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Hidden Qualities - The Hidden Qualities of High-quality Guitars

Posted by on 18 September 2013

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Hidden Qualities

the hidden qualities of high-quality guitars

2013 is a great time to be a guitarist. We have never had it better, considering the absolutely staggering variety of guitars available in music stores, guitars of all styles, shapes, colours and prices.

Nowadays, modern manufacturing process means that, with very few exceptions, pretty much every instrument out there (regardless of price) is of reasonable sound quality – a far cry from those times, not so long ago, where a “student guitar” had more resemblance to a doorstop, than to an actual instrument. Manufacturers have worked out that it is not at all expensive to produce an instrument that looks good and has good playability.  This in itself has been enough to make the mass market happy with playing a mid-level instrument.  

But there are still MANY aspects of a guitar that these mass-market instruments just cannot excel in and they are the reasons why you still feel a chill of awe and joy when you play a high-quality guitar.  It’s right there in the hands and the heart – pick up a Paul Reed Smith, a Music Man guitar or a Fender Custom Shop and from the first touch, you know you are beholding true quality. It’s there in the way the guitar feels - you hear it in the acoustic “ring” of the guitar before it’s even plugged in. It is instantly obvious that there is a big difference between this and the gaggle of mid-priced guitars next to it on the guitar shop wall. But manufacturers are smart and know how to make these differences very difficult to see.  So without further ado, allow me to present to you the differences that a high-end guitar will make to YOU and all the reasons why you should definitely consider investing in one.

RAW MATERIALS

Using “good wood” is an important part of building a great electric guitar.All wood is not created equal when it  comes to guitar manufacturing. Everybody knows that the species of wood you use is of great importance to a guitar’s tonality (mahogany, alder, ash etc), but did you know that the tone and physical stability of your guitar are affected by the way the wood is harvested? 

For example, the outside of a tree log does not yield good tonewood. It is too soft to create real resonance and makes it more difficult to build a “stable” guitar. The great body and neck wood is closer to the core of the tree. Most American and Japanese manufacturers will only buy this core wood for their guitars, while mass producers may use anything. Even the way the wood is milled is of supreme importance. In order to be able to build a stable guitar where the neck will not warp under tension, specific instructions must be given to the logging company to ensure wood is harvested and cut correctly. This is a timely process, which only high-end manufacturers will spend the time and effort to do.  

Mass manufacturers get their sourcing department to simply select the species of wood they wish to purchase and get the best price they can to buy lots of it. Serious manufacturers usually have a dedicated wood-buying department – completely dedicated to sourcing the best wood. The quality of raw material is completely invisible to the consumer and hence a very easy place for mass-producers to cut costs. 

FINISHING

It’s actually reasonably easy to make a solidbody electric guitar look great. You pile on a few thick layers of polyurethane finish and clear coat, buff it up and it looks amazing.  The problem is that these thick layers of finish are actually cocooning the wood and inhibiting its ability to resonate.  It’s like wrapping the guitar in a rubber blanket. The correct way to finish a guitar is much more time consuming. It involves using as few lacquer layers as you can, whilst still retaining full coverage of the instrument.  This in itself takes a lot of skill and then there is a lot of labour required to buff the instrument up to a shine.  Some manufacturers will still use nitrocellulose lacquer, which is an organic compound that can be applied very thickly and allows wood to vibrate more freely. Unfortunately though it is extremely hazardous to work with (nitrocellulose is highly explosive and toxic), and great expense must be made to create safe working environments to use it in. 

Hardware 

A critical part of giving a guitar sustain and clarity is to use very hard hardware. The guitar bridge/saddles are the parts of the guitar that directly contacts the vibrating string to the guitar itself, and for maximum vibration transfer and resonance you need very hard metal (the harder the better – imagine what the guitar would sound like if you used a sponge for the bridge). To manufacture a bridge out of steel parts, you need to machine the parts.  Steel is not easy to work with – it must be manually drilled, pressed and folded into shape in order to manufacture parts.   

A much cheaper way to make hardware is through die-casting.  This involves pouring molten metal into moulds. This is not a practical method with a hard metal like steel, because it has such a high melting point. Die-cast hardware is typically made with zinc compounds. Zinc is a reasonably soft metal (some zinc tremolo blocks can be marked with just your fingernail) and this is bad news for guitars. Not only does it give a “duller” tone, but tremolo bridges won’t work properly and can easily slip out of tune. 

Despite this, die-cast bridge hardware is commonly used in guitar building because manufacturers know that whether it’s machined solid steel, or die-cast zinc, once it’s chrome plated it all looks the same!

FRETWORK 

One of the most labour intensive parts of building a guitar is getting the fretwork right.  You should be able to rest a straight edge on the frets lengthwise down the fretboard, and there should be no gaps or wobbling of the straight edge i.e. all the frets’ heights should make a perfectly straight line.  This takes a good eye and a lot of manual grinding.  Mass-produced guitars will commonly have certain spots on the fretboard that “buzz” or “choke”.  This is an indicator of hasty fretwork.  Even after the fret height has been perfected, the frets need to be highly polished to ensure smooth feel.  Have you ever bent a string on a guitar and felt (sometimes even heard) a rough scraping?  This indicates frets that have not been polished down to a fine enough grit and is common on mass-produced guitars.    

ELECTRONICS 

Although the concept of a pickup is very simple, there are a number of dedicated pickup builders that pore over details such as magnet type, wrap wire gauge, number of turns and symmetry of coils, all to finely tweak tones to the required instrument. Many mass manufacturers will simply dispense with this whole process and use the lowest price wrap wire and magnets that they possibly can, usually resulting in a muddy or overly shrill tone that can often also be prone to a lot of feedback. These days of course, it is very common for people to mitigate the problem of cheap electronics by installing quality aftermarket pickups (DiMarzio, EMG etc) into their cheap guitars.  This certainly makes a very noticeable difference and can go a LONG way towards improving an average guitar. If a high-quality guitar is out of the budget, then a set of good quality pickups can deliver you a BIG improvement

At the end of the day though, the proof of the pudding is indeed in the tasting.  We invite you to come and visit us at any Rockshop.  We have a great variety of guitars in every store and always have some high-quality instruments available for you to check out.  Feel free to come in and ask to play some of our best guitars.  We’ll be only too happy to help you out and show you just how worthwhile a top-level instrument is. 

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