Posted by JAMES TYLER
Wed Jun 11, 2008 4:24 pm
Bruno asked me explain my thoughts on mass in a thread a few weeks ago, it took me a while to find time, but here it is now.
Guitars are all about vibrations and resonance. That is what produces the sound that you create the music with. In order to have the vibrations and resonance you need some sort of mass to do the vibrating and resonate.
Acoustically, the string vibrates, and the wood vibrates. The vibrations of the string need to travel into the wood, and vibrations from the wood needs to travel back into string. The wood tempers and shapes the tone of the string. Think of how an all-metal Dobro sounds as compared to an all-wood acoustic. Imagine how an all-metal Les Paul would sound compared to a real-life mahogany Les Paul. You need the vibrations of the string to transmit into and cause the wood to vibrate as soon and as easily as possible. This is where electric, acoustic, and bass guitars are the same. The best-sounding acoustic guitars were built very light; thin tops, sides, and backs, thin scalloped bracing, small bridge plates, and thinner simple bridges. The lighter the better, until it falls apart.
Whatever the string is anchored to must also be lightweight so the vibrations of the string can pass through it to the wood and from the wood back into the string. This is where physics and guitar tone intersect. Newton’s laws and inertia. Things at rest tend to stay at rest. Things in motion tend to stay in motion. This is inertia. If you play an E on your guitar, at first the string starts to vibrate, but the wood is still at rest. The string must overcome the inertia/mass of the nonvibrating wood and make it vibrate at E. The more the wood and the string vibrate together the richer the sound. Then you play an A. You have instantaneously changed the pitch by fretting it or choosing a different string, but the wood is still vibrating at E (things in motion). The wood must now stop vibrating at E and change to A. The inertia of the guitar is that it is vibrating at E, and this must stop and become A; things in motion (E), things at rest, things in motion (A). (but Jim, what about when I play a chord? Yeah, I know, this is oversimplified to make my point)
The bridge is in the middle of this. We need the bridge to transmit the vibrations as fast as possible. The bigger and heavier the bridge, the more inertia it has, and the harder it is to change it. This bridge mass/inertia must be overcome by the string before the vibrations can all go into the body and make it resonate. The string needs to drive the bridge, and the bridge needs to drive the wood.
The heavier the bridge, the more inertia/mass that must be overcome, the less “responsive” it is to be a conduit to transmit those vibrations to the body. The harder it is to overcome that bridge mass, the more the vibrations stay in the string and the less the body resonates. The resonance (tone) of the wood doesn’t move back into the string and shape the guitar tone, and the thinner and plinkier the guitar will be. The more the vibration stays in the string, the more tendencies for fret buzz.
All things being equal, a strat with a Floyd Rose has more fret buzz than a strat with a 6-screw bridge, standard nut and Klusons. And the tone of a strat with a Floyd is not as rich without fatter pickups.
A vintage Les Paul with the old lightweight stop and ABR1 bridge with the Kluson-style tuners with plastic buttons has resonance for days. If you put on a new brass stop and bigger/heavier bridge and Schaller tuners, you will absolutely ruin that guitar. It will not sound as good, it will not resonate as well, and it will exhibit more fret buzz.
Think about an extreme, if you made a bridge out of a 10 pound block of steel, and put it on your guitar, it would be dead. It wouldn’t resonate. The string vibrations wouldn’t overcome the inertia of the mass of steel.
People ask me why I don’t use a certain bridge; why don’t I use a steel block; why didn’t I use a brass block; why don’t I… In the 35+ years I have been involved with guitars, I have observed a lot, learned a lot.
In school, I studied to be an architect where I learned about physics and stresses and force, and how they apply to a structure. When I combine what I learned in school with my real-world observations about guitars, I get the basis of my theories and systems for what I do.
Characteristics of my guitars that you always read about in the internet discussion boards are fat tone and resonance – great acoustic tone. I don’t use steel blocks. I believe the less hard, lighter weight block I have chosen to use allows the guitar to resonate better and respond faster, and produce a fatter tone.
I have tried the steel blocks, and these are my observations: they weigh about 3 ounces more, which is noticeable on a guitar (almost a quarter pound), and they have less midrange.
In your living room at home, playing a solo through a great full-range amp, a steel block may even appear to sound better; you hear a crisper, more apparent low end and sharper high end. My observations with my ears in the real world are this: there is less midrange, so you therefore hear the lows and highs easier.
At the end of the day, most of us want to record and/or play live with a band. It’s the midrange that counts; guitars are all about midrange – low mids through high mids. It’s the midranges that make a solo cut through a track and sit well in the mix of a recording. It’s the midrange that makes your guitar heard in a live situation and not get lost in the mix.
I learned this from years and years of working with some of the greatest session players in the world. I’ve sat down with them and listened together and talked about this. I can’t tell you how many times I came up with some idea that sounded great in the sound room of my old shops or store but didn’t cut it in a recording.
When you look at the most popular guitar woods, you find alder for a strat and mahogany for a Paul. These are woods that produce a great midrange. An all-maple Les Paul (L5S) or maple-bodied strat generally won’t sound as good or play as well.
Now, we can build a beautiful fancy maple-bodied super strat with an ebony fingerboard and stainless steel frets and a Floyd Rose with a big brass block, and hang Schaller tuners on it, and we can plug it into a million-dollar rack in my living room with 10 kinds of the very best speakers, and you are going to say—“Jim, listen to all that low end and crisp highs.” And I am going to say, “Yeah, wow, listen to that; that is incredible. Too bad it’s all going to get lost in the mix.”
NOW, let me CLEARLY state here that I AM NOT SAYING that with the steel blocks, brass blocks, Floyd Roses, or whatever, the other guys’ guitars don’t sound good. They do, we all make a good guitar. All I am doing here is explaining why I do what I do, and WHY I THINK it works better. I make NO claims to actually know anything….