Other Guitars

Can You Really Tell the Difference Between Acoustic Guitar Woods?

1

Listen to the following You Tube clip. (Don't watch until you've listened to it without viewing. Also don't read anything on the webpage before listening.)

Classical guitar player Gaelle Solal plays multiple acoustic guitars seamlessly blended into a single video.

Classical Guitar video

After listening, answer these questions, before watching the video:

  • How many different guitars did you perceive ?

  • Can you note the transition time points (when one guitar follows another) ?

  • How many of the perceived guitars are made from non-tropical wood species?

  • Can you identify the wood species used in building the guitars by sound alone?

2

Similar to the maple vs. rosewood sound question.

3

I dont think you can make any useful comparison listening to a recording on computer speakers.

4

With Stokes on this. In person, yes- all things being equal- you can hear a difference.

Last week I was at a Taylor Guitars "Road Show" in a local small-scale venue. There, you could hear the difference between spruce, mahogany and maple topped versions of the same acoustic instrument. To be as fair as possible, they were all played by the same artist, using the same chord positions and picking style. Yes, there are differences. You can hear them in those back-to-back circumstances.

But I seriously doubt I could tell one from the other in a recording or live situation, esp with other instruments in the mix.

5

Tone is in the fingers, right?

6

Tone is in the fingers, right?

– NJBob

Tone is in the ears! LOL.

7

and the pick you er... pick. After nearly 40 years of nothing but .050 and .060 I grabbed a freebie bag of "M"s at the Road show. I never used to use thicker picks because I preferred the crisper snap of the thin ones, particularly on a 12str..

But I gave these a try and there is almost as much difference in sound on a guitar as there is when the wood is changed like we're talking about here. I'd completely forgotten that factoid.

I'm couch-flying my T5z unamplified right now, and swapping between picks to be sure, but my ears say the thinner ones are certainly crisper and cleaner sounding, while thicker ones would need a little more treble on the EQ in comparison.

So now I have something new to play with.

8

Yes, we were told.... no, it wasn't blind on either part. But the tonal difference between the different tops could be heard. Softer tonewoods sounded mellow, more "seasoned" than the harder ones.

Price- didn't care that much. The one model I wanted to test fly wasn't included, so I wasn't pricing any of them. But I think that in general, mahogany is the most affordable (in the same line), while Koa is the most expensive, with Spruce and Maple in between.

Hey- I just answered a series of questions that vanished while I was typing... what happened???

9

Yes, we were told.... no, it wasn't blind on either part. But the tonal difference between the different tops could be heard. Softer tonewoods sounded mellow, more "seasoned" than the harder ones.

Price- didn't care that much. The one model I wanted to test fly wasn't included, so I wasn't pricing any of them. But I think that in general, mahogany is the most affordable (in the same line), while Koa is the most expensive, with Spruce and Maple in between.

Hey- I just answered a series of questions that vanished while I was typing... what happened???

– Kevin Frye

I deleted my post so as not to bias the discussion. Thank you for engaging them nonetheless.

10

Youtube is not the medium to use when listening for things like that. In person, the difference between guitar woods in a acoustic guitars ranges from extremely obvious to very subtle.

11

I would encourage people to read the Leonardo study page, referring not only to this online study but others conducted live. The findings between the online studies and in person studies are not different, despite what several of you have suggested. If a difference is that subtle, that it can't be assessed except under ideal conditions, it's unlikely to be significant in the real world. It's not the computer, it's the wood. As in no difference, when assessed objectively in groups of people.

https://sites.google.com/si...

(I remember Proteus posting a comparison of different pickups & guitars several years ago. There were many responses about the preferences among them. Nary a complaint that as a computer recording it was impossible to discern a difference.)

12

Well, headphones would make a difference.

And computer speakers vary wildly in their sonic range. The tiny pair in the Mac laptop which is my usual interface to the web are pretty high-middy (go figger). If I'm trying to make any kind of critical edits (much less decisions or judgments about tone), I'll either plug in the phones or fire up the bigger Mac which interfaces with my recording monitors.

Much is unquestionably missed on built-in computer speakers - but, in a weird way, they're useful too. Their focus is fortuitously in the same range where voice intelligibility and crucial timbral differences among musical tones happen (that same mid-hi-mid range).

I haven't taken the above acoustic guitar test, but I've been playing three acoustics of the same scale length and size, with samesame strings put on at the same time, back-to-back for several weeks. Two have the same wood combinations; the third is different. All three sound astonishingly different from each other. It's not even subtle.

I've been intending to record as controlled samples as I can manage, and post them unidentified for reactions. I won't identify the guitars, and it won't be a contest to identify them - just looking for tonal descriptions and "which do you like best."

My sense of fiscal responsibility insists that I sell one of them - the blatant differences in their tones argue for keeping all of them. I was hoping y'all could help me decide.

I'm curious to see if their differences are as obvious when recorded as when sitting behind the guitars, and to see how your sonic evaluations stack up with mine.

Should be interesting.

13

Tim, that would be an interesting experiment, to see if the differences you appreciate are consistently noted by others, in a blinded fashion. It’s one thing to strum three guitars back to back, as opposed to the way this test did it, randomly intermixing the guitars in a cohesive piece of music. The perceived differences in the first instance may be lost with other factors intervening.

I’m not suggesting that there are no differences, just that when one takes into account all the factors that go into producing a specific guitar sound, any one element is relatively insignificant to the final output. Two pieces of maple are as likely to sound different as a piece of maple and mahogany, making generalizations impossible, let alone sweeping statements like Brazilian rosewood is the best tone wood period.

Guitar companies make a lot of money convincing us that each part is so crucial, especially wood. They play on biases and flatter our perceptiveness as to recognize these “ important “ distinctions.

I’m disappointed no one has actually taken the challenge to see if they can recognize the different guitars in the clip. I’ll admit I can’t.

14

Tim, that would be an interesting experiment, to see if the differences you appreciate are consistently noted by others, in a blinded fashion. It’s one thing to strum three guitars back to back, as opposed to the way this test did it, randomly intermixing the guitars in a cohesive piece of music. The perceived differences in the first instance may be lost with other factors intervening.

I’m not suggesting that there are no differences, just that when one takes into account all the factors that go into producing a specific guitar sound, any one element is relatively insignificant to the final output. Two pieces of maple are as likely to sound different as a piece of maple and mahogany, making generalizations impossible, let alone sweeping statements like Brazilian rosewood is the best tone wood period.

Guitar companies make a lot of money convincing us that each part is so crucial, especially wood. They play on biases and flatter our perceptiveness as to recognize these “ important “ distinctions.

I’m disappointed no one has actually taken the challenge to see if they can recognize the different guitars in the clip. I’ll admit I can’t.

– drmilktruck

Don't be disappointed. On my iPad everything sounds like Tiny Tim on a ukelele.

15

In the Taylor demo, whether one wood sounded "better" than another appeared to be purely subjective. One flavor was decidedly more mellow, while another was audibly brighter, described as a "smile" tone because it sounded a little like a multiband EQ set higher at both ends than the middle. Meantime, the tonewood described as more "woody" was likened to an upside down smile on the EQ.

Different strokes for different folks. I could hear one wood as a bluegrass, pickin' kind of gitbox, while another produced chords where every string blended evenly across the neck making it a good strummer.. etc, etc.

It's added a dimension to my knowledge. Sure, some of it was salesmanship, but in the end, there was a lot of truth to it.

16

It’s one thing to strum three guitars back to back, as opposed to the way this test did it, randomly intermixing the guitars in a cohesive piece of music.

I can do that. Well, I don't know about a "cohesive piece of music," but I can intercut them.

17

That's interesting, and for sure the listener is handicapped by the computer sound with the exception of those who have a decent system hooked up to their computers. In the past, the nylon string guitar was something that I worked at on a regular basis, and after a couple of lessons, had enough to work on for many years. Tone production was a large component. Arguably, classical guitarists spend more effort learning to produce various tones and dynamics than most of the guitarists in other genres. In that regard, the sounds really are in the hands and the ear, and differences in sound from one instrument to another will be mediated by the player. The last lesson I had was several years ago and the last thing the teacher said was, "The sound is there, in your right hand."

I did, however, perform a simplified test by closing my eyes while listening to the video, and when I heard what I thought was a change in timbre I opened them. Most of the time she was playing a different instrument. A few times the guitar looked the same though. A few times the sound was quite different, and seemed to be destinguished by the amount of midrange; a kind of roundness or lack of. The term 'scooped' comes to mind. She sounds beautiful.

18

At first listen with my eyes closed I heard 3 different guitars. in the next run thru a good system with earphones I heard 8 the were definitively different.

19

I didn't try this as I agree about youtube, computer speakers etc...also it's too late, I should try it with my studio headphones

I think some of the biggest difference in acoustics of the same type and size would be the soundboard wood, for me, spruce being ideal. I think side and back woods would be next, but due to the nature of acoustic instruments made of wood I think it's hard to have hard fast definitions.

No two pieces of wood are going to sound the same anyway, you can get kind of close, but exact, no way, each acoustic instrument is pretty unique due to the organic and variable nature of the materials used. You can have two instruments made of the same woods in the same way and they can sound significantly different from each other. I noticed that when working at Larrivee, there were great ones, good ones, and not so good ones from guitars with the same specs.

20

My thought has always been that guitar tone is like coffee or mexican food. It's subjective and depends on the listener. Further, I think what is pleasing could be put on a bell curve. The outliers on each end of the curve are either too bright or too dark for the masses but as you move into the bell, there's naturally more nodding that "yeah, that sounds good."

I recently got a lesson in tonewood while in London cruising the guitar shops on Denmark Street. I played a Lowden 50 series made out of 5,000 year old bog oak. It had a sitka spruce top and sounded astounding for a moderate sized acoustic. I actually played five Lowdens but this one tickled my ears the best. (Again, purely subjective.) Young musician and store clerk Brandy Row worked me a deal and it could have been mine for a mere $7,800 after currency conversion... and that's AFTER I got my 20% VAT back! Alas, no sale.

I would have never thought of oak as a tone wood. Maybe lying in a peaty bog for thousands of years does something to it, in addition to preserving it. Finally, I would love to have a Lowden but they're out of my price range. Remarkable guitars, though. Made in Ireland.

21

It'll be a lot harder to discern the differences in tone woods on a mass produced acoustic guitar whose woods are thicknessed to certain generic measurements. Hand made guitars that are individually thicknessed/voiced can really show off the subtle differences/responsiveness in tone wood species, assuming the builder really knows their stuff. I'm sure that Lowden sounded like a million bucks!

22

So many factors enter into the sound a guitar makes before the species of the back and side woods come into play.

  1. Scale length

  2. Box volume

  3. Soundhole size

  4. Bracing pattern

  5. Bridge footprint

  6. Bridgeplate size

  7. Bracing height

  8. Scalloping

  9. Soundhole location

  10. Top wood species

  11. Neck construction including the peghead.

  12. alloy and gauge of the strings

After all that it's possible that the back and side wood SPECIES might color the sound slightly as a sympathetic resonator....but honestly I believe the density and hardness of the KERFING probably plays a bigger role. (maple, mahogany, basswood etc) Suffice it top say that when building a guitar you can make it sound however you want and wood species plays an extremely minor role in the overall scheme of things.

It's like arguing if you can taste the difference between lemon juice and lime juice by pouring a gallon of either one into a swimming pool.

23

What it gets down to is if someone perceives a difference in sound from different woods then it sounds different to them and really that is all that matters.


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