How and Why Woods Affect Your Bass Sound

Skjold Design Guitars bass bodies

Q: Experience and all instrument makers tell us that the choice of wood affects the sound of a bass. Of course we know and feel the difference of alder vs. ash bodies, ebony vs. rosewood vs. maple fingerboards, and so many other differences. But, do we know why exactly this affects the amplified sound? What we deal with are metal strings vibrating in the magnetic field of pickups (not talking about piezos). The resonances of the body should not be captured by the pickups. I imagine that the construction of a bass affects, for example, the sustain. But this is not about wood. So what exactly happens here? How would a physician explain this? Does the wood affect the overtone structure of the vibrating string? Voodoo? Black magic?

A: As this is not in my area of expertise, I decided to send this week’s question to my favorite luthier, Pete Skjold, the guru behind most of the basses I play these days and well respected within the bass playing community. (You can discover more about Pete and his instruments here.)

Here is what Pete had to say:

These are general terms, so keep that in mind. Different density of wood produces different results, because the woods vibrate at different frequencies. The string receives these frequencies (which we call tone) and then the pickup reproduces these frequencies based on it’s own ability to reproduce the sound into an electrical signal.

Generally, the more resonant the wood, the broader and smoother the tone will be from the lower to higher frequencies. The denser the woods, the more you’ll get a more focused, narrower frequency band.

Knowing which woods generally produce a certain frequency range and tone will allow a builder use the proper combination of resonance and focus to achieve the tonal goal. Leo Fender found a great combination with the classic Jazz bass. He typically used very light and resonant alder for the body, giving it a great amount of range from the bass response to the midrange. The necks, being made of denser maple, gave the midrange more focus. Capping the neck with a dense, but open grained rosewood fingerboard added a nice sweet treble to the top end of the tone, but the open grain was less bright than a fingerboard of maple. This made the bass perfect for the types of tone we hear in classic rock, country and blues.

Later as dense ash bodies were introduced with maple fingerboards, the character of the tone was changed. The denser ash added more focus to the low mids and the maple fingerboard added even more treble range to the bass. This gave way to the basses being particularly good for slapping and popping.

Today, with all the various woods available to builders, there are even more possibilities to choose from.

Well, there you have it!

Does anyone else have any thoughts or insight? Share your thoughts in the comments a comment below!

(And thanks Pete!)

Photo taken from our Custom Shop feature on Skjold Design Guitars.

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  1. That’s great info! Thank You… Also, very important to me is the feel difference between Alder verses a harder wood. I much prefer the soft woods (Alder etc…). Much more musical… Just another thing that Leo Fender got right!

  2. I have always felt wood type’s effect on tone as being overrated. Not that it isn’t so, I have old G&L’s which seem to resonate in a big way.

    What I mean is that other things; string type, pickups, playing position effect tone way more than wood.

  3. Good article. I also read some years ago that the vibrations transmitted through the woods had something to do with re-aligning the molecules, hence why well played vintage instruments sound great. I believe that there was at least one manufacturer who placed their woods on a shake table before building their guitars. Maton Guitars in Australia would microwave their woods before manufacture to pre-age them. (Don’t know if they still do this.)

    • Goes along with why I was told years ago to lean my guitar against the front of a stereo speaker while playing the stereo to develop that vintage sound faster.

    • Never heard that one but it sure does go along with what I said. Pretty good idea!

    • Leaning you guitar up against your stereo speaker would also speed up the demagnetizing process of your pickups, further adding to the vintage tone. Interesting…..

  4. Reminds of a link to a couple of papers on experiments conducted on this subject:

    http://www.seymourduncan.com/forum/showthread.php?t=218774

    Nice to see some science applied to the question.

    • Graham

      It’s all very well applying science to this subject but wood is not a scientific substance. It is natural. Every tree grows at a different rate which will affect the density of each piece of wood. You can prove anything you want with a scientific formula. Nature does not conform to formulas.

  5. Thank you so much! Yet: “The string receives these frequencies” — I think I still do not fully understand how this happens… My 5 cent: the vibrations of the body are transmitted via the contacting points (bridge, nut…) to the string; or even the sound (vibrations) of the body (and neck) affect the vibration of the string via “the air”, pretty much as a string starts to vibrate if I hold it against a cabinet. Is that it?

    • Bradlee Thedawg

      This whole topic is fraught with pseudo-science. The only fact out this entire thread is that “variables impact solid-body instrument tone”. The problem is that EVERYTHING is a variable. There is nothing whatsoever consistent about a “species” of wood – so you simply can not say “Maple is this…. Basswood is that…” Also – the body is not vibrating until the player makes the string vibrate. So there is nothing additive here. The string is put into motion… that vibration transfers TO the bridge/nut/frets/body.. NOT the other way around (unless you have some kind of yet-to-be-invented sustainer contraption that makes the body vibrate). So what actually happens is the properties of all those things – string/nut/fret/bridge/ air spaces around the pickups/ neck/body joint… and yes the characteristics of the body/neck wood… all those things are ABSORBING overtones… absorbing the fundamental…..some of the series faster than others.. and therefore altering what the pickup “hears”. That’s really all there is to it – and some of this response can be predicted successfully – other aspects of it can’t be unless you know a ton more about the wood your using than most organic chemists and micro-biologists know. So some wood combinations might absorb midrange fundamentals and their overtone series more than the high and low-end… so that bass is going to sound more “scooped”. Another, with identical hardware and electronics might absorb everything BUT the mid-range… so that bass is going to sound nasal or “quack” or “honk”. Add a thicker or thinner finish… or a different top-to-body glue joint… or a set neck instead of a bolted neck… and you’ve changed it. Now that *exact same* chunk of wood might do something different, thanks to the other variables you’ve just introduced. Bottom line – some instruments sound better than others. Some sustain longer… some have a quicker attack and shorter sustain that’s physics folks… more mass takes more energy to put in motion but will remain in motion longer. Less mass takes less energy to put into motion (i.e.- same energy… faster attack) but then also will decay much more quickly. That’s why a typical Flamenco guitar (low mass) is much ‘faster” and more “crisp” than a typical classical guitar … but the classical guitar can sustain a note easily for 4 beats at 120/min but the flamenco sadly – can not. Anyway – the bottom line here is that we’re not playing a chunk of mahogany or Swamp Ash – we’re playing a SYSTEM – the whole instrument with all of the variable acting together on the vibration of the string = the “sound of your bass”. It’s why if you take 10 otherwise identical instruments – one or two will be horrid…. 6 will be average… and 1 or two will be stellar. It’s also why you should NEVER purchase a “daily player” you can’t play before purchasing and compare to several others. Even the Sweetwater system where you can send it back without much pain doesn’t give you the opportunity to play 6 of the same basses or guitars side-by-side. So if I was going to spend upwards of say… 2 grand .. (below that it’s probably moot) on a new instrument… I’d spend another $3-400 on a plane ticket and spend the day out at Sweetwater (or wherever… Norm’s Rare Guitars … it makes no difference) … and do the side-by-side. Then I’d know all those variables were doing what i wanted. Any discussion of this topic that just talks “tone wood” totally misses the point – which is you CAN NOT predict much of anything based on just the “species” of the wood. So let’s stop the madness and just all agree “variables make basses sound different from one another… and there are 101 variables. Wood being one of them .

      • Bradlee Thedawg

        Should have said wood YOU’RE using – not your. And it was a typo – I know the difference ;-)

  6. I’d think that the two most important woods are where the two points of contact are for the string, the fingerboard and the bridge. I would thus infer that bridge and fret material would play a large part as well. The next factor would be the neck body coupling, bolted or set…etc. As an upright bass luthier I know I have a bias, but I don’t think that it is resonance that these woods are imparting into the tone but rather dampening. Think of this, when the body is resonating, it is absorbing string energy, the stiffer the woods, the less energy gets absorbed, thus the denser the woods, the more of the signal/frequency spectrum remains in the string. But then again, dampening is not necessarily a bad thing, you can use woods that absorb the right frequencies and create beautiful instruments. I am NOT saying I am right, this is just food for thought.

    • Damping and natural frequency of the neck, for sure. Put a small C-clamp on the headstock of an electric and watch the dead spots move around and the tone change!

    • Tim Bowman I wonder if those little clip-on tuners have much of that effect? I haven’t used one and maybe the difference (if any) is not significant live but noticeable in a studio setting.

    • Well, most of those tuners weigh about as much as a Kyser guitar capo and I sometimes use my Kyser to kill the dead spot on my P bass and it makes every note clearer. I’d say those tuners have a decent effect on resonance of a bass.

  7. My observation as a Luthier, having used so many extremely diverse woods, revealed to me that, yes, in a broad and general sense, varying wood densities produce specific sonic responses but the singular most important factor lay in the naturally occurring oil and resins content; this must be the first consideration for an abundantly apparent reason: wood is the foundational material of construction. Knowing the content of your material should not be over-simplified. Elevation, regional climate, tropical, rocky soil all impact the characteristics of grain density and oil/resin content. Multi-laminate, set in necks, neck through, mortised in nect construction require lots of glue which dampens the resonance with an exception of a glue that dries to a crystiline form (Hide glue).

    I select a wood based upon its inherent resonance potential if I’m going for a particular sound quality of the finished instrument.

    When two bodies are joined,(neck and body) the method of it’s joinery determine its sonic output it goes right back to dampening or supporting resonance. So pick-up, String diameter, active/passive electronics, fret size and depth are ancillary and are factors only after the fact of selecting your construction material in fact your finish material has a greater impact in post construction, Oil rubbed vs. Painted finish ultimately affects the frequency response.

    • It’s awesome to hear input from another luthier. Knowledge is power. Do you build basses commercially? If so, how can I get some information?

    • Actually I’m in the process of going really commercial. I will limit hand building to special orders but attempting to be in full manufacture mode using CNC fabrication to minimize front end labor time (65%). I am establishing a Holding Company to Manufacture, Market and Distribute my own brands and others in a cooperative resources initiative. Talk about idiotic and Non sensical, molecule realignment, what governs this stupid, unsubstantiated claim. This is evidence of unbridled ignorance run amock with nuts editorializing Quwazze concepts as some authority then what follows are more quacks competing for Authority. So lets talk if you’re interested

    • BTW, my comment about idiots was not directed at the comenter but whoever put forth the idea and was simply expressing my indignity.

  8. This is an excellent article. I would also like to note that as informative as the article is, the responses are also incredibly insightful. Particularly the response from JRodney Collins. It’s interesting that unlike the responses on OTHER sites are often nonsensical and idiotic, we seem to have a number of learned people here. Kudos all.

  9. What a fascinating read! I learned a great deal by reading this article. Thank you, and keep them coming.

  10. With all respect, all instrument builders do not share this view. Dan Atkinson (Atkinson custom basses) conducted an experiment where he slapped a neck, bridge and some electronics on a piece of scrap lumber from his basement and then used the same neck, bridge and electronics on an alder bass body and significantly fewer than half the people who heard sound samples from each bass could tell the scrap lumber from the alder bass body. Tone is primarily in your fingers and secondly in the electronics. Fingerboard wood can alter sound, but the differences in body wood are so slight that most people cannot hear them.

  11. This issue has ALWAYS led to as many arguments as there are people who gave up worrying about an additional two strings and took up that less stringless guitar known as the ‘bass’ (and sorry – but 5 string is and always will be a banjo to me – and anything above that is still a guitar tuned an octave lower)…. but back to the “woody” thing… the entire idea that the wood plays such an important part in the ELECTRONIC transference of sound via the oscillating string and the magnets and winds in the pickup is and always has been a point of contention. As far as what.
    I’ve always believed (and heard with my (now) old ears… it’s more the WOODEN BRIDGE vs.
    METAL BRIDGE that makes the difference in the strings oscillation to the pickups – which is.
    what EVERYONE hears coming thru the amp. And even picked up not only in the players ears,
    but the audience (with obvious mods made by the tubes-circuity – speakers, pickin’ with a pluck -fingers – and dampening with that hand [or not], etc.)….

    Best example I guess I could give is in using my old Framus hollow body ORIGINAL ACOUSTIC ‘Star’ bass from the 50’s (yeah – 50’s… not the so called “Wyman” one which was redesigned for some reason in the early 60’s and which he used for only a year or two before getting another endorsement deal) with the ‘slide on’ plate pups literally welded to that plate (and for which I understand ‘Framus’ [now ‘Warwick for ya’ younger pluckers and picker] has FINALLY decided to reissue (made in Korea – which is one of the few countries still using OLD wood… and not giving a damn about even using tortoises for SOME shell work)… SO…. THOSE ACTUAL ORIGINAL.
    ACOUSTIC BASSES that Framus first made always gave ME (at least) an indication that the BRIDGE CONTACT WITH THE WOOD is what ACTUALLY makes the ‘difference’ in the sound… and if you have ANY bass from a Fender P to a hollow body – and have convinced yourself it’s the ‘wood’.
    of the neck AND guitar body making the difference… (not ta’ even get into the windings on the pups and how ‘hot’ they are and hand wound vs tighter machine…) TRY REPLACING THE BRIDGE CONTACTS from metal to ALL WOOD or even wood and metal contacts with the strings (such as.
    the Hofner Violin design – which has the rosewood base in contact with your woody body – but metal contacts at the strings) THEN argue with yourself (and others) about the sound difference.
    Think ya’ might actually get to see – and more importantly HEAR what I believe in what a a REAL BASS (as in 4 string – not 5) sounds like WITH A WOODEN BRIDGE for that “thucky” sound of the 50’s and 60’s… again at least to my ears as an ‘old’ musician influenced greatly by the Big Mac’s sound of his hollow body and melodic paying of that instrument unlike any ‘bottom dweller’ before him that just stuck with the ‘roots’ of where it all originated in ‘rock’ (pop) recordings.

    And NOW you can argue how much an engineer like George Martin also had an influence on the ‘sounds’ of the bass (nad every other instrument) in rock (and pop) history (after the four buggy boys started questioning WHY everything ‘had’ to be recorded in a certain way with the white lab coat engineers – which is where THAT term originated, since they ALL looked like “lab” scientists back then in England with their ‘clean’ white coats and clearly defined rules of recording that [thankfully] the Beatles began to break every one of them. Including the hours that musicians.
    were ‘allowed’ to record).

    David Alan Gates.
    an ‘old’ musician [and proud of it!]

    P.S. – ‘old school’ means JUST playing with ONLY your guitar attached to your amp and seeing.
    what that instrument can do with JUST the volume and tone pots of each… NOT how many pedals and other effects you use to make your sound. It’s all between your fingers and ears NOT the many electronics they have now to imitate what was done originally with that instrument and.
    amplification and room ambience.

    • Although not strictly bass related, it’s interesting to note the comments Peter Frampton made recently in an interview for the re-issue of “Humble Pie Rockin’ The Filmore”. When asked for a rig rundown for himself and Marriot, along with the usual heads & cabs, he made it a point to say that there were no effects used on that album, no pedals, nothing. It was guitar to amp, period. I get a bit of a warm fuzzy when I think about that…

  12. Great article! Lately I have been glueing objects to the surface of my cheap guitars and getting amazing results. I glued 5 pounds of glass beads onto the front a low cost Peavy, and now I love the tone better then my F Bass and Marcus Miller Jazz Bass. Last week I glued 6 pounds of steel washers to the front and back of the Luthite (plastic) body of a Cort Curbow Bass. It sounds incredible now! Played a gig last week and it sounded killer. What’s next? Who knows, but I’ve got my thinking cap on.

  13. Monsieur

    Just play the damn thing

  14. Paul

    Wood has always affected my judgement…

  15. GR888 article .; I love the idea of leaning your bass against the stereo speakers to re align the molecules , in some way it would also absorb the energy of lets say Zeppelin or Jaco , and then we could tap into there vibe and the magic would be endless ;.;. there are things beyond our ability to fathom ;..

  16. virtanen

    This thread has several good notes that should be combined. I also think that testing these mentioned details would open up a lot of more knowledge. I do admit that I hate “religious” comments about how things should be done without a proper background. Super instruments can be built with real knowledge and lots of testing.

    I have been in blind tests to find out actual differences in stead of believing to hear something that does not exist. Ear-opening exercises. But require an open mind and may be bitter for a fanatic.

    Probably it was Rick Turner who tried a method of aging the wood by putting it to an industrial vibrating table years back. Actually you can read about the method in more detail from here:
    http://www.its.caltech.edu/~gbelford/Acoustic%20Guitar%20Central-Aging%20a%20guitar%20with%20vibrations.html

  17. Cliff Rochester

    I bought a 65 J Bass in the early 80’s which unfortunately lost it’s authenticity when someone fitted a P Bass neck before I bought it. It is awesome to play however as I prefer the wider P Bass neck. I have played bass for over 50years professionally and knew nothing about various woods affecting resonance, tone etc until I read this article with great interest. This bass has a brass nut fitted, presumably when the neck was changed and having owned two P Basses since the early 60’S I can honestly say I haven’t heard or played a bass with the resonance and tone this bass has. Is there any substance in my presumption that the brass neck has had this effect on this cherished bass? It has the original electrics.

  18. CLIFF ROCHESTER

    Sorry was meant to read brass nut not brass neck.

  19. casper gomez

    Funny my guitar builder and i think that wood has so little to do with whats goin on with steel string and magnetic pickup that its not even worth talking about HOWEVER when it comes to accoustic guitars wood is everything

  20. casper gomez

    Funny my guitar builder and i think that wood has so little to do with whats goin on with steel string and magnetic pickup that its not even worth talking about HOWEVER when it comes to accoustic guitars wood is everything

  21. Mike Masuda

    Nice article! As a physicist and bass player, I have been fascinated at the nuances in the different “tone woods”–part of it is subjective, part hype, and part actual science. The basic premise is that the instrument is basically a bow (as in bow and arrow) and how it reacts in vibration is a factor of geometry, string tension and composition, translation of energy at the nut and bridge, and how the bow flexes and resonates with string vibration.

    I would imagine a bow made of a more flexible wood would react adversely different to a less flexible one–with wood density, porosity, and other factors affecting vibrational attenuation for various frequencies.

    If we ever learn the “perfect” amounts of all these criteria in a bass, and are able to synthetically manufacture a carbon fiber to match these criteria, it would forever change the way basses are made. Imagine wanting that vintage tone but maximizing the best qualities of it, or the modern tones–you just select the parameters online, the carbon fiber “tone wood” is made, and the bass neck and body from those parameters. “Someday” is pretty close to that now.

    But of course, all that science *could* take the mystique away from the search for the perfect bass–the search itself is to some extent an exciting journey in itself. I don’t mind a little of both. I own a lot of basses (most are semihollow, my aesthetic preference)–each with a different personality and voice. Personally, I prefer the diversity. But I also like making each of these basses the best it can be by modding their electronics and swapping out hardware to get the best tones out of them.

    Vive Le difference!

  22. mbka

    This is interesting and yet the subject has a strong polarization into believers and non believers. Why should the frame around the string (the body and neck) influence the electronically generated sound? I found some interesting pointers at this luthier’s site: http://www.fruduaguitars.com/ – sadly he seems to have changed it up so I can’t point to the technical pages where I read the information. In a nutshell, the claim is that the neck influences the sound the most, including the trussrod. That is because the neck is thin and long, and flexes. It really works like a bow as one commenter noted. And if this is so, that explains a lot of experiments where listeners couldn’t hear the differences between bodies. Well, the neck matters a lot more than the body. Not to mention the notorious problems with blind tests – most people can’t tell the difference between coke and pepsi either because they lack a specific vocabulary to describe what they sense, and so they get confused in A/B/X tests.

    So what are the effects of material and construction? As another commenter noted, resonance is not all of it, damping is also important. For resonance, stiffness (elastic modulus) is important, as well as mass. Resonance will absorb energy at first, then give it back (sustain). For damping, in some ways the opposite of resonance, the oiliness of the wood is important, besides the wood type. Oily wood dampens vibrations better. Damping makes resonance peaks lower in amplitude and broader in frequency. So why would all of this influence the electronically generated sound? I find the answer is quite obvious: Because the string loses energy into the neck and body, but also gets it back (damping, resonance) and the electronics amplify the slightest effects. If you have a hard time to believe this, think of string noise for instance – it’s always more of a problem in electric instruments than in acoustic ones. Small movements are amplified. In acoustic instruments you have a hard time amplifying anything at all.

    What’s important here is that all of these effects are frequency dependent. And luckily so – we all want to hear complex colored sounds. No one wants to hear pure sine waves, and no one would want to hear just a single resonance centered around one frequency. That would just be a drone. So how do you get a rich, complex sound? By having many different resonances, clearly separated, none too strong or overpowering. You want some color, but not one-sidedness.

    So, a bass made of combinations of materials with different properties should likely produce a more complex sound than a homogeneous construct. And I suspect this is what we hear as differences between basses. For instance to me bolt-on designs often sound more “alive” than set neck ones. I suspect this is because neck and body now represent two vibrational components separated by a clear interface that produce two vibrational modes rather than a single one. There is more – I have read a study that found some strong isolated resonance modes in the horns of a bass, of all places. So physical shape (surprisingly) also matters. I suspect we don’t necessarily want a strong coupling between string and body either. You want some vibration to be kept on the string – if it all transmits to the body you get more mushy body and neck resonance and less “attack”.

    Finally, I believe that Leo Fender accidentally hit the holy grail with his instruments. Bolt on necks, different woods, steel strings, bone nuts, brass saddles, steel bridges, car lacquers… all done for efficient production, and this coincidental mix of materials resulted in lots of vibrational modes, and lots of discontinuities in his instruments. At each discontinuity, there is a change in impedance, and part of the vibration is reflected – it’s not dampened either mind you. So the effect should be a multitude of undampened resonances over the instrument. And I believe it is THAT that generates a rich sound, many discontinuities with no clear dominant modes, and with low dampening. And if you don’t believe this, add resonant materials to a guitar, with a none-to-good interface to the guitar and low dampening. Just as the commenter did with glass beads glued to a guitar – I once did it with aluminium plates on a Les Paul. You immediately get an “interesting” sound out of it.

    The funny thing is that all these effects can be measured, just as pickup transfer functions can be measured, and pickup locations can be described in frequency response terms. But no manufacturer does this. Instead we get all sorts of vague talk about “warmth” or “snap” that really doesn’t mean anything.

  23. JJ

    And then there’s this…http://youtu.be/7Oo2H-W7d6A

    • mbka

      That is a thing of beauty – wonder about the technical details though, example, what kind of stiffeners they used (spray with lacquer / glue / epoxy to make it hold up to fraying, inserts for the screws and frets to make them stick to the corrugated cardboard etc).

      • JJ

        Indeed, but it’s not wood that makes it sound great, whatever it is

      • JJ

        But it’s still not wood…

        • mbka

          There’s wood fibers in that cardboard :) . Actually from the video it’s impossible to tell if it sounds “great” (as strats go), or just “close enough” to a strat to raise eyebrows, given what it’s made of. I suspect the latter. Some kind of measurement would have been nice here. I have seen scientific papers where different neck / body combinations were examined and yes you can see a signal in the frequency response.

          But, of course, there’s no reason it has to be wood to sound decent. Plenty of guitars and basses out there are made either of aluminium, composites, have graphite or carbon fiber necks, and what have you. To me, the more homogeneous and “perfect” the materials, the more I tend to find the sound nondescript and boring. The point of my post was this: there is good reason to believe that the imperfections in the behavior of the material, the discontinuities, and various resonance points, make the sound “interesting”. For example, pickups don’t transmit vibration intensity linearly either, and they have resonance peaks which makes their frequency response totally non-flat. So, as long as you create enough interesting deviations from a pure sine wave, any material can work. Even a synthesizer on a DAW. The complexity of a natural material is hard to simulate though.

          • JJ

            Heh, I think the discussion will go on and on. My Bogart basses were regularly positively commented on by recording engineers (graphite necks, plastic shell body filled with foam). And these days I play Precisions… :)