Solid Top – Solid Tone?
I get a lot of people coming into the showroom looking for their first guitar and asking how much they need to spend to get a good sound. I always preface my answer with another question… “Do you know the difference between a laminated and solid top guitar?”
In this post I’ll be talking about the basic differences and rudimental components.
I’ll start by stating that it is cheaper to make a guitar out of laminated wood, far cheaper than solid woods. Some of the cheapest laminated woods will possibly be saw dust, mushed together really tightly to create a thin slice, then laminated like plywood. The fundamental difference between laminates and solid is the fact that laminated woods do not vibrate and resonate in the same way that solid woods do. Think about the body of the guitar like it’s a box with a hole in the top (the sound hole), this box is there to amplify the sound of the strings being strummed (vibrated by striking with your fingers), if you strum it lightly you create light or quiet vibrations, strum louder and you make louder vibrations. A laminated box will not vibrate and resonate as much or as richly as a solid wood box, it won’t translate what the strings are telling it. A laminated box won’t give a tone or flavour like a solid wood box will, and depending on what types of solid woods you are using this tone will change. Lighter woods such as Spruce, Maple or Sycamore vibrate and resonate in a bright fashion whereas darker woods like Rosewood, Mahogany and Sapele all have a darker, smokier tone, much like their visual appearance. The first place that a manufacturer will use a piece of solid wood is on the top, and then use laminated wood on the back and sides, this is generally referred to as a “solid top guitar”. Then they will progress to using solid woods on all sides of the guitar, this is generally called an “all solid wood guitar”. I like to describe the sound difference as hearing something in 2D (laminated) or 3D (solid wood).
That is a VERY basic idea behind solid woods and an OH SO brief run down on the differences in tone woods. It’s important to understand that these fundamentals are more trusted in the hands of a quality manufacturer; for example a Martin 000X1AE (Solid Spruce top and laminated Mahogany back and sides) packs just as much tone (if not more) as a Recording King RO 10 (Solid Spruce top and Solid Mahogany back and sides), the difference is in the manufacturing, the knowhow and the skill involved to make the guitar.
A more experienced luthier/manufacturer will build a guitar out of laminated woods and have it sounding great.
Keep in mind what you are wanting to use your guitar for. Laminated woods aren’t as susceptible to the elements and are great at the bach or beach. Lord knows my laminated nylon string was the belle of the ball at the beach this summer and I laid her down in the sand without a care in the world, everyone couldn’t get enough of her! I wouldn’t be taking a Martin OM21 out there to bust out some “Pretty Woman” on the sand, that’s for sure. I sell a lot of young beginners laminated guitars, parents can spend less and their child can bash it around and there isn’t much to worry about. It’s also a great stepping stone to something that sounds better…. “If you practice we’ll look at the Martin”.
One more thing to keep in mind, is when shopping you should try as many guitars as possible and discover what appeals to your ears. There is always one guitar that will sound the best to your ears. Try some blind tests by switching out some guitars with your eyes closed, you might be surprised by what your ears tell you.
Lewis Eady Guitar Manager | Musician