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Acoustics? I don't get what makes one better than the others?

Discussion in 'Other Guitars, other instruments' started by Axis29, Mar 8, 2011.

  1. 3 Chord

    3 Chord Friend of Leo's

    Age:
    51
    Mar 20, 2007
    Billings MT
    I would go hang out on the AGF (acoustic guitar forum) too and ask your questions. Nothing against the advice here but give it a try. You can never have too much good information.

    Check out Frets.com too.

    In general, the challenge to a decent acoustic is the lighter the build, the increased resonance and volume (for a given body size). But as with most things there is a trade off, lighter builds and high performance usually means solid woods (as opposed to laminated) and with solid woods come increased care and feeding (as well as cost in general).
     

  2. DocG

    DocG Tele-Holic

    Wide-grained tops

    I was going to say just that. My Collings D1A has some of the widest grain I've ever seen in its Adirondack top, and I'm not exaggerating when I say that I cannot play it in front of anyone else without them commenting on its gorgeous sound. (Not my playing, just the tone...)

    If you want to hear what truly great acoustic guitars sound like, listen to a recording by Russ Barenberg. While Russ could make a cigar box sound good, he gets tone out of an old Gibson J-45 that will bring tears to your eyes. Other examples of superb tone can be heard at the McPherson Guitars web site (probably the most gorgeous web site around) and at the site of Dream Guitars, which has sound clips of its high end instruments, played by the inhumanly skillful Al Petteway.

    And folks, never think you're unworthy of a fine guitar. A fine guitar will inspire you to rise to its level. It will be the best thing that ever happened to your playing.
     

  3. DocG

    DocG Tele-Holic

    This pinned my credulity meter, so I went to the bookcase and pulled out Tony Bacon's book "The History of the American Guitar" and started examining photos. They clearly show bookmatched two piece tops on the 1840 Martin, an 1883 Lyon and Healy, two 1930s Prairie States, the 1944 Epiphone, 1925 Weissenborn, 1930s Stella, 1952 Stromberg Master 400 and dozens of other top-of-the-line instruments from Martin and Gibson. If one piece tops were so desirable, we'd expect to see them on these high-end guitars.

    Some bookmatching was so carefully done, with wood having very uniform grain and no runout, that it is very hard to tell it's not a single piece. But there's no doubt that the use of two piece tops in premium guitars has predominated since the beginning of American guitarmaking.
     

  4. Nick JD

    Nick JD Doctor of Teleocity Ad Free Member

    You need an absolutely massive tree to get even, quartersawn, tight grain over the width of a guitar.
     

  5. dmarg1045

    dmarg1045 Friend of Leo's

    Oct 28, 2006
    Massachusetts
    Agreed. The notion that a "solid top" means a "one-piece top" is nothing I ever heard of. I have seen one-piece top wood available for sale occasionally. I have a couple of 40's archtops--two-piece tops.
     

  6. Nick JD

    Nick JD Doctor of Teleocity Ad Free Member

    It's quite easy with tight, straight grained spruce to join the pieces so it looks one piece. Often it's the symmetry that's the giveaway.

    I think having the same wood on the treble and bass sides of the soundboard is a good thing.
     

  7. motwang

    motwang Tele-Afflicted

    Apr 11, 2010
    plattsburg mo.
    +1. I Different guitars have different sounds, even two Martin pre war D-28's that were made side by side at the factory would or could have a different sound. The piece of wood's resonance will make a difference in the sound as well as bracing, glue, and a myriad of other components.
    Also, the type of music being played means different styles sound different. Dreadnaughts, concerts, classical, etc. all have distinct differences in sound that may be good for different applications, Example, Dreads are used mainly ( but not exclusively) in Bluegrass style music.
    I personally don't own very expensive guitars, and am happy with my "sound" or "tone". I also, would love to have a better acoustic as I love the sound of a great Martin ( just my personal preference). So play'em and iff they make YOU happy, that's all that matters.
     

  8. DocG

    DocG Tele-Holic

    Looking at the top at an angle, with your face at the tailpiece, one side of the top will usually appear lighter than the other. This is due to grain runout. That's the fact that the grain is not perfectly parallel to the surface in the vertical dimension. Looking from the peghead, you'll see the other side of the top looks lighter. Here's a great discussion and photos.

    There have been a couple of builders who've made tops of two different woods. Here's one of Howard Klepper's "Dovetail Madness" guitars. He didn't stop with the top! [​IMG]
     

  9. Gnobuddy

    Gnobuddy Friend of Leo's

    Sep 15, 2010
    British Columbia
    That could very well be. Remember, the classical guitar with the single-piece top that I mentioned was made in Spain, not America. The cheap Plum Blossom guitar I still have was made in China, not America. Before that I had another budget acoustic guitar made in India, and it too had a solid one-piece top. That guitar eventually died, the top cracked in two, and it ended up in the trash can (that was before recycling bins).

    I'm no longer in contact with the guy who owns that Italian classical guitar, but I can always take photos of the old cheapy Plum Blossom and post them here if anyone wants. As you can see quite clearly from the top grain, it is not book matched. As you can see quite clearly from the end grain in the sound hole, it is not plywood.

    I never said, by the way, that it was proven that a single-piece top sounds better than two halves glued together - re-read my posts if you like. But if lots of glue joints are bad, as we are all agreed on, then fewer is probably better, and you cannot get any fewer than zero - a one-piece solid top.

    There is one other interesting thing to consider. As mentioned earlier, contemporary wood glues are denser and harder than the wood around them. When sound travelling through wood hits a harder material like this glue, part of it it will reflect rather than travel on (very much like light travelling through air and then hitting the surface of a pond - some of it reflects back).

    So there is there is going to be more of this sort of sound reflection going on in a guitar with a two-piece top than in a guitar with a one-piece top. Roughly speaking, with the one-piece top being twice as wide, vibrational modes in the top wood will go down to half the frequency before they start to experience these internal reflections (this time off the edges of the top where they meet the sides of the guitar). In the book-matched two piece top, those reflections will start higher, at roughly twice the frequency.

    That much is pretty trustworthy, based on the physics of sound waves, so we can guess that the book-matched guitar will likely have a different sort of sound in the upper registers than the one with a single-piece top. Whether that sound is better, worse, or not different enough to matter, I don't know - it probably depends on a ton of variables, including the quality and uniformity of the wood and all the other details that go into making a good guitar.

    -Gnobuddy
     
    Last edited: Mar 27, 2011

  10. Gnobuddy

    Gnobuddy Friend of Leo's

    Sep 15, 2010
    British Columbia
    Dunno if they were quartersawn or not. Massive trees were very common before we logged all our old-growth forests. When I was a kid my parents had bits of furniture with four-foot-wide solid teak wood planks in them, and it wasn't expensive furniture. Heck, my mom had rosewood furniture with planks over two feet wide in them - solid rosewood.

    -Gnobuddy
     

  11. Gnobuddy

    Gnobuddy Friend of Leo's

    Sep 15, 2010
    British Columbia
    Sure, drop a piece of pine and a same-size piece of, say, poplar, and anyone can instantly hear the difference in the sound that results. Sound travels at different speeds in different types of wood, and that changes the various mechanical resonant frequencies of a chunk of wood. Our ears pick up those different sets of resonant frequencies effortlessly and instantly. Nobody will mistake the sound of a plastic ballpoint pen falling on concrete from the sound of a wooden pencil falling on the same floor.

    So the back and sides of a guitar do make a difference, it's just a much subtler difference than the difference between two different types of top...

    I really think musicians way too often get way too hung up on the sound of the instrument, though, rather than the quality of the music. When Frank Gambale is playing a guitar - any guitar, made of any wood - I want to listen, and the tone of the guitar itself becomes largely irrelevant. I'd listen to that guy playing strings stretched over a tin can!

    -Gnobuddy
     

  12. Gnobuddy

    Gnobuddy Friend of Leo's

    Sep 15, 2010
    British Columbia
    I played both guitars that day, and base my opinion on my own playing and the tone I was able to extract from both guitars. The owner of the Martin played both guitars too, but I wasn't about to ask him which he preferred - I think that would probably have offended him, and he's a nice guy I would not want to offend. I mean, if you'd spent several grand on a vintage Martin, how would you react to someone asking how you'd rate it compared to a $110 Walmart job? :D

    I agree that right hand technique is a huge factor in acoustic tone. I'm no Frank Gambale by a very long shot, and don't have huge technical chops on guitar, but most musicians I play with seem to like my guitar tone, both electric and acoustic. Most recently, I got a compliment on my playing last Wednesday from one of the music teachers at the studio where I take guitar lessons - his instruments are violin and fiddle, and he overheard my acoustic guitar playing during my lesson that day and complimented me on it (tone and playing) after the lesson. He's an accomplished professional with a yard-long resume in orchestral and chamber music, so I was humbled to get a compliment from him.

    However, it's quite true that I'm a Gnobuddy, and you may very well decide to dismiss my opinions entirely as coming from someone with tin ears and absolutely no clue. Everyone has a right to their opinions, so if you do come to that viewpoint, I certainly won't challenge it - it's your prerogative to have your own opinion!

    FWIW, the owner of that vintage Martin has quite a collection of vintage acoustics. He is a very, very nice fellow. He is also not a great guitarist. After decades of playing, he still cannot seem to play a steady rhythm through a song, or for more than a few bars for that matter. He tries to put more complex and impressive-sounding stuff into his playing, and pretty much immediately loses the groove every time he does. When he plays, I don't try to jam with him, because it's impossible to stay in sync with his erratic tempo and rhythm. So I put down my guitar and wait politely for him to finish. I notice some of the other instrumentalists do that, too!

    The same gentleman showed up at a recent song circle/jam with a vintage Guild twelve-string he'd just bought. Now, that was a guitar I'd have liked to own! Lovely tone, incredible volume. I liked it much better than his Martin.

    -Gnobuddy
     

  13. dmarg1045

    dmarg1045 Friend of Leo's

    Oct 28, 2006
    Massachusetts
    Gnobody, I love your opinions! This is a discussion, not a competition. The only thing that you wrote that I disagree with is the notion that 30 years ago most guitars had one-piece tops, and that is something that can be researched.

    Regarding your friend with the beautiful guitars and the mediocre skills: just like with electrics, the only qualification to buy a nice instrument is the money to pay for it.

    This thread piqued my interest because I do have pretty good acoustics (all two-piece tops, btw). I definitely want folks to be happy with what they have, not that they need my permission to do so. But I want to make the point that I believe that better acoustics sound, well, better. This is, of course, subjective. I believe that people that haven't tried top of the line acoustics, should.

    Yesterday I was in a chain music store and I played a few Art & Lutherie guitars. Solid cedar tops, plywood backs and sides: not bad! Whenever students walk in with an A & L guitar, I'm happy.
     

  14. DOGMA Dunn

    DOGMA Dunn Friend of Leo's

    Mar 2, 2011
    Reno
    Acoustic tone snobery is more expensive than electric guitar snobery. It will cost you more to aquire the taste.
     

  15. motwang

    motwang Tele-Afflicted

    Apr 11, 2010
    plattsburg mo.
    Like I said before, Play a bunch of 'em, and buy the one YOU like. You are the one that matters, if it sounds good to you that's what makes the sound good. Guitars are like people, ain't no two alike! One thing we do have in common here is a love for guitar, whether its solid wood, electric, a Les Paul, a Tele, A harp guitar, it does'nt matter, all are good.
     

  16. Gnobuddy

    Gnobuddy Friend of Leo's

    Sep 15, 2010
    British Columbia
    I think this may have been a regional thing. Every acoustic guitar I saw in Bombay (India) in the 1980's had a one-piece solid wood top. The Chinese-made Plum Blossom acoustic I bought in 1990 here in the USA was brought into the country by a Chinese college student who lived in the same dorm I did, and it has a solid single-piece top. It is clearly a budget instrument as well, lacking even a truss rod.

    If these cheap guitars had one-piece tops, it is probably a safe logical assumption to make that at that time, the cost of a single piece wooden top was actually cheaper than the additional labour cost of cutting and gluing together a two-piece top.

    So I assumed the same would have been true here in the USA thirty years ago, until you showed me otherwise by looking up old catalog pages. I think the difference is that the USA had begun logging on a large industrial scale much earlier than these other countries, and had consequently destroyed all the old-growth big trees much sooner. I do remember that William Boeing (founder of the Boeing company) made his fortune logging trees in the early 1900's, and used that money to start the Boeing aircraft company. His father had become rich in the same timber industry before that. So here in the USA, the forests were being mercilessly cut down as fast as possible even in the 1800's.

    I do believe that low cost wasn't the only reason for using single-piece tops on acoustics, though. That made-in-spain classical guitar I mentioned wasn't a dirt-cheap model. The owner told me he had paid over one thousand euros for it in Spain, and that was most of a decade ago, before the crazy guitar price inflation of the last several years, and without any of the markups you get when you buy a Spanish-made guitar in the USA.
    Subjective, for sure, and also subject to the same law of diminishing returns as everything else. Using today's prices, a $20 dinner usually tastes much better than a $5 dinner, but a $100 dinner may taste barely better than the $20 dinner, and a $250 dinner may not be noticeably better than the $100 dinner at all.

    In the same way, the really bad/indifferent acoustic guitars tend to sound boxy or nasal, have dead spots on the neck, have uneven tone from one string to another, and feel bad in your left hand. Most of the sub $500 acoustic guitars I tried recently sounded like that, and I tried a lot of them, including some Seagulls and Takamines, and a slew of others. Going from these to a lower cost - but much better made - $200 Yamaha FG700S was an enormous improvement that I think the majority of guitarists would notice immediately. To my ears, I didn't hear any improvement from that $200 Yamaha until I got to a nearly $2000 Martin - and even then, it was an improvement in volume, not in tone.

    So you quickly get to a point where you spend vastly more money for a guitar that has almost imperceptible improvements in sound quality - and "improvement" is subjective, so even those who can hear the difference may not agree that it is an improvement.

    I wasn't about to spend $2000 on an acoustic, but I wanted a cutaway and onboard electronics, so I ended up with a Yamaha FGX730SC. There are very few video demos of this model to be found - there was an outstanding Frank Gambale demo of the sister model FGX730SCA on the Kraft Music website, but it's been removed. However I did find one demo on You Tube which is sufficiently well recorded to give you a taste of how good this $500 guitar can sound in the right hands. I'm pretty sure you're hearing the plugged-in sound in this video; the pure acoustic sound of the same guitar is even prettier: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9_3MHwIUBvQ

    -Gnobuddy

    Edit: I found that Frank Gambale demo of the Yamaha FGX730SCA in Googles Web Cache. No idea how long it will remain there, but for now, you can watch/listen here:
    http://webcache.googleusercontent.c...nk+gambale+fgx730sca&cd=3&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=us
     

  17. Gnobuddy

    Gnobuddy Friend of Leo's

    Sep 15, 2010
    British Columbia
    Very true, and very nicely put! :D

    -Gnobuddy
     

  18. Mr. E

    Mr. E Tele-Holic

    602
    Mar 18, 2008
    Texas
    The model is FD01S. Couple of things I didn't like about this guitar were that the finish was extremely thick. I really couldn't tell the difference between the guitar and a glazed doughnut. After I played other acoustics I started noticing how much my guitar sounded dead. It was mainly because of the finish and the saddle and the bridge. The note just dulled in a second. My friend had an Epiphone that he picked up for $90 at Guitar Center. It was a laminated top and it sounded better and louder than this one. I am not saying Yamaha makes bad guitars but this one is just bad. It's funny how the guitar is so big yet it's so quiet. My Dean Playmate sounds louder than this when strummed. I made some improvements on it with a tusq saddle and pins and also replaced the tuners. It helped a bit but it's not enough. The string spacing is also to narrow for me. I can't finger pick cause I mute a string when I hit another.
     

  19. Mr. E

    Mr. E Tele-Holic

    602
    Mar 18, 2008
    Texas
    Thanks. I looked at more review and you're right. It's rare to find a review that says something negative about them. You have the Slim version and I'm looking for the Original S6 because I've heard it has a chunky neck (which is hard to find with an acoustic guitar and cause of the string space. I've also wanted a cedar top guitar ever since I tried a Takamine with a cedar top at GC. I would've gotten it but when I went back it was long gone. The other ones didn't even sound close to the it.
     

  20. bradpdx

    bradpdx Friend of Leo's

    Jul 16, 2006
    Portland, OR
    Gnobuddy - I am primarily an acoustic player, and just wanted to add that I've never seen a "one piece" spruce top on ANY American made flattop guitar made since before the Civil War, including Martins from the 1840s. They are always a bookmatched split.

    I don't think this has anything to do with the availability of material, but rather an engineering decision. It creates a symmetry on the top that works on flattops in the opinions of guitar makers and buyers.

    As to what makes a guitar "good" - what a complex equation. Tone and volume are semi-independent variables, and and just as with electrics sometimes a "trashy" tone is more appropriate that something "prettier". I love my Martins, but for some recordings I need something with a thinner, more "snare-like" sound and so borrow a Gibson or even an Asian guitar.

    Ditto for volume - it's not quite it's own virtue. Many times you can achieve high volume levels in a manner that is mid-rangey and low on sustain, and this might get you through a noisy jam. But you'll never sound like Tony Rice on that box, you'll just be heard.

    What I've always observed in acoustics is that "better" instruments - e.g., handmade, solid wood Martin/Taylor/Collings etc. - are far more sensitive to variations made with your own hands. A sub-$1000 guitar can work OK, but often I find that they are one-trick ponies. A really great acoustic rewards and punishes you with exquisite sensitivity, so that good picking technique sounds fabulous and poor technique sounds, well, poor.

    So, sometimes I let someone play my HD-28 at a jam. If they can't play well, it sounds just as wimpy as they play. They hand it back to me and I'm 3 times louder, so I tell them to go home and practice (nicely, of course!)
     

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