How to find the right guitar Pt 1. © Ian
Until you've clocked up five or ten footy seasons playing
and buying guitars, enduring at least a couple of broken love
affairs (with guitars) then it's likely that deciding whether
to buy that almost new shop demo Vectra Titanium neck Stage Deluxe
is not going to be easy!
Do I really need it? Will it fix all my sound problems? Am I
buying it 'cos Dude (the salesman) said "It was made
by Gods' brother-in-law and it's the only one Australia
gets". Some of these questions can only be answered personally
but the important questions are:
- Does it look good?
- Does it feel good?
- Does it sound good?
And question No.3 is the tricky one! In the right hands,
almost anything can sound great!
What can help here is some way of playing different guitars in
different locations and being able to compare and evaluate them.
Before looking at the two most popular guitar types (Steel string
acoustics and solid body electrics) we should have a look at the
full family of guitars.
Nylon or gut strung guitar usually with Spruce or Cedar top, Rosewood
back and sides.
Nylon strung with less body depth and thinner wood dimensions
than the Classic, usually with Cypress back and sides and Cedar
3.Flat Top steel string acoustic.
Available in many shapes and sizes and scale lengths, usually
with Spruce Top (solid wood or ply), Rosewood, Mahogany or Maple
back and sides (solid or ply).
4. Solid Body "bolt-on" neck.
The vast majority of electrics in all shapes and sizes. Best known
(and most copied) being the Fender Stratocaster and Telecaster,
first produced in the fifties.
5. Solid Body "set-neck" and Plank neck(neck through
Best known of these would be the Gibson Les Paul and Gibson Firebird
Typically these are guitars like the Gibson 335 constructed from
a steam pressed ply top and back with a glued in set neck.
7. Arch-Top or Jazz guitar.
This is usually a full sized body with a carved Spruce top and
carved Maple back and a high set movable bridge.
A somewhat recent addition to the family typically being like
a bolt-on solid body, hollowed out with a strutted acoustic style
top built over the body.
There are many variations within each of these types (including
Bass guitars) and we'll get further into that a bit later.
Before looking at the workings of a guitar it's important
to realise a couple of basic truths about the mechanics of a guitar.
1. Strings behave in a way (wriggle about) that is dependent
on what they are attached to.
Let's take a very stiff guitar made out of relatively dense
material like the carbon fibre Steinberger guitar. This guitar
has a very rapid response time, long sustain and a clear, clean
cutting sound with a fairly tight feel under the hands. By comparison
a much lighter, looser feeling guitar like a Gibson SG is made
of relatively light wood with a long neck producing a slower responding
more mellow, full bodied sound.
In both cases the string behaviour is inextricably "married"
to the guitar it's attached to and although the sound is
what the pick-ups see of the string movement it's really
a way of "seeing" the behaviour of the whole guitar.
2. Most of the behaviour of a guitar is analogous to a mass suspended
on a spring.
|Let's imagine the mass (weight) above being a house
brick. If we pull the brick down a little bit and let it go,
it will oscillate up and down around the original position
at a certain frequency. If we increase the mass, the system
will oscillate proportionately more slowly over a larger distance.
This simple relationship between stiffness and mass is true for
all oscillating systems and any consideration of guitar behaviour
can be looked at in this way.
For example, if we clamp the house brick to the headstock of
an acoustic guitar, it will reduce the amplitude of back and forth
motion the vibrating string induces into the headstock, and also
increase the resonant frequency of the headstock. The effect of
this is to cause a lot more of the string energy to be dissipitated
at the body end of the guitar, thereby increasing the volume,
transient response, fullness and sustain of the guitar!
Try it if you don't believe me- it really works, and in fact
there are products advertised in music mags. that add weight to
the headstock for this very purpose. Pressing an acoustic guitars'
headstock against the kitchen table is a great organic amplifier
at those louder kitchen partys; lost headstock energy is used
to vibrate the table and the guitar sounds firmer to boot!
Okay!- armed with the notion that mass and stiffness are somehow
important, we can look at the Flat top steel string acoustic guitar,
commonly called an acoustic.
I break acoustics into three groups.
1. All ply construction:
These are most guitars up to $400-$500 and the top, back and sides
are made of three veneers of wood with the centre veneers grain
running at 90 Degrees to the others.
This produces a strong, stable, stiff and heavy top or back compared
to solid wood. It is also much more economical in mass production.
Most guitars in this group are Dreadnought size and sound relatively
similar, although the characteristics of different back/sides
timbers come out in ply guitars if to a lesser extent as they
do in solid wood guitars.
In choosing a guitar in this range I tend to look for lightness
and playability. Generally the lighter guitar will be more responsive
and fuller bodied whereas the heavier guitar will be brighter,
punchier and tighter to play. These days all guitars should be
reasonably playable with no more than the thickness of a $2 coin
between the low E and the 12th. fret and no more than a 50 Cent
piece on the high E.1
2. Solid Top, Ply back and sides construction:
This group ranges from around $500-$1500 and offers a variety
of Dreadnoughts, Jumbos, Concert and Folk shapes and sizes. (In
the catalogues these are usually specified as Solid Top, whereas
all ply type guitars are referred to as "select spruce top".)
The solid top is lighter and more compliant and responsive than
ply and therefore produces a sound richer and more complex in
harmonic (overtone) structure and a sense of more responsiveness
under the hands.
3. Solid Wood guitars:
This is the $1500 and up group and any design parameters such
as size, sound hole size, scale, body depth etc. applies to ply
and solid top guitars as well.