Over the years it has become an area of intense debate among guitarists: does the wooden body of an electric guitar affect the sound it makes?
As seen in this particular conversation, some feel that an expensive body is more about contributing to guitar art than providing a meaningful alteration of the sound, while others think it does make a difference, ranging from the subtle to not-so-subtle. On one Reddit thread the subject was dismissed as "tonewood B.S.".
Naysayers point to the physics of the electric guitar which (on a standard instrument) works by the movement of the strings through a magnetic field created by the pickups. Just like in the Shure's M44-7 record needle (seen in our feature Needle Habit) this magnetic signal is then transferred into an electrical one and amplified.
Since the strings do not touch the wood, the critics ask, how can it possibly make any difference?
In our multimedia feature Deep Overwater, expert luthier Chris May says the choice of wood is extremely important: "The big thing that a lot of people get wrong with electric instruments is they think it’s down to the pickups and the electronics. It’s not.
"The fundamental tone comes from the instrument. It’s not just the wood, it’s the metal in the machine heads, it’s the bridge, it’s every part of that instrument. A brass bridge as opposed to an aluminium bridge - both are good, but one will weigh more than the other and will subtly affect the sound."
Dr Andrew Elliott, research fellow at the University of Salford’s (UK) Acoustics Research Centre, says that science is not wholly conclusive on the question. “One issue is that two measured sounds can appear to be almost identical when presented graphically, but differences may still be perceptible," he says.
"Perception is individual and difficult to measure."
It is hard to believe that someone such as May, who has dedicated his life to making guitars for the best in the business, would simply invent the idea, especially when the quality of the guitars are consistently and independently verified by sound engineers, contemporaries and punters.
Also it is worth pointing out that May has not picked up the notion from some grandiose art school; he is, like many luthiers, largely self-taught. For him it was a 30-year process of painstaking trial and error which has led him to an intimate understanding of how each slight change to the build affects the sound.
Most people listen to music but they haven't had that sort of mental training. In other words a luthier's ear has become more finely attuned than the average person to the idiosyncrasies of the sound and can pick up these subtle differences.
There is another element in play here also - haptic feedback or 'feel'. Whether or not the wood contributes to the sound, it will undeniably have a particular 'feel' in the hands of the musician - a combination of weight, grain in the wood, balance and density. The happier a musician feels about this, the better he will play - so indirectly, at least, it does affect the sound.
But it is not the same to every musician. Your favourite guitar might be a battered old instrument you’ve had forever or it could be a custom bass built especially for you. May says: “I mean Mo, an old session friend of ours who’s been doing it since the 60s and has played with everybody, he has this old Fender Jazz bass with this finger-board that’s been taken off a cello which someone put on for him and he said: “That’s my sound.”
"It’s just him and he’s part of that instrument.”
The argument over whether the wood makes a difference to the sound will no doubt run on and on, partly because there are so many variables involved - the skill of the player, the quality of the amplifier and strings, the room you are listening in, and even the condition of your ears.
However, what musicians do all agree on is the almost extra-sensory perception apparent when a player is choosing his guitar. As all will attest, when you pick up the right one, without being able to pinpoint exactly why, you just know.