Late Night Science
I’ve been walking down a path of guitar research lately that I’ve always felt borders on quackery. It has to do with how the resins in old instruments set up in response to the conditions and frequencies they are subjected to over many years. The more I dive into this the more I realize that there is quite a bit of science and research to support these claims.
I recently decided to revisit these physics while working with the owner of Dirty South Guitars (https://www.facebook.com/DirtySouthGuitars?ref=br_tf). He recently happened upon a large stash of swamp ash that had been aging in a local warehouse for over 20 years. This center cut wood came from a tree that was over 50 years old and had been aging unpainted in plank form which made it age at a faster rate than wood which has been encapsulated with fillers, sealers, and paint. It’s very light (2.4 lb bodies) and the guitars made from it exhibit characteristics usually only found in vintage guitars.
I was reading about a phenomenon known among owners of fine violins where a stored instrument is known to sound better within just a short time of playing it. They refer to this response as the violin “opening up”. The wood is known to quickly display a greater flexibility, increased volume, and a warmer tone as this lightweight instrument is subjected to the intense vibrations of music. For this reason the wealthy conservators who own most of the Strativari violins are known to loan them to lead violinists in orchestras. This keeps the instrument “open”, allows it to be enjoyed by others, (and most likely ensures them great seats at the philharmonic).
The belief is that the resins (a combination of dried sap, oils, relative moisture, etc.) actually respond to musical vibrations in much the same way the salt is responding to sound waves in those amazing cymatic videos we’ve all seen on YouTube www.youtube.com/watch?v=GtiSCBXbHAg. As the resins in a guitar that is continually curing are exposed to musical frequencies over many years they begin to align themselves in microscopic patterns along the wood grain in a way that creates conduits for tone.
There are several guitar builders that are employing patented and secretive techniques for getting their instruments to sound like vintage guitars many years their senior. The first guy who comes to mind is a controversial builder from Nashville by the name of Kelton Swade. Kelton has a secret formula, which he refers to it as a “Colonel Sander’s recipe”, for treating his woods over a three month period that causes the resins to dry out and form in a way that is only generally seen in 50 year old guitars. Nobody can figure out how he does it. This produces woods that are lightweight and extremely resonant. When he’s done the wood doesn’t just look old it acts old. For this reason his guitars are coveted by many of Nashville’s greats. He was recently confided in me that Vince Gill owns ten of them! The other guitar builder is Finnish luthier Juha Ruokangas. John uses something called Thermo Treated wood which is a patented Finnish invention. The patents are owned by VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, and the process has been in use since 1990 by industrial wood technologies in Finland. Thermo Treatment for musical instrument woods has been studied by Tampere Technical University in close co-operation with several musical instrument manufacturers in Finland. This process uses a steam treatment varying between 100-300 degrees celsius at different time intervals followed by a toasting process to dry the wood and resins to dangerously low levels of humidity. This is done without causing any structural damage to the wood. The wood is then subjected to relative humidity to allow it to slowly readjust to the environment. These thoroughly cured woods are said to “open up” nearly instantly due the drier state of the resins. Thermo-treated wood is also said to act differently when planed, sanded, etc. It feels very dry and the dust smells different – old and sort of “smoked.” The wood is also tanned in color throughout. Another apparent change is the bending strength (stiffness) of the wood. Finnish luthiers experimented by clamping a non-treated neck plank on the side of a table (with the neck hanging out from the edge) and then placed a weight on the tip of the plank. The wood naturally bent down a bit. When the same experiment was performed on an identically cut piece of lumber that was thermo treated it took some flexibility out of the wood structure due to the hardened cell walls and advanced crystallization process. The exact same thing that occurs with wood has been air-dried for 50-100 years.
Jimmy Page’s guitar tech Jim Survis, had this to say in the March 2002 issue of ToneQuest Report: TQR: Did you feel that his (Jimmy Page’s) ’59 Les Paul was really special when you were working with it? “Sure… it was very spanky and bright. It has a lot of miles on it, and instruments always sound better when they have been played a lot in front of the amps, soaking up all of the reverberation from them. In fact, we used to take Jimmy’s guitars, including the ’59, and while he was tracking other rhythm tracks we would place the guitars on stands right in front of the speaker cabinets to absorb the sound coming off of them. There was actually a company out in California that had this military-grade sound generator that they would clamp your guitar in and bombard it with sound waves for three days for a fee of $100. I told Joe Perry about Jimmy leaving his guitars in front of the speaker cabinets, so we sent a Custom Shop Mary Kay Strat that Joe had gotten from Fender to this company. The guy said, “Look, send it to me, and if you don’t like it, don’t pay me. We got it back, and it was awesome. The thing rang like a banjo, and acoustically, you’d hit the strings and it would go brrrnnggg. It was dramatically different. I’m not even sure if that company is still around.”
So, I don’t know if anyone but me is excited by this revelation. But I’m willing to give the Jimmy Page technique a try. Shoot, if all I have to do is play my guitars often and blast them with my amps to make them sound better, I’m in! Please subscribe to my blog or visit us at http://www.tonesmiths.com if you enjoyed reading this.
We’ve received many inquiries about the stash of 20 year old swamp ash mentioned in this article. Please direct your inquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.