The Sound of Guitars is Hard to Describe
Often, the words we use reflect our subjective preferences. Whether a particular guitar sounds “boxy”, “thin”, “earthy”, or “woody” usually boils down to a matter of opinion. That said, there is a certain thematic continuity in our diction. It would be unusual to hear an instrument referred to as both “dark” and “bright”. Let’s get meta and consider what we’re actually saying when we use some of these common terms.
Dark: Tight bass and thick mid-range frequencies. Thick in the center, definitely not “scooped”. There’s definition and cohesion. All the strings are balanced. It doesn’t cut through as much as fill in. Think an arch-top on the neck pickup with the tone turned down. Think a mid-sized, all-mahogany, straight-braced acoustic. Although usually overlooked by beginners for their humble, yet articulate performance with open chords, more advanced players often gravitate towards darker sounding instruments. A perfect example of this would be the Collings OM1 JL designed by Bill Collings and Jazz virtuoso, Julian Lage. Based on Lage’s 1939 000-18, it is described by Collings as being “mellow” with “rounded highs”, “not an empty flatterer”, while Lage refers to it as “lovingly neutral”.
Bright: People like bright. We’re like cats scouring the house for shafts of light. Higher-frequency, treble tones cut through the air and catch our attention. We are biologically designed to hear a baby’s wail. It’s no wonder that people like clear highs, but there is a limit. Higher frequencies need to be tempered so as not to come off as strident. This brings us to one of the most popular guitaristic EQs: the scooped sound. The highs are supported and complemented by a strong bass current. The scooped sound is as enveloping as it is forgiving. Open chords sound magical. The Taylor 714CE is a perfect example.
Dry: Strong fundamental frequency. When we hear a string sound a musical note that we perceive as being in-tune, we are actually hearing a fundamental frequency balanced on top of a wide range of overtones and overtones of overtones. There’s a lot of information contained within each vibration. That said, some guitarists prefer instruments that are more dry and direct. Part of the secret to achieving this effect lies in the bracing. Generally speaking, overtone content and bass response is enhanced and shaped by scalloping the X-brace. In the mid-40s, Martin stopped scalloping their braces and didn’t resume the practice again until the introduction of the HD-28 in 1977 (The “H” , indicating Herringbone trim, was another feature of the“Golden Era” design). In recent years, scalloped bracing has become the norm again, yet many guitarists still favor the non-scalloped sound. My ‘67 00-18 is un-scalloped and I love its balance and woody directness. Ever the innovators and guitar historians, Collings resurrected one of the bracing patterns used by Gibson during their golden era, the non-scalloped tone bar design on their C10-35 and CJ-35 models. This difference amounts to an exquisite focus across all registers. Tonally, I’d compare them to a quality upright piano, perfect for honky-tonk, boogie-woogie, and country blues. They stand out in contexts where the nuances of more complex, grand-piano-like guitars would be lost.
Wet: Of course, we still all love and crave guitars that sound like grand pianos with the sustain pedal depressed. The kinds of guitars that make you feel like your encased within a snow-globe of overtones. The kinds of guitars that display such cathedral-like reverb that we fantasize about miniaturizing ourselves and living within them. In the right hands (hands that in the electric realm would be adept at playing along with a delay pedal, timing their attack just so), a wet acoustic guitar is simply awe-inspiring. As an example, consider the Collings D2HT, which boasts ultra-thin finish, hide glue, scalloped braces and no tongue brace. This guitar sings like a harp at the slightest provocation.
Although I began this blog with the inclusive “we”, please take these characterizations with a grain of salt. It is hard to describe sound! That said, I’ve done quite a bit of exactly that, and the above spectrums have served me well in my own analysis of tone. In the context of appraisal, I truly appreciate a wide variety of guitar voicings, and I’ll typically use a more complimentary adjective than dark/bright, wet/dry, but the basic concepts remain intact. If we can all accept the basic premise that acoustic guitars often sound “different” from each other, then we need some linguistic tools to help us navigate that fact.