There are lots of topics that guitar players will banter about. One that has been asked many times before relates to the weight of a guitar and it’s impact on the sound quality. Let’s take a look at that now.
Do heavier guitars sound better than lighter guitars? Objectively speaking, heavier electric guitars do not sound better than lighter guitars. The type of wood used in the body of the guitar will determine its weight. Since the primary means of tone production for an electric guitar is through the pickup and amplification systems, the type of wood used will have minimal effect on the sound of an amplified electric guitar.
This is quite a controversial topic among guitar aficionados. Generally, there are three “camps” in this debate; 1)the type of wood used is very important, 2) somewhat important, 3) no bearing on the sound.
The focus of this article will be to cover this issue for the purpose of helping someone who is looking to buy an electric guitar and is interested in understanding how much emphasis to place on the weight or more specifically the wood materials used in an electric guitar as related to its overall tone production. Having said that, experienced guitarists will have their own personal experience and valid opinions on the very ‘lively’ subject. And lastly, keep in mind at the end of any discussion such as this, the sound of an instrument for any given person will be different – if it plays well and sounds good to you – that is what matters the most!
But, if you are just starting out, here are some things to think about…
Is there a difference between acoustic and electric guitars when comparing heavier and lighter instruments?
Yes- When comparing the mechanism for tone production between an acoustic and an electric, they are completely different. An acoustic guitar produces its sound by amplifying the vibrating string by means of the air chamber created by the wood body as well as the other parts of the guitar. The type of wood is the primary means of producing and coloring the tone. Generally, softer wood will create a warmer tone and harder wood will create a brighter more focused sound. That is why acoustic guitars usually have different types of wood for the back, sides, neck, and sound board. All of these different types of wood create the unique sound of that unique guitar.
What does it really mean when the term “heavier” guitar is used?
Generally, when the term heavier is used to describe an electric guitar, it actually refers to the type of sound produced on guitars where the body weight is heavier, i.e. the Gibson Les Paul. A lighter guitar such as the Fender Stratocaster will produce a different sound. However, the choice of wood and its resulting weight is not the primary factor determining the difference in sound between the heavier and lighter guitars; it is the difference in pickups as well as the type of amplifier and effects used. Let’s unpack this a bit and briefly look into how electric guitars produce sound.
How do electric guitars produce their sound?
The strings of the guitar are magnetized by the magnets in the pickups. The magnets are wrapped with a fixed wire coil. The movement of the magnetized string over the fixed wire coil creates a flux in the magnetic field which induces voltage. Phew!- that’s a bit technical but an important point to remember. Why? Well, because the primary mechanism for producing sound is not acoustic but electric.
What is the difference between single coil and double coil or “humbucking” pickups?
The first type of pickups used in electric guitars were and still are called- single coil pickups. Essentially this means there is one row of magnets or one magnet wrapped in a coil. This type of pickup produces a humming sound which is caused by the frequency of normal electrical wires (50hz). The sound is quite noticeable when the pickups are on, but the guitar is not being played, or when the sound is overdriven. The “solution” to this issue was developed in the 1950’s by Seth Lover of Gibson. In order to cancel the hum of a single coil pickup two single coil pickups were placed side by side- these became known as “humbuckers”.
Do single coil pickups and double coil pickups (humbuckers) sound different?
You bet! Single coil pickups have less output than double coils. In general, single coil pickups will tend to have low tones combined with high tones with not as much mid-range sound as double coils. The full mid-range sound of a double coil pickup is one of its most noticeable characteristics. In general, but not limited to the following situations, humbuckers are ideal for high volume performances as well as musical situations that require a lot of sonic space to be filled. Single coils blend well with other instruments and can find their own sonic niche in larger groups. Make sure to find out what type of “coil” was used on your favorite guitar solo- this is a great way to learn how these two great guitar sounds are used and even blended together.
So what do pickups have to do with heavier or lighter guitars?
Historical association- In the early days of electric guitar production the two dominant companies were Gibson and Fender with Gibson producing the Les Paul and Fender making the Stratocaster. Les Paul’s were equipped with Humbuckers and Fender used single coil pickups. In addition, the Les Paul used mahogany and maple, two hardwoods with more weight and Fender guitars were made out of alder, a lighter wood. The pickup choice makes these instruments sound very different. The choice of woods makes these instruments feel very different. Overtime, these two elements of sound and feel have become strongly associated especially with regard to a ‘heavier’ sound. (As an historical aside, it is interesting to note that Les Paul’s original ‘log’ guitar used a 4×4 piece of pine for the platform for his homemade pickups.)
Does an electric guitar need any wood to make its sound?
No, an electric guitar does not need any wood to make a sound. In fact there are production electric guitars that use no wood at all. Instead of wood, a synthetic material is used or all metal as in the Gittler electric guitar.
How can I get the sound of a heavier guitar using a lighter guitar?
The primary sound of an electric guitar is produced by the pickups and the amplification system used. Humbucking pickups with an overdriven amp or an effects pedal that produces an overdriven sound will create a “heavy” or saturated guitar sound.
Are there any guitars that produce the “heavier” double coil sound and the “lighter” single coil in one guitar?
Yes- this is quite common. The Fender “Fat” Star is one example among many. It uses a combination of single coil and double coil pickups to produce both sounds.
Why would I choose a lighter electric guitar over a heavier one?
The difference in weight between a Fender strat and a Gibson Les Paul can be almost double. The Strat will average about 8lbs with the Les Paul between 9 and 12lbs. If you are playing a lot while standing the difference in weight can be a factor overtime and may cause some back, shoulder and neck fatigue.
How should I rank the different aspects of an electric guitar in order of importance?
Let’s take a look at the three things that are the most important when selecting an electric guitar. First, the look and feel of the guitar will inspire you to play and will make it possible for you to play to the best of your ability. The look of the guitar is completely subjective- you will know which design and color scheme speak to you. However, the “feel” of the guitar can be evaluated more objectively. There are two places on the guitar that the “feel” will be most noticed and they are the neck and the body type. Necks come in a variety of thicknesses, shapes, with or without some type of varnish as well as different types of fretboards. It is important to spend some time playing a potential guitar to see how it feels in your left hand. Similar to buying a pair of shoes- they may feel alright at first but after you walk around the store awhile you will get a better idea of the actual fit. So, it is the same with a guitar neck; if you are close to buying a guitar really give yourself some time to evaluate this aspect of the guitar.
Secondly, in terms of sound, the pickups in conjunction with the amplifier create your tone. I would suggest making the decision on whether you want all humbuckers, or all single coils, or a hybrid of both before you go shopping. It is easy to become dazzled by the look and feel of a guitar in the shop and possibly end up with a guitar that is not quite suited for you. For example, (true story), I had a student once buy a Flying V only later to realize you can’t really play them sitting down- at least easily- but it was an awesome ‘looking’ instrument. Caveat Emptor!
Thirdly, play the guitar that you are considering purchasing through the amp that you will also buy or play through the same amp that you have at home. If that is not possible, bring your amp to the store – yes – It is that important! I can’t stress this enough. Many times when someone is trying out a guitar they will play through an expensive amp or just a different amp from what they own. After buying the guitar and taking it home, they plug into their amp; suddenly, the guitar sounds completely different! Hopefully, the difference is not a bad one and the guitar owner gets used to the ‘new’ sound.
OK, I’m ready to jump in and get started. What should I do?
First, decide based on the type of music you want to play if you should go with humbuckers or single-coils. If you like to play many different styles of music consider a hybrid type guitar that includes both single and double coils. After you have made that decision, go and try out some guitars in your price range and see how they feel in your hands and also what type of body design and color inspires you to play. If you are working within a budget make sure to factor in buying an amp as well. The amp will be the piece of equipment that will produce the majority of your tone. I would recommend starting with some type of modeling amp that will give you a variety of tones. Later, you can also invest in effects pedals that will give you more tonal possibilities. Good luck and have fun shopping!