This section may be a bit of a fool's errand - what I would like to do is talk a bit about the tone of guitars, the terms we use to describe that tone, and, hopefully, help define what makes for a good sounding guitar. I am not sure it can be done. There are several problems.
The main obstacle to this task is that we are trying to use words to describe tone, and I do not believe that this works well. The sound which a given word conjures up in my head may be entirely different from the sound in your head. It may help to define some of the terms in the hope that we will be speaking (listening??) from the same page. I will try to do this.
The other problem is one which I refer to as racial memory - although this is a bit grandiose. Most of us who use (or build) steel string flattop guitars have been listening to Martin Guitars (or at least guitars with the Martin X brace top) for all of our lives and this has defined the sound we expect such guitars to have. Guitars which deviate too much from this "norm" are likely to be seen as not sounding good. Although I make guitars with a martin Style X brace, I think it is important to be open to change and different sounds.
I still think the effort is worth while. If a prospective guitar buyer has thought about tone and some of the elements of "good tone" it will help them to evaluate a guitar when they hear it. Each individual may value the various elements of tone differently and may hear them differently, but hopefully the following will provide a framework for evaluation. In the end it is still the player's ear that is the final test. Nothing will substitute for playing a lot of guitars in every price range so that a solid basis for comparison and evaluation is established.
Volume: Also called loudness, this is the most obvious characteristic of a guitar and, in my opinion, is overrated. We talk about guitars that are "cannons" but volume without a quality tone is an empty achievement.
Sustain: The ability of the guitar to hold a note for some time after the string is struck. This is generally a valuable characteristic - it adds to the richness of the overall sound. However, if there is too much sustain the guitar can sound muddy - the "old" notes don't get out of the way of the "new' notes.
Clarity: This concept overlaps some of the other terms I describe - but it is generally the sense that the guitar is not "muddy" in tone - that all of the notes are clear and easily distinguishable. More important to a fingerpicker or other player who plays single notes than it is to someone who merely strums. Even there it is a valuable characteristic.
Dynamic Range: This is the ability to play at both soft and loud volumes and sound good either way. This will also be of greater importance to some playing styles than to others.
Separation: The ability of individual notes to stand out. The listener (or player) should hear not only a chord but the individual notes in that chord.
Color: This is the relative balance between the fundamental note of the string and the overtones of that note. The more overtones the more "complex" the tone, but also the danger of muddiness increases. Each player will prefer a unique balance of these characteristics. Neither is good or bad - just an element of the overall tone of the instrument.
Intonation: Much has been written about intonation (and I hope to put some information about this on my site one of these days.). Suffice it to say, it is important to all players, and particularly to players with a "sensitive ear".
Articulation: This concept may be repetitious or a combination of others - but to my mind it is the overall clarity of the guitar - the ability to distinguish each note, for the guitar to give a crisp defined note when called for.
Projection: Does the sound of the guitar reach out into the room. This is often difficult for the player to discern, but can be important for some players. In these days when many players use pickups this may be less important.
I do not suggest that this is a complete listing of the different ways of analyzing the sound of a guitar - but it is a good start. The primary thing to keep in mind is that there is no perfect or ideal balance of these concepts. Each player will appreciate a different combination of "ingredients." This is one of the reasons why I generally tell prospective customers to try lots of different guitars by different makers. They are all unique, as are the players.
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