Q: Over the years, I’ve run across a number of amazing-sounding guitars made with plain-looking or even questionable-looking woods. On the other hand, plenty of guitars made of fancy woods seem to sound just average. How much correlation do you find between the way wood looks and the way it sounds, and what do you look for when you select wood for a guitar? — Alexandra Swafford, Los Gatos, California
A: In my experience, there’s very little correlation between the way wood looks and the way it sounds. So why do the fanciest and most exotic tonewoods end up on the most expensive guitars? The luthier’s dirty little secret (drum roll . . . ) is that demand for ultra-fancy wood is greater than demand for wood that only sounds spectacular. There, I said it.
While good-sounding wood is readily available, I can report after nearly 40 years of experience that the Holy Grail is never the most perfect-looking set in the pile.
Did I say never? Yup.
When I build a guitar for an artist, I always try to get confirmation that sound is the top criterion. I explain that wood having somewhat uneven grain, maybe a dark line on one side but not the other, asymmetrical coloration, a minor knot, or even a crack, might offer me the best chance of pulling off the kind of guitar we both hope I’ll build. Most of the time, a serious player will say to give it my best shot. But I don’t get to talk to most of my customers.
A guitar made with funny-looking wood is seldom snatched off the music store wall and taken for a test drive. And it’s even less likely to be ordered over the internet. On the other hand, any wood with killer figure seems to fly out the door. Customers frequently ask for my best-looking sets, but almost no one actively requests my absolute best-sounding wood.
I ain’t lyin’.
When I build a guitar for myself, I pick wood with lively, ringing, and complex sets of tap tones. And I like my tops to be reasonably stiff along and across the grain. When wood has these qualities, I don’t get too worked up if it isn’t perfectly quarter-sawn or absolutely free of runout. As for overall appearance, I value character over perfection. I prefer wood that looks like it came from a tree—you know, as opposed to having been printed from a computer-generated image.
If you buy a guitar in a store, play every one in your category of interest. Keep your eyes closed and your mind open. If you buy over the internet, try to work with a salesman who can play, and is also able to articulate tonal differences. And if you order a custom guitar, understand that among tone, appearance, and value you can only have two out of three. Identify and communicate your priorities, then trust your luthier.