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Nothing Like Old Wood. Or Not.

Built the old school way by Ken McKay in Traverse City Michigan. Neck by Chris Wargo in Somerset, NJ and the finish and pickup rewinding was done by Dan Neafsey (DGN Guitars) in Fairfield CT. I put it together.

Built the old school way by Ken McKay in Traverse City Michigan. Neck by Chris Wargo in Somerset, NJ and the finish and pickup rewinding was done by Dan Neafsey (DGN Guitars) in Fairfield CT. I put it together.

When you talk to vintage players and collectors, many will sing the praises of old wood. Many will sing the praises of classic old electronics. And old wood. Many will wax rhapsodic about great craftsmanship. And old wood. And you can count me in on all of the above but I’m having some second thoughts. About the old wood part. Perhaps we should be talking about good wood rather than old wood.

Is it possible that wood is good just because it’s old? There are plenty of theories out there regarding old wood and most seem to make a lot of sense. The trees weren’t farmed or fertilized or even planted by humans. They were simply there. They grew at the speed at which nature intended and they grew under conditions that generally weren’t under the control of humans. Old growth predates the guitar business by eons. Then there’s the processing part. Some  of the tonal qualities of wood come from moisture content or the lack thereof. Generally, wood was dried before it was turned into a guitar. In the ways of old school guitar building, the wood was dried over a long period of time-years even until someone who knew about these things said it was ready to use. I’m no expert and would welcome any details as to how this worked. Today, the process is speeded up by managed growth and enhanced methods. The time to season the wood has been replaced by heat and dehumidifiers and I would expect that might make a difference. Again, not an expert, just using some logic.

So, let’s say a builder sources some high quality (but not old) wood and lets it season the old school way and even makes his own plywood, again the old school way. We are talking about ES’s here and they are, of course,  plywood. The maple center block contributes to the tone as well, so the builder seasons that the old school way as well. Then he builds the guitar using the same methods that the folks at Gibson used in 1959. He shapes the plywood using a form and methodology that is the same. He hand carves a neck from a piece of seasoned Honduran mahogany and attaches the components together with hide glue. He scavenges some Brazilian rosewood from a secret source and builds a 335. Next, it gets finished using nitrocellulose lacquer-the old kind that you can’t get in the US anymore-maybe he goes to Canada-maybe he has squirreled away a few cans.

Of course, the question will be “does this guitar sound as good as the real thing?’ Does the fact that the old fashioned way of building and the use of old wood when possible and new wood treated the old way make a difference in tone in an ES style plywood bodied guitar. One way to find out. Let’s drop in a set of old pickups and use some other older parts (although I don’t think we have to). I had a double white re-wound  PAF on hand that measured well into the 8K range, so that went into the bridge position. For the neck, I used a Tim Shaw husk that had been re-wound using enamel .042 wire like a PAF and was wound to the low 8K range. I used a newer harness because it simply was easier and I’m a big believer in the concept that proper electronic values will sound the same no matter what age the components are. I defy anyone to actually hear a difference between same value tone caps. You might sense a difference in how the tone changes when you crank the tone knob and you might like having a bumblebee better than a 25 cent disc cap but the tone will be largely the same. Feel free to disagree.

So, this guitar actually exists and I’ve been playing it a lot lately. It’s my Ken McKay “tribute”. I can feel the “newness” for sure. The neck bindings need to roll off a bit but that will come from years of playing not a number 12 bastard file (whatever that is). I can still smell the lacquer and that’s most un-vintage like but that will go away soon, I think. The frets are a little high and angular  but an hour or two a day of playing ought to fix that. I really like the feel of the guitar probably because the neck was made with me in the room. Play a little, sand a little, play little, sand a little more until it feels exactly right. That’s a real luxury. The neck on the guitar is kind of 64ish at the first fret-maybe .85 with a little more shoulder than the usual 64. Then, by the twelfth fret, it’s a full tilt 59 at 1″. The fingerboard was made very slightly wider than usual as well at 1 23/32″. You don’t think you can feel an extra 1/32″? I promise, you can.

Last, we plug it in. I’ve got a 59 Bassman here that wants to be played loud. Old wood? We don’t need no stinkin’ old wood. This is mostly new wood treated like old wood. The only old wood here was the Brazilian and that wasn’t more than 25 years old. I’d been saving  a few pieces for projects since 1990 or so. This is mostly new wood with old pickups with new windings. It took four years to complete.  And this thing plays and sounds as good as any 335 on the “A” rack here at OK Guitars and that currently includes 2 59’s, 2 60’s, a 62 and a 64. Another sacred cow, shot dead? I think so.

7 Responses to “Nothing Like Old Wood. Or Not.”

  1. Marty says:

    Good on you for doing the experiment for us. I think most guitarists speculate because they have never done what you have just done, to give a real world comparison.
    I had just sent you an email about an es335 Pro’s construction but you have answered it here. Use the ears and not rely on Gibson mythology!
    Thank you, Marty (Australia)

  2. Stefan says:

    Pickups+Electronics+Hardware +Build type (frequency resonse to build type) + amp = Tone.

    I firmly believe, that age and species of wood do not matter on amplified, electric guitars.

    But thanks for your test and opinion, Charlie.

  3. Stefan says:

    To correct myself: I think it does matter on guitars in the sense that in most cases feel and look a lot nicer. I just don’t think it affects the tone.

    Also, the components that I think matter in terms of tone are generally very good on golden era Gibsons.

  4. RAB says:

    Music magic happens based on the soul and hands of the guitarist. The guitar itself is a tool and, while it is important it is secondary to great music. Still, I believe the musical and emotional experience, especially for the player, if not the audience can be enhanced by a soulful old guitar! I know I am inspired by my vintage guitars to want to play better!

  5. Stefan says:

    Agreed!

  6. James says:

    I think it just depends on the properties of the individual piece of wood. Density and quality of wood will have a range with any species of wood. I don’t really buy into the idea of the older the better. It just happens that 70 or 80 years ago there was a lot of good quality lumber. We burned through it, not knowing that we would be wishing for just a small fraction of that to work with today. That old wood is great, but not simply because it’s old. It has more to do with being harvested from old growth trees that grew naturally. Good news for us is that we can still find fantastic pieces of maple. I think it is completely possible to build a guitar today that surpasses even the finest vintage examples. It would require a lot of work just sourcing and choosing materials, but still possible.

  7. Chris W says:

    Charlie, I’m thrilled to hear that you are happy with how the neck came out. I’m glad to see the project finished. When I did the neck for myself on your guitar’s sibling, I probably made it fatter than I should have. I made the size that I was supposed to like, rather than the size I actually like. If only I could have been in the room with myself while I was shaping it 😉 Compartmentalization isn’t always good, LOL.

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