It’s a widely-held belief that old guitars sound better. There are some explanations for why that’s accepted truth, but it’s also not always the case. Some guitars age poorly and others improve with age.
Old guitars sound better because those still played into their vintage years were made from high-quality wood by experienced craftsmen. Also, the vibration of the strings causes a richer sound over time as wood sap breaks down. However, lower-quality instruments usually don’t age well and likely won’t improve with time.
In this article, we’ll examine guitars, both acoustic and electric, and how their construction creates such a wide range of sounds. In addition to considering their composition and the processes involved, we’ll look at how this affects longevity and sound quality.
Understanding the Components of a Guitar
The main components of a guitar are the neck and the body, and each of these contains multiple integral parts.
Neck of Guitar
This long, thin piece of wood joins the guitar to the body and holds many of the instrument’s key parts:
- Tuning keys & pegs
- Fret markers
The headstock is the top of the guitar at the end of the neck, where the tuning pegs sit. The tuning keys adjust the sound of the instrument, while the pegs attach strings to the guitar. The nut is a narrow strip at the end of the neck on which the strings rest.
The frets are narrow metal strips on the fingerboard that connect the strings when pressed down, and the fretboard or fingerboard runs along the neck on which the frets are installed. Fret markers are aesthetic additions that personalize your guitar and provide position references.
Body of Guitar
Apart from varying to some degree in thickness, the neck of the guitar is uniform across all types. The body varies depending on whether the guitar is electric or acoustic. Acoustic guitars all have hollow bodies, while most electric guitars have solid wood bodies — though some have semi-hollow bodies.
- Bridge pins
- Strap buttons
The soundboard is the wooden top of the guitar body that vibrates to create the sound and tone. The pickguard protects the soundboard from getting scratched while playing, and the soundhole is in the middle of the body projects sound.
The bridge is the point where strings are attached, and it’s usually glued onto the body, while the saddle is a thin strip on the bridge where the strings rest. Bridge pins hold the strings in place (on some guitars), and strap buttons serve as attachment points to add a guitar strap.
- Humbucker pickups
- Single-coil pickups
- Volume & tune knobs
- Pickup selector
Pickups function like microphones as they pick up the string vibrations and deliver them to the amplifier. Humbucker pickups are wide pickups that eliminate hum and create a warm tone, while single-coil pickups create a brighter tone.
The volume and tune knobs control volume and tone from pickups, while the pickup selector controls whether the neck or bridge pickups are active.
How Guitars Produce Sound
As with all stringed instruments, sound comes from the vibration of the string when it is picked or plucked. The energy from these vibrating strings transfers through the bridge to the soundboard.
The variations of sound come from differences in the length, tension, and weight of the strings, as these characteristics determine how fast they vibrate.
We refer to the rate of vibration as the frequency. The faster a string vibrates, the higher the note will be. The highest notes come from shorter, tighter, and lighter strings, and the lowest notes from longer, looser, and heavier strings (source).
When a player tunes a guitar, this changes the tension of the strings.
With an acoustic guitar, players pull the strings down with their fingers on the fretboard to make the string tighter. These vibrations then resonate within the hollow body of the guitar and are amplified.
With an electric guitar, the player creates the vibrations similarly, but the pickups to the amplifier and speaker amplify them.
The pickups in an electric guitar are made of magnets wrapped in thin wire. Vibrations when the strings are played cause changes in the magnet’s magnetic field, causing electric currents that feed out through the guitar’s cable to the amplifier.
Electric guitar strings are always metal to enable this process, while acoustic guitars are made with either nylon or steel strings.
These also affect the sound; nylon strings usually make a mellower, warmer sound, such as in classical or folk music, while steel strings create a crisper, brighter sound found in country or bluegrass music.
Wood Used to Make Guitars
Some essential factors related to their wood structures affect how guitars age. The aging of the wood, its density, and the quality all affect how well a guitar will age.
Quality of Wood
Better quality wood was more readily available and more affordable in days gone by. Guitars are made with many different types of wood, most commonly spruce, mahogany, rosewood, and maple.
Experts believe that different types of wood produce different playing tones in the finished product. Mahogany and rosewood produce warmer, mellower tones, while ebony and maple produce brighter tones.
Aging of Wood
As wood ages, it tends to dry out as the gaps in the structure of the wood collapse and become less able to hold moisture. This older wood becomes stiffer and lighter, resulting in a more resonant soundboard.
More aged wood is also less affected by ambient changes in humidity and therefore produces a more consistent sound.
Supporting this theory, many experts believe guitars sound better in low humidity environments.
Many serious guitar owners will use humidification systems to ensure optimal storage for their guitars. Guitars also mustn’t get too dry, or they risk cracking.
Although electric guitars also contain wood, they produce sound by using pickups instead of the resonance of the wood.
Their sound is, therefore, mostly unaffected by age, and most experts believe that new electric guitars tend to sound as good as old ones.
Another factor in variations of sound is the density of the guitar wood. Wood contains grains that hold sap. As the wood vibrates, this sap breaks up, allowing the vibrations to move more freely through the body of the guitar and producing a richer sound.
Musicians will often refer to “breaking in” an instrument and accept that they will sound better the more they play them. As they play the guitar, more vibrations will occur, and the sap will break down further. There are even commercial devices that replicate this process, but reviews about their efficacy are mixed.
The production process will also affect how well the guitar ages. The modern mass-production of instruments is unlikely to produce quality guitars that will last into the future.
In the past, specialist craftsmen called luthiers produced pieces on an individual basis. These experts would hand select the timber they would use, and each guitar would take months of complicated work, resulting in a unique instrument.
There are still some luthiers producing guitars today, and their pieces are in high demand.
Since the industrial revolution, most guitars are now produced in higher volumes, which makes them more affordable and uniform. While this may not increase their longevity, it does ensure that they are made with greater precision and consistency (source).
Many guitars, regardless of how costly they are in the first place, will not make it to old age because they are not well cared for.
A guitar that starts off its life sounding good will probably be more likely to be better looked after and therefore stand a better chance of still being played years later.
The instrument wood will shrink and swell depending on the environment. Any drastic changes in humidity will affect how the guitar sounds and ages, and you will need to protect a quality instrument from this.
The most crucial factor to be aware of is humidity. A guitar can withstand comfortable moisture, 35% to 60% relative humidity, but anything outside of that can be problematic.
Too much moisture will cause swelling of the wood, and too little could make it shrink and then crack.
Therefore the following care guidelines should be followed(source):
- Measure the relative humidity in your environment.
- Consider humidifying your environment in dry weather.
- Never leave a guitar in a damp or overly warm space or in a car.
- Try to keep it out of direct sunlight.
- Allow an instrument in a cold case to acclimatize before playing it.
Guitars have been played and enjoyed for thousands of years. They’re widely available and one of the most popular instruments worldwide.
Vintage acoustic guitars that have been beautifully made, well cared for, and consistently played do seem to improve with age and produce a richer sound. This is due to many factors that contribute over time to the instrument’s longevity.
Cheaper, mass-produced instruments do not age well but also have a role to play in being readily available to a broad base of consumers who do not necessarily need them to survive well into the future.