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Acoustic Guitar Musings

Photo Credit - Brent Ninaber (Unsplash.com)

Recently I was invited to review some classical guitar string sets for Strings Direct. A box arrived containing several sets and I went about trying each of them out on a pair of guitars and then experimenting with different combinations of strings from across the sets. 

However, when considering the tones produced using the various sets I thought that it would be worth opening a much bigger can of worms and sharing some thoughts on how we perceive sound, especially the tone of our acoustic guitars, and the very subjective nature of tone. The matter of how we make a judgement about the ideal tone that we are looking for, the likelihood of us ever achieving it and the compromises to be made between the sound that we project to audiences, or recording mics, and that which we ourselves hear when we play our guitars. All of these have a bearing on the guitars that we choose to play and the strings that we fit them with.

In the main I shall be mentioning classical guitars but the bulk of what I am going to say applies equally to steel strung acoustics too. 

Let’s start off by considering the player’s perception of sound. The generally accepted frequency range of human hearing is 20Hz at the low end and 20KHz at the top end. However, the fact is that everybody’s ears hear things slightly differently so there are no absolutes in terms of perception. Everybody’s ears have their unique frequency response curves, just like microphones, and hear some frequencies more readily than others . The curve changes with age and people generally experience that their ability to hear higher frequencies decreases with age. So to begin with we are all likely to hear things a little differently to one another. This can be a bit of a surprise, but we are quite used to the idea that people can be short or long sighted, or even have degrees of colour blindness and so what they see (without the correction of lenses) might not be what a person with 20-20 vision perceives. The same is true of hearing. So what we perceive when we hear a sound is highly subjective and personal. 

In terms of the tone of a guitar, if it sounds good to you then it is good. It doesn’t matter what anybody else thinks. The variety of designs, materials used and quality of construction give rise to a vast range of guitars with differing tonal characteristics. The strings that we use and the guitar combine to make a system and we need to find strings that suit the characteristics of our guitar and bring out the best of its potential to produce a tone that pleases us. Occasionally we might want to try to find strings that compensate for something in the character of the guitar’s inherent tone that displeases us, but if we have a good, balanced sounding guitar then we would be looking at strings that don’t detract from that tone.

It’s this subject of ‘tone’ that sets pulses racing and often prompts outpourings of cork-sniffing snobbery about the rarefied nuances that people claim to be able to hear as they play their guitars.

Photo Credit - Chris Hardy (Unsplash.com)

Let’s consider what drives expectations and perceptions of great tone. For many it may be a superb digital recording of a famous classical guitarist recorded expertly in a studio equipped with the finest microphones and preamps. This marvellous tone might be what inspires them and sets the benchmark for the tone that they would like to have when they play.

But these recordings are typically the result of multiple microphones, each with its own signature frequency response curve (like an ear) positioned precisely at several key points in front of the guitar body along with mics to capture the natural ambience of the live room, the sound reflecting off of surfaces and reverberating around in the room. These numerous mics help capture the sound of the performance and the results are carefully balanced by the recording engineer to produce the most pleasing sound possible which shows the player off to his or her best. The final mix that is presented to the public does not correspond to what anybody might have heard in the room from any one vantage point during the performance. It is, if you will, a hyper real version of what happened in the room and presents an exaggerated version of the tone of the guitar. If this is the sound that inspires somebody then it has raised an unrealistic expectation from the start.

Photo Credit - E Moran (Unsplash.com)

The key thing to recognise is that regardless of the recording sounding slightly different to what anybody positioned in front of the guitar would have heard, it will sound very different to what the guitarist heard whilst performing.

Consider this, if you were going to buy a pair of Hi-Fi or studio monitor speakers, then you wouldn’t select some audio test material, go to a demonstration room and then ask if you could sit behind the loudspeakers so that you could analyse and assess how they sound. This may sound crazy, but it’s precisely what we all do when we try out an acoustic guitar and come to an opinion about its tone. The soundboard and body of the guitar is designed, like a loudspeaker, to project the sound that it generates in a particular direction and not only is the guitarist sat behind the guitar’s body but they are hunched over it, damping the vibrations in the back of the body.

The simple truth is that the sound perceived by a listener sat in front of an acoustic guitar is rather different to that experienced by the guitarist who is playing it.

If you are not convinced then try this little experiment;

Sit on a chair and hold your acoustic guitar on your lap with the soundhole facing you and the neck vertically upright. Strum the strings and listen to how it sounds. Then strum them and while they are ringing turn the guitar through 180 degrees so that the soundhole is facing away from you and hear how the sound changes. Next do the reverse and starting with the soundhole facing away from you strum the strings and turn the guitar so that the soundhole is facing you. The tone will immediately sound clearer, brighter and louder – and this is without you damping the back of the guitar with your body so the difference is less than it would actually be in the playing position.

Photo Credit - Chris Hardy (Unsplash.com)

Next try playing a classical guitar resting it on your right leg (presuming that you are right handed) and note how it sounds. Then put it on your left leg and raise your foot on a foot rest in to the traditional position for a classical guitarist. The tone will typically sound better due to the change in position and the soundhole now being a little higher.

So if you start with the hyper-real tone of a great classical recording as your benchmark for an aspirational classical guitar tone then going from that to hearing what you hear when sat behind your guitar in the playing position is going to create quite a gulf. Even if you were handed the same guitar that was used on the recording and played the same piece to the same standard as on the recording it would still sound quite different when heard from the player’s position.

The upshot is that, by design, a classical (or any acoustic) guitar is intended to sound better to the audience in front of it than it does to the player sat behind it. You are never going to hear the best tone that your guitar can produce whilst you are playing it. Moreover, the better it sounds to you the worse it will probably sound to your audience and vice versa.

Photo Credit - Miguel Luis (Unsplash.com)

‘So what’ you might say? What matters is what you intend to do with the guitar. Do you intend to play to an audience and need to project a great acoustic sound to it?  Do you want to record a great tone via microphones, or are you playing at home for your own entertainment and pleasure and what matters most is how the guitar sounds to you, despite you being in a poor place to hear its true tone? Chances are the answer might be playing at home but wanting the option to sound good on recordings and occasionally playing in public. 

So before thinking about finessing your tone by selecting different brands of strings, how do you sensibly choose an acoustic guitar in the first place? It’s worth finding a shop where you can sit and play a variety of guitars. However, as I hope that I’ve shown, you know that you won’t be hearing the best tone that the guitar is designed to generate whilst you are playing it. Have you ever said, or heard somebody say, that their guitar sounds a bit lifeless when they play it but sounds great when their teacher or friend plays it? It’s got nothing to do with the skill of the player and everything to do with being in front of or behind your guitar.

The best idea is to take a friend who plays guitar along to the shop with you and after you’ve found a couple of guitars that sound pleasing to you when you play them then ask your friend to play them in turn and sit a few feet away in front to get a good idea of how they are likely to sound to an audience or a microphone. It helps you to get a better overall idea of what you can expect from a guitar and helps to make a more informed choice.

Another thing that you can do is to try the guitar whilst sat in front of and close to a hard reflective surface like wall (painted or tiled are the best) so that when you play you get some of the sound that the guitar is projecting bouncing straight back at you.  This gives you more of a clue as to how it might sound to an audience and how that sound is compromised when hearing it from the playing position by moving further away from the wall.

Photo Credit - Behzad Soleimanian (Unsplash.com)

As you can see, this judgement call is all about striking a compromise between how the guitar sounds to you and how it might sound to an audience. If you decide that what matters most is how it sounds to you then you might want to consider trying shallow bodied guitars or ones with cutaways to try to reduce the amount of low frequency sound that you hear when you play. You might even consider trying a flamenco guitar that is designed to sound crisper and brighter with more attack than a traditional classical guitar as that may give you some added brightness that is lacking in regular classicals. However, if you make the sound that you are hearing less bassy and brighter then it is probably going to sound too bright and thin to an audience. But if you aren’t going to be playing to an audience then ‘so what’.

It’s worth noting that boutique luthiers have been experimenting with side ports – literally holes made in the side of the guitar near the soundhole facing up towards the player – for years. The idea being to redirect some of the guitar’s natural tone upwards to the player, rather like a stage monitor. The idea has yet to catch on with mainstream manufacturers and it's worth noting that putting a hole in the side of a guitar is also going to compromise what is projected forward out of its soundhole. It’s just another compromise that they are factoring in.

We hope you enjoyed this blog entry. Huge thanks to our good friend Chas Johnson for his wisdom and time in putting this blog post together.

See you next time!

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