I don’t feel that I have the ears or the knowledge to do much analysis and comparison. My acoustic guitars have tended to be rosewood, and my amps have tended to be Fender, so maybe I have ignorantly borne out your theory for 40 years. I had a Martin 000-18 the early 70s (mahogany with spruce top), but I think I bought that one because the price was right, not because of any tone quality.

I think I over-geeked here; didn’t leave much room. But the guitar message boards have well-intentioned dreck like the link I shared. Hard to find the right approach.

I have not read in depth nor pondered your OP; I just wanted to say you have the most astonishing knack for posting your most interesting ideas on occasions when I have the least amount of time available to read them. :smiley:

:wink: - are you still saving the day, subbing in that Opera? I think my geekery can wait.

I think your observations are interesting, and probably spot on.

It made me think of how difficult it can be to really get a true feel for a guitar when trying to buy one. It’s like having a first date and getting married there and then. I’m sure we’ve all had the experience of finding a superb, expensive guitar that we just don’t like, and conversely, a horrible old cheapie that’s love at first play. To me, it’s all in the way a guitar makes you feel. Some just make you want to play, play, play at your best. I like David Lindley’s approach - although he likes them odd, not necessarily cheap.

I’ve never played, say, an old Martin, but I have access to a L’Arrivé, which I find to be the best sounding and playing acoustic I’ve ever tried. I so agree with you that “actually listening” is underrated, and truly quite hard to do. In fact, I’m never really happy with my conclusions until I have recorded a guitar. I think because of the obvious focus on sound quality during recording.

And just for the envy factor … my brother once found an old Telecaster, in good shape, at the back of a junk store, for $60. Yes, he bought it, doing his best not to show his great joy.

All good comments. Gotta ask - what can you tell us about your brother’s Tele - year, specific model (Tele? Tele Custom, Deluxe, etc.?), condition, status today?

I have been doing this long enough to both experience dozens of “whoa, what’s this?” moments, and also to have to sort them out over the long term, when some evaporate quickly and others endure. Paying attention really helps, as does developing a standard checklist of chords, riffs and styles of play to run through. If I find myself sticking with a guitar through my informal checklist, to the point where I find myself curious as to whether it could be used for slide work, it probably has something going for it. :wink:

Why not both?

Personally, I spend way too much time doing analysis in my day job (computer geek) so when guitaring, I tend to grab and play. When buying, I listen and then listen more, then make my best guess re: what I’ll like for years to come and go with that.

Indeed. And yeah, I prefer the simple act of just playing and listening. A groove is worth a million words or more…

Well, I think you’re generally correct. The mahogany bodies tend to have a sweeter, less treble-y tone, and tend to be less piercing to hear a solo on. That said, I love to use an all-mahogany Epi I have for everything, especially rhythm, it’s got the right chunk to it’s sound.

But, what’s the acoustic analogue to humbuckers/single coils? I’d go with the top wood, and I know cedar/spruce is generally more treble-y than mahogany. So I’d say that be each end of the single coil <-> humbucker spectrum. However, I don’t know acoustics well enough to comment more than that, and I know there are other common top wood choices.

Part of me wants to dig into how the analogy might extend, but that type of stuff is dangerous - tends to disappear up its own butt with online cuteness. I am sure folks like **Shakester **and **BigShooter **are already throwing up in their mouths a little bit at finding this level of geekery here on the 'Dope ;).

I think top materials do tend to sort out along the “clear and ringy vs. warmer and…rumblier?” - type of spectrum. Each material you can use, along with the design and construction quality, contribute to where that particular guitar falls along that spectrum - and how good it sounds and plays within that.