Good Wood

Judging from the title of this article one might think that this writing concerns the effects of sexual enhancement pharmaceuticals. But, that is not the case. It is, in fact, a few insights into the choice of acoustic guitars in a recording environment. A few of the elements to consider are the type of construction, design, size, types of woods and string gauges.

A year or so ago I went to audition the latest offerings from the Martin guitar company. My friend Don came along with me to play the guitars because I am a left-handed player and the local retailers seldom (if ever) have lefty instruments in stock. My goal was to find a guitar that would serve me as a recording and live performance instrument. I needed a versatile and dynamic instrument with dense mid range attributes as well as a deep and crisp sonic signature.

As a songwriter I am not restricted to any one style of playing. My ‘style’ can be light and gentle finger picking or aggressive strumming and flat-picking or even a combination of both, depending on the song.

For nearly forty years, I’ve played a Martin D18 with mahogany back and sides but found it fell short for recording some types of material. The D18 has deep low end and sweet high frequencies but suffers a carved sound in the mid range. I wanted a more forward sounding instrument with more mid range.

I also play a Beneteau guitar with a smaller body and rose wood back and sides. It has sufficient mid range and smooth highs but because of the smaller body, it does not extend the low frequencies quite enough to suit some of my needs although it is a stunning sounding instrument. I use it more than the D18 for recording but prefer a bigger ‘bum’ on the low end for live performance.

The guitar I finally bought is a Martin HD28LSVALH. Man, that is a mouthful. So what do all those letters mean? The ‘HD’ means Herringbone Dreadnought, which describes the herringbone inlay and the dreadnought (big) body style. Now for the more esoteric stuff. The ‘LS’ means large sound hole which tends to help push those mids forward. The ‘V’ means that it has the vintage style scalloped and forward bracing. During the previewing of the various offerings from Martin, we discovered that Martin had re-issued some of their older techniques of build, which also push the mid range forward. The braces are closer to the sound hole and are carefully scalloped reducing their mass. This particular instrument was copied from a 1934 D28. The ‘A’ indicates that the top is made of Adirondack spruce instead of Sitka spruce now more commonly used since the supply of Adirondack spruce has dwindled. The difference between the sounds of the two wood types is stunning. Finally, the ‘LH’ means left handed. Because of this and the other aforementioned factors, this guitar is a custom order.

Since the D28 I bought has the scalloped forward bracing, rosewood back and sides, straight and tight grained Adirondack spruce top and a dreadnought body style, it gives me all I could ever want in a flat top steel stringed guitar. It gives me dense mids, sweet highs and huge low end, tightly fused to the low mids giving an even tone and volume from string to string. When played softly it sparkles with a halo of warmth surrounding the tone. When leaned into with a heavy hand, it just keeps giving. When finger picked, the melody jumps out of the instrument.

As previously mentioned, my preference has always been rosewood back and sides for recording yet one of my favourite artists, Ry Cooder, prefers mahogany guitars for recording and I have to admit that his acoustic guitar recordings are stunning so the style of playing and the age and grain of the woods are relevant as well.

At some level, there is an alchemic result from the assemblage of various aging woods, bracings and designs. A few years back, a guitarist was recording some overdubs here and he showed up with a beautiful pre-war Martin D18. Although this guitar looked identical to my 1971 D18, the sound was as if it was coming from a completely different instrument. The mid range was tightly married to the lows and highs with a wonderful forward sound, the opposite to my ‘mahogany versus rosewood’ theory. The old D18 would have had the Adirondack spruce top and the scalloped and forward bracing. Perhaps these structural features provide a forward mid range sounding instrument more than I suspected, notwithstanding three quarters of a century of aging and settling of the top. As with Stradivarius instruments, aging and constant playing definitely open up any high quality instrument’s sound, whether it is from aging or the alignment of the wood fibres in response to the resonance of music played on it.

Strings are another issue relevant to tone. Some players prefer ultra low action and thin strings to assist in playability but they give up tone and dynamics, which I am not willing to do. I like to feel a bit of resistance on the strings and therefore use a heavier gauge with slightly higher action, more tightly stringing the guitar and allowing more tone and dynamics to ring through. When played softly the notes are fatter and clearer. When played harder it just keeps on giving and the sound does not fold in on itself sonically and turn into a clatter of standing waves and wave cancellation. The more dynamic the instrument, the more musical the performance can be.

I am not going to bastardise my new beautiful instrument with pickups and preamps. I will use microphones to amplify it so that it can be all that it can be.

I have heard superlative sound come out of far less expensive guitars but that is rare. I have heard dull sounding rosewood guitars and bright and tight sounding mahogany guitars so design, age and structure are extremely important. I’ve heard bright and tight mahogany Guilds, Gibsons and Martins but they were usually very old examples, built in a time when there were no electronic devices to amplify their sound. Back then, in band or orchestra performances, the guitars had to be heard simply through the design of the instrument and the manner in which they were played.

Consider these aforementioned parameters if you are shopping for an acoustic guitar to record and perform with. When auditioning the instruments pay attention to the sonic signature, dynamic capabilities and, of course, playability. So, strap on your best ears and above all, have fun.

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