It’s a given, that most guitarists believe that acoustic guitars sound better the older they become. But is this really the case?
Many experienced guitarists believe that acoustic guitars sound better with age. As water-soluble sugars that make up the wood’s cell walls break down the wood becomes lighter and more resonant while retaining much of its flexible strength.
why old guitars sound better
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 frequency response and greater projection as the year’s pass.
But why is this 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?
There are a number of 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 is 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 better 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 in mass over time. This limits the wood’s ability to hold moisture relative 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/muffling 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, 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 light 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 rich sounding guitar, pushed along by increased volume and sustain emanating from the soundhole. 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 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.
solid wood vs laminate guitars
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 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 a 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 laminate is only found on inexpensive guitars. Taylor, Martin, and Takamine all utilize laminate back and sides, however, there is more than just the tone to consider in these instances.
In other cases, 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
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 applies. 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.
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 less complex 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.
How to age an acoustic guitar
Torrefaction is the process of prematurely aging wood in a controlled, oxygen-free environment by kiln or oven baking the wood at 250 degrees. This process is believed to decrease mass by up to 30% while retaining much of the flexible strength of the wood.
It is essentially a process that transforms the wood’s cellular structure into that of an aged guitar, the wood sounds and looks aged as a result.
While not a new process, torrefaction is only a fairly recent development in the world of guitar making (relatively speaking) and has been adopted by some of the most respected manufacturers in the industry, including Martin, Taylor, and Collings.
The jury is still mostly out on whether this affects the longevity of the guitar, but considering the combined reputations of the brands utilizing the process, it would be safe to assume the process has no ill effects.
Acoustic Resonance Enhancement Technology
Yamaha recently introduced Acoustic Resonance Enhancement Technology or A.R.E.
Acoustic Resonance Enhancement Technology is a type of torrefaction that 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.
Yamaha initially introduced A.R.E for aging the timber used in their range of violins. While initial feedback has been positive, it is still 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 Torrefaction) 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.
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10 thoughts on “Why Acoustic Guitars Sound Better With Age”
I think regardless of the time or age of the guitar, its also a matter of how much you play it. However, thanks for your great effort in this article.
Good article, but you meant to say “dehumidifier”, not “humidifier”, when referring to the machine used to keep guitars dry.
Thanks for heads up Gordon!
More likely the glue gets more hard over time which helps to transmit vibrations. The finish will also out gas over time stretching tighter .
I have a new all Mahogany guitar (Tanglewood), that sounded incredible from the off, whereas my Sitka spruce topped ones took almost a decade to open up properly. Is there any reason for this, or is it just a fluke?
Thanks for your comment Tony. I’d normally assume the oppositee.g. Spruce opens up faster, being a softer wood than Mahogany.
Mahogany probably handles humidity better though. There could be a bunch of reasons for this, including the age of the wood at the time of construction, how it was dried, finish etc. etc.
General consensus is the the amount of drying/age of the woods. Thinking about the use of natural glues like hyde & fish probably transmit vibration better than synthetic glues. Yet we forget to recognize a very fundamental truth is sound is energy. Yes, frequency, (vibration/,sound) all those millions of atoms moving! So, knowing this it is easy to imagine how those frequency atoms affect those atoms within the woods used in guitars. Therefore it is probably good to play music of a good frequency to bring the positive out in the wood.
AKA. The Beach Boys good vibrations…. 🙂
Ha ha, yes point taken re: vibrations, sound really is just a series of vibrations essentially. A great point re: natural glues too, and definitely something to consider with regard to resonance and ageing in general.
Moisture over time is not a factor. There are two ways moisture can be in wood. The first is freshly cut “green” wood that contains lots of water that the live tree was pulling up through it. This water is the reason why green wood doesn’t make good firewood. Most of this water goes away when the wood is air or kiln dried before used. After that, wood will absorb moisture any time the humidity level is higher than the surrounding air and release it when the humidity goes down. So, yes guitars sound better at low humidity and finishes crack when the humidity is low enough to contract the top. But wood simply does not get drier or lighter with time. Do guitars sound better as they age? Who knows? This is an apples and oranges question because you can’t play the same guitar when it was new and old at the same time and because every guitar sounds different!
This said, the quality of the top wood is indeed crucial. The tighter and straighter the grain, the better. Old growth trees are definitely superior in these two factors. That’s why I build guitars with reclaimed old-growth Sitka spruce tops.
Thanks for your insights here David, much appreciated. I’ve updated the article recently. Based on my understanding and as you have mentioned wood doesn’t actually dry out over time once it has lost that initial moisture content and matches the relative humidity of its environment. I have discussed and read however that as the wood ages structural changes occur that contribute to the the wood becoming less affected by relative humidity also e.g. the sytructure of the wood’s cells allows less moisture to be retained. I definitely agree with your comments on old growth trees also, which I’ve written about previously. Another, perhaps less considered reason is only the best guitars actually become old, due to being more cared for and being built to a higher standard e.g. more hands on.
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