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Old Wood

Even though virtually every part on this 1960 ES-345 has been changed, it's still that elusive unobtainium called "old wood". I guarantee that if you put old parts on a new body, it won't sound as good as new parts on an old one.

Even though virtually every part on this 1960 ES-345 has been changed, it’s still that elusive unobtainium called “old wood”. I guarantee that if you put old parts on a new body, it won’t sound as good as new parts on an old one.

No, not the Rolling Stone with the same name, although he’s old Wood as well. Interestingly, Gibson and other manufacturers have gotten very close to being able to replicate all of the parts that make up a vintage guitar. For many of the parts, they don’t improve with age. This is true of most of the hardware. Certainly old Klusons are not better than new ones-in fact they can be pretty quirky. Old bridges tend to sag and I routinely replace the bridges in my players with Tone Pros or other aftermarket parts. The plastic repros are looking pretty authentic these days as are most of the metal parts. It’s actually getting hard to tell the high end aged repros from the vintage stuff. That’s good in a way and not so good in another. Parenthetical note: I can still tell the difference but I see about a zillion of every part every year. There is some discussion as to whether old pickups like PAFs and early patent numbers have improved with age. It may be that they were just better by accident due to the low tech winding and construction techniques used back then. Or they improve with age. I don’t know. What I do know is that there are some pickup winders out there who can get pretty darn close to a PAF. Everything but the sticker in some cases. I could name names but this post isn’t about pickups. This post is about the thing they can’t do. They can use the same grade of plywood and the old timey hide glue and the same specs but there are a few things they can’t do. They can’t use Brazilian rosewood, the can’t afford to do as much by hand and they can’t use old wood. As I’ve stated pretty clearly, I don’t think anybody can hear the difference between a Brazilian board and an Indian Rosewood board. Argue if you want, it only supports my larger point. Old wood sounds different than new wood. I think it generally sounds better and most players would agree with that. I don’t know if it’s because the wood dries out and becomes less dense or more dense and perhaps carries the sound differently or whether the glue hardens and the lacquer sinks in and the “relationship” between the wooden parts and the stuff that holds it together somehow coalesces to form something wonderful. I just don’t know. But I’m dead sure the old stuff sounds better than the new stuff and if the parts people could figure out a way to make new wood old, they would have done it already. But time is the thing you can’t fake. I suppose you could leave the plywood blanks in an open air barn in the Swiss Alps and let the breeze blow through it for a few years but they don’t. It would be expensive. They would rather kiln dry it or perhaps not dry it at all. That’s not how new wood gets to be old wood. New wood gets to be old wood the same way young Ron Wood got to be old Ron Wood. Time.¬†¬†Think about this. Which would you rather have (and which would sound better?)–a ’58 ES-335 with new parts or a ’13 ES-335 with old parts? No brainer.

4 Responses to “Old Wood”

  1. Kpurcell says:

    I have to agree with you on this one Charlie

    I recently picked up a very much abused 1967 SG Standard. It’s had a headstock transplant (as far as I can make out), it’s been refinished (in arctic white some years ago by the checking) and every original part has departed other than the original bridge and vibrola plate. I’m guesstimating he age based on the body routing, neck thickness and the heel join. Normally the ‘sensible’ part of my brain would say “stay away!!” but it came cheap (because of the issues) and I would take it every day over a modern custom shop model. Even unplugged it’s immediately much louder and more resonant than any other modern SG I have owned. I’ve replaced the modern pickups that came with it with a set of t-tops and I’ll never sell it – I plan to play it until one of us falls apart!

  2. RAB says:

    Charlie, right-on comments! Yes, there is something magical about old wood, about a guitar that has been played for 50 plus years. I think another factor at least in Gibson’s case is the availability and quality of the wood they used during the “golden” 1958-64 era. They had staff who’s sole purpose was to track down great tone woods. A lot of that wood may have been “old-growth” wood that is very hard (and expensive) to find these days. And as you mention, the issue of kiln vs. air-dried curing. All that being said, starting with great woods, superior craftsmanship (relatively low production totals) and construction as you mention and then aging/being played for 50 plus years results in some fine and rich tone. To support your premise, I put 100% old parts (other than the pickup rings, switch ring and jack plate) on a nice reissue (R9) Les Paul. It sounded good, better than stock, but not as good as my ’56 conversion (where I think most of the good tone is due to the 57 + year old wood though the fiddle does have old parts where they impact the sound!)

  3. Rod says:

    There IS something about old wood. I’m sure there are some but I’ve never yet come across a Golden Era Gibson that didn’t sound good. You can tell by just playing an open chord acoustically that the guitar is going to sound good. I think ‘new’ Gibsons have that same ‘tight’ sounding quality of CBS Fender amps, the older ones just sound sweeter and less ‘clinical’. In both cases they don’t have that ‘tight’ edge.

  4. RAB says:

    I agree with Rod…the old guitars are warmer and richer sounding with more overtones and less of a “harsh” edge. Still it is a subtle difference that some might not hear or, if heard, might not appreciate or want to pay for. An analogy could be made to wine. I can appreciate the difference in taste between a $25 and $100 bottle of Zinfandel but don’t necessarily want to pay for the $100 bottle. I have owned several and can appreciate the difference between an original 1959 Sunburst Les Paul Standard and a reissue ’59. If the original Burst were rated at 100 points, the reissue might come in at 90 points. How many are willing to pay up to hundreds of thousands of dollars for that additional 10%? As an alternative my ’56 conversion rates about 96 points and does rather nicely for a reasonable amount of coin!

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