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Saturday, March 28, 2015

Ah Wooden it be Loverly

Ah Wooden it be Loverly
No opinion this Saturday, just a question.
Well it is kind of an opinion.

What makes wooden musical instruments so great?
That sent a lot of people away.  I know there are still a few musicians out there to answer this question.

I ask because the new guitar I bought a month or so ago is not all real wood.  The top is solid Sitka spruce, which means nothing to me, the back, sides, and neck are some sort of synthetic.  It looks like wood, feels like wood and sounds pretty good to me.  The synthetic material is one reason this is a relatively inexpensive guitar.  It is also manufactured in Mexico.  Mexican labor surely keeps the price down, but from what I’ve seen of Mexican labor, I don’t think the quality is anything but high level.

Back to my question, what makes natural wood so good and preferred in the finest instruments, particularly guitars and violins?

Golf clubs used to have wooden heads and wooden shafts.  When metal shafts came out purists claimed they will never have the feel of wood.  When purists got their asses handed to them in tournaments, wooden shafts became antiques and metal became the norm.

Skiers all used wood skis.  When fiberglass skis came out, purists said they could never have the same feel and flex as wood.  Purists were racing down the slopes on fiberglass skis in the very next Olympics.  Wood skis are prized as wall ornaments in ski town bars.

Tennis players held on to their wood rackets for several years claiming once again that the new metal and composite rackets could not match the feel and control of their wooden rackets.  They switched to modern materials when they got their asses handed to them by players using metal and composite rackets.  Wooden rackets are now wall ornaments.

Expert musicians will tell you that nothing sounds as pure and clean as natural wood.  The Stradivarius violin owes its beautiful sound to old hard woods that grew through the little ice age and the grain is tighter than the grain on any wood grown before or since.  Makes sense, I can understand that, but why can’t we manufacture a material that matches or even improves the sound of that ancient hard wood?

Music purists will not shift to manmade materials.  In music there is no sports-like competition where purist musicians get their asses beat by new materials.  They will continue to say that nothing can ever improve on the feel and sound of natural wood.

I disagree. 

We have improved on wood for just about every other product other than maybe furniture.

I have heard fly fisherman say the best rods are made of bamboo.  The few friends I have who are avid fly fisherman own antique bamboo rods.  They love them for their craftsmanship and beauty, but they only fish with composite material rods. 

Want to buy a boat?  Wooden boats are beautiful; their craftsmanship is admirable.  Fiberglass boats are better.

Want to fly across country?  The Howard Hughes-built spruce goose was incredible, but I think I’ll fly planes built out of modern composites thank you very much.

Anyway, my new guitar is made of “fake wood” and I think the material is probably just as good as or better than real wood.  Still, my next guitar will be an upgrade to a top of the line real wood Martin. 

If I can afford it, I want the best, even if the best is not as good as a cheaper guitar. 

Isn’t that the American way? 


  1. That's an interesting question actually. I was going to ask my husband (who plays bouzouki) but as you say the wood purists don't always know best. We might have to wait and see if some future violinist gets his ass handed to him by someone playing a fibreglass violin.

  2. a good read, cranky. something i'd not thought of (as a non-musician, non-athlete).

  3. That's good news. Think of all the trees we've saved.

  4. While i'm no expert, and not a musician, my Sweetie is and all of my kids have the music gene, so we have a piano. Our piano tuner talked about the difference between a real piano and an electric keyboard, saying that all the tones available do not resonate from the electric keyboard, the wood has a fuller sound, it resonates within the ear at higher and lower pitches than an electric keyboard can produce.

    Whether the plastic that replaces the wood on a guitar is the same, i cannot say, it may be a new composite that can resonate properly. If so, use it.

  5. Hi Joeh,

    That's a good question and I really think that if a guitar were made of something other than wood but sounded brilliant, I would buy it. I'd need to learn to play a guitar first, though.




  6. I've not a clue, but I've heard this before. Has to be wood, not anything else. I'm sure there is a very good reason too. Or not.

    Have a fabulous day Cranky. ☺

  7. Interesting question. Maybe athletic activities need the qualities provided by the composites/synthetics, such as strength and flexibility, but musical instruments need something quite different, to do with tone and resonance and sound waves. Maybe it has to do with what output you prefer or expect, which is a subjective thing - a matter of personal taste rather than measurable performance. Just speculating. I know nothing about athletics and very little about music. Keep us posted if you find out, eh?

  8. Chopsticks--the only song I can play--sounds just as good on an electronic keyboard as on a real piano!!

  9. Given a choice I would opt for the Martin. Having a budget, whatever gives the best sound for the money! I don't think I've ever seen or heard a non wooden violin or cello -- so it makes me think there is a validity in the wood argument.

  10. I can only speak to the bamboo/fly rod issue, and actually many fly anglers like myself prefer the action of bamboo vs. graphite or composite. There are still many craftsmen making them too.....Orvis is just one.

  11. I once watched a TV documentary on Stradivarius musical instruments that suggested the wood back then made better sound because of a mini ice age that enveloped Europe from 1022-1800 AD. Wood grew much slower back then so the wood was denser and thus provides better sound. I don't know if this is true, but I find it interesting.

  12. Interesting Cranky and something I hadn't given much thought to. You make a good point about the new composites being as good if not better than the wood. A true purist will never jump on the band wagon. It reminds me of books. The purists want the feel, smell and heft of a real book. Yet I am able to carry a library of 982 digital books in a 5x7 gadget with one hand. I say go for what ever gives you the most pleasure.

  13. Once you have the Martin, you will never go back. My D35 fills the room with sound like no other. Playing a quality wooden instrument is a spiritual experience. On the other hand any guitar is better than no guitar.

  14. Slingshots used to be made of wood. Now they're plastic or metal. Same with those little balsa wood planes with the rubber-band propeller. Now they're made of Styrofoam. Ticonderoga #2 wood pencils have been tossed aside by teens in favor of plastic mechanical pencils.

    I'd stick with the real wood for musical instruments, though.

  15. I am a lifetime avid fly fisherman, with some fantastic bamboo rods. I don't fish with them, of course. Nature is perfect, but God fishes with graphite.

  16. I think it basically came from the time when wood was the only source of material available to build anything (right from ships to anything)
    As things changed some just clinged on to the belief that "wood is still the best"

  17. If a musician has a heart he or she will not fuss about the instrument. Recording company is a different story.

  18. One has to have a heart before he or she can become a musician. It is a different story that after becoming famous, fame gets to their heads. They may fuss about an instrument, but if there is a difference of 2 percent or even 5 percent in the quality of back up music that should not matter, as a singer or even an instrument player will have enough talent or love for music to compensate for that.