Plywood Fender Squier vs Top Line Vintage Gibson

Bob Leggitt | Saturday, 1 August 2020 |

THE CONTENDERS


1972 Gibson ES-355 semi acoustic

A vintage Gibson ES-355. A lavish, high-spend product, made in 1972, and sitting at the top end of Gibson’s range of thinline semi-acoustics. Wearing the archetypal translucent cherry finish, the instrument is synonymous with some of the most famous and illustrious musicians in guitar history. The high quality hardware is gold-plated, and the pearloid-inlaid, bound ebony fingerboard screams the word “class”. Seven layers of binding on the front of the nitro-cellulose-sealed body further assert the artefact’s pedigree. Okay, so there are only three layers on the back, but look, this is an expensive guitar!

Hot-rodded plywood Squier Telecaster

A 1988 Squier Telecaster, made in the Korean Young Chang factory, with a plywood body. It was hot-rodded back in the late 1980s, at which point I owned it and used it as a main gigging guitar. It now belongs to a guy called Martin, who was also on the local band circuit at that time, and bought the guitar from me in 1992. It has a replacement bridge with brass saddles, replacement machine heads in the ‘50s/’60s Kluson design, replacement pickups – one of which is a stock Duncan and two of which are hand-wound – high quality replacement pots and switch, and a real nitro-cellulose refinish.

THE ASSESSMENT


I’ve set this up as a shoot-out, and I am going to give a verdict. But this post is not really about proving a vintage Gibson is better than a plywood Squier, or vice versa. It’s really a post about body materials, and how our acceptance of them is far more heavily influenced by marketing than their quantifiable impact on the guitar’s usability and/or sound. I’m not saying body material and construction doesn’t affect tone. It very definitely does. But things don’t work the way we’re conditioned to believe they do.

Broadly, marketers of electric guitars would like us to believe that mahogany has one sound, and maple has another, and ash has another still. And swamp ash is premium ash, so it’ll sound better. And the prettier the wood, the prettier the tone. And “plywood” (the phrase they’ve traditionally used when talking about other manufacturers’ guitars), is something completely different from “laminate” (the phrase they’ve traditionally used when forced to reveal the spec of their own wood-sandwich creations).

But the reality is that the tone of wood varies. A lot. And that means you can have two pieces of ash that sound much more different from each other, than one particular piece of ash sounds from one particular piece of alder. And you can have a really expensive maple top that doesn’t sound as good as a comparatively cheap maple top. And you can have a laminate that sounds better than a single slab.

So knowing what a guitar is made of doesn’t necessarily tell you anything. Each wood has a general sonic ballpark, but the ballpark has a lot of overlap.

Indeed, there have been some amazing sounding guitars with heavily laminated solid bodies. Manson Guitars used to make a Flying V and a Merlin model that were unusual in that they proudly displayed their “designer laminate” stripes through a totally natural, clear lacquer finish. These obviously weren’t your average fifty quid wafer specials featuring a loving blend of fence offcuts and MDF. They were highly skilled jobs incorporating symmetrical, aesthetically arranged sections of rosewood, sycamore, ebony, yew and mahogany. But they were still a sandwich of twenty plus pieces of wood, and therefore a destruction of the myth that interruptions in the continuity of body timber are detrimental to tone. In an early 1980s review extravaganza, the Merlin was described as “one of the best sounding guitars in the book”. And there were numerous very high quality, expensive guitars in there.

The two guitars selected for this post were picked for specific reasons. The Gibson, because despite its range-topping status, its body utilises laminate construction. And the Squier, because its hardware and electrics have been upgraded in keeping with a much more expensive guitar. In other words, both guitars have laminates in the body, and decent quality hardware. The Gibson clearly cost a lot more than the Squier to manufacture, but a long-winded and elaborate construction process doesn’t necessarily make a guitar more usable, or better sounding.

It was fascinating to get a comment on guitar body composition from Fender’s Dan Smith, who passed judgement during Dave Burrluck’s tour of the Fender factory in 1995. In the article, published in The Guitar Magazine that summer (Vol 5, No.8), Smith was quoted as saying…

“Anyone who wants to spend money seems to want to buy nice *wooden* guitars. But composite materials could be utilised to make good, solid, very stable, easy to play beginner’s instruments – and that’s one of our goals.”

Some hardcore public plywood-shaming by Yamaha probably tempered that intention somewhat. But readers will note the use of the word “materials” rather than “woods”, suggesting that the cutting edge of Fender R&D had not ruled out non-wooden bodies in the low budget area of manufacture. And most interesting of all is the association of composite processes only with budget guitars. In relation to this, however, Smith did not indicate that he saw composites as tonally inferior. He wasn’t saying composites don’t sound very good, so they’re only suitable for cheap guitars. He was saying that the upper end of the market wouldn’t pay for non-traditional construction, so the forte of composite construction was improving value for money at the novice end of the spectrum.

That’s self-fulfilling. Because the more you restrict laminates, plywood and other non-trad body compositions to low budget guitars, the more those construction methods will be associated with poor sound. Low-budget guitars will by nature carry compromised hardware, pickups and other sub-scratchplate components. And they won’t be set up very well either. That was certainly the case with the Korean Squier Tele as purchased. But body composition is such a central element in the marketing battle, that inevitably buyers will blame the bulk of the tonal deficiency on the body composition. Even when the real primary cause is the cheap parts - as it almost invariably is with cheap guitars.

As purchased brand new in 1988, that MIK Squier Tele had no hope of competing with the vintage Gibson ES-355. But with liberal hot-rodding, it does compete, and it competes very strongly. The guitars have very different sounds, because they’re completely different designs. But they’re both eminently usable in a professional environment.

I’ve gigged with them both. And even though I’ve owned the Gibson for more than six times as long as I owned the Squier, I still haven’t gigged the Gibson anywhere near as much as I gigged the Squier. You can say there are other reasons involved in that beyond tone and usability, and I’d agree. But any musician knows how much we all care about getting the best possible sound on stage, with optimum comfort. And when that plywood Squier was my main gigging guitar, I also owned an American Standard Fender Strat, a Tokai Goldstar TST60, and a Rickenbacker 330, so I wasn’t using it through lack of other highly viable options.

We are, to an incredible extent, brainwashed by the association between low-priced instruments and… let’s just say “body compositions that, when exposed, are not pleasing to the eye”. We’re brainwashed into thinking that the compositions themselves sound bad. Even more so, we’re brainwashed by the weight that the marketing machine places on eye-pleasing woods in the creation of great tone.

We’re constantly told that carved, bookmatched flame-maple, atop gorgeous, premium mahogany, is going to make for the best sounding guitar we’ve ever owned. But that in itself is a form of laminate. There’s glue running through the body of a ’59 Les Paul, like “Brighton” through a stick of rock.

And the Gibson semi-acoustics used by BB King, Chuck Berry, Dave Grohl, Noel Gallagher, Eric Clapton, Larry Carlton and many other global guitar luminaries, have, or had, literal plywood in their bodies.

The Gibson semis are a plywood-shaming opportunity that could never really be pursued by marketers, because it would mock the intelligence of many of the most important guitarists in history, and would probably end up villifying the shamer rather than the product they attempted to shame. But these high end, plywood-strewn Gibsons do demonstrate how differently we view the same thing when it appears in an expensive, rather than a cheap guitar.

The wood type and/or the number of separate pieces of it do not point blank determine how good a guitar will sound. Obviously, a badly glued, badly sealed sandwich of “fence offcuts” and MDF – with a core of coarse chipboard in the middle – is something we’d want to avoid. Even if it’s vintage coarse chipboard. But a competently made, well-sealed composite guitar body (like the one possessed by the ’88 MIK Tele) is not by default inferior in sound to, say, a single slab of figured ash. And the people at the centre of guitar manufacture know that. They just have to play by the rules of marketing and pander to our aesthetically-driven preconceptions.

Wood does affect tone, but in a much more abstract way than most of us imagine.

And the verdict on the Gibson ES-355 and the Squier Tele? Which is best? Well, the Tele covers the most sonic territory, and whilst very different, its sound quality is in no way inferior to the 355’s. And I’d bet most guitarists would find the Tele more comfortable to play too. So let’s praise the mighty Young Chang for its creation of a guitar which, taste permitting, and after a serious hardware upgrade, nitro refinish, etc, could well prove preferable to a historical giant.

So do I want to swap my Gibbo for Martin’s Squier? No. We live in the highly capitalist 2020s, and not a ‘60s hippietopia where monetary value is a heavy inconsequence, man. If this had been 1967, though, and I’d just come out of a Hendrix gig into a world of caring, sharing and mass anti-capitalism, I’d probably be giving the idea some serious thought.