Looking for durable light-weight wood for guitar body

Discussion in 'Luthiery, Modifications & Customizations' started by Bearitone, Nov 25, 2015.

  1. Bearitone

    Bearitone SS.org Regular

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    So this should be a really quick thread.

    I've been looking at different semi-custom options like Carvin, Warmoth, and Halo and I'm trying to decide on a body wood.

    I used to be sold on the idea of "tone woods" having a massive effect on a guitars sound but, I just don't buy it anymore.

    Now I just want something as light as possible but very durable too. Or at least somewhere in the middle.

    Would alder be a good choice?
     
  2. coffeeflush

    coffeeflush SS.org Regular

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    Basswood
     
  3. Berserker

    Berserker SS.org Regular

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    Light weight and very durable is a difficult combination. What kind of finish are you planning to apply?

    Alder is probably a good call, or mahogany. Basswood isn't very durable but with a thick finish most common woods are fine.
     
  4. Chemical-Pony

    Chemical-Pony SS.org Regular

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    Mahogany is pretty heavy isn't it? Second basswood suggestion. Also poplar.

    You could always have a chambered body. Don't wanna go too light, though, 'cos of neck dive.
     
  5. pylyo

    pylyo SS.org Regular

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    Swamp ash
     
  6. Deegatron

    Deegatron SS.org Regular

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    In my experience, basswood is very light... but durability is poor.
    Alder is medium/light... and durability is good.
    Mahogany is medium/heavy and durability is good.

    I would say alder meets your criteria the best... warmoth can chamber it if you need further weight reduction... or consider a slightly thinner profile... like 1-5/8" instead of 1-3/4" thickness.

    Paulownia is also popular as an ultralight body wood but I have no experience with it's durability... I would assume it is similar to basswood.
     
  7. Hywel

    Hywel SS.org Regular

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    The bit I used in a build had durability closer to balsa/styrofoam :ugh:. Super light though!

    I'd go for chambered alder or swamp ash.
     
  8. Pikka Bird

    Pikka Bird Vaya Con Cornholio

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    ^Yeah, when you see that cheaply made new furniture from the "far east" that's supposed to look really exquisite and antique from ten meters away, that's often paulownia. When lifting a wardrobe made from that stuff you're almost flipping it over because you're mentally prepared for it to be really heavy because of the way it looks.
     
  9. GuitarBizarre

    GuitarBizarre Listen to physics.

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    Worth mentioning, the "Tonewood" debate is bull...., but that doesn't mean all wood sounds the same, or all materials sound the same.

    I've explained this at great length before, but the myth around "tonewood" and that whole bull about Swamp ash's "pores" "Combing" the frequency range and so on, is, patently and completely, untrue. It's horsecrap. Psuedo-scientific at best and demonstrably untrue.

    However *mass* and *rigidity* have easily explained, demonstrable effects on how an instrument sounds.

    Take an acoustic guitar, and compare it to a banjo. In theory, they both have frets, a bridge, a soundboard or a head, etc. They're not that dissimilar in how they produce sound.

    But they sound totally different. Why? The string still goes from an achor, over a tailpiece, up a neck and frets, to a nut, to some geared tuners. Described like that, the two sound damn near identical.

    The reason is that the Banjo head is soft, pliable, and very light, compared to the wood soundboard which is many times less pliable, harder and heavier.

    Why does this make a difference? Simple. The banjo head being so light provides the energy in the string with a super easy way out into the open air - the head vibrates, the energy transfers across the whole surface into the air, and that energy is gone, never to return.

    As a result, banjos are incredibly loud for their size, but have almost no natural sustain.

    The hard wood soundboard of the acoustic guitar is different - it presents a significant IMPEDIMENT to that process, because it's so stiff and heavy, and is reinforced with bracing - The energy in that string can only go into the wood and into the air so quickly. The rest of the energy has to stay in the string, waiting for it's time to bleed into the soundboard and the air.

    Of course, a badly made gutiar will absorb that energy into badly made glue joints and air gaps as heat, and rattling struts will bleed off the energy too, and so on and so on. That's why well built acoustics sustain longer than cheap ones while still being louder - the builder will have eliminated energy loss in places other than the soundboard, by making tight strong joints and not routing the truss rod cavity too large, etc.

    But ultimately, it's easy to see that when you have less ways for energy to leave the string, you increase it's sustain.

    Solid body guitars go a step further, and *HEAVY*, *DENSE* solid body guitars go a step further again.

    So while it's totally fair to say that most of the rationale around tonewoods is bunkum, the fact is, you can see some observed trends in tonewood description - heavy, hard woods are described consistently as brighter and sustaining longer, be it maple vs mahogany, ebony vs rosewood (Although fretboards make very, very little practical difference. This can mostly be attributed to the fret being held more securely and guitars with ebony boards usually being flat out built better). This is because more mass means more inertia for the energy in the string to overcome before it can leave into the surrounding air.

    When you make a guitar body too light, you dramatically increase the ease with which the energy in the string can both cause other components to vibrate, and also the ease with which it can make the body ITSELF vibrate - a vibration your body will immediately dampen, killing that energy as it transforms into heat from friction, and therefore reducing your sustain and often a lot of your harmonic content.




    Body woods structure more often than not doesn't make a huge difference, the cells and grain of wood just isn't big enough to be markedly different. What does make a difference is mass and rigidity - a heavy body that bends will make it easy for energy to leave the string. A light body that's rigid will also let energy leave the string.

    You need a healthy balance of weight and rigidity in order to keep that energy where it needs to be for as long as it needs to be there.
     
  10. DistinguishedPapyrus

    DistinguishedPapyrus SS.org Regular

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    Light and durable? What about hollow body or chambered? You could potentially use any kind of wood if it's done right...
     
  11. coffeeflush

    coffeeflush SS.org Regular

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    I had a guitar with bass wood (esp ltd AX series) with Dimarzio's in it.
    I got a custom made, same shape, same specs except the scale length was 27" instead of 25.5
    But the guitar used magohany instead of basswood.

    Guitar sounds much darker with the exact same pair of pickups.

    I don't know what the scientific truth is. Maybe its some other factor. But it does seem to make a difference even if its not that high.
    :2c:

    Also, chambered body is an excellent suggestion. Or you could get a body shape like this
    [​IMG]
     
  12. Renkenstein

    Renkenstein SS.org Regular

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    My new favorite body wood is swamp ash, or southern ash. It's super light and just flippin' sings. It has resonance that you can just feel all throughout the guitar. When I was level sanding the sides on a granite slab with sandpaper, the body was honking like a trombone. It's a very musical wood, looks fantastic, and has a great weight to it.

    [​IMG]
     
  13. Bearitone

    Bearitone SS.org Regular

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    So I'm basically looking for a wood with a healthy mass and rigidity to minimize energy loss. Energy (vibration) will be dampened by my body if the wood does not have considerable mass (high density), and energy can also be lost if vibration has to travel through softer, more pliable materials and poor construction flaws like air gaps and poor joining. Correct?

    Sounds like some of the ideas behind PRS guitars. Reducing energy loss is the main goal.


    So what about something like a chambered walnut or wenge body?
     
  14. pott

    pott SS.org Regular

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    My lightest (non-headless) 6 string is a chunky Mahogany body with a thin-ish maple cap. Much lighter than my Basswood guitars for example. Of course, the plural of anecdotes is not data.

    GOOD Mahogany is light, and quite open sounding. But good Mahogany is getting rare, and most pieces used by today's brands are medium to heavy weight and don't resonate that well (in my experience of course).
    So I would go with Mahogany if you have the chance to find THE right piece :) Also agreed with the Swamp Ash suggestion. You'll get really singing mids and highs with Ash, and a slightly more balanced feel with Mahogany (in general and all other things being equal).
     
  15. jeremyb

    jeremyb SS.org Regular

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    I have a paulownia bodied guitar and it marks like crazy :(
     
  16. Killemall1983

    Killemall1983 SS.org Regular

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    Basswood is one of the softest "hardwoods" in the world. I it is almost like balsa. Dont ever use it thinking it will be durable without a thick poly clear coat.
     
  17. GuitarBizarre

    GuitarBizarre Listen to physics.

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    It sounds like PRS because PRS is right - Guitars are a subtractive instrument. If you want "More"of anything, you have to ensure it isn't lost in the first place, because once you hit that string there's no way to impart more energy into it apart from hitting it again. (eBows excepted, of course, but they don't count)

    What you want, in theory, is as close as possible to suspending your string between two infinitely heavy, infinitely immobile points, under tension.

    I'm actually working on designing some hardware and, eventually, a full guitar system, based on this principle of high mass, high strength, low-loss.

    Ultimately though, with currently available hardware, your best possible combination of factors is something with:

    A heavy, dense, rigid wood
    A completely solid body
    A relatively thick neck (Ideally neck through, but at the least with a very strong joint)
    Strengthening rods in the neck,
    And, if at all feasible, build it headless, because the longer that skinny bit of wood sticking out of the body is, the more it's going to flex and bend when you touch it or when outside forces act upon it - especially if you routed the truss rod up at the headstock and not at the heel.

    With presently available hardware and easily done building techniques (IE, woodworking, not metalworking or casting), this is really as close as you can get to the theoretical ideal guitar. It would be incredibly bright, sustain would be excellent, and it would have very few if any dead spots or wolf tones in it.

    The downside is it would be heavy, which is the opposite of what you want, but that's physics for you - Speaker design is the same way. There are the odd few speaker designs out there that try and "harness" resonances within the speaker cabinet, but at the end of the day, nearly* every truly truly good, high end speaker built for the last 60 years has had a super strong, super heavy, super rigid cabinet design.

    *I say nearly because there are some designs out there like Quad electrostatics, which use a very thin diaphragm given an electrical charge in order to produce sound, and they sound fantastic, but they operate on a fundamentally different principle in order to produce sound, and that principle can't be applied to guitar building
     
  18. DistinguishedPapyrus

    DistinguishedPapyrus SS.org Regular

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    Interesting read. I like to discus these types of things, and what you're saying makes plenty of sense to me. Think about pianos, they are stringed instruments, they have great sustain, and usually they have a large cast iron harp inside them that the strings are anchored to. That greatly reduces the energy lost from the strings into the structure of the instrument as vibration and heat and such, all due to mass and rigidity of the harp. I like to imagine sometimes (just as sort of a daydream) how long a string could sustain if you did something rediculous like say to take a huge boulder, cut a bowel shape in the side of it that has a diameter similar to a guitar scale length, and then anchor a string inside it spanning across to the edges of the bowel. Then pluck that string and start a stop watch to see how long it rings out. I like to think that would come as close as possible to completely eliminating energy loss. I deff don't think I'm actually gonna test this any time soon or anything, I don't have the tools, materials or time to try such a test but it sure would be some interesting data to look at. Extremely little energy would be able to leave the string and cause the boulder to shift and vibrate, so that energy would stay in the string and cause it to be spent over a longer duration. In fact, that whole whimsical type idea could include putting the boulder in a vacuum so there is no air resistance acting on the guitar string either. (heavy metal meteors? :lol::hbang:)

    But, heres what I kinda disagree with, it seems to me that instead of a headless, you'd actually want a larger head right? and heavy tuners? Like the way the Fender Fat Finger is made to work, adding mass to the head to reduce the amount of vibration transferred into it… maybe I'm wrong but that just got me thinking about this now.
     
  19. GuitarBizarre

    GuitarBizarre Listen to physics.

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    It's one potential approach, but imo, no, you'd want a headless design if you wanted ultimate sustain.

    The fat finger works because the extra mass makes the headstock less susceptible to vibrating of it's own accord, or sympathetically - It increases the headstock's inertia.

    Thing is, while this works, it's a band-aid fix - the real problem is that the headstock vibrates in the first place - And that's because even the strongest headstock joint, with a big volute and everything, is comparatively weak at the nut. Doubly so once you route a bunch of wood away to fit a nut and a truss rod cavity.

    Having no headstock means no weak point, no possibility of sympathetic vibration. Yes, you sacrifice a bit of mass, but you can easily replace that mass in a more compact, much stronger package that won't vibrate sympathetically, by using a heavy steel nut or string clamp assembly, since you no longer have space constraints like needing space between the tuners for straight string pull or finger access.

    Additionally, more weight at the furthest point away from the body just means that it will pull the rest of the neck around more, creating potential flex issues - Sort of like how on a guitar with a floating trem, the tuning will change if you go from lay down on a bed, to stood up vertical. Even a very neck heavy headless design will bring that weight in towards the player and lessen that effect, because that mass will be operating on a point hat is both stronger and that has less leverage because it's closer to the body of the instrument.

    Additionally, for the same reason, you can actually make your hardware not only stronger and more compact, but also much heavier than a standard headstock, without inducing neck dive.

    Also, making a big heavy headstock will help a bit, but you can't really make it thicker - most tuners are designed for a standardised headstock thickness. That means even if you make he headstock a foot wide in every direction, it's still well under an inch thick and you'll maybe even introduce other problems if you make it larger.
     
  20. DistinguishedPapyrus

    DistinguishedPapyrus SS.org Regular

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    Yeah, the weakest point on a guitar as far as vibration goes is definitely the area around the nut and first fret, unless its a bolt on neck with just standard wood screws that have been removed and replaced multiple times. You can often just grab an old Strat and make the neck shift around a little just by pulling on it in different directions, I never liked those joints, that's why I prefer bolt-on joints with stainless tee nuts inserted into the heel and large flat headed bolts. Of course neck through multi laminate hardwood necks are probably the best construction option for sustain. Even better if the body is solid and heavy, and then even more so if the body reaches way up the neck kinda like these:

    [​IMG]
    [​IMG]
    [​IMG]

    You could take this a step further by doing one of those funky guitars with an additional stabilizer bar, I'm sure you've seen those, kinda like Ed Romans' Kingpin:

    [​IMG]



    ... interesting stuff for sure. I play alot of trance/worship type music and I was planning on doing a neck through bass this upcoming year. But this has got me thinking more into the design of the thing. I was planning on building a bass with a double cut, long horn type body and the typical nut end truss rod access. I think I'll have to change that idea now and have the truss rod access from the heel end of the bass now instead because of that inherent weak point at the nut you were talking about, and also make a single cut body shape with a fairly long reach of the upper bout, all the way up to like the 12th fret area. Nice dense fretboard like ebony or purple heart, SS frets, and if I can get some headless hardware at the right price I might have to think about going that route too.
     

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