Tonewood. A topic that causes such massive disagreement amongst so few. In real terms there are more people practising copraphagia right now than who truly give a ‘shit’ about tonewood. It seems that every subculture of society has a niche subject that they fight to the death over. In the days of 8-bit computing it was the Sinclair Spectrum versus Commodore 64 battle. It can be argued that one of the machines should absolutely have been awarded the win. The Commodore 64 was the technically superior box of chips. But, even today, I would grant Sinclair’s humble machine the victory. You see, life doesn’t fit nicely into the square-shaped hole. Opinions, although indeed like arseholes, are important to the individual. Unless you’ve walked in someone’s shoes you cannot judge their verdict on an argument. Life is tricky. And a raging argument can rampage forever onward with no purpose. Like a forest fire, the eventual, desolate scene of blackened carnage does not remember the initial, tiny spark from the match.
So what is tonewood? For the uninitiated, tonewood describes the species of wood used to construct a musical instrument, chosen specifically for its impact on the quality and nature of that instrument’s sound. The current argument raging amongst the few on the internet regards the use of tonewood in the manufacture of the electric guitar. When precisely this ‘argument’ reared its head is hard to fathom. I have played the electric guitar since my teens and I have to admit that until last year I did not have any comprehension of the intricacies of ‘tonewood’. Not only that, but I’m not sure anyone else did either. Now, don’t misunderstand me, I was aware that, for example, Jimmy Page’s 1959 Les Paul was held aloft as a beacon of greatness due to it’s seasoned, and (due to the gigs and records it had featured on) almost spiritual wood. I say I was ‘aware’, but what I really mean is that I’d read about it in guitar magazines. There is an understandable significance placed on historically important guitars and if that ‘significance’ was absorbed by the young me then it must have been taken on board by every player of my generation. However, when I bought my first guitar I did not know what wood it was constructed from. And when I bought my second guitar I did not know or care what wood it was made from. Likewise with my third. I have a Les Paul and a Telecaster and I could not tell you, even now, what woods they are made from. I assume the Les Paul is mahogany and I guess the Telecaster is ash or alder or something else beginning with an ‘a’… but I don’t know. So when did the argument over ‘tonewood’ arise?
Although people state that the tonewood debate has been raging forever and a day I would dispute that. Perhaps it was a real issue amongst the illuminati of the electric guitar. But for the everyday player it meant nothing. It was nothing. It wasn’t even an ex-parrot. No. I only became aware of the tonewood debate when I started watching videos on YouTube. That was 2015. ‘But the argument must have raged before then?’ I hear you ask. Yes, maybe. But I was not aware of it. The press wasn’t discussing it. So it wasn’t ‘out there’. Is it even ‘out there’ now? Maybe it isn’t? I reckon that if you were to ask guitar players (even famous players) who do not watch YouTube videos for their views on the tonewood debate you would be met with silence. I chose my guitars for their colours. There is far more to the electric guitar than the wood underneath those layers of paint. Therefore I’m going to stick with the Youtube era as the time when this debate rose from Jimi Hendrix’s sacred bones. Personally, I stumbled upon the debate when I watched videos by Scott Grove, Will Gelvin, Duncan Kinnaird and Rob Chapman. I’ll admit right now that it interested me. The wood a guitar is made from ‘doesn’t’ affect its sound? Hmmmm… although I hadn’t given it any prior thought, when presented with this simple idea, it still provoked a twinge in the spine. Let’s say that again… the wood a guitar is made from has no impact on the sound it makes when it’s plugged in. It did indeed beg scientific analysis. Hence the need to watch every video on the subject! And so I did.
Simple. The science showed that the wood made no difference. Didn’t it? Will Gelvin and Duncan Kinnaird proved it to be so. Without a shadow of a doubt. Will even went so far as to call anyone who believed wood made any difference whatsoever a dumb fuck. I may have got the precise insult wrong… but it was something along those lines. And I was along for the ride. It did appear simple. The pickup is (simplistically!) a magnet with a wire wrapped around it. A field is produced which the vibrations of the guitar strings interfere with, thereby generating small amounts of electricity. This electricity is amplified to produce sound. The argument of the anti-tonewood brigade is therefore that the sound is caused by the movement of the metal string in the magnetic field. Nothing else. So how can the wood affect the movement of the guitar string in the magnetic field? Now, as I said, I was on board with this argument. But, today, as I type these words I can see that the issue is far more complex. I wish someone had laid it out then as I have now. Let me repeat. How can the wood affect the movement of the guitar string in the magnetic field? Wow. If it had been put like that I may have doubted myself!
I created a video, filmed in my car, where I discussed the impact of wood mass on the sound of a plugged-in electric guitar. I came to the conclusion that it couldn’t affect the sound too much. And, in a way, I tend to stand by that conclusion. The downfall of my own argument however is a fundamental one. What do we mean when we say tone? This question is ground zero in this debate. It is the primary cause of all the nonsense. For me, back then, ‘tone’ referred to the ‘quality’ of the sound. The bass, middle and treble-ness of the sound. Did it refer to the ‘resonance’ or all the other ‘qualities’ that an electric guitar’s sound can be said to possess? No. I was just thinking of the ‘brightness’ or the ‘darkness’ of the sound. And to be perfectly honest with you I believe that light and dark have dominated the tonewood debate. But there must be more to the argument than whether or not the sun is hiding behind a cloud?
There were those (the majority?) who were vociferous in their belief that wood has a significant impact on the tone of an electric guitar. Chief among this group was Warlock Wyatt. Vilified by the anti-tonewood crowd, and put up by them as the leader of the pro-tonewood faction, Wyatt was an interesting character. An apparent bedroom guitar player who had introduced himself to the debate by calling out Scott Grove, Wyatt was the spearhead for those who opposed Gelvin and Kinnaird. Although Rob Chapman was the establishment’s figure head, it was Wyatt who carried the argument to the (relatively speaking) masses. Wyatt was a talented guitar player and one who, tonewood nonsense aside, would be easy to side with. His heartfelt outpourings as to why the electric guitar was important to him were genuine and, were it not for his sometimes abusive ‘tone’, would have won him many plaudits. Still, Wyatt brought together the pro-tonewood side of the debate in a unified ‘fuck you’ to the supposed ‘accepted science’.
The war began. There were casualties on both sides but the nature of the argument appeared to change. Although the opposing armies remained resolute in their beliefs in the existence or non-existence of ‘tonewood’, the generals changed their stance. Wyatt decided that wood may only make a small difference and Gelvin stated that wood might just make a difference in certain, unspecified circumstances. What caused this sea change? There were filmed experiments that contradicted both parties’ points of view. And there was also a seeming lack of conviction. Had someone who had called all those who disagreed with him ‘retarded’ really backed down on his once rock-solid position? Chapman is still adamant that tonewood is real. Not only real, but highly significant. Grove and Kinnaird are still adamant that tonewood is a myth. Gelvin and Wyatt meet somewhere in the middle.
The barrier to the truth is the constant cry of ‘it doesn’t matter’. But it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t matter. The question of whether the wood affects the sound of a plugged-in electric guitar can be answered. It is not a mystical question. There is no need for divine intervention. The wood either does or doesn’t make a difference. The difference, or lack of, is perfectly measurable. That it hasn’t been satisfactorily measured yet is a sign of disinterest by the establishment. So, why is this the case?
Have guitar companies knowingly perpetuated the ‘myth’ of tonewood or is tonewood so obviously a real-world phenomenon that no one, bar internet commenters, doubts its existence? The anti-tonewood brigade insists that ‘tonewood’ is a tool used by Gibson, Fender, PRS et al to inflate the retail value of electric guitars. But can this really be the case if I managed to reach this point in my life unaware of tonewood? Sure, I’ve always understood that guitars made with exotic woods cost a lot of money. Lottery-winner-style money. But that was an obvious consequence of wanting a guitar made with quality materials and displaying unique, eye-catching looks. Did I believe that the rare ‘Angus Duras Tiger Betjeman’ wood made the guitar sound better? Maybe. I don’t know. I can’t remember. But I know that, even today, I would choose a guitar on its looks over its wood. That doesn’t necessarily make me pro or anti. I just like a good looking guitar. That’s why the question of ‘who perpetuates the myth?’, if it is indeed a myth, is so difficult to answer. Does Rob Chapman preach tonewood in his videos to sell his guitars at a higher price? It does not seem that way. As far as I am aware ‘Chapman Guitars’ are affordable guitars. The brand is an affordable brand. Chapman Guitars have won awards for best beginner’s guitar and best low-cost option. The pro-tonewood side have been vilified as money-grabbers. The anti-tonewood side have suffered being portrayed as a cult.
Why is the tonewood debate still raging when the people who could settle the matter for once and for all are standing at the side-lines? Do you hear Gibson or Fender weighing in? Universities? Television documentary makers? Anyone other than individuals on YouTube? No. Silence.
So who cares about the tonewood debate? Well, I for one still find the question of the significance of electric guitar wood interesting. The idea of the mechanics of the guitar. The system. The vibrations, the electrics, the pickups the everything. But it is an interest that should not be hampered by idiocy. And the idiocy is the violence of the argument. This seemingly accepted, but totally unacceptable, violence. People are beating each other up over an argument that will never be sorted. A person who owns an exotic wooded, or otherwise expensive guitar, is willing to punch a Squier owner in the face. And the owner of the Squier has to be careful that his argument doesn’t come across as sheer jealousy. Even if the debate was settled right now, categorically, with absolute certainty, people would still fight. Because they can. And most of all because they want to. That’s the most important factor that is either forgotten or ignored. People want to fight. Because, wait for it, they ‘enjoy’ fighting.
I still believe that the Sinclair Spectrum was a greater computer than the Commodore 64. Yes, it has been proved not to be the case… something about colour graphics and an infinitely better sound chip, //scoff, but I still believe the Spectrum to be the best. That is the root of the problem. And that is why this seemingly insignificant little issue will rage on amongst those who want it to. Because people like to fight and there is no better fight right now amongst a handful in the ‘internet-guitar-community’ than this one. And, remember, people often lose sight of what they’re fighting for. It becomes about the fight rather than the issue.
Okay, what did we define ‘tone’ as again?