There’s the common belief that guitars sound better when they get older. But why is this the case? We’ll go through the reason in this article in depth. It’s worth mentioning though, that not all old guitars sound better than new ones. It’s definitely not a hard and fast rule. Some guitars can age terribly. And really cheap guitars probably won’t sound any better in 20 years. With that said, let’s jump into the reason why aged guitars sometimes have a better tone.
The Quick Answer
Older guitars often sound better than newer ones as they dry out over time which causes them to become harder leading to a more resonant tone with better sustain. The increase in age affects the tone more in acoustic guitars than electric ones.
How Aging Makes Guitars Sound Better
There is a process behind the idea that guitars sound better as they age. And it’s related to the condition of the wood. There are two main reasons behind why older guitars have a better tone. These are due to the drying out of the wood, and the density.
Both of these factors are related to the wood the guitar is made from.
Wood is well-known for its ability to absorb moisture or dry out, depending on what conditions it is kept in. This is caused by the the structure of the wood. It contains gaps which allow it to absorb water into.
Over time, these gaps in the wood can collapse. Hence, the wood cannot retain as much water. And it’s this lack of moisture, and the process of the top of the guitar drying out, that causes it to sound better over time. This creates a harder and lighter form of the wood.
This is particularly evident with acoustic guitars, where the sound is much more dependent on the quality of the wood. Whereas, with electric guitars, the pickups are much more important.
Secondly. the density of the wood is also important. The way the wood behaves when vibrated changes over time. Of course, wood contains grains which hold sap in them. When the wood vibrates, causing the sap to break up and loosen. This allows the vibrations to move more freely in the body of your guitar, hence, creating better resonance and a deeper tone.
Do you Need to Actually Play it?
So what happens if you just leave your guitar for 20 years and don’t play it? Will it still age in the same way?
Well, no not as much.
You see, the breakdown of sap leading to the wood allowing vibrations to occur more freely, only happens if you actually play the guitar. This is because it’s the vibrations that actually cause the sap to break down. If you don’t play the guitar, then it won’t vibrate, as the strings are not being plucked.
However, the wood will still age in terms of losing moisture. So the drying out process can still occur even if you don’t play your guitar at all.
What about Laminate Guitars?
So do laminate guitars still sound better as they age?
There are two main types of acoustic guitars, solid wood and laminate. Generally cheaper guitars are made from laminate. This means they’re produced from pressed plywood consisting of several layers. This is quite different than solid wood.
Laminate guitars are not affected by this aging process in the same way that solid wood is. This is because laminate guitars lack the grains and pores that solid wood guitars do. Hence, they don’t dry out as they age, and there is no sap to break down leading to the vibrations moving more freely.
Check out my comparison between solid and laminate acoustic guitars to learn more.
Do Electric Guitars Sound Better With Age?
Yes, some electric guitars also sound better as they age, in a similar way to acoustic guitars. The vibrations again lead to the breakdown of sap, creating a more resonant tone with better sustain.
However, this is less important with electric guitars than with acoustic ones. This is because an acoustic guitar’s tone relies a lot more on the wood, whereas electric guitars rely more heavily on the pickups.
Plus, the electronics in electric guitars don’t age nearly as well as the wood. Sometimes you’ll need to get new electronics on older electric guitars to avoid the dreaded crackling sound!
What Else Affects the Ageing Process?
So you already know that the amount you play the guitar, and also whether it’s laminated, affects how quickly the guitar “ages”, but what else is important?
The age of the wood before it’s used to build the guitar is also a factor to consider too. A guitar made out of already aged wood, will age more quickly than one that’s been made out of fresher wood.
Well of course the species of the wood is important. Some woods age more quickly than others. The quality of the wood is also important too. That’s why typically, more expensive guitars sound better after ageing than cheap guitars.
Can you Speed Up the Aging Process?
So nobody wants to wait 20 years before their guitar ages properly and sounds better do they? So is there a way to accelerate the process?
Well one thing you can do, is play it more. As I’ve already said, the amount you actually play the guitar, affects how quickly it ages. So simply picking up your guitar more often can have a positive impact on the tone.
However, it’s important to be realistic about this. You won’t hear any dramatic improvement in the tone of any guitar over time. It doesn’t matter if it’s a cheap $100 guitar, or vintage guitar worth thousands.
The ageing process is also super slow. So slow in fact, that you won’t ever notice it. The only way to really test if your guitar has aged and this has affected the tone, is to record it every year and see if it sounds any different! The differences are very subtle though, so try not to get caught up in it too much.
If you’re serious about improving the tone of your guitar then head over to these posts for some more advice.
Is it Due to Better Craftsmanship?
Finally, it’s worth addressing the idea that vintage guitars age better than newer guitars. A lot of people think that guitars produced in the 50’s and 60’s will always sound better than those produced today.
A lot of guitarists believe this because there is the thinking that guitars produced half a century ago were of a higher quality, mainly due to better craftsmanship.
I don’t completely agree with this point, and think it’s more just the nostalgic sound that some people like, which leads then to believe that older guitars always sound better. It’s more likely that the ageing process is what results in the better tone.
So there you go! That’s why some older guitars sometimes sound better than new ones! I hope you’ve found this article helpful, thanks for reading. Here are some other posts you might find useful: