Flat Guitar Theory: Bustin' The "Wood Doesn't Matter" Myth

Bob Leggitt | Saturday, 27 August 2022

Victoria Druggs poses with Fiesta Red vintage Strat

Vintage Strats look as good as they sound. But don't ask Victoria Druggs to pose with one unless you wish to hear an extended repertoire of Phoebe Buffay songs.

It's the musical equivalent of Flat Earth Theory, but the notion that an electric guitar's wood type has no effect on the tone, has exploded into a widely-accepted trope. The trope states that in an electric guitar, only the pickups and strings define the output sound, because the pickups sense the string movement directly, and therefore, how could the body material possibly make any difference?

We'll see the technical reason why the body does make a difference later in the post, and I'll explain how to make a solid guitar body reproduce tonal differences through the amp. But there's a lot to pack in before that, and from here on, for easy recognition, I'll be referring to the "wood doesn't matter" trope as Flat Guitar Theory. A twist on Flat Earth Theory, in which the word "flat" is repurposed to allude to frequency response.

We get tonal changes when we pluck the strings harder or softer. Tonal changes when we switch a plectrum for nails or fingertips. We can scrape a pick down a string that isn't even vibrating and get a unique sonic output from that. Why would a pickup be perfectly sensitive to all of these nuances, but be inexplicably deaf to the amount of body resonance? It's ridiculous.

Behind Flat Guitar Theory lies a range of videos, professing to demonstrate that neither the body material nor its quality have any bearing on an electric guitar's sound.

Despite the fact that the claim is a categorical nonsense, it's not difficult for such content to persuade a high volume of people.

After the sound has been recorded, digitised for online streaming and then played back through equipment on which audio is typically an afterthought, you have at least three stages of frequency loss in the chain. And this applies even if you assume nothing has been manipulated in the making of the video. It's widely acknowledged that with most content intended for viral spread, the narrative comes first, and the content is twisted to fit the narrative. If it won't fit, it's manipulated until it will.

But the greater dynamic behind online persuasion is simply the audience's desire to believe. Broadly, if someone has enough motivation to believe something, they'll believe it, whatever the evidence for or against...


Flat Guitar Theory is a product of the Internet age. I specifically cover the "pre-Internet" era on this blog, and apart from recalling the 1980s and 1990s as an eye-witness musician, the number of period printed references I've gathered runs to many hundreds. I have not read a single interview or advisory, in a single pre-Internet book, magazine or paper, that advocates Flat Guitar Theory. Not one.

Neither did I ever meet anyone who advocated the theory during my time as a working musician.

Even the irreverent punks - desperate to debase every last gram of "dinosaur lore" - admitted that identically-built guitars differed in sound from one example to the next. The so-called "Frankenstein" guitar concept, in which '60s and '70s "dinosaurs" like Eric Clapton had bought multiple Fenders and then assembled one "cherry" from the parts with the best tone, would have been a sitting-duck for punk ridicule had all wood sounded the same. But no one questioned the idea. It was plain logic.

So with Flat Guitar Theory we're in the territory of 'dumb Internet thing'.

But why did it start, and why did it spread?

Gibson Les Paul Standard with faded sunburst finish and flame maple top

Try proving that a '59 Les Paul sounds different from a brand new one when the '59 has permanent residency in a bank vault.

There's a number of potential explanations for why the trope has become so widely accepted...

  • There's cognitive dissonance... Virtually all guitars that use truly premium wood are now out of affordable reach, so there's a natural compulsion for us to find reasons why we never wanted one anyway.
  • That same lack of premium quality guitars at affordable prices also means the majority of people never get to compare them with accessibly-priced instruments at first hand. In social media debates, you'll see that the "wood matters" advocates tend to cite personal experience, whilst the Flat Guitar Theory advocates tend to cite YouTube. At scale, that speaks for itself.
  • Then there are reasons why online content producers might want to de-stabilise the market for vintage guitars. Like video dude wants a '65 Epiphone but would like to pay the £300-£400 we all used to hand over in the 'eighties, rather than the eight grand (gulp) that certain sellers want to charge him today. He may equally have a vendetta against a vintage guitar dealer, an affiliation with a supplier of composite materials, or another vested interest in attacking general market value. He may just want the page hits and be aware that there's an appetite for the narrative.
Slap the front face of the guitar body. Hear that? Of course you do. The body is definitely in touch with the amp.

But the overarching problem we have is that capitalists have invaded and destroyed what was once a musicians' market, turning guitars into an investment commodity and hoarding the stock to drive up demand. So the access is now broadly only afforded to people with investor profiles. The deals are besuited handshakes - not sweaty, T-shirt clad string-bendathons in poky music shops, as they were when I was a teenager. Flat Guitar Theory is, more than anything, just a symptom of that.

Ironically, however - if you believe that Flat Guitar Theory did set out as a bid to de-stabilise the premium/vintage guitar market - the investment value itself is irrevocably tied to the sonic superiority and increasing scarcity of the highest quality wood.

You can say that artist association is the biggest factor in collectability, and I wouldn't dispute that - although the prices of higher end new guitars have also risen well above the rate of inflation. So the artist influence extends a long way beyond the individual guitar they personally owned. But the wider point is that if famous guitars hadn't produced the best sounds, the artists would not have become associated with them in the first place.

Then you reach the question of why those old guitars had the best sounds. Let the artists answer that themselves. Read their interviews. To quote one of the most sonically aware and influential guitarists of the modern music age, and someone whose career has spanned all of the generations - Buddy Guy (as interviewed for Guitar Player, April 1990)...

"The wood that they're making them out of now is not the same."

Find me someone of that calibre and experience who said: "Well, I could have put two pickups and a set of strings on a bicycle frame and it would have sounded identical, but it would have been a bit too difficult to fit that into my guitar case". You won't. You know what you'll find. They all knew it was the wood.


And from the earliest days of the commercial solid guitar, the manufacturers knew it too. One of the best pieces of evidence for this is the story of the Gibson Les Paul 'gold top'. Theodore 'Ted' McCarty - Gibson President during the years when the company's most revered guitars were built - was queried about the company's rather odd decision to spray only the front face of the guitar body gold. His answer was detailed, but to condense it a little...

Before taking the Les Paul to market in 1952, Gibson spent a couple of years honing its tone. Fender had launched the Broadcaster/Telecaster and rivals Gibson were desperate to compete with it. A major chunk of the brands' customer-base in those days comprised pro musicians. The top manufacturers were not really selling to casual please-easies in bedrooms. The clients were critical people with robust needs and high expecations. The battleground was tone.

In an effort to add an edge of high-end bite to the Les Paul's warm sustain, the guitar's developers glued a maple top onto the mahogany body base.

So, it's 1952. Gibson now have their ideal combo of woods and they're ready to launch. They wanna boast about that nifty little maple top ploy, right?

No way! They want to keep it a secret. So what they're actually going to do is try to trick rival manufacturers into thinking the body is all mahogany. In Ted McCarty's own words, source Vintage Gallery, circa 1994...

"We were using mahogany and maple to make the Les Paul bodies. We thought that nobody would know we were using a maple top if we covered it with gold paint. They'd only see the mahogany on the back. So from then on we made them with the gold top."

That decision - using a more expensive construction technique and then hiding it - only makes sense if the manufacturers truly believed that wood impacts tone. Try and explain it in another way. You can't! They flat out knew that wood selection was the key to premium tone. Ted McCarty continued...

"In those days we had Hewlett Packard scopes in the lab. We used them to check the sound waves on the guitars."

So the first-gen solid guitar manufacturers were not just relying on their ears. Their assessment process had advanced technological backup. And indeed the tone mattered so much that the manufacturers of the day didn't just use the right type of wood - they used the very, very best available cuts of the type. In fact, they didn't just use top cut - they used top vintage cut.

That's right, in the electric solid's formative years, the manufacturers were not making guitars from new wood. They knew old timber would sound better, so that's what they used. In the February 1995 issue of Guitarist magazine, seasoned vintage guitar expert Chris Trigg explained...

"In the early '50s, all the guitars were made from wood that was cut in the '20s from virgin forests."

Wood. Mattered.

Lineup of Gibson and Fender vintage guitars

A lineup of vintage Gibson and Fender guitars, including a 1960s Gibson ES-345, a 1960s Gibson Melody Maker, a 1960s Fender Jaguar and an early 1970s Gibson ES-355.

Of course, it can be alleged by Flat Guitar theorists that the quotes surrounding early Gibson and Fender manufacture came retrospectively, years after the event, and are thus prone to inaccuracy. Putting a maple top on a guitar and then hiding it still wouldn't make sense, and there are surviving factory records relating to the purchase of materials, but yeah, I get that people can forget or embellish...

Which is why my next source is someone whose monstrously successful guitar-building brand had its entire ascent played out publicly, in the guitar press. Paul Reed Smith set out to build brand new "vintage" guitars, slap-bang in the middle of the 1980s when virtually the whole market wanted the space age. Or at least thought it did.

For casual onlookers, it seemed there could not have been a worse time to start shipping traditional instruments built to recapture vintage tones, than the era of FM synthesis, warp-siren gadetry, and megasat digital distortion which rendered the guitar's natural tone irrelevant. Especially given the relatively high prices of PRS guitars.

But PRS realised that in fact, there could not be a better time. As other manufacturers ceased caring about tone and commenced making LED-clad guitars out of carbon-fibre or graphite, the way was clear for someone to come in with a guitar that really did recapture the musical properties of the vintage classics. Initially, because of where the trends had taken popular ideology, Smith had very little, if any competition outside of the boutique scene.

He had been obsessed with vintage guitars since acquiring a 1952 Les Paul, and he understood wood and its resonant properties like few other people of his generation. He was advocating super-thin finishes and the use of hide glue as active ingredients in increasing the wood's natural resonance. And he was pathological about sourcing the best available materials, as well as proactively "ageing" the wood. In a 1980s interview for Guitarist magazine, PRS stated...

"We have a special deal with this mahogany supplier - we can take a plane to every board in his entire yard, and we take like one in every twenty boards in the whole place, and then [during production at the factory] we throw a third of those away! Then the rest of them are dried for a month and a half, in different stages..."

The special drying processes would help simulate the natural effects of ageing.

The question is, why in the name of Hank B Marvin's wang bar would a rational, savvy, economically-astute businessman waste all that money and time on wood selection if it made no difference to the tone of the guitar? Why, indeed, would such a production regime bring that businessman virtually unprecedented acclaim and wild success at a time in history when the popular market did not express a desire for that kind of product?

Why are we not all talking about the carbon-fibe/graphite Bond Electraglide as the success story of the 1980s? After all, it had everything musicians of the mid 'eighties appeared to want, and a list of celebrity users, including U2, Big Audio Dynamite and Echo and the Bunnymen. Here's the reason, encapsulated in a comment from Echo and the Bunnymen's Will Sergeant...

"I found the tone scratchy and a bit thin."

And as someone who witnessed Mick Jones playing an Electraglide live on stage with Big Audio Dynamite, I can personally vouch for that opinion. Those Bond guitars were a style statement in their time, but their tone was - and I use this term after very careful consideration - crap.

1980s Paul Reed Smith promotion

Paul Reed Smith guitars as they were presented to the USA in the 1980s. It was all about the wood, and the advertising (which, unlike many '80s ads, still works today) required no gimmicks, no hype.

PRS became THE guitar brand of the 1980s for a reason. While other manufacturers copied the design of old Gibsons and Fenders, Paul Reed Smith copied the original makers' commitment to consistent tone. He used exactly the same principle: insist on the absolute best timber, respect it, let it live, let it shine. Despite a seemingly adverse market, the strategy worked for PRS in the 1980s just as it worked for Gibson and Fender in the 1950s. It would work for anyone. Just as business follows the money, guitarists follow the tone.


Whilst it's true that electromagnetic guitar pickups sense the vibration of the strings, the vibration of the strings is dramatically open to influence from other physical properties of the guitar. This is easy to test.

Take a pickup out of the guitar, then re-string the guitar if you had to de-string it to get the pickup out. With the pickup still wired into the circuit, hold it over the strings near the bridge and strum. Keep strumming and move the pickup towards the neck. You'll hear the tone changing in real time as you move the pickup. The bass end gets stronger and the tone becomes rounder whilst the upper midrange tames down.

The pickup didn't change. The strings didn't change. But the tone did change. And the tone changed because although the strings themselves remained constant, their vibration pattern was markedly different at the bridge from their vibration pattern at the neck. The proximity of the bridge, at the bridge position, limits the travel of each string, and that major variation in the vibration pattern is something anyone can hear. Indeed, in most guitars, the neck pickup has exactly the same spec as the bridge pickup. The only reason the two sound different is that they're sensing a different string vibration pattern.

The bridge is not, however, the only physical property that can change the travel of the strings.

Plug in your guitar. Don't touch the strings - just slap the front face of the body. Hear that? Of course you do. Your strike of the guitar body translates into string activity, which is then sensed by the pickup. That strike had to pass through the body before its vibration reached the strings, and was then relayed to the output as an electronic signal. So the body is definitely in touch with the amp. How can something you just proved affects the sound, not affect the sound?

And the sonic impact includes the general resonance of the guitar body. A guitar with low resonance will foster a different string vibration pattern from a guitar with high resonance. And wood varies in its resonance. Which means the wood type and quality affects the tonal output of the electric guitar courtesy of the same principle that makes the neck pickup sound different from the bridge pickup. It changes the way the strings vibrate. Anything that impacts the vibration pattern of the strings, affects the tone.

If you have a Stratocaster with a floating spring-vibrato you can do some really cool experiments to verify that wood varies the tone. Take the backplate off, put one hand into the vibrato cavity, and keep the other hand across the strings so they're completely damped. Now scratch your fingernail on the roughest era of the wood in the vibrato cavity. Provided you have a fair bit of gain, you'll hear the scratching loud and clear through the amp. What's happening is that the vibration from the scratch motivates the vibrato springs, and they transfer the motion through the bridge to the strings. Whilst the strings are damped and you don't see their vibration, they still move enough to disturb the pickup's magnetic field and reproduce the sound. This illustrates the subtlety of string movement that the pickups can sense.

Still with the floating-vibrato Strat, you can also tap the front or back of the body with one finger and hear the taps. Once again, the vibrato springs are transferring the body vibration up through the bridge to the strings. This doesn't work with a Telecaster because it has no springs and the bridge can't move. And if you block off the Strat's vibrato so the bridge can't move, the trick stops working with the Strat too. But most interestingly, if you move your finger across different areas of the body whilst tapping the Strat, you clearly hear differences in the tone of the taps.

Although this requires the springs in order to reproduce tonal differences in the wood from area to area, it is proof that the wood's resonant properties do indeed impact the tone of the output.

But can we actually test the difference from one guitar body to the next?

It's not easy, and that's why Flat Guitar Theory has been such a breeze to spread. You cannot A/B test two separate guitar bodies with an instant, flick-switch comparison, because it takes a good half hour to change the body, and even if you record the two body tones and then toggle the recordings, there will be mechanical inconsistencies caused by the rebuild process. Flat Guitar theorists can always dispute the results on that basis, claiming the rebuilt instrument is physically different, with a new action height, neck angle or whatever.

But A/B tests are not a great way to observe variation in the musical properties of wood anyway. You're relying on the two samples to sound dramatically different, and they may not. They may, indeed, sound virtually indistinguishable.

You just have to use general observation and recognise that differences in string travel absolutely do translate into electronic output via the pickup. Everything we do on a guitar is proof of that. We get tonal changes when we pluck the strings harder or softer. Tonal changes when we switch a plectrum for nails or fingertips. We can scrape a pick down a string that isn't even vibrating and get a unique sonic output from that. Why would a pickup be perfectly sensitive to all of these nuances, but be inexplicably deaf to the amount of body resonance? It's ridiculous.

Headstock closeup - Rickenbacker 330

The most convincing test for body wood tone is the numbers game. The more guitars you play, the more you're able to recognise trends in the sound properties. Like older guitars tending to possess a warmer, rounder and (okay, I'm gonna use the word, so hide if you're a Flat Guitar theorist...) more woody tone. Like newer, more modestly-priced guitars tending to be lighter on bass and lacking in tonal body.

Tragically, access to a significant array of instruments is not what it was, and I know it's easier for me to say "just try loads of guitars" than it is to do. In the '80s, a lot of the guitar shops were still relatively 'hippiefied'. The secondhand racks were not only filled with early '70s Strats, mid '60s SGs, late '60s Les Pauls and the like - they were also an open bucket to any teenage wretch who wanted to pick off a pre-owned slogger and give it a twanging. Nearly every Saturday we were in those shops.

Conversely, most of the purchases today are made online, and the offline shops are much more professional. Coupled with the fact that almost any vintage guitar is now bestowed with a "don't even look at it" price tag, actually grabbing hold of one is likely to take a lot more convincing. Gone also are the vibrant, buzzing, live music circuits where we all used to meet endless other bands and try each other's guitars.


On this site I've always questioned the value of vintage guitars. I've criticised my own '65 Jazzmaster, admitting it's really not that great a guitar. I've questioned some of the marketing that surrounds the use of wood in guitars and compared a plywood Squier favourably against a topline vintage Gibson semi. I think we should all be suspicious of the tale-telling and hype that surrounds the vintage guitar market. I'm a realist.

But any suggestion that the type or quality of wood has no effect on an electric guitar's tone should be dismissed with haste as a musical parallel to Flat Earth Theory.

Flat Guitar theory could never have emerged while vintage guitars were accessible to all. And it didn't. It had to wait until those artefacts were dragged out of their tolex cases and placed irretrievably into glass cases. Flat Guitar theory exists because the most desirable guitars ceased being musical instruments and became financial assets. The Internet has taught us over and over that locking the proof behind closed doors will invariably result in a tide of wack theories and misinformation. Flat Guitar Theory is just another perfect illustration of that.