How does the shape of an electric guitar affect its sound?

Whew, long title, but I think the question is clear enough.

Given two different body shapes, but the same pickups in the same location in relation to the neck, same strings, same electronics and hardware, would there be a difference in the sound?

Would you be able to tell the difference between a standard Stratocaster and, say, a guitar shaped like Bo Diddley’s (rectangular) in the hands of a skilled guitarist?

FWIW, I think the old Ovation Breadwinner was patented because it’s lopsided body was claimed to give more bass tone.

As far as I know the sound would be identical. I can’t think of any way in which body shape would affect the string vibration. It would have a definite effect in an acoustic gutiar, since the interior of the body is used as a resonating cavity. The big differences in electric guitar sound occur due to the type of strings used, the pickup geomerty and configuration and amplifier characteristics.

The solid body of an electric guitar is designed to prevent vibration, resonance, and damping – these effects are supposed to be controlled by the strings, pickups, and ancillary electronics. The heavier body is therefore better for producing pure notes (which may then be distorted for interesting effects). A lighter guitar, like Diddley’s, may have characteristic resonance/interference which must either be accounted for, or incorporated into play.

The above is exrapolated from a barely-remembered The Guitar Handbook.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t damping the prevention of vibration and resonance, and therefore what the guitar body is doing by definition?

The sound of an electric guitar can go through so much processing even with a straight amp that I don’t think shape makes as much difference as some would like to think. Mass and rigidity can make a difference, particularly in sustain. Compare the relatively light weight body of a Stratocaster and its bolted on neck to a Les Paul’s heavy, mahogany and maple body and dovetailed neck. Add the fact that those two guitars have very different headstocks, tuners, bridges, tailpieces and pickups and the difference made by shape becomes a minor factor.

Since when does a Strat sound the same as a Les Paul ? Strong disagreement.

It’s probably more due to pickup characteristics than mere body shape. The material of the body, on the other hand, might also be a contributing factor.

He’s not saying a Strat sounds like a Les Paul. He’s saying that of all the differences between the two that contribute to their different sounds, shape, in and of itself, doesn’t make much difference.

Variax is the first guitar to break the physical barriers to great tone by modeling the subtle qualities and interactions that create every guitar’s unique voice - including body resonance, sustain and pickup characteristics.

From the Line6 Variax blurb. I want one.

Given the OP’s conditions, a different shape would have such little change in sound it wouldn’t be discernible, for all practical reasons. In extreme circumstances there would be a difference though. For instance, if you compared a guitar body that was 10 ft. long with one that was the shape of a cube of the same mass there would be a difference in tone.

Also, guitars can have the same shape but have hollow sections in the body, or a different shape/depth of the routing for the pickups. Those things can have a big effect on sound.

Thanks Gary T, that’s precisely what I was saying. I’m sure I could use appropriate woods, construction methods , pickups and hardware to make a guitar that looks like Bo Diddley’s famed Turbo 5 Speed* sound like a Les Paul or Strat as I chose.

A lot of other things come into play. Small physical changes alter a guitar’s playability which affects what sounds a player might get from it. It’s not a hard and fast rule but a lot of people think the neck profile and tighter radius on the fingerboard of a Fender lend it more to barre chords while the flatter fingerboard of a Gibson is better for bending notes.

I’ve heard that lighter woods produce a ‘brighter’ sound in a guitar, and that heavier, denser woods produce a ‘warmer’ tone, all else being equal.

Of course the body affects the sound. If you’ve ever player the so-called acoustic-electric guitar (basically an acoustic guitar with pickups and usually a round back) you’ll seee the sound is quite different from a normal electric guitar. However the body shape isn’t as major factor as it in the acoustic guitar where it is used to amplify the strings.

A guitar body that vibrates can damp the vibration of the strings, reducing the sustain to unacceptable levels. Sorry I wasn’t more clear.

Let’s look at how a pickup works.

You basically have a magnet with a wire wrapped around it many, many, many times. The magnet creates a magnetic field. When the metal guitar string vibrates in that magnetic field, it generates a current in the coil of wire around the magnet. The generated current has the same frequency as the note that is played. When the wire around the magnet is attached to an amplifier, the signal on the wire is amplified and put to a speaker.

Now, how this applies to the OP is that the only way sound is generated in an electric guitar is the steel string moving through the magnetic field. (this is why you wil never see nylon strings on an electric guitar)

Aproxitmately 98% of the sound quality of the gutar comes from the pickup (the magnet with the wire coiled around it). The number of coils (how many times the wire is wound around the magnet), the way it is wrapped (thicker in the middle), and the type of magnet or magnets used as well as the orientation of the other pickups on the body contribute the most to the way an electric guitar sounds.

The sting only touches the guitar in three places, at the bridge, the nut, and the tuner. These are the only factors other than the mass of the body, that will affect the sound because, depending on how solid they are, can affect the way the string vibrates through the magnetic field. The mass of the body and the way the neck is connected to the body will affect the sustain of the note. More massive guitars have a longer sustain.

Now piezio-electric guitars are another story…

All right, how about some words from a luthier? :slight_smile:

Yes, shape has some effect on an electric guitar’s tone: remember that although the principle elements of an electric guitar are a (conductive) string and a pickup, other factors (such as materials and shape) affect how the string vibrates, and how the string vibrates is a large aspect of tone.

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While I agree with Shadowfyre that pickups are crucial to the tone, they aren’t even close to 98% of what makes an instrument’s tone. You cannot make a Gibson Les Paul sound even remotely like a Fender Telecaster, no matter how much you futz with pickups. The body of an instrument is not just a method for maintaining string-tension and mounting a pickup but integral to the character of the sound it creates.

As has been mentioned, wood choice also has a dramatic affect on a guitar’s tone. Density, elasticity, strength, all affect the the tone and the sustain of an instrument. As a resource, some nice descriptions of woods and their tonal characteristics can be found here.

The reason wood characteristics affect tone is that the string and body interact with each other. Vibrations from the string are passed back and forth to and from the body. and as vibrations are transmitted differently through different substances, the behavior of this feedback system changes, and therefore the tone. Another facet of this is that the pickup itself will also vibrate a bit, and since that magnetic field is now in motion as well as the string passing through it, you get more complex interactions.

It may seem a little strange to suggest this, given that the string touches the body in only 2-3 places at any given time, but consider that it’s this same behaviour that allows any acoustic string instrument to create it’s sound - vibration xmitted to the body by connection to 2 or three points. . .

Finally, the OP: Having established why materials make a difference in the sound of an electric, it’s apparent that an instrument’s shape will also affect how vibrations are affected within the body. Based on the shape, it will be easier for certain frequencies to resonate, while other frequencies will be trapped or dampened. A great big, basically round shape will pad or attenuate different frequencies than a small, (say) spiky shape.

I’m not saying in any way, that the shape dramatically affects the tone, but it’s not insignificant, either. Extreme shapes, for instance, will affect the tone of the instrument.

Some clarification, please.

Misery Loves Co., I know that what you wrote above about woods and shapes is quite true for acoustic guitars, and perhaps to somewhat lesser degree, true for hollow body and semi-hollow body electric guitars. Are you also saying that vibration through the wood is significant for solid body electrics?

I have observed cases where using electric pickups and/or microphones in acoustic guitars all but obliterates differences between one instrument and another, as heard through the speakers. On a solid body electric, with no resonating chamber, I wouldn’t expect vibration through the wood to be noticeable.

Electric Guitars and Acoustic guitars are different beasts, but are still subject to the behavior of vibrations. In a way, they are mirrors of each other.

Part of an acoustic instruments ability to generate tone is due to the fact that there’s not a lot of wood, given the volume of the instrument. Add too much wood to the sides and face, and your acoustic qualities go to crap. When you add a pickup to an acoustic, the only thing vibrations the instrument really interacts with are those of the string - all other vibrations have been transduced into sound-waves in the sound-chamber. So it makes perfect sense that a pickup will make a bunch of acoustically different instruments sound the same as you posited in your post.

But an electric is relying on a different mechanism. In this case, the vibrations are /not/ efficiently transduced into sound-waves, but are xfered to the electrical signal.
My exact knowledge of the mechanism by which wood affects the sound is a little shakey, but that wood-types affect tone is not annectodal Here is a controlled experiment exploring the frequency response and transfer properties of different woods.

That information, synthesized with the fact that different shapes resonate differently, points strongly to a rel-p between shape and tone, even in a solid-body guitar.

This is further upheld by annecdotal experiences of my own and that I’ve read about or discussed with others.

Thanks for the additional info.