The Electric Guitar

The one on the left is a Gibson Les Paul, introduced in 1952. The one on the right is a Fender Stratocaster (“Strat”), introduced in 1954.

Northern Man, Going Postal

Why don’t they sound the same?

Two electric guitars. Actually not just any two, but the two that nine out of ten guitarists would choose if told they could only have two electric guitars for their desert island abandonment.

With modern technology pretty much any guitar can sound like anything but the “signature” sound of the Les Paul is a warm and “thick” sound (think of Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing”) whereas the Strat has more of a “twangy”, fairly clean sound, typified by songs like “Sultans of Swing” (to give an example of how the same player can exploit both types of guitar). For the avoidance of doubt, there are plenty of counter examples – Peter Green did some sublime clean Les Paul playing and some chap called Hendrix made the Strat sound pretty filthy.

The question for this article is why, if all else is equal in terms of amplifiers, volume levels, effects and player, do the two sound different? After all, an electric guitar is basically a lump of wood supporting some metal strings passing over some magnets.

The physics

Let’s start with a decidedly not Old Trout-standard explanation of the physics behind the electric guitar.

If you pass an electric current through a wire that is within the field of a magnet the wire will move. This is how electric motors work. The opposite is also true – if you move a wire within a magnetic field you create an electric current.

With the electric guitar the player puts energy into the system by plucking the string, which vibrates in the magnetic field of the “pickup” (the bars you can see running under the strings in the picture above), creating a tiny electric current. This is fed down a cable to an amplifier and voila – crank everything up to eleven and off you go.

This brings us to the first difference. If you look closely you will see that the Strat pickups are a single bar, whereas the Les Paul has two bars next to each other (we’ll ignore the number of pickups for now – you can get Les Pauls with three pickups and Strats with two).

The very first electric guitars had the single-bar pickups, usually called “single coil” pickups as the pickup is made of six magnets – one under each string of the guitar – with a coil of copper wire wrapped around the whole lot. These gave a decent sound but when the volume was turned up they were prone to electrical noise in the form of a hum.

One of the innovations on the Les Paul was the use of two single coils placed next to each other with the coils going in opposite directions. This made each coil cancel the hum from the other one and these pickups quickly became known, and are to this day, as “humbuckers”. The advantage was that guitarists could get more volume without the hum (this was in the days when distortion was seen as the enemy and the guitarist had to compete with the brass section of a big band).

So the first element in the difference in sound is the pickups – humbuckers have twice the magnets and twice the wiring so produce a fuller, warmer tone compared to single coils.

The wood

The electric guitar has two wooden parts – the neck and the body. The choice of wood for the neck has historically been either rosewood (as on the Les Paul) and either rosewood or maple for the Strat (the one above has a maple neck). The guitar body often has an exotic top layer, or “cap”. This is a wood which isn’t suitable for the entire body (it might be too expensive) but which looks good. Bodes can also be lacquered or painted in a wide range of colours and styles.

Both the neck and body have a job to do – the neck has to be a straight bit of wood of a certain length (within a fairly tight range) so there isn’t a lot you can do with that, but there is a lot more latitude when it comes to designing the body:

Northern Man, Going Postal

Northern Man, Going Postal

So back to the sound. Part of the “heavy” sound of the Les Paul is down to the fact that the body is made of mahogany, a very dense wood indeed. Many modern Les Pauls have slightly hollowed out bodies to make them lighter (even guitarists are snowflakes these days). The Strat body is typically made of alder – a lighter wood giving a lighter and clearer tone. A Les Paul will typically weigh 9-11 lbs, with a Strat being more like 7-8 lbs.

Northern Man, Going Postal

Northern Man, Going Postal

The final build component is the neck. Again the darker rosewood gives a different sound (and a different feel for the player) than the harder maple, the maple giving a crisper and tighter tone. Many guitarists just don’t like the feel of a maple neck, especially when bending strings and most guitars you see have rosewood necks (I have a maple neck Strat which I was lucky enough to pick up as a bargain when on a business trip to the US and I love it).

Pickup positioning

An obvious question would be “why bother with more than one pickup?”. The fact is that it’s not just the type of pickup that affects the sound but also the position of the pickup on the body. Again simple physics explains why this matters.

When you pluck a string it doesn’t vibrate by the same amount equally along its length. The string will move more in the middle than it does at each end (at the very ends it isn’t moving at all). The string also doesn’t just vibrate in one dimension – you might think that if you pluck the string with a downward force whilst holding the guitar then the string will travel parallel to the guitar body but it doesn’t – it also vibrates towards and away from the guitar body and in every other direction it can.

This means that the vibrating string not only produces the pure note you are playing but lots of extra sounds (“harmonics”) and these are different at different places along the length of the string. As you might expect, the sound is fuller using the pickup nearest to the guitar neck (the string is vibrating more there) and thinner and more “trebley” using the pickup closest to the end of the string (the “bridge”). A common combination of pickups is a humbucker near the bridge and a single coil near the neck as the tones balance nicely.

Can you have enough guitars?

So there you go – a simple idea (strings, magnets, wires, wood) and almost infinite possibilities. Putting aside looks you would need a decent sized guitar collection to cover most of the commonest pickup and wood combinations. I own half a dozen guitars, none of them expensive, but I could happily buy them like Mrs Man buys shoes.

I haven’t even touched on modern guitar electronics, the use of more modern materials like carbon fibre, the use of effects pedals or on the history of the amplifier and the journey from clean to down and dirty distorted rock and roll sounds.

At the end of the day all that matters if you want to play the guitar is finding something that sounds and feels right for you – there is no right answer. You can spend a couple of hundred pounds and get a perfectly playable guitar, or go to the other end of the scale for one of these (a Paul Reed Smith Dragon 30th anniversary guitar, only 40 of which were made and with a list price of $20,000). Personally I’d rather have something that I wasn’t scared of scratching!

Northern Man, Going Postal

© Northern man 2018