The Tone Wood Debate: Why You Are All Wrong

The Tone Wood Debate

The tone wood debate is a contentious issue amongst guitarists and has been for decades.

At this very second, there’s likely swathes of people arguing about it online. Needlessly.

Tone wood makes no difference! No, it makes all the difference!

But as with many topics, common sense can be found at the center of the two opposing viewpoints.

In this post, I’ll share my thoughts on why the extremities of each viewpoint are wrong.

“I can’t hear a difference so there isn’t one.”

This is the primary argument against guitar tone wood and it’s bizarre.

If you can’t hear a difference in tone between different guitars, that’s fine. But it doesn’t mean it’s not there.

Two words: ear training.

Some players and producers can spot very subtle differences that mere mortals like us may never be able to.

That’s just a fact.

For example, an experienced producer/player can very easily listen to two similar guitar tracks playing back in a DAW and say “Well, let’s go with the second one because it doesn’t have that peak at 2.5Khz. It’ll fit better with the click of the kick drum.”

And that’s without having to look at a frequency analyzer.

We’re talking next-level perfect pitch here.

But, without ear training, it’s very difficult to distinguish any tonal differences between any instruments. Let alone between similar sounding guitars.

“Tone wood makes a massive difference”

It can make a difference but it’s ultimately just a small part of a larger equation.

There are other factors at play that will affect your tone.

When combined, these other factors become a force multiplier for tone. Or, physics. Because this is just science.

Different materials resonate differently and that difference will widen depending on how the guitar is finished and put together. 

For example:

  • Neck joint (bolt-on, set neck or neck through – bolt-on will typically result in more spank/brightness)
  • Neck woods
  • Body woods
  • Guitar finish (poly/nitro)
  • Body thickness
  • Type of bridge (Bigsby, Floyd Rose, 6-point trem, fixed bridge, etc)
  • Your pickups (single coils will sound brighter than humbuckers)
  • Your technique

… the list goes on.

Then there are the other tonal differences introduced by amps and pedals. 

Some differences will be more pronounced under different circumstances.

For example, if you are running straight into your interface and using a plugin like Amplitube or an amp modeler like a Quadcortex – things will sound different.

How many pedals you are using, the pedals themselves, buffer or no buffer, and the type of amp, etc. Various amp characteristics will affect your tone.

It really depends on your entire setup.

Some gear doesn’t sound great together, other gear is the complete opposite. 

Combine a dark sounding guitar with a dark sounding amp and you will struggle to EQ that darkness away.

Then, if you combine a spanky guitar with a spanky amp, you’ll end up with too much spank. Makes sense, right? Spank + spank = even more spank

Sometimes you might be able to EQ the spank away, but other times it’ll hit at just the right (or wrong) frequency that you won’t be able to touch it unless you’ve got a frequency analyzer and a graphic EQ.

But as a lot of mixing engineers will tell you – fixing it in the mix should be a last resort only.

So, tone wood matters but it’s not the only part of your guitar that matters.

Your guitar and the rest of your rig are just the sum of its parts.

Why guitar features and gear choices matter

These various factors can lead to an overly bright guitar, one that’s overly dark or one that sits somewhere in the middle.

Here’s an extreme example:

I have a PRS S2 Singlecut in cherry with a satin finish. It’s a wonderful guitar and it plays great.

But this guitar is a good example of how various factors alter the tone of a guitar. 

It’s got a set neck, humbuckers, and a satin finish amongst other things. And with wood choices like a solid mahogany body, and rosewood fretboard.

Almost all of those characteristics make the guitar sound that bit darker. It’s far darker than a Les Paul, for example.

If the guitar was a bolt-on with single coils, a maple fretboard, and an alder body, it would sound far different. Those characters help to make a guitar sound brighter.

So with this guitar especially, I have to be careful with my amp choices more than any other. I can only pair it with a bright amp. And even then, it’s a bit too dark for my ears.

Sure treble boosters are a thing and can partially solve the issue of an overtly dark sounding guitar going into a dark amp. But not everyone likes how they sound. So, your mileage may vary. 

And the tonality of an amp can be changed beyond its tone controls by swapping tubes & speakers. That’s a topic beyond the scope of this post.

But does any of this matter in context?

Yes, it does. Even if you can’t hear a difference, it still matters.

In a mix, everything changes. And in live situations, everything changes in a different way.

But as any engineer or producer will tell you; details matter.

Sure, in isolation some guitar tracks will sound terrible. In a full mix? They’ll sound exactly the way they need to sound.

Your gear choices matter. And they will affect a recording.

The problem is that fixing a dark sounding guitar in a mix requires boosting frequencies that you shouldn’t have to boost. That introduces other issues.

You could try to cut certain frequencies so it would sound less dark but you can seriously mess up the overall sound of the guitar by doing that. 

If I were to pair my PRS S2 with a dark sounding amp like a Suhr PT15 – it would result in a mixing engineer’s nightmare. 

Why do it? The lesson here is don’t do it. 

Instead, I can pair this dark sounding guitar with a bright sounding amp. Something with some spank and chime like a Victory Copper or a Vox AC15.

The result? A much easier time for whoever is mixing the track.

Pro tip: Make the mixing engineer’s job easier by recording a clean DI signal along with each guitar track. For example, I prefer to mic up an amp but I’ll use a Radial JDI to take an unaffected signal directly into my audio interface. This opens up the option of re-amping at a later date.

And the inverse is true but less of an issue. Pair a bright guitar like a tele with a bright amp and you are going to have a bad time. Probably even just being in the room!

For example, my old 50s black guard Fender Tele always sounded too bright into certain amps. The result of the design choices that went into that guitar resulted in a significant amount of spank.

Fender American 50s Telecaster Body Great Guitars For Playing Blues

For a guitar like this going into a bright amp, you could cut frequencies. It’s more ideal than boosting them but it’s not always ideal.

Think about the brightness and darkness of your gear. Your mixed and mastered music will be all the better for it.

And in a live situation, certain tonal nuances will be completely hidden or accentuated. It’s an entirely different thing to recording.

But it becomes incredibly easy for you to lose the ability to cut through the mix. So, guitar and gear choices still matter. 

Your amp’s EQ won’t solve everything

Too many people think every tonal issue can be solved with a few tone pots on an amp.

Sure, some amps have more powerful tone stacks than others. For example Mesa Boogie amps have particularly powerful active EQ sections.

This is one of the things I love about my Lonestar.

Mesa Boogie Lonestar Special

But EQ isn’t a magic fix for every problem. Whether it be the EQ on an amp, in your DAW, or outboard gear. 

It’s better to get it right at the source. You’ll save yourself more time in the long run. 

And your music will sound better. Which is what we’re all after, right? 

A dark sounding amp sounds dark, especially with a dark sounding guitar. And it’s difficult (sometimes impossible) to EQ your way out of that issue. That’s just how it is

But when you pair that dark amp with a bright sounding guitar, you usually won’t have that issue.

And the same goes for a dark guitar with a bright amp.

Pro tip: In a band context, if your guitar won’t cut through, try the inverse rig to the other guitarist in your band. If they are playing a Les Paul, try playing a strat or tele. Don’t forget to consider your amp choices as well. If you are playing a dark guitar into a dark amp, that’ll be your issue.

Final thoughts

Let’s summarize this contentious issue.

Whether your hearing is acute enough to hear it, tone wood definitely is a thing. But it’s not the only thing that will affect your guitar’s tone.

The guitar is the sum of its parts and gear choices matter.

It’s time to look beyond this two-dimensional tone wood debate.

Guitar tonewoods and all of those other nuances come together to create a significant difference in tone. It boils down to physics. 

As they say, the devil is in the details. 

Understanding the details matters because if we can do that, we can stop wasting time arguing with randoms on social media about guitar tone wood.

And a piece of gear isn’t bad just because you can’t make it sound good. 

Some distortion pedals or overdrive pedals need to go into a cranked amp to sound good. And no clean pedal platform amp will save you from that reality.

So, If you can’t get your Boss DS-1 to sound good into a clean amp, this is why. It’s not a bad pedal.

It all depends on your guitar and your rig. It’s the sum of its parts.

Understanding all of this is the important first step in finding the ideal guitar rig. The rig that works for you.