Tone Tips: Body Weight And Tone
By Daniel Brooks
The search for truly stellar tone will, sooner or later, lead you to ponder the question of how much the weight of your guitar’s body effects your sound. Among those for whom the question is one of the more serious considerations when buying an instrument, there is some debate over which sounds better, a heavy guitar or a light one? Some guitarists believe a lighter instrument will resonate better in response to the full spectrum of string vibrations to deliver a more musical sound, with a more “open” tone and much brighter highs. Others argue that the full, rich sound of the traditionally heavier guitars is due, in no small part, to the relatively massive amount of wood used to anchor the strings, pickups and the tone itself.
There are good arguments for both heavier and lighter guitars, with excellent examples of each. Prior to the early 1980s, it was not uncommon to find a Gibson Les Paul weighing as much as 12 Lbs. and serving up all of the sonic impact, depth and clarity you heard in the music of Led Zeppelin, The Sex Pistols, Boston and Peter Frampton. On the other hand, the Fender Stratocasters and Telecasters of the 1950s and early 1960s often weighed only 7 or 8 Lbs. and delivered the equally rich palette of sounds heard in the music of Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd, and the whole first Led Zeppelin album. Good sounds come from both ends of the light/heavy spectrum.
So, “which sounds better, a heavy guitar or a light one?” is something of a trick question. The answer may lie in other, equally important factors. For many, the weight of a 12 Lb. guitar strapped over one’s shoulder for an evening, or even just a set, is prohibitively uncomfortable, regardless of the quality of the sound. A guitar that hurts after an extended period of playing will probably not draw out your most inspired music. A lighter guitar may sound better to you simply because you feel better when you play it.
Perhaps the question is not one of weight but of the wood used in the making of the guitar. Mahogany and maple are both heavy woods, the heft of an all maple solid-body electric would probably be crippling, in fact, but the rich, bottom-heavy tone of mahogany wedded to the vibrant treble snap of maple creates a lush spectrum of tone that, despite the weight, inspires some people to be life-long Les Paul lovers. To address the difficulties some have with exceptionally heavy guitars, every American made Gibson Les Paul from 1982 to 2007 was redesigned for weight-relief by removing 2 or 3 Lbs of mahogany from the interior before the maple cap is bound to the body. Since 2007, the Les Paul has been further weight-reduced with a chambered body that can be as much as 5 Lbs lighter. Some argue that the reduced weight effects the tone, others embrace the difference and still achieve that lush articulate sound from their newer, lighter Les Paul.
Ash, alder and basswood, the tonewoods that tend to be lighter, each reflect, reinforce and conduct a different signature pattern of frequencies, with a significant influence on the overall sound of any guitar constructed from them. It is the sonic character of the wood rather than the weight that delivers the tone. Stratocasters and Telecasters rely heavily on the clean transparency of ash or the balanced tone-spectrum of alder for their tone almost as much as they do on the single coil pickups or the body’s design. You may occasionally find a Strat or a Tele that weighs a couple of pounds more than the norm, but it will still sound very much like a Strat or a Tele.
The quality of wood creates a much greater diversity of tone than its weight. Wood is an organic material whose character is shaped by the climatic demands in which it grows. No two trees are exactly alike and no two pieces of wood will have exactly the same acoustic properties. Older, lighter, better-seasoned wood will probably make a better instrument, and while the basic quality of wood used by the big guitar makers is not an issue, two otherwise guitars made from the same batch of wood may have noticeable differences in their weight, tone and character. Ultimately, the best way to select an instrument is not by weight, but by picking it up and playing it. It will sing to you if it wants to be your guitar.