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Author Topic:  Why DO guitars sound so different?
Bill Miller


From:
Gaspe, Quebec, Canada
Post Posted 16 Jan 2008 2:56 pm     Reply with quote

Over on the current Franklin thread Jack Stoner makes a point about pickups and how they don't change the characteristic sound of an instrument. I've tried a lot of pickups and I've found that to be very true. I do have a favorite pickup ( the LXR-16) but the difference between it and others I've tried is far from radical.
So what is it that makes two different branded guitars sound so different? Forget about the old 'all in the hands' stuff momentarily...I know there's something to that but it only goes so far. A few years back in Al Brisco's shop he demonstrated three different makes of guitars for me, all plugged into the same amp one after the other. (Carter, Mullen, Fessenden) They all sounded different with the Mullen being very different from the other two. Yet all three probably have bodies of hard rock maple and hardware made of fairly standardized materials assembled in very similar configurations. What are the small variations that make the difference?


Last edited by Bill Miller on 17 Jan 2008 12:36 pm; edited 1 time in total
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chris ivey


From:
sacto
Post Posted 16 Jan 2008 3:11 pm     Reply with quote

bill....mainly it is due to the color and density of the rubber feet on the leg-ends...
believe it or not, but the gray ones are best!
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b0b


From:
Northern California
Post Posted 16 Jan 2008 3:19 pm     Reply with quote

Have you ever played a Sierra with interchangeable pickups, Bill? I think that the pickup makes a big difference in the sound of the guitar.

When you can change pickups in a few seconds, you come to appreciate the differences. If you have to do surgery to change pickups, chances are that you'll also spend some time readjusting your amp to get the particular sound you like, leaving the impression that the difference between pickups is small.
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Nick Reed


From:
Russellville, KY USA
Post Posted 16 Jan 2008 3:32 pm     Reply with quote

Bill,
As Herby says, "for my taste" I've found the best sound to be a good 60's or 70's Emmons P/P (black of course). Then use the regular Emmons single coil pickups. Great sound and there ain't nothin better in my opinion.

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Brint Hannay


From:
Maryland, USA
Post Posted 16 Jan 2008 4:14 pm     Reply with quote

On the Carter website they have a group of sound samples of half a dozen different pickups--four George L's models, Bill Lawrence XR-16, and Wallace Truetone. They say the samples were all done using the same player, steel, amp, and, presumably, settings.

I copied the sound files onto a CD so I could listen to them on my stereo, which has very nice speakers, one right after the other, without having to re-load each one from the web page. When I listen to them I find the differences very, very subtle, so subtle as to be just about insignificant. And I've always been fussy about tone, as my collection of too many Telecasters attests.
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Bill Miller


From:
Gaspe, Quebec, Canada
Post Posted 16 Jan 2008 4:50 pm     Reply with quote

b0b, I'm sure the ability to quickly swap and compare pickups does make the differences between them more discernable. I'd like to have that option. But so far, for me, different pickups don't play THAT big a role...not on the two guitars I've experimented on. ( I know, two is not a very big control group)
Let's say you're in a studio recording two vocalists with somewhat simliar tenor voices. I think you could try as many different sorts of microphones as you wanted but you would never get those two voices to sound the SAME. Each mic would have its own characteristics, some more pronounced than others. But in the end each singer just has his own distinct voice. That's probably sort of a clumsy analogy but I've come to believe that steel guitars are the same, they have their voice and there's only so much you can do to alter it. David Hartley's video clips come to mind. When I first heard him I was fascinated by his playing, but also by the distintive voice of his Rains. I'm convinced that no pickup change would ever make my Carter sound the same as that Rains. Not that I have anything against the sound of my Carter...it's just a different voice altogether.
Brint, I did the exact same experiment with those sound samples and I found the same thing as you did. I wonder if the same guitar was used for each clip.
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Jeremy Threlfall


From:
now in Western Australia
Post Posted 16 Jan 2008 5:22 pm     Reply with quote

I've often wondered whether the framing of the guitar makes for easy characterisation.

Do guitars with wooden bodies (bell crank axles attached to brackets on a wood body)like Sho-bud, Zum sound characteristically different to welded or metal framed guitars like MSA, Sierra.

I've never laid eyes on a Zum or an MSA or a Sierra, let alone played one, so I have no experience of them.

It has often made me wonder, though, when I've looked at pictures whether the style of construction is a major tone factor.
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Paul Norman


From:
Washington, North Carolina, USA
Post Posted 16 Jan 2008 5:26 pm     Reply with quote

On David Hartleys You Tube Blue Eyes Crying in
the rain he tells the effects he uses.
1. Rolanc Cube 30 amp.
2. Boss Digital Delay
3. Boss rv2 Reverb.

I am sure the amp alone would give you a different
sound on your Carter too.
All this has to be considered.
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Richard Damron


From:
Gallatin, Tennessee, USA
Post Posted 16 Jan 2008 5:50 pm     Reply with quote

Get in touch with Ed Packard. Seriously. VERY seriously. He's made measurements on 30+ instruments and probably has more insight into this than anyone. I'd like to have the opportunity to sit with him for a couple of hours and pick his brains.
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Donny Hinson


From:
Balto., Md. U.S.A.
Post Posted 16 Jan 2008 6:17 pm     Reply with quote

IMHO, pickups change the EQ and the power (drive) to the first preamp. That's all they can do. A good amp, however, will give you far more variation in sound and tone than a pickup change, and I'm prepared to demonstrate that to anyone. I've got 4 different pickups for my guitar, and I can change them in about 10 seconds. A few knob tweaks after the switch will make them all sound identical, or at least close enough to identical that you'd only notice a difference with no other instruments playing.

As far as I'm concerned, if you're using a small amp with a limited tone control network, a pickup change can make a noticeable difference. But if you're using a big amp with a mid control or a shift control, about the only significant pickup change you can make is from H/B's to S/C's, or vice-versa.
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Tony Dingus


From:
Kingsport, Tennessee, USA
Post Posted 16 Jan 2008 8:27 pm     Reply with quote

So what is it that makes two different branded guitars sound so different?
I think it's how the changer is mounted for one.

Tony
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Fred Bova


From:
Montrose, California, USA
Post Posted 16 Jan 2008 8:33 pm     Reply with quote

Pickups can make a huge difference in sound.

I have a "made in China" Gretsch guitar that had stock pickups in it. Stock it sounded pretty good. I removed the stock pickups and put an old original Gretsch Filtertron pickup in the Bridge position and a new P-90 style in the Neck position, and wow, what a change in sound. It is in fact my favorite sounding guitar, and I have a '67 Gretsch Nashville, and a '67 Epiphone Casino. This cheap "made in China" Gretsch guitar with these pickups works best for my style of playing.

I have A/B tested pickups By holding them over the strings, no body contact, and there has been very big differance between makes, and models of pickups.

It is best to do this without the original pickup on the guitar so that it's magnetic field does not skew the tests.

I'd like to find a Bigsby/Wright style Blade pickup that is affordable.
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richard burton


From:
Britain
Post Posted 16 Jan 2008 10:38 pm     Reply with quote

I don't notice much difference in the tone of modern steels, with the exception of the steels that have a lower string height, 1 inch instead of 1 1/2 inches.

I've always struggled to get a decent tone out of these low string height steels.

All my own opinion, of course.
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Bob Hoffnar


From:
Austin, Tx
Post Posted 17 Jan 2008 12:37 am     Reply with quote

Bill,
Your question is very valid and builders deal with this sort of thing every day. It seems that much of the quality of a steel guitars tone is how the builder makes all the parts relate to each other. The legs even make a big difference in some steels. I tried some of those light aluminium legs on my Franklin and was surprized at the tonal loss. I try steels when they are unplugged by just strumming the open strings and listening to how long the fundamental overtones sustain along with the rest of the sound. If the first few partials start to decay before the upper partials you get this subtle cascade effect and the steel will not hold its own in the trenches no matter what pickups or amp you use.

I have been in room with 15 steel players all taking turns playing and some guy that can barely play has an old contact paper Emmons student model that is easily the best sounding steel in the room. We were all cracking up about it with our best steels money can buy. I have seen the same thing happen with a beat up little single neck BMI. I have no idea why but some particular steels just really honk.

As a pickup builder I have found that each brand of steel seems to benefit from different windings. Some brands sound better with a heavier darker pickup and some respond more to a brighter wind. Its pretty subtle but each brand is different.
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b0b


From:
Northern California
Post Posted 17 Jan 2008 8:59 am     Reply with quote

Donny Hinson wrote:
IMHO, pickups change the EQ and the power (drive) to the first preamp. That's all they can do.

The difference in "EQ" from various pickups is considerably more complex than anything you can do with a typical parametric or graphic equalizer. Yes, it's EQ, but with sublime nuances, peaks and valleys, things that are quite difficult to "dial in" using conventional electronics.
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Jeremy Steele


From:
Princeton, NJ USA
Post Posted 17 Jan 2008 12:56 pm     Reply with quote

Bob Hoffnar wrote:
"I have been in room with 15 steel players all taking turns playing and some guy that can barely play has an old contact paper Emmons student model that is easily the best sounding steel in the room. We were all cracking up about it with our best steels money can buy."


Hey Bob, are you talking about that jam at Bill Lawrence's place a number of years ago?

If so, I think I must have been the guy with the contact paper Emmons...and I STILL can hardly play! Laughing
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Ricky Newman


From:
Ontario, Canada
Post Posted 17 Jan 2008 5:33 pm     Reply with quote

My (very) humble opinion:

Reason 1: Sound - the frequencies of the waveforms reaching our eardrums accounts for perceived notes and harmonic overtones. The amplitude of these waveforms determines their volume.

Reason 2: Noise - everything else that shakes and rattles our waxy eardrums, whether emanating directly from the instrument itself or from everything resonating around it. Moving a pickup an inch too close to a speaker can teach you all about this.
Trying to mic a dobro.A

In the case of pedal steels, there is so much stuff kicking around in and about the thing that isolating something like the tightness of the woodgrain that was used under the Formica probably isn't all that meaningful.

The waveforms of sound are generally too small to displace air. When you sling so many of them out of one little table, anything, but anything can make them collide. It's only in the exact combination of so many parts, right down to the hands that wound the coils on the pick up, that a guitar gets its personality and family resemblance.
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Michael Douchette


From:
Gallatin, TN
Post Posted 17 Jan 2008 7:38 pm     Re: Why DO guitars sound so different? Reply with quote

Bill Miller wrote:
So what is it that makes two different branded guitars sound so different? ... What are the small variations that make the difference?


Ah... guitars... wine... women... vive la difference! Very Happy
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Bob Hoffnar


From:
Austin, Tx
Post Posted 17 Jan 2008 10:50 pm     Reply with quote

Hey Jeremy,
Yea that was the day. That jam was fun. I had my Franklin and felt like a dummy with all those guys jamming along to those tunes that I didn't know. You played fine and hung in there like most everybody. You sounded great. Is was pretty amazing how good a tone your steel has. I have heard a couple other student Emmons guitars after that had that same fantastic tone. Maybe the secret to building a good sounding steel is to have minimum wage cranky teenagers slap them together as fast as they can out of the cheapest materials you can find.
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Al Terhune


From:
Newcastle, WA
Post Posted 17 Jan 2008 11:33 pm     Reply with quote

Fred Bova wrote:
Pickups can make a huge difference in sound.

I have a "made in China" Gretsch guitar that had stock pickups in it. Stock it sounded pretty good. I removed the stock pickups and put an old original Gretsch Filtertron pickup in the Bridge position and a new P-90 style in the Neck position, and wow, what a change in sound. It is in fact my favorite sounding guitar, and I have a '67 Gretsch Nashville, and a '67 Epiphone Casino. This cheap "made in China" Gretsch guitar with these pickups works best for my style of playing.

I have A/B tested pickups By holding them over the strings, no body contact, and there has been very big differance between makes, and models of pickups.

It is best to do this without the original pickup on the guitar so that it's magnetic field does not skew the tests.

I'd like to find a Bigsby/Wright style Blade pickup that is affordable.


But I still think once you get a steel into a good mix, it really doesn't matter, the pickup, the guitar, the amp, whatever. Play some good notes.
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Hook Moore


From:
South Charleston,West Virginia
Post Posted 18 Jan 2008 3:48 am     Reply with quote

lol Jeremy Smile
Hook

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Jeremy Steele


From:
Princeton, NJ USA
Post Posted 18 Jan 2008 7:11 am     Reply with quote

Here I am, playing the guitar in question...in front of my liquor shelf.


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Jim Cohen


From:
Philadelphia, PA
Post Posted 18 Jan 2008 7:39 am     Reply with quote

Jeremy, as I recall, you played a really lovely version of 'Wild Mountain Thyme'...
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Jeremy Steele


From:
Princeton, NJ USA
Post Posted 18 Jan 2008 8:42 am     Reply with quote

You are very kind, Jim. What I most remember about that Jam was Bill Lawrence tweaking the EQ on my amp...that's when the guitar came alive...pure genius.
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Jim Cohen


From:
Philadelphia, PA
Post Posted 18 Jan 2008 9:07 am     Reply with quote

That's funny... I remember him tweaking the controls on my amp and disconnecting my Match-Bro without my permission and me almost taking him out back and whupping his hide! Oh, well... a lotta water under that bridge by now, eh? Smile
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