Are you wondering what exactly makes one guitar sound better than another? And what distinguishes a cheap guitar from an expensive one? Well there are actually quite a few reasons why this is the case.
Reasons Why Some Guitars Sound Better Than Others
- Build quality
- Neck construction
- Tone wood
1. Set Up
The most important reason why some guitars sound better than others, is due to the way they are set up. It applies to both electric and acoustic guitars, and is even more important than the material quality of the guitar. It doesn’t matter whether the guitar is worth $50 or $5000, if it’s setup badly, then it’ll sound terrible either way.
So why is a guitar setup important?
A guitar setup encompasses a lot of different elements, but in basic terms, it means that all the components of the guitars are adjusted properly to make sure it sounds it’s best.
There are several reasons why this is so important. Firstly, it eliminates any unwanted sounds, for example, fret buzz. It also makes sure that all the notes sound how they should according to the frets they’re played at.
What’s involved in a Guitar Setup?
There are several things involved in a guitar setup. First, it’s best to define what the “action” of a guitar is. This refers to the height at which the strings sit above the fretboard. Here are some of the main things involved in a guitar setup.
- Truss rod adjustment: this is a rod inside the neck that either gives or removes relief from the neck, causing it to bow or straighten. All guitars should have some relief and shouldn’t be completely straight. Adjusting the truss rod will impact the action of your guitar.
- Bridge height: this can also affect the action of your guitar.
- Nuts: this refers to the part of your guitar where the headstock and fretboard meet, and there are slots where each of the string fit into. If the string is sitting incorrectly (usually too low), then this can cause fret buzz.
- String change: the age and condition of your strings dramatically affects its sound. Head over to our post on the 4 ways the strings affect a guitars tone for more info.
How do I know if my guitar needs a setup?
If you suspect that your guitar is not setup properly, and that it’s causing an impact on your tone, then it’s a good idea to take it to a specialist who can check if everything is correct.
But if you don’t want to do that, then there is a quick way to check the intonation of your guitar right now.
- Play a note on the 12th fret
- Play the 12th fret harmonic of the same note
- Compare the pitch of the two sounds.
- If it sounds off, then you’ll need some adjustments.
How do you setup a guitar properly?
If you’re asking this question, then your best bet is to take your guitar to a specialist repair shop who can properly assess your instrument and set it up correctly. It’s very easy to damage your guitar if you don’t know what you’re doing, so don’t take the risk and get a pro to check it out.
2. Build Quality
One of the main reasons why some guitars are more expensive than others, is due to the build quality. You may think that expensive guitars are simply built out of better and pricier materials, and that is true. But you also shouldn’t forget the craftsmanship that goes into building a guitar.
When you purchase a high-end guitar, it’s likely that a lot more time and effort went into crafting it. This includes how it’s setup. There is so much that goes into making a guitar, and so much that can impact the sound. So if more time and care is spent by the luthier, then this of course leads to a more expensive price.
Most low-end guitars are mass produced in factories. This of course reduces the costs required to make the guitar, as an experienced luthier is not required for every instrument. This doesn’t mean that the guitar won’t have great built-quality though. Just that less time, effort and skill is put into it.
It’s well-known that American-made guitars are the most expensive. This is partly due to history and tradition. A lot of people trust American made guitars more because they believe that better materials are used to make the guitar, and more effort is put into building it.
3. Neck Construction
Leading on from build-quality, it’s a good idea to mention the neck construction. This again applies to both acoustic and electric guitars. It’s not nearly important as important as the setup, but can make some guitars sound significantly better than others.
There are three main kinds of neck construction: bolt-on, set-neck and through-neck or neck-through.
This is the least expensive type of guitar neck construction and is found on lower-end models. This unsurprisingly, refers to the phenomena where the neck and body are bolted together. Bolt-on necks typically have less sustain and produce a thinner sound than the other construction types.
This neck construction is a step-up from the cheaper bolt-on necks. This refers to when there is a slot in the body that the neck is glued into. This is a touch more expensive and is found on mid to high range guitars. It usually produces a fuller sound with better sustain than the bolt-on construction.
Finally, there’s the neck-through, or through-neck. This is by far the most expensive option. It’s when the neck and body are all made from one continuous piece of wood. Of course, you’ll get better sustain, but a much higher price tag. The other issue is that you’re in trouble if the neck gets damaged as it cannot be easily replaced like the bolt-on or set-neck constructions.
4. Tone Wood
The next factor that affects how good a guitar sounds, is the tone wood. Now this is a lot more important when it comes to acoustic guitars, compared to electric guitars. Let’s quickly talk about how each guitar produces its sound to make this clearer.
So of course you’ll already know that the sound originates from the vibrations caused when a string is plucked. These vibrations create pressure changes which radiate from the string until they hit an object. These vibrations are then detected by different components depending on whether you have an acoustic or electric guitar.
On acoustic guitars, the vibrations pass to the saddle, then the sound board, body and then the sound hole. Whereas on acoustic guitars, the vibrations are received by the pickups which send a signal to the amplifier which plays the sound out of a speaker.
Hence, the wood is most important on the acoustic guitar, and the pickups are more important on the electric guitar when it comes to how it actually sounds.
So now you know a bit more about why the wood in a guitar is important, we can move onto why some woods sound different to others.
This is due to the density mainly. It affects the way the vibrations behave. Generally, denser woods sound sharper and twangier whereas less dense woods sound darker and have better sustain.
This is a huge topic, so I’ve written an entire post on just this. So head over to the article on how wood affects guitar tone for some more in-depth information.
Pickups are a really important determination of how electric guitars sound. You already know how electric guitars actually produce their sound, so their important shouldn’t come as a surprise.
The overall quality of the pickup of course is important. But the type of pickup is also significant. Pickups consist of a core material, wrapped around coils of wire. The materials used, and also the number of coils wrapped around the core impact the tone produced by an electric guitar.
There are two popular types of pickups: humbuckers and single-coils. Most people tend to have a preference between the two. And that’s why pickup type is on the list of reasons why some guitars sound better than others. But of course, this is personal preference. No type is better than the other, but some people usually think one sounds better.
Single Coil Pickups
These consist of a wire wrapped around six individual magnets. They’re known for their bright and sharp sounds. They have a slight buzzing sound, which some players like, but others don’t. Single coil pickups are most famously found on Fender Stratocasters and Telecasters.
Humbuckers have two coils, rather than one. Each coil has the magnets going in opposite directions. They produce a thicker and beefier sound than single coil pickups. These types of pickups are famously found on Gibson Les Pauls and ES-335 guitars. They are versatile and can suit jazz and blues, but they’re also good for heavier genres like rock and metal.
So there you go! Those are the main reasons why some guitars sound better than others. I hope you’ve found this article helpful, thanks for reading. Here are some other posts you might find useful: