Ask any experienced guitarist if they think a 40+ year old Martin acoustic would sound better than any current model and you will invariably be met with an overwhelming ‘YES’. And while the brand name obviously carries a degree of weight, the age of the guitar is also highly appealing to guitarists.
But why is this be the case? Shouldn’t guitars, like everything else actually improve over previous decades with the benefit of modern design and manufacturing practices? Is it just a case of, they don’t make ‘em’ like they used to?
While there are contributing factors, amongst them the availability of quality tone woods and modern manufacturing being less reliant on the luthier’s skills and experience. The single most important reason acoustic guitar sound better as they get older is the ageing of the wood used to construct the body, namely the soundboard, or ‘top wood’. As wood ages it typically loses moisture, becoming lighter, while retaining overall stiffness. As a result the sound board becomes more resonant.
To demonstrate this point further. It’s common knowledge that guitars tend to sound better in low humidity environments. This is why guitar owners utilise humidifiers to maintain a consistent low humidity 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 it is an increased risk of cracks developing in the finish, requiring repair. This is often the fine line between owning a quality 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 guitar and how one modern manufacturer is starting to look back as a way to move forward.
How 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 thin the wood used for the soundboard is, the more resonance (vibration), volume and sustain the guitar can produce. This also results in the guitar being more responsive to play.
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 richer sounding guitar, pushed along by increased volume and sustain 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 tends to maintain its tensile strength 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 vibrate with greater frequency due to the loss of weight, while maintaining its original strength.
Wood that has lost moisture due to evaporation 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 travelling guitarist, changes of environment.
Different timbers tend to dry out at different rates. Spruce (a commonly used top wood) is a good example of this as the changes in tonal quality and appearance are more noticeable compared to other tone woods.
This is also why laminated tops e.g. sound boards constructed from pressed plywood layers as opposed to a solid piece may sound duller to some then 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 Tanglewood which sounded considerably better to my ears despite being less expensive and not sporting a more famous manufacturers logo. 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.
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 produce high level laminate top 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 is the single biggest reason older guitars tend to sound better, as mentioned there are additional factors that contribute also, one of these is 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 utilising computer aided design to ensure their neck pockets are cut with greater precision.
Utilising computer aided design, guitars can now be ‘modelled’ 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. 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 important to also keep in mind, many larger manufacturers blend the new with the old so to speak e.g. utilising modern processes to ensure greater accuracy and efficiency while utilising 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 maintained over time compared to a higher end instrument. Simply put, there are likely to be a smaller number of low quality, less expensive guitars that are still in existence.
Has timber quality gotten worse 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 much simpler 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 tcosts 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 ageing 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 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 ageing 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.