The secret to vintage tone is old wood, right? This is certainly a common belief in vintage guitar circles and there are thriving businesses based on this assumption. But do you have to have vintage wood and, by extension, vintage guitars to get an authentic vintage sound? And second, do electric guitars get better with age?
Let’s start with the Les Paul “conversions” as a case study. For the uninitiated, this is an increasingly popular practice of taking an “inferior” 1950s – or sometimes late 1960s – Les Paul and using it as a donor guitar. to convert it to 1958-1960 Les Paul Standard specifications, aka Burst. Les Paul conversions are of particular interest, as they are a unique example of major structural modifications and total finishes deemed acceptable to tone enthusiasts. Indeed, they test the “old wood” hypothesis to destruction…sometimes literally.
Owning a real Burst is pure fantasy for most of us, but a mid-50s Goldtop is a couple of PAFs and maybe a bridge far from essentially the same guitar. Countless Goldtops have been converted into fake Bursts lately and it certainly makes sense financially, but can the same be said from a gaming perspective?
I recently tested this with a friend’s ’53/’59 conversion loaded with vintage gear and a set of replica modern PAF pickups. The converted instrument sounded a bit flat and nowhere near as good as his Gibson Custom Collector’s Choice LP, also loaded with vintage gear but in addition, a set of genuine vintage PAFs.
Unplugged was a different story – the conversion had richer resonance and noticeably longer sustain. But while I enjoy the unplugged sound of a nice Les Paul, I think most guitarists would agree that they sound better plugged in.
We transferred the PAFs to the conversion and it came to life. It also sounded better than the Collector’s Choice model when fitted with the same pickups, as the PAFs let its superior sonic qualities shine through. This establishes two things. The wood itself can’t be entirely ignored, but a recently made reproduction Burst with a set of PAFs and stock hardware can sound better than a genuine 1950s Les Paul with reproduction pickups.
I ran similar tests using some original ’54 Goldtops and a Greco Goldtop conversion loaded with a set of 1953 P-90s and a 1950s wraparound bridge. I even compared a Fender Custom Shop Stratocaster with a vintage bridge and fully loaded vintage pickguard to an original ’63 Strat and I installed real PAFs in a 1981 Greco.
Consistent results lead to clear conclusions. Provided the wood is the right kind and of similar weight, new electric guitars with vintage pickups and hardware can often seem almost indistinguishable from entirely original vintage models. They can also sound superior to vintage guitars that have lost their original pickups and hardware.
On rare occasions we come across vintage guitars that are undeniably stunning. It might seem plausible to attribute such a tone to the seasoning effects of age, but could that be a naive, lazy assumption?
During our recent chat, vintage-obsessed YouTube stars Doug and Pat made this telling point: “We could agree with the differences in tone due to the quality of the wood, but not the age of the wood. ” This is a fine but crucial distinction.
There are obvious differences between light “swamp” ash and heavy “baseball bat” ash from the North, but no one is talking about the specific Louisiana bayou that Fender wood suppliers sourced in the 1950s. Even less attention is given to alder and when tonewoods are discussed in relation to Fenders, weight is considered more important than age.
Lightweight ash and alder body blanks are still widely available, so vintage Fender enthusiasts tend to focus their attention on the pickups and, to a lesser extent, the hardware. That makes sense to me, as long as opinions aren’t swayed by marketing ads referencing Texas.
While the discerning vintage Gretsch enthusiast can distinguish between three-ply and five-ply bodies and various methods of bracing, no one has ever claimed that there is such a thing as “ply tone”. Fortunately, vintage Gretsch pickups remain relatively affordable, and some of the Custom Shop guitars produced under Stephen Stern’s direction are on par with – some might even say better than – anything Gretsch has ever produced.
In the electric guitar world, the cult of vintage wood is mostly focused on Gibson more than any other manufacturer. In fact, it’s almost exclusive to 1950s solid bodies rather than solid-state or 1960s solid bodies.
Again, the goal is specific. Maple, if considered at all, is most revered for its appearance. Brazilian rosewood fingerboards haven’t been on the menu since the 1960s, but any piece of wood that’s been wrapped in plastic, glued to a steel-reinforced substrate, and has 22 pieces of metal hammered onto it certainly can’t exert as much tonal influence. When it comes to Les Pauls, it’s all about mahogany.
Not all mahogany is created equal – and it seems Gibson used different types. We observed Burst weights of eight to 10 pounds, and Les Paul aficionado Cosmo Verrico was among those who noted that the color varies. It combines the best tonal qualities with mahogany which has a specific “earthy red” appearance.
He also suggests, “Sometimes the color looks more golden and these don’t sound as good.” Early P-90 Goldtops tend to have golden mahogany and even if you stick a few PAFs on them they still fail. If it’s true, then it’s caveat emptor when it comes to burst conversions.
Much of the “mahogany” used in modern guitars comes from Africa, and some do not consider it “real” or “authentic” mahogany. During the 1950s, Gibson used mahogany that could have been Cuban, Honduran, or Brazilian—varieties that tended to be softer and lighter.
It has been suggested that Gibson’s mahogany was “old growth” and was slowly cured over decades rather than dried in a kiln. Considering the amounts of wood Gibson must have used, this seems unlikely, but a lack of consensus suggests no one knows for sure. Perhaps the main beneficiaries of this pseudo-science, mythologizing and wishful thinking are those who have invested large sums in vintage Gibsons.
Old wood is often suggested to dry out, but the drying and curing processes are designed to reduce the water content, not eliminate it. Wood tends to achieve equilibrium with its surroundings by continually absorbing and releasing moisture.
While it may be possible to debunk the “dried out” theory, other changes have been shown to occur in wood over time. Cut wood contains pitch, sugars and oils which eventually oxidize, evaporate and mineralize. The lignin binds the fibers together and eventually hardens like glue. The result is that the wood becomes progressively lighter, stiffer and quicker to react, which is good for the tone.
Under normal circumstances this process would take decades in a large electric guitar body and it could be inhibited by the finish. Assuming these bodies still age, vintage guitars should still sound better year after year. Although I own a few vintage instruments myself, I can’t honestly say I’ve noticed this.
The structural changes are interesting, and the process can be accelerated by baking the wood in an oxygen-free environment – a process known as roasting. I have played acoustic and electric with roasted wood and the results can be extremely impressive. Toasted maple has become commonplace, and we’re also starting to see torrefied pine and mahogany.
If you don’t have the money for a vintage guitar – or the patience to wait half a century for your guitar to seemingly start sounding great – the obvious solution is to buy an instrument made from reclaimed wood. Several well-known guitar manufacturers have been doing this for quite some time.
For example, Dennis Fano’s Novo brand builds some remarkable electric guitars from tempered, reclaimed wood, and we’ve never come across structurally similar guitars with more natural resonance. I’ve also played recent ultra-high-end Les Paul replicas made from very old woods that already sound like they’re decades old.
If they suit your style, there’s reason to believe that electric guitars from the 50s and early 60s remain largely unmatched. I’d say it’s a combination of comfortable weight, sublime neck profiles, superior hardware, and pickups that have never been bettered. The thrill of playing a rock ‘n’ roll artifact also cannot be dismissed.
I would agree that the correct wood of the correct weight is also important, but it is not the most crucial factor. The idea that the electric guitar sound improves with age is totally different and I’m not convinced it stacks.
When listening to great guitar tones on landmark recordings, remember that these guitars were hardly second hand at the time of recording, let alone vintage. To believe in the maturation theory is to accept that all those 1970s Gibsons and Fenders ended up sounding amazing. Spoiler alert…they didn’t.
More tellingly, if all those pre-1965 guitars have continued to improve, like fine wine or single malt whiskeys, then modern players who still tour and record with them should sound significantly better than their heroes back in the day. . Would anyone seriously suggest they do?
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