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When does tone-improvement "cheating" start?
Bill Cory

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Total Posts: 3594
In this guitar making stuff and trying to improve the tone of specific guitars, I've been wondering about this question. When are you "cheating," and adding things to a guitar that make the guitar's tone more than it could be.

Nut material?
Saddle material?
Brace shaving?
Pearse Arm Rest?
Brass plate ("PlateMate" @ Stewmac) under the bridge plate.
JLD "Bridge Doctor" (in Stewmac catalog)

I don't know that there is anything on the list that's "cheating," but wondered about others' opinions... ?

Aug 24, 06 | 6:22 am

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I guess it all depends on your perspective on the tradition of making a guitar. Its like the steel guitar that not many people like because it wasnt a traditional guitar to play.

for me nuts, strings, saddle material, (maybe) the brass plate are all good as long as you stick to the most close traditional because there is no shame in improving a guitar, but I like to keep the traditional guitar because its kind of a stuck up feeling that "guitars have been made like this for decades and thats the way we want to keep it."

It doesnt really bother me to much if people want to add, but its when people try to mass produce guitars, or make them with industrial machines (not the machines we have at home). I get a twitch of anger because I like to keep some sort of tradition in this world.


Aug 24, 06 | 12:48 pm

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Good question! I'm not sure that anything listed is cheating. Tone is such a subjective thing. I know (head knowledge) that some of the items will affect tone one way or another, but I haven't made enough sawdust to have gut knowledge of it.

I think that if a person is building for sale (on speculation), straying too far from the traditional will result in a much smaller group of people being interested. On the other hand, somebody has to push the envelope, X bracing wasn't always traditional.

I know that I have a tone in my head that I am aiming at. I know, in general terms, what to do to go in that direction. I wonder if I can hit it with a dozen tries! I feel that we hobby builders have a much easieer time of it because we can afford to experiment a little. We do not have to sell to pay the rent. I find this a very liberating thought!


Aug 24, 06 | 3:00 pm
Bill Cory

Total Topics: 158
Total Posts: 3584
It's a question I wonder about. We could put so many "after-market" parts on a guitar that it would be nothing like it was originally -- but I guess that's okay if it reaches the goal tonewise. The question came up in my mind when I was building this Triple-O for a guy in Kentucky, and i was thinking about putting one of those little brass Plate Mate deals in it to brighten the tone a bit. I decided not to do it, because he can do that himself if he wants a briger tone. But, it brought up this question.

I agree with both of you guys on it, by the way.

Aug 25, 06 | 10:43 am
Ken Cierp

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Total Posts: 2262
Well, here is an example of why I don’t get involved in the how something "sounds to me" debate. The different combination of modifications you listed can result in 5040 different sound variations. The factorial of a number is the product of all the whole numbers, except zero, that are less than or equal to that number. To find the factorial of 7 you would multiply together all the whole numbers, except zero, that are less than or equal to 7. Like this:
7 x 6 x 5 x 4 x 3 x 2 x 1 = 5,040
I could list another 20 or so tone modifiers. Can you imagine the results in that formula? ---- Would it be cheating if you put “A1” sauce on steak if you liked how it tasted? I believe one of the acquired luthier skills is being able to predict what the finished product may sound like to a customer --- modifying tone after the instrument is built (to me) is a little easier. Hanging pick-ups and plugging into an amp is what I’d call cheating.

Ken’s two cents

Aug 25, 06 | 12:51 pm

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I don't think anything is cheating unless you are creating the sound artifically. By that, I mean effects. If you can create a sound with no effects, it's fair game!!

Aug 25, 06 | 12:52 pm

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I came into the building thing kind of through the backdoor of acoustic repair. There are much narrower ethical considerations in repair. For instance, there are many repair techniques that are entirely appropriate on a non-vintage guitar that really, really shouldn't be done to a vintage guitar. Reading Erlewine's books and/or watching his videos bring this lesson home.

In building my own guitar, I feel that I have the freedom to do pretty much as I choose. I think that it is entirely appropriate to blend high-tech materials such as carbon-fiber composits into wooden instruments. I believe that the bridge doctor is standard in Breedlove guitars. I'm only competing against the toughest opponent I know -- me. I do this to make me happy -- oh, yeah there is that Koa dread I have promised my wife :) !

My only regret is very similar to Bill's, I'm 55 and I really wish that I had started 30 years ago.

Aug 25, 06 | 2:43 pm

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How is improving tone cheating? The arm rest and Bridge Doctor are non-traditional, sure. But the others you mentioned have been used by many old-time luthiers. C. F. Martin used bone and ivory nut and saddles. Shaved braces? Who ever heard of "scalloped" braces? The list goes on for miles...
When Martin switched from ebony to steel truss rods, was that cheating?

Just build the best you can, using the materials that achieve your goal.

Note to jhowell- me. too. I'm 55 and should've started long ago. As for your wife's koa dred- mine's getting a maple/ Englemann 000.

Aug 25, 06 | 4:26 pm
Bill Cory

Total Topics: 158
Total Posts: 3584
I wish my wife played guitar; we'd have more to talk about.

As far as that list I presented, I don't consider any of those items "cheating." Especially saddles and pins ...

In fact, I don't really consider "effects" cheating, unless you are trying to fool somebody with them. Suppose you record a sound sample for somebody and add little extra reverb ... and call it "sustain." That's cheating, for sure ... and lying.

As for the age thing ... Don't worry guys. At 59, I figure I have another good 15 years before my hands are no longer steady-able and my eyes can't see to put the magnifiers on ... a lot can be accomplished in 15 years. Lots of fun to be had. Still, can't help envying those guys who discovered this at a young age. Us old guys will just have to be more careful and make our guitars look like we're more accomplished than we are!


Aug 26, 06 | 5:39 am
Ken Hundley

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The difference is you old farts tend to have tonnes more patience then the young ones do. That is a gift, believe me.

Aug 28, 06 | 6:49 am

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Lol that is really true I get a short fuse when I cant keep myself busy. I guess the only things we youngsters really get is more time and more than half of that wil be spent in school and part time jobs :) so I guess its a trade off.

In the end I dont think we will have much of a choice if we are to uphold a business. We have to flow with the time. I guess traditional is all based on how you feel on what makes a guitar so special or unique.

Some people feel akward about not going traditional, I am one of those people For example my brother wanted to know if I will ever make eletric guitars as something if I was ever going to open a business. I told him
I didnt really respect the "anatomy of the guitar" and in the future I would probaly just buy them from stores and sell them, But with future teens it looks like acoustic guitars may start becoming a little less popular... what we need is a modern beetles ban to bring back the acoustic :).
(I dont mind hearing (I love Chuck Berry) eletric I just don't think its that special because you just cut the holes and stick the parts in. sorry for any eletric fans out there;)

Aug 28, 06 | 10:27 am
Bill Cory

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Total Posts: 3584
Ken --Ha! -- Yeah, but most old farts just blow away in the wind ... I think patience is as much a personality trait as it is a product of age. When I was young, like Louis, I rarely finished anything because I was so impatient to get to the end and start something new. Now, I just want to finish things well. (Lou, I wish I'd discovered this building thing when I was your age! 1966 -- that was when the "big name luthiers" got their start!)

Maybe it is part of getting into the "middle years." (I hope they are ... if so, that means I'll have more than 15 years of building ahead!)

I think, also, that being old is a state of mind. I don't think "old." I do a great impression of the 2000 year old man, without the humor factor, but I get along perfectly well with my 15-year-old daughter and 19-year-old son and enjoy their music, their friends, etc. They put up with me, I think.

Anyway ... a propos of nothing, I guess ....


Aug 28, 06 | 12:44 pm

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Total Posts: 42
Maybe one of the good things about being old is that we've had the time to experience more of the successes- and failures- in the guitar world. I remember seeing a new Martin D-76 and lusting after it- and buying a Takamine Guild-copy instead. Instant intro to maple jumbos, a taste I have to this day. And early Yamahas- YUCK! But they make some really nice ones now. And my first electric- Silvertone with amp-in-the-case. Wish I'd kept it.

And early Taylors? Collector's items but hardly playable...It's fun to look back, though.

Sep 01, 06 | 4:35 pm

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