It’s a given, that most guitarists believe that acoustic guitars sound better the older they become. But is this really the case?
Acoustic guitars sound better with age. Wood loses structure over time as water-soluble sugars that make up the wood’s cell walls (cellulose, lignin, and hemicellulose) break down. This causes the wood to become lighter and more resonant, affecting the wood’s ability to hold moisture relative to humidity. It’s also true, only well-made and well-maintained guitars tend to become ‘old’.
With age comes scarcity, which leads to a higher value placed on a guitar’s vintage, but, it’s also true this can do funny things to people’s ears.
However, all things being equal, like an aged wine, most older guitars do tend to exhibit a more complex tonal flavor and greater responsiveness as the years pass.
But why is this be the case?
Shouldn’t guitars, like most things, improve over previous decades with the benefit of modern design and manufacturing practices? Or is it just a case of, they don’t make ‘em’ like they used to?
While there are contributing factors, including:
- The availability of quality wood (aka tonewoods)
The over-harvesting of old-growth forests has resulted in fewer quality tonewoods being available and/or a steep rise in price for what is available.
- Modern manufacturing being less reliant on the luthier’s skills and experience
While CNC technology has improved the quality of entry and mid-level instruments, many guitars are now factory-produced, and this means less experience and expertise overseeing the construction process.
- The fact that better quality guitars tend to be more cared for and less likely to be discarded
Think about it. If you own a quality instrument, chances are you are going to take much better care of it. In this sense many ‘older guitars’ have been well maintained.
The Aging Process And How This Impacts The Structure Of Wood
In most cases, it comes back to the aging process and how this impacts the structure of the wood. In short, as wood ages, its (tensile) strength to weight ratio improves, making the guitar more responsive and resonant due to the materials used to make up the wood’s cell walls reducing over time. This limits the woods ability to hold moisture relativer to the surrounding humidity.
To demonstrate this point further. It’s common knowledge that guitars tend to sound better in low humidity environments, a guitar that is exposed to high humidity over a period of time will begin to sound dull and lifeless. This is why some guitar owners utilize a 2-way humidification system to maintain a consistent environment for the storage of high-end guitars.
When a guitar becomes too ‘wet’ it loses a degree of responsiveness and clarity, muddying the sound. Alternatively, if the guitar becomes too low in relative moisture there is an increased risk of cracks developing in the finish, requiring repair.
This is the price paid if you do happen to own an older guitar, there is a higher risk of damage to the timber due to the timber containing less moisture.
In the following article, we’re going to take a deep dive into the question of why acoustic guitars sound better with age, explain some of the pros and cons associated with vintage acoustic guitars, and how one modern manufacturer is starting to look back, as a way to move forward.
Why older timber becomes more resonant
The soundboard is the most important component when it comes to the projection of sound coming from the strings of an acoustic guitar. Generally speaking, the more rigid yet lighter the wood used for the soundboard is, the more resonance (vibration), volume, and sustain the guitar produces. The lighter soundboard also results in the guitar being more responsive.
This is fairly important when it comes to tone as the greater the vibration caused by the strings, the greater the tonal range of the guitar, resulting in a harmonically richer sounding guitar, pushed along by increased volume and sustain emanating from the sound hole. All of which make the playing experience more enjoyable.
All wood tends to lose a degree of moisture with age, resulting in a loss of mass, however wood also tends to increase its tensile strength relatively, despite the loss of moisture content.
Sap contained within also hardens over time contributing to the ‘stiffness’ of the timber further. This allows the guitar’s soundboard to be more resonant due to the loss of weight, while maintaining, or increasing its original strength.
Wood that has undergone structural changes over time is also less impacted by any changes in humidity, resulting in a more consistent sounding guitar regardless of seasonal changes or in the case of the traveling guitarist, changes of environment.
What about laminated timber?
This is also why laminated tops e.g. soundboards constructed from pressed plywood layers as opposed to solid wood may sound duller to some than a solid top guitar.
I’ve experienced this first hand when buying a new guitar a few years back. The staff member kept pointing me in the direction of a more expensive, more established brand of guitar but I kept coming back and playing the solid top cedar guitar at a lower price point which sounded considerably better to my ears despite being far less expensive.
At the time I had no idea why this would be the case, I could only go on what I was hearing, but there was no doubt which sounded more lively and had better response and besides, microphones don’t tend to care much about the cost or brand of the guitar when it comes to recording.
That’s not to say all laminate top guitars sound dull or are of a lower quality, not by any stretch. Taylor, Martin, and Takamine all utilize laminate back and sides for many of their guitars, however, there is more than just the tone to consider in these instances.
Laminate allows for a more decorative top layer without a huge increase in cost and handles changes in humidity better than newer solid tops for the most part.
They don’t make ’em’ like they used to?
While the relative weight and stiffness of the soundboard are the single biggest reason older guitars tend to sound better, as mentioned there are additional factors that contribute also, one of these is of course the manufacturing process.
The fact is, as more guitars are produced, modern manufacturing processes have largely taken over from the earlier hand-built guitars. This is especially evident in the world of electric guitars with the integration of CNC routing for shaping the body and neck. And, while the use of CNC is not as extensive when it comes to building acoustic guitars, it’s fair to say there is less craftsmanship applied to building guitars nowadays as there once was, with the exception of boutique luthiers.
The pros and cons of modern guitar manufacturing
|Affordability Put simply, modern manufacturing processes allow for more efficient production. Incorporating specialist tools and production lines allow for a higher volume of production, at a lower cost per unit. Computer-aided design and accuracy While the point above regarding ‘craftsmanship’ still apply. It’s also true that tools allow for greater accuracy when building guitars. An example of this is Martin Guitars utilizing computer-aided design to ensure their neck pockets are cut with greater precision. Utilizing computer-aided design, guitars can now be ‘modeled’ before being built. This information can then be transferred to a CNC (Computer Numerical Control) router and the individual components e.g. the bridge created ready for assembly.||Craftsmanship Before the advent of modern manufacturing processes, luthiers would spend a great deal more time on each individual aspect of the building process. This allowed for careful inspection of every hand-crafted component and also contributed to the individuality of a guitar’s playability and tone. The importance of this should not be overlooked. It’s also true that an experienced luthier will understand the acoustic qualities of timber based on experience and select what they consider to be superior in regard to tone. This level of experience is not simply able to be taught and therefore is not easily replicated in the era of mass production. It’s also true that quality tonewoods were less scarce during the golden era of acoustic guitars.|
It’s important to also keep in mind, many larger manufacturers blend the new with the old so to speak e.g. utilizing modern processes to ensure greater accuracy and efficiency while utilizing skilled luthiers for assembly and quality control.
Another point to consider is the quality of the guitar originally. The fact is a poorly made guitar will likely deteriorate much faster over time and lower quality guitars are far less likely to be kept and maintained over time compared to a higher end instrument which ultimately is also an investment piece.
Simply put, there are likely to be a smaller number of low-quality, less expensive guitars that are still in existence.
Has timber availability and quality lessened over time?
There’s no question that timber that was once plentiful is now far less accessible, despite the importation and exportation of exotic timber species becoming easier thanks largely to international trade becoming les scomplex due to the internet and the ability to connect with people all over the world.
You can see the evidence of this when looking at the cost of furniture, which has increased in price dramatically, and the same applies to guitars.
Species of timber such as Indian Rosewood are now heavily regulated, while Brazilian Rosewood is now a protected species. Additionally, many of the more traditional spruces used as top woods are not as abundant as they once were resulting in less variety to choose from, increasing costs, and a drop in quality overall.
Can you ‘age’ an acoustic guitar?
Yamaha recently introduced Acoustic Resonance Enhancement Technology or A.R.E.
Acoustic Resonance Enhancement Technology controls elements such as temperature, humidity, and atmospheric pressure to prematurely age timber with the end goal of improving the tonal quality of the timber.
While only being rolled out on one model of guitar at the time of writing (Yamaha initially introduced A.R.E for aging the timber used in their range of violins) initial feedback has been positive, but it is still very early days.
Summing Things Up
While the evidence is mostly anecdotal, it’s more or less taken as a fact that acoustic guitars do sound better with age for the reasons outlined above. Unfortunately (with the exception of A.R.E technology) there’s no shortcut to aging your guitar and improving its tone. Unless you plan to invest heavily in an antique, most of us are just going to have to wait it out to witness a noticeable change. But it’s good to know some things do actually get better with age.