May 4, 2004
Picking up on the theme from my previous online column ("A Passion for PRS Guitars")...
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Acoustic guitars have changed very little over the last century. The most popular woods include spruce for the tops, mahogany for the necks and rosewood for the sides, backs and fingerboards. The example here is a superb Takamine built in the 1970s.
In a previous column (March 1, 2004) I discussed my passion for Paul Reed Smith guitars. One of the reasons that PRS instruments appeal to me - aside from the sound and the craftsmanship - is the wood. Most PRS guitars have mahogany bodies and necks with figured maple tops, though their more recent line of hollowbodies offer an optional flame maple top *and* back.
Due to a glitch that, when explained to me, made my head hurt, a few of the photos from that column had to be dropped. So I thought I would do a second column on the various woods manufacturers use in building guitars. This would give me the opportunity to not only show you the PRS photos that got lost, but also showcase a few other exceptional examples of "good wood." We'll also talk about some (ahem) alternate materials that manufacturers have tried over the years.
IT ALL STARTS WITH TREES
I love trees. I do. Part of it is my fascination with the various woods used in building guitars and basses, but trees also play an integral role in the cycle of life here on our planet and their many shapes and forms are breathtaking. I'm sure everyone agrees that trees are great, providing valuable building materials and shade on those hot summer days, but most people can't tell the difference between an ash and a poplar, a beech and an alder. If you can't, don't worry, as there won't be a pop quiz later.
The most "eco-friendly" wood these days is oak. Now most people associate oaks with the ancient, moss-draped live oaks of the south, the kind you might expect to stand in front of a stately mansion in Mobile or a plantation in New Orleans. However, these long-lived trees are not suitable for construction and live out their long (often hundreds of years) life spans without any risk of being made into a bookcase.
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Sunshine cascading through an open window lights up the top of this PRS Artist III finished in dark cherry sunburst. Note the blue-green irridescent abalone inlays on the neck.
Laurel oaks, on the other hand, can grow to gigantic size in under 50 years, and the life expectancy of this tree is normally 75 years or less. They grow fast - often six feet or more per year, so a four-year-old laurel oak can be over 24 feet high, and by 20 years, it may stand 50 to 70 feet tall. I once saw a name brand guitar made of oak, and everyone agreed it looked more like a coffee table than a guitar. Needless to say, very few oak guitars were made.
The earliest guitars evolved from lutes, and the oldest surviving instrument is dated c1590. Antonio Stradivari, who is so famous for his violins, actually built a handful of guitars in the 1680s. For the most part, guitars were built from the same woods used in almost all stringed instruments: Spruce and maple with rosewood or ebony fretboards, and that has pretty much carried over into modern instruments, though additional woods like mahogany, walnut, cedar and ash have found their way into many production models.
EVERYTHING CHANGES: THE FLAME-TOP LES PAUL
It really wasn't until the appearance of the legendary Les Paul flame tops of 1958-1960 that the average guitar player gave wood much thought at all. In the 1960s, these classics began showing up in the hands of many of the top players like Eric Clapton, Peter Green (Fleetwood Mac), Duane Allman and Mike Bloomfield. Les Pauls were always made from mahogany (backs and necks) with a maple top, but the ealiest examples (from 1952 until 1957) were all "gold tops." In 1958, Gibson decided to let the wood show through in hopes of increased sales, but nobody could have possibly guessed at what kind of impact these instruments would eventually have on the industry.
Today we know that very few Les Pauls "bursts" were ever made - perhaps as few as 1700. Even fewer had spectacular flamed tops, so it's no surprise that these guitars are now priced way beyond the reach of mere mortals.
Though Gibson stopped making Les Pauls in 1960 in favor of the newly-designed SG guitar, they suddenly saw Les Pauls popping up everywhere and demand grew. Hmm, where were the sales in those early years? No matter. By 1968, new Les Paul guitars were back in production, though what has come to be known as the Les Paul Standard did not officially appear again until about 1975.
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Fender guitars are justly famous for their maple necks and fingerboards. This example (a 1985 Strat neck and headstock) has already darkened with age to a gorgeous amber yellow.
Today, Gibson offers up Les Pauls in many price ranges, from the standard "plain tops" to "Custom Shop" models that sport spectacular maple tops that are actually more breathtaking than those found on the originals. What's more, Gibson, as well as other companies, actually have finishes that mimic the way a cherry sunburst fades. These include Iced Tea Burst, Honeyburst and Lemon Drop, as well as the darker finishes, Darkburst and Tobaccoburst. Very rarely, when the company finds some really exceptional maple, it may produce natural or antique natural topped instruments (see photo).
PAUL REED SMITH'S "NEW CLASSICS"
Though Paul Reed Smith admits to being more influenced by the mahogany-bodied Les Paul Juniors and Specials, he eventually saw the possibilities that opened up if he began crafting electrics with figured maple tops. His first flame maple came from a dresser owned by a friend's mother, who honestly didn't care for the wood, so Paul replaced the wood with plainer cherry and everyone was happy. Eventually, the maple was used to build several guitars, including the one that Carlos Santana began using, and the rest i history.
Over the years, PRS has built guitars with a number of unusual woods, including cedar, redwood and walnut, none of which are normally thought of as being suitable for guitars, but these "one-offs" are now rare, making them highly prized by collectors.
OVER ON THE WEST COAST
No discussion of guitars would be complete without talking about the instruments that were designed and built by Leo Fender beginning in the late 1940s. Up until that time, most acoustic guitars, as well as some early archtop electrics, were built using traditional materials. But Leo was not a guitar player, so it never occurred to him that "breaking the rules" might be a bad idea.
Starting with the original Broadcaster (later renamed the Telecaster), Leo built solid-body instruments using rather untraditional materials. For the bodies of his guitars (and later his basses), Fender used ash rather than mahogany or maple. For the necks and fretboards, he used maple rather than rosewood and mahogany. In doing so, he created a new standard that has carried over into modern Fender guitars.
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No photo would do this instrument justice. The black pickup surrounds, black knobs and multiple binding suggests a Les Paul Custom. In fact, this is a Les Paul Signature with a flame maple top finished in antique natural that has darkened over time to a light amber color.
It's hard to imagine now, since Fenders have been around for over half a century, but back in the 1950s and even into the '60s, the blond-necked Fenders were almost shocking! Yet the materials proved to be a perfect match for the design and few can deny that Leo Fender's instruments created a new sound and a new look that musicians found quite appealing.
Though Fender has built some instruments with flame maple tops and offers rosewood fingerboards as an option on most of their guitars, the original combination of ash and maple has stood the test of time and has spawned plenty of "copycats" over the years. Who would have guessed?
SEARCHING FOR NEW MATERIALS
So successful was Fender's departure from established woods and finishes that other companies began looking at alternatives. In the 1960s, playing guitar - any guitar - was cool. To cut costs and get instruments into as many eager hands as possible, companies looked for cost effective alternatives.
Danelectros were built using masonite on a wood frame and pickups made from lipstick tubes. Valco turned to fiberglass for their line of distinctively-shaped National guitars. Ampeg introduced guitar bodies made from clear plastic "to improve sustain" (though it did nothing of the sort). Even Gibson turned to chipboard for their short-lived Kalamazoo line of budget electrics.
Other materials included aluminum, various types of plastic and the more successful alternative, graphite (actually a molded epoxy resin strengthened by carbon and glass fibers) first popularized in the original "headless" Steinberger bass guitar.
While keyboards have evolved dramatically over the last five decades, guitars have not. The most popular models today are the same ones that guitar players bought in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. Odds are very good that certain woods such as mahogany and rosewood will become harder to acquire in the 21st Century. Already some countries (Brazil for example) have banned the export of certain woods and the trend will likely continue.
Line 6's Variax 500 is built using basswood, a fast-growing tree in the Linden family (though their upscale model 700 features a mahogany body topped off with a swamp ash top) and many acoustic manufacturers have also begun investigating alternative wood.
How these shortages and export bans will affect guitars in the future is anyone's guess. Some countries have already turned to tree farming as a mainstream industry. Fortunately, many types of trees, including certain maple and ash species are fast growing and can be considered a renewable resource.
Whatever the future may hold, we will always treasure the spectacular woods that created classics like the flame top Les Paul. But while guitar players (myself included) may see a specific instrument with gorgeous tops as a one-of-a-kind work of art, we first and foremost choose our guitars based on tone, playability and overall feel. Knowing that, the guitar's future seems pretty well secure.
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