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December 06, 2019 3 min read

Resident tone expert, Stew McKinsey, is tackling one of our biggest subjects: Tone.  Stew begins with one of the obvious factors, Wood.

For this series of pieces, I want to give you things to think about when deciding on a new instrument or what components you want when doing modification to an instrument. The factors in tone are not as simple as the woods and pickup choice in your bass or guitar, but it’s everything from your brain through the amp rig. This means that the individual components have an impact on the sound, but it all starts with you, with how you’re thinking about the music and with your specific technique when you play. You are the biggest element in your sound, so always think about what it is your touch brings out of an instrument when you’re considering any upgrade to your gear. I’ll revisit that later on, but this first article is dedicated to the construction of your axe.

Remember that organic materials like wood and bone (still one of the most popular materials for the nut) have a certain amount of unpredictability, so two pieces of wood cut from the same tree may not resonate the same way. So for everything I’m about to write, there will be exceptions. In other words, you’ll need to think about these factors in your sound as kind of broad strokes or basic guidelines rather than hard and fast rules. 
Nordstrand Audio Wood
Whether your neck is bolted to the body, set into it or running all the way through the body, you will hear a different envelope for the notes you play. Typically the bolt-on method of construction gives you more note up front and a faster decay while a neck-through instrument will have a more organic bloom for the notes with more resonance. The set neck will give you a nice compromise of elements, with good presence and nice sustain.

Next think about the actual materials in the build. Synthetic materials like graphite and carbon fiber are more consistent tonally, but they are not generally known for their personality. Generally these are best for detail, even response and knowing what you will get in terms of the low end and top end when you play. 

There is too much to write about woods to really encapsulate all the various species and combinations of them, but if you notice a lot of combinations that are popular, it’s because they generally yield certain sonic qualities. Maple is popular for necks because it’s consistent for wood working, reasonably stable and gives a nice balance of warmth, detail and presence. P- and J-basses are often built using either a swamp ash body and maple fingerboard or an alder body with rosewood ‘board. The first pairing will (usually) deliver a big bottom end with nice snap and detail in the treble frequencies, as well as having a pronounced scoop through the midrange. The second usually gives a warmer, darker sound with a nice balance across the frequency range. 

Nordstrand Audio Tone
But things like walnut, mahogany, cocobolo, wenge, ebony and all manner of species are popular in both mainstream and boutique luthiery. In many cases woods are chosen for their looks, which is why exotics are so popular, but each has its own personality.

And the more and different pieces of wood in a build — equating with more glue used in putting any instrument together — creates an increasingly neutral sound, even though something using lots of wild pieces may look very cool.

If you don’t know about the characteristics of woods, there are a lot of places to research this and loads of people to ask. In this particular instance I recommend talking with builders who work the woods and hear players of all sorts using them. And keep in mind that there are almost always several varieties of any wood you can name, with differences occurring as you move from one to another. It’s not always a good idea to ask players about lumber as a bassist or guitarist will often draw similar response from several different things because of the way he or she plays. Not that players aren’t knowledgeable or experienced, but good builders know a lot about a lot of woods. 

If you choose to do your research online, expect to find a lot of contradictory information so give yourself more time to learn if this is your methodology.

For the next installment, I will go into scale length and pickup placement.

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