This is a re-post of an article from 2010. Thought you might like reading it again if you saw it the first time around, or for the first time if not!
With the overwhelming demand for quality guitars, manufactures had to come up with ways to meet this demand. Over the years many things have changed, and guitar building had to keep up with this ever increasing hunger for quality instruments. These are some of the things that evolved both good and bad.
Quality Tone Woods
Years ago there was a huge stash of aged woods suitable for instrument building. Many instruments were built with woods that were aged 50 years and more. There is no substitute for fine tone woods. As demand increased the supply diminished. As tone woods became scarce, manufactures used artificially aged woods to keep up with the demand. Martin, probably America’s leading acoustic guitar manufacturer is now using sustainable woods on many of their recent guitars. Brazilian rosewood, which is considered by most to be the finest tone wood for flat top guitars, is in very short supply. In 1969 there was an embargo on this wood. Aged Brazilian rosewood is getting close to being nonexistent. Other substitute woods such as Indian rosewood and Madagascar rosewood are currently being used on many higher end models in replacement of Brazilian.
As you might imagine, woods are the primary ingredient in fine guitars. The quality of the guitar is dependent on fine ingredients as well as fine design.
As demand increased, in an effort to fill orders builders with less experience were needed to build fine instruments. Because of inexperience the quality of many instruments suffered. After the Beatles, demand went through the roof, and people were being brought in off the street to build guitars. Prior to this time Luthiers were lifelong dedicated employees of the manufactures and spent their whole lives learning the fine art of building guitars. Currently a lot of manufactures are using CNC machinery to build instruments. This is cookie cutter in fashion and instruments don’t have the individual personality that would come from each individual builder, like in the old days.
An instrument can only be as good as its design. Bracing patterns, both under the top of an instrument as well as its sides, back, and neck are a major part of an instruments make-up. Neck angle has a lot to do with how playable an instrument will be. Proper construction is the determining factor as to how well an instrument will play and sound.
As far as electric instruments are concerned the pickups in older guitars have a certain inexplicable tone that the newer instruments don’t have. Alloys used in the winding of these pickups are different from the ones used back in the day. Because the number of windings inside the pickups varied, instruments produced their own individual tone. Each instrument varied tremendously. This is what gives vintage guitars their own individual tone.
With all the above elements, there is a tremendous difference between vintage instruments and current. Although the quality of a lot of the new instruments is quite high, the individual personality of instruments is not the same as instruments built back in the day.
Norman Harris is the owner of Norman’s Rare Guitars in Tarzana, California. Norm specializes in high end vintage guitars in addition to basses, amps, and accessories.