What  Makes  a  Guitar  Play  and  Sound  GREAT ?

On Nov. 17th, 2017, I was responding to an email from Dr. J.B. Turner, my favorite author.  We were talking about
what makes a guitar play and sound great.
 Joe is a great picker himself and an amateur song writer without equal.   
For years, I had several misconceptions about what affects the way a guitar plays and sounds. 
I'd like to share what I've learned with anyone who is interested.

Most of this I learned from
my friend Rick in Memphis, TN or traveling with him guitar store hopping in
guitar stores around the the southeastern U.S.  
Rick is a retired hospital computer network manager and
a gifted guitar luthier with professional experience working at St. Blues Guitars in Memphis.  
He has built, upgraded, repaired, and painted many of his own guitars.


It was years before I figured out it wasn't just any big, fancy amp that produced the tone everyone was looking
for.  Besides that, everyone's ear hear's something different.  Each amp has it's own tone.  The first time I heard
my vintage Gibson Melody Maker, with DiMarzio PAF pickups, played through a Marshall stack amp, I was blown
away by the tone!  Makes me wish I could afford a Marshall stack.  And it wasn't the volume.  It was down low.
Each make and model of amplifier has its own tone.  The type electric guitar played through it will affect tone.  

That's why people collect different electric and acoustic guitars.  Each has it's own unique tone.  In Electrics, I
discovered there's nothing like the sound of a Strat with original single coil pickups.  Same could be said for a
Tele for that country "Twang."  Fender amps sound great with both of them but Peavey makes an amp that's
hard to equal for certain tones.  Here's my Peavey Classic 30 tube amp with Blue Marvel speakers.

(NOTE: I no longer own the speaker stack.  I sold it to buy a Bose PA.)

By the way, the things that affect guitar tube amps the most are the type speakers and the type tubes and
whether the tubes are selected randomly or are a matched set.   The type and quality of cabinet and
whether it's an open back or closed back cabinet also affects amp tone.


The things that affect an electric guitar's tone are many:
  • The type electronics (active or passive).
  • The type pickups (single coil, humbucker) soap bar, high gain, etc.
  • The type strings (flat wound, round wound, coated, light medium or heavy gauge).
  • Body type (solid body, semi-hollow body, thin or thick hollow body). 
  • Wood or non-wood type (Wood: Ash, Basswood, Maple, Mahogony; Non-Wood: Plastic, Fiberglass).

There are many others such as nut type, tremolo or fixed bridge, etc.  These things make electric guitars
just as unique as acoustics.  Some guitars are famous for their tone just because of their uniqueness.


I searched for years looking for a Martin D-28 with the tone I was looking for only to find it in a Blueridge
BR-160.  The quality of manufacture was poor but the tone was gorgeous.  My favorite Martin acoustic is
the bold (think LOUD) sound and muted (think BASS) tone of the Martin DM.  It's a D-28 body but made
from Mahogony which yields a much deeper tone than you'd expect.  It's why Les Pauls are made mostly
of Mahogony (for volume) but with a Maple top (for tone).  

Price doesn't always matter although you usually do get what you pay for.  I have a Little Martin DM LX1E
acoustic electric that sounds like a tiny parlor guitar until you plug it in.  The electronics make it sound like
a huge concert guitar.  That's Martin for ya.  Gotta love it!

I also have a cheap Johnson square-neck lap resonator guitar made in China that sounds like a Dobro.  
It's the one on the left in the photo below.  My other acoustic guitars shown are (L to R) the Little Martin
LX1E, Martin DM, a Hohner nylon string guitar, Blueridge BR-160, Deering Goodtimes Banjo, 1965 Gibson
J-45, Washburn mandolin, and Gretsch short neck electric bass.  My electric guitars and amps not pictured.

None of my guitars are worth much.  You couldn't pay the rent for what they'd get on the open market
and they're hard to sell for cash but they all sound great.  I'll explain below what makes a cheap guitar
play great.  Read on . . .


Joe mentioned guitars that "practically play themselves."  We've all played one.  The first two I played were
both made by Gretsch which, for years, left me with the false notion that all Gretsch guitars fretted that well.
That's a costly falsehood.  I traded my
1959 Gibson ES-335 for a '66 Country Gentleman that was worth a
$1,000.  Today
a good ES-335 is worth from $22,000 to $28,000 according to Reverb.com.  I traded the
Country Gentleman for a good amp and haven't owned an expensive guitar since then.  I really regret not
having the ES-335 anymore.  My dad bought it for me when I became a lead guitarist in a rock band.

It was years later that I learned it's the SETUP (the action on the guitar) NOT the make and model that
makes any guitar fret easily and play well.  For those just beginning, when I say "fret easily" I mean it
doesn't take much pressure to press the strings and by "play well" I mean they don't buzz or sound bad.

Any guitar can be made to "practically play itself" if there was attention to detail in putting it together.
Here are the steps your luthier might take:
- Make sure all the frets aren't worn too badly, if so they'll need to be replaced.
- Make sure there are no loose frets.  You can use a fret rocker to do that.  (click photo for more)

- First he or she will level the frets (if need be) in a neck jig using a radius block.
  (click photos below for more info)

              (Neck Jig)                                                                     (Radius Block)

- Replace the plastic nut with a bone nut and file it precisely.
 (click photo below for more info)

(Nut File)

- Lubricate the nut, bridge, and tuners.
 (click photo below for more info)

- Restring the guitar, bring strings to tension, then check relief with a relief gauge
  and adjust the truss rod for more or less relief as needed.
 (click photo below for more info)

 Relief is measured as the
distance between the top of the 5th or 6th fret and the bottom of the string while the strings are
drepressed with a capo on the 1st fret and with your fingers at the fret where the neck meets the
guitar body.  Most people just pick any two frets a foot apart like in the above photo.

There are other steps that only apply to acoustic guitars like filing the bone saddle which is at
the bridge end of the guitar.   On almost all electric guitars you also have to set the intonation
anytime you mess with the action (nut height, bridge height, tremolo, string tension or relief).  
On most electrics this is easily done by first tuning the guitar with an electronic tuner, then again
with the same tuner by first depressing each string at the 12th (octave) fret.  If the guitar is in
tune with open strings and out of tune when fretted at the 12th fret, the intonation is off.

On a Gibson tune-o-matic bridge, and Fender Strats have adjustable bridges with either common
or Phillips screws.  The adjustment lenghtens or shortens the string.

Other upgrades might include a bone nut as mentioned above or graphite saddles on a Strat.  
Both are relatively inexpensive upgrades that can make a guitar sound and play better.

Those are just a few steps a luthier might take.  There are many more.  Luthiers have their
own methods and tools.
 These may be some of them.  More and more people are buying
their own tools and doing their own luthiery.