What Is Tone Tapping... Do You Tap Your Wood?

The more of these blogs I write the more I learn to edit myself. I don’t want to sit down to the computer and start bitching, though most of these things start out that way. Upon some reflection I realized I was ripping off the King of guitar ranting… the late Ed Roman. He was a master at it and I realized I should just do my own thing. I started this blog with much more venom, then decided what do I care what people think, or do and toned down my rhetoric. I know that anytime you put yourself out there you can catch flack for what you write. Fortunately, not many people read these “Odd Angry Shots”. Okay, on with the show. For those of you who want to save some time I’ll tell you right now that I do not tap on woods, listen to my lumber or ascribe magic properties to certain building materials before using them and have no plans to start. I tend to think that the guitar should add up to be more than the sum of its parts rather than the other way around, as is popular today. If you are into tone tapping logs than you will know what, or maybe who I’m talking about. I’m sure you have seen people holding boards up to their ears and tapping on them. They are usually looking in another direction with their heads cocked like my dogs when he hears something peculiar. have you ever wondered what they are doing? I mean, sure you could guess that they are trying to figure out what woods ring out or which woods sound dull. But what, exactly, are they listening for? Does it even matter? Are these wood whisperers listening for a frequency? If they ever find a log with the right sonic properties, wouldn’t it change as soon as they start making it look more like a guitar? This is a relatively new phenomenon. I think the first time I saw someone doing this it was Paul Reed Smith. Now, Paul has probably forgotten more about making guitars than I will ever know, so there must be something to it. Of course, the guy from Nickelback plays a PRS so, who the hell knows. What I do know is that the fastest way to get a bad reputation on the internet is to disrespect the man. With all do respect to Mr. Smith (a person I hold in high regard)… I certainly don’t think the old school factory guys at Gibson and Fender were sorting through piles of lumber, tapping every piece, carefully sorting it into stacks that would become instruments and others that would become camp fires. Further, and to that end, I don’t think they are doing it now either. Anyway, the idea is that once the wood becomes a guitar it will not interfere with the frequencies of the strings mounted on that guitar. When you see a guitar builder doing this they are looking for properties that will yield the best tones for the guitar they are building. As you already guessed, the hot set up is to know the kind of tones you are after before you go wood shopping. The guys who are really good at this technique (and even those that aren’t) will tell you that they can reliably choose materials ideally suited for musical instrument construction… and who knows… maybe they can. Now, it is important to draw a distinction between tapping on a chunk of 8/4 lumber and, say, voicing a soundboard. When building an acoustic instrument, you walk a fine line between sonic characteristics and durability. Generally speaking, the more robust the instrument is the less responsive it is. In fact, my theory is that for acoustic instruments to sound gigantic they should be right on the verge of imploding. The great guitar builders know how to remove wood from braces in just the right ways to make subtle or gigantic transformations to the openness of the soundboard. There is a big difference between voicing a violin or classical guitar and going to the hardwood store and banging on the lumber. Solid body electric guitars are rugged enough to be used as impact weapons and several have. I build electric guitars and have always said that doing so is more akin to an 8th grade shop project than building an acoustic guitar. That’s because everything matters so much more on an acoustic because, that’s all there is. With amplified guitars the unplugged sound is just the tip of the iceberg. I’m not suggesting that the idea of one piece of wood ringing more than another is poppycock, but you always see people tapping wood while suspending it in midair. Exactly the way you do not play the guitar. Let’s face it the sound you get from dangling a piece of mahogany and rapping it with your knuckles is very different from the same board with 200 lbs. of human meat wrapped around it. Before writing this, I read several (unbelievably boring) articles about voicing soundboards and tapping on woods for electric guitars. It was easy to find every end of the spectrum on this topic. I lost interest as soon as authors started explaining the science behind wood tapping. Hitting wood with a miniature hammer and plotting the frequencies with a computer doesn’t really turn me on but I know a lot of people like to do it. I know this because they often tell me how much smarter they are than me in the comment section of my YouTube videos. During my research for this blog I found some science, some pseudo-science and lots of tradition. Some woods were automatically discarded as unsuitable and others were ranked high based on pedigree and further judged from there. I think that you can get close to solving the mystery by making some generalizations. If you are looking for a good place to start, Warmoth has very easy to understand, all be it general, characteristics of the woods they use. I’d wager this kind of information will get you REALLY close. Additionally, guitar players expect certain woods and I would urge you not to deviate too far from these “accepted” species if you want to sell any of these things. You already know how I roll but who cares what I think? If you enjoy tapping woods and believe that it is a path to building great guitars… rock on. I don’t have a dog in that hunt, so I would be the last person you should listen to about the second kind of cool that it represents. I do know that sometimes tangible things have intangible qualities. For example, I love the old school tools and think they are way cooler than using modern CNC hardware. I realize there is no value-added contribution (first cool) that a pin router gives you but, as far as I’m concerned, it is much sexier. I think the same thing is true for tone tapping your raw materials, if you think it’s cool or artistic or sexy then go for it.

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