So there's a lot of pseudoscience among guitar players, regarding what affects tone, and to what degree, as well as a lot of anecdotal evidence being taken as fact. It seems that many people hear with their eyes rather than with their ears, and are far too trusting of opinions being posted as fact on the interwebs. I'd like to hear some of the more ridiculous claims that you guys have heard. Here are a few of my recent ones:
1. I recently had someone tell me that he could hear a discernible tonal difference between a guitar that was wired with solid conductor wire vs stranded wire. He claims that he tried this out on a few of his own instruments. I call his soldering technique into question here.
2. Someone else asked me to degloss their instrument. Their main complaint that the instrument felt sticky, and they wanted a smoother neck, but they had also been told that a satin finish would allow the wood to 'breathe' more. I've heard this one a lot, that satin finishes somehow sound more natural sounding. Never mind the fact that we're literally just roughing up the existing finish.
3. I've also heard people claim that mounting pickups directly to the guitar body, rather than to a plastic pickup ring, will somehow allow the pickup to hear the vibration of the wood better. Some people have gone on to say that microphonic pickups are actually desirable in this application, because they pickup vibrations from the body better. Granted, I've heard Lindy Fralin say that a pickup being slightly microphonic isn't always a bad thing, and I've definitely heard overpotted pickups that sound awful, but I suspect that anyone making the above claim has never played a guitar with highly microphonic pickups.
What other crazy stuff have you guys heard?
Eric Johnson can hear the difference between Eveready and Duracell batteries so I'd have to say it's possible even if I can't hear it.
A satin finish is different than a roughed up gloss finish. It refracts light differently. Plus manufacturers that satin finish thier instruments sometimes use less or no filler and less finish. You can't sand it back so it needs to be an off the gun finish. Technically there's often less product on a satin finish instrument.
I've had a number of customers over the years get me to mount thier humbucker like Eddies. They all felt it was better. I have to admit I thought it sounded better too. I heard a CD player with special feet put under it, the bottom end was better with the special feet than without.
Hi Ian, all,
Firstly, if it isn't in the domain of physics (especially acoustics) it's probably not worth discussing - some of it's just voodoo mind games. But, if it fits, even slightly, it worthy of thought. Sound transmission, spectrum analysis and ray path plotting was something that I did a way back as part of my previous profession - not blowing my own here - it just says I'm not making stuff up as I go or repeating someones voodoo.
Mounting pickups to the body via a solid base (such as a pickup foot) or in the case of acoustic pickups by a flat transducer surface (feather, button etc) must improve the acoustic coupling between the pickup and the body/neck. How much difference this will make is subject to a bunch of things with sound pressure levels being right up there, but it will make a difference and you can hear it. Not a myth.
Rough lacquer: maybe not something you can hear but if you were to accept that satin or matte lacquer has a larger surface area than gloss I suppose you could attribute something or some tonal change to it given that sound reflection and refraction is changed by the relative roughness of smoothness of the surface it interacts with. Satin/matte also contain a matting agent which changes the density of the lacquer. I've never considered it other than to observe the difference in tone between a unfinished guitar and one dipped in thick plastic glossy concrete.
Batteries: low current supply or voltage drop under load will make an amp sound different or even distort - for instance when your acoustic pre-amp battery is on it's last legs you can all hear that. Using a budget battery in place of a alkaline/NiCad or Lithium may well sound different under heavy demand. The bass guys run 18V systems in parrallel or series to gain better performance from their high output pre's, for instance.
So, it's a crap shoot going firm on what is and what isn't relevant - then all we need to do is chuck in the fact that a lot of us have some hearing damage over time or work in difference ambient settings. Dogs would probably be better at this subject than us.
To paraphrase Mr. Simon: "people hear what they want (or is suggested) to hear and disregard the rest".
Other than more stable pickup mounting directly to the body compared to shaky springs there're no benefits. The manufacturers started to do this for aesthetic reasons and simplified guitar assembly when the routers allowed for clearer pickup cavity routing :)
Ian what you called pseudoscience I'm going to call snake oil and snake oil abounds in the Lutherie world.... From the ability of some to hear the difference in electrons from one battery to another....... to the magic "expected" from a $20 vintage cap.... our world is perhaps more fraught with fakes and BS than most. This I have observed....
But we didn't start it...:) Going back more then a century the search for the Strad tone is a very good example of how every ten years or so someone goes to the press and has figured it all out. From the mini ice age and wood that grew then to the use of borax as a solution to soak wood in there is never any shortage of "discoveries" that unlock the mysteries of Lutherie....
These days we have folks purchasing glorified fish tank air pumps and letting them vibrate a new acoustic guitar into submission until it gives it up.... perhaps not unlike waterboarding but for musical instruments.... I also suspect that the same benefit results, none....
I'm fond of telling folks that all day long I study and do Lutherie things and by the end of the day a good day is measured by how very little snake oil I got on me..... :)
I agree with Rusty that all discussions of tone need to start with acoustics. IMHO, there are usually too many variables other than whichever one is under consideration that can't be held constant to tease out answers. My comments below are mainly about electric guitars, especially solid bodied ones.
Solid vs Stranded: You may remember when Monster Cable was introduced with great fanfare and much marketing hype about oxygen free cable, the "skin effect," etc. I worked at a high end stereo store at the time and the Monster reps trained us. We extensively AB'ed them but I couldn't discern a difference when referenced to another wire of the same gauge. Ditto for sold or stranded of the same gauge. My take on solid core is that it's inflexible, hard to drape in cavities, and joints suffer metal fatigue and break when trying to shape the wire to fit.
Paint finish type: Since finishes are meant to seal the wood so it's hard for me to conceive how it "breathes" - meaning it respires air and moisture - especially, modern catalyzed or poly finishes. They certainly feel different to the hand and have different aesthetics. Acoustics, with large unfinished interiors, certainly respire.
John mentions Eric Johnson and I'd qualify his statement by saying that Eric "says" he can hear the difference in a good many things. It would be remiss not to mention that psychology is also at work. A carbon zinc battery may sag under load like a tube rectifier since its capacity in milliamps is so small and strongly plecked notes pull more juice. Then again, Eric might just be fussy and a little OCD.
Pickup vibrations: It seems to me that the puny movement of guitar strings isn't going to excite much in the way sympathetic vibrations in a guitar body. Even if they did, how would the pickup hear these vibrations since they are acoustical energy? Pickups are not microphones. The amp's acoustic energy is more likely to vibrate the body, pickup and strings.
Microphonic pickups: We are talking here about inducing mechanical vibrations in the pickup windings. The lower strings would be more likely to transfer their vibration to the windings and be exacerbated by a loud amp transferring acoustic energy to the body and thereby to the windings. Since the vibration of the windings changes inductance and such it could effect tone randomly. The most likely effect is feedback.
Forgive me for being skeptical. Lots of small effects can certainly combine to produce a significant effect, but without a literature dedicated to the physics, acoustics, and psycho-acoustics of guitars, we are left with a lot of speculation and anecdotal evidence. Comparing 3D waveform graphs would at least let us know when we are "hearing things." Add to this the impossibility of comparing two rigs differing only by one variable by a guitarist with some degree of hearing damage and we have a can of worms.
Personally, I think that tone/sound starts with the ear of the listener.
I've told it before on this forum that an acquaintance of mine and a friend of my brother never played an acoustic guitar that didn't have a "buzzing B string". Every one of them. He went through dozens of guitars looking for one that didn't buzz and usually ended up trashing the setup because he couldn't leave the truss rod adjustment alone.
We all finally came to the conclusion that a "B" set up a particular resonance in the bones in his inner ear which he interpreted as a buzzing string.
It seems to me that a lot of guitar player invest in "good" instruments without ever trying them, these days. It's been my experience that the people often feel a need to defend their purchase even if they find them unsatisfactory and the most obvious B.S can emerge in these conversations. ( "I liked the sound of the guitar but I had to get rid of it because my pick just didn't fit between the string right.")
Satan finish has a nice feel on a neck, many like the look on the body because it hides fingerprints and such much better than a gloss. I won't say that some, special few MIGHT hear a difference but most of the players I know can't even get their guitar into tune without electronic help so I doubt that they can hear most of what they think they do.
No tomatoes at the electric challenged guy, please. I could see where the small vibration imparted into a solid body guitar MIGHT effect the sound at the pickup but not because the pickup itself is detecting it directly but more likely because of a small resonance, slightly out of phase with the "pluck" is reflected back into the strings, thus inducing a (very) small resonant signal in the poles. (I freely admit that that's pure conjecture but except for the scale of it, it wouldn't be much different than the resonant feedback that's such a problem in lively acoustics, would it?)
In my electronic training, about 100 years subjective years ago, I was taught that stranded wire allowed better current flow. IF that's still correct, It would make sense to me that a solid wire COULD change the impedance a bit by decreasing the current flow and thus cause a reduction in sound quality but creating an impedance mismatch... How much wire does and electric guitar have inside of it... probably not enough to make a measurable difference.
Does finish make a difference? How did Rusty say it... "thick plastic glossy concrete" kills tone. Just about anything else, short of water based enamel house paint, in a thin coat will probably not do enough to effect tone/sound for most of the electronic tuner troup to detect. I say that if a customer come in and tells you about the flat finish that greatly enhanced their guitar, you smile, and nod and move along to another topic.
Now, what did I do with that can of finish flatten I had a couple of years ago...
If you think Snake Oil is common in the guitar/MI world, take a trip over to a HIGH END AUDIO site. They're so heavy on snake oil that they have to import supplies on a regular basis.
Question to all: What is the STANDARD by which we judge the sound of a guitar?
For acoustics, is it a pre-war D-28 or a modern Olson or Walker? Is it an early 50's J-200? Is it a mid 40's J-45? Is it a McPherson?
For electrics, is it a 54 Strat through a 65 Super Reverb or a 59 Les Paul through a 50 watt Plexi and 8 55hz Greenbacks?
Guitars, for the most part, are made of wood & metal. NATURAL differences in materials prevent any 2 guitars to sound EXACTLY the same.
(Now imagine a fire & brimstone preaching traveling Evangelist addressing a Tent Service) "AND... will somebody PLEASE tell me what this "VINTAGE" tone everyone seeks actually sounds like? Because I'll tell ya folks.. I have NO idea what that is. Praise Loyd Loar !!".
I'm in the "most of it is snake oil camp". Why, because especially when looking at wires & pickups and guitar amps, the frequencies we deal with are not affected by factors such as stranded or solid wire or the wire's diameter or impedance.
Case in point: Customer installs a Yowsawowsa Boutique pickup in the bridge position of a LP with a DCR of 18K ....and then claims that the .00001 ohm additional resistance in the stranded wire in his control cavity is preventing him form getting his imagined 'vintage tone". The customer is, quite frankly, full of shit.
All we can do is evaluate and optimize individual instruments to perform at their peak abilities. Then it's up to the player to craft the final aural presentation with his/her hands.
Let me also digress and mention a post from a couple years ago where a poster asked which equipment he should recommend to a customer who was wishing to sound like Angus Young from AC/DC. I got a lot of heat for saying that the equipment isn't a factor and that 95% of Angus's sound is in Angus's hands. Extending that, the distinctive "sound" of any guitarist is in his/her hands". I remain committed to my theory and it is also relevant to this post as THE "X-FACTOR" in sound crafting. It's the most significant factor in discussions such as these and also the factor most often overlooked.
I finally found a way to explain this to anyone. A 'kid' asked me if buying a LP and a 100 watt Marshall stack would make him sound like Jimmy Page. My reply was.. "No. Just as singing into a Shure 555 hood ornament microphone will not magically make you sound like Fran Sinatra." I thought that was a great analogy :)
Which returns me to the snakey and oily spot from which I began.
Love it, Paul. Thank you.
One of the hats I've worn over the years is coordinating music events. I also owned a small venue for several years. I was asked one time why I had such good luck with sound people. My answer was that you have to get them with enough experience that they're good and not so much that they're cynical.
As repair people our job is to make our customers happy, not show them how smart we think we are. I don't ever want to be the guy that tells the customer that can play circles around me, that what he hears is wrong because I can't hear it.
Just two more observations.
1. It's been my experience that most all "NOTICEABLE improvements" in an instrument's response after installing some sort of miscellanea exotica are due to the fact that the guitar also got a new set of strings.
2. Most of the cats who dwell on snake oil potions are bed room rock stars whose amps never leave the same spot. A WORKING guitarist knows that the room they're performing in is a much larger influence on the final sonic landscape than the gear they're using.
Hi-fi systems can be reasonably evaluated because they're 'static' setups. It's always in the same room. I hope that Robbie can back me up that in the world of Hi-fi, $200 worth of well thought out room treatments will improve the sound of a system much better than a $10K@m pair of plutonium interconnects.
A guitar and amp, or a 'working' acoustic guitar, gets played in a different setting each night. In my shop, my acoustics sound thin and sterile. In my living room, they sound like well engineered studio recordings. When I want them to sound better, I move to the living room and play them. When I perform on stage, the FOH sound is out of my control so I just concentrate on [here's a strange concept for some] playing MUSIC.
OK, a sneaky 3rd observation to all the cats searching for a TRUE VINTAGE sound. Here's the secret sauce:.
1. Put heavy gauge strings on your guitar, especially noting a .026 WOUND G string.
2. Go to Rat Shack and buy their cheapest molded ends guitar cable.
3. Plug it into an amp with nearly dead and extremely mismatched tubes and a crappy inefficient speaker. Make sure the AC voltage from the wall plate fluctuates wildly.
4. NO FX pedals allowed.
That's how the original vintage artists got their sound.
I hope this doesn't morph into a "but what if your customer demanded it?" subtext post. It's just about the weird we have come across. And, cousin.... there's a BUNCH :)