News From The Pit

This Old Guitar
By Jimmy Brown

Question: How do I tell if my guitar is made of solid woods?

Answer: Well, the old scientific method involves lighting it with a match. If it burns nice and smoothly, it's probably solid, if it pops and cracks, then we know it must be plywood!

Just kidding folks. Actually that's a great question. Sometimes the answer is plain to see, but to the average Joe or Josephine, that may be the case. What you see is not always what you get.

To begin with - for you that may not know what we are talking about - guitars can be made of solid woods, or laminated pieces of wood, or a combination of both. At least in terms of aesthetics, a solid wood guitar is more desirable. It implies quality and long lasting value. I should also mention that we are talking about hollow-body acoustic guitars, flat tops and arch tops alike rather than electric guitars, either hollow body or solid body. Electric guitars have other technical variables that often times pre-determine what is necessary for the guitar to function properly, and we really won't get into that in this issue. They don't even have to be made of wood and often aren't

Prior to World War II most guitars were made of solid wood, usually a spruce top with a rosewood, mahogany or maple back and side. Although our country was in the midst of the Great Depression, craftsmen were producing the finest of products, and guitars were a part of this. Raw materials were abundant, so the finest grade woods were selected. Tightly grained spruce tops, highly flamed maple, rich mahogany and Brazilian rosewood were commonly used.

Generally speaking, most of a guitar's sound is generated from the top. The back and sides, tend to color the sound, maple being hard and bright, rosewood being darker and more resonant, and mahogany falling somewhere in the middle.

After W.W.II, as raw materials became more and more scarce and manufacturing began to develop ways to use laminated woods in guitar production, what the consumer was offered changed. You could still buy that beautiful Martin D-28 or Gibson L-5, but there were many lesser quality guitars made available. When it became cheaper to build laminated, or plywood guitars, manufacturing shifted to meet that demand.

Through the years, companies such as Harmony, Regal, and Kay, supplied the USA, if not the whole world, with the vast majority of the guitars made. While Gibson, Martin and Gretsch were making hundreds if not thousands of guitars, the big Chicago companies - Harmony, Regal, Kay - were producing literally hundreds of thousands of guitars. Since laminated woods were the way of the future for the beginner and intermediate player, these companies did what they could to make their guitars look expensive, i. e., like real wood. Painted on flame maple finishes and tightly grained spruce tops were very common. Being unable to predict the future, these companies underestimated the demand for guitars and were consequently run out of business in the late 60's and early 70's by the Japanese builders such as Aria, Alvarez, Yamaha, and Takamine.

So nowadays you have all of these guitars out there that survived through the years, and determining the quality of any one of them can be tricky. Although to me the bottom line is always whether or not you like your guitar for what it is - a guitar to play, we still like to know something about our guitar's market value.

There are several basic methods to follow in examining your guitar. In terms of the top, check the sound hole or F-hole edge to see if the grain runs all the way through the top, or conversely, look to see a joint where it is obvious that two pieces of wood are joined together.

It is generally believed that a solid top will age and become more resonant, creating more volume and a broader tonal spectrum. These are generally considered to be desirable traits. Laminated tops, on the other hand, are not going to do this, but remain the same for all times.

Solid wood guitars are more apt to shrink and swell, thus causing cracks and other needed repairs. The good side to this is that solid woods are far easier to repair, whereas laminated guitars don't always respond to needed repairs. They are far more unpredictable in how they might age.

To determine the back and sides, first compare the outside grain to the inside grain. The wood will be the same if it is solid. A laminated body may use a figured piece of wood for the outside but use much cheaper quality wood on the inside.

If you still cannot tell whether your guitar is made of solid woods, then check out the information supplied in manufacturer catalogs. Though they may not always mention if the guitar is laminated, they most surely will mention if the guitar is made of solid woods.

Through the 70's and into the 1980's, the general rule of thumb was that American-made guitars were solid wood and the imported guitars were plywood, but times changed. The Japanese became more sophisticated in guitar production, just as they did with automobiles.

American manufacturers were threatened by the competition. With a whole new generation of consumers who didn't know of a time when goods were all made in USA and were only interested in a quality product at a competitive price. This led to a radical change in USA guitar production.

Nowadays, companies such as Martin, Taylor, Seagull, Guild, and many others offer a hybrid guitar that consists mainly of a solid spruce top with a laminated back and side, and a gloss or satin finish. The emphasis is on building a great-sounding and -playing guitar that is aesthetically satisfying, yet affordable. I believe the idea to be very successful. These instruments are far less expensive than comparable budget line guitars of the 60's and 70's and are of a much higher quality.

To sum up, solid wood guitars, identified by grain patterns consistent on the inside and outside are more apt to improve with age, be repair friendly, and give the owner a more overall good felling about owning a fine crafted instrument.

A laminated guitar, identified by inconsistent grain patterns inside to outside, are not as apt to age well, be hostile to repair work, but are often more affordable. So as with most things, there is a trade-off. If you can't figure out what you've got, call the manufacturer, check resource material such as manufacturer catalogs, or visit a qualified music shop or repair person. There are many in our Kentuckiana area.

So that's all for now, until next time, KEEP ROCKIN!