Some things improve with age, like wine, certain liquors, and cheeses.
But do guitars sound better with age? The answer is yes, but with a few caveats. This post will explore the science behind this magical process. We’ll focus on acoustic guitars only, and get some insights from David Mathis, owner/luthier at Gallagher Guitars.
Why acoustic guitars sound better with age
Wood and water
Wood cells are shaped like tubes. During wet and humid seasons, they absorb moisture. In dryer weather, they expel water. The effect moisture has on your instrument is why it expands and contracts during different times of the year. It’s also why owners of top-notch acoustic guitars place a humidifier in their case.
Over long periods, these tube-like cells collapse, limiting the effect moisture has on the wood. The guitar reaches equilibrium, and the wood is lighter yet stronger, thus creating rich tones and long sustain.
Whether or not your current acoustic guitar will age well, David says it depends on the wood used.
“We place a lot of emphasis on the selection of the type and grade of tonewood. For example, when it is a custom order, we strive to understand the desires of the player, such as their style of playing. Bluegrass players want a different sound than a fingerstyle player might. That can influence decisions regarding the woods for the back and sides, as mahogany usually provides a brighter, more responsive sound than rosewoods, which can have a more bassy, mellow tone.”
The soundboard is key
The soundboard, or top of the guitar, is key to how it will vibrate (resonate) and project sound. In general, the most desirable properties of top tonewoods are lightness and tensile strength. These properties allow the guitar tops to resonate, project (volume), and provide long sustain.
David explains: “The top wood is important depending upon the desired outcome. Sitka spruce is often combined with mahogany or rosewood as it adds that bright sound that can provide a responsive attack that flatpickers desire. However, Engelmann spruce or Lutz can mellow the sound, as desired by fingerstyle players.”
Can you speed up the guitar aging process?
While people my age try to counter the aging process, Yamaha has invested in technology to accelerate aging in acoustic instruments. A.R.E., or Acoustic Resonance Enhancement, is Yamaha’s technology that precisely controls the wood’s temperature, humidity, and atmospheric pressure.
According to Yamaha, “The molecular properties of the wood can be manipulated into a more acoustically ideal condition, similar to the molecular characteristics of woods in instruments that have been played for years.”
Based on reviews, A.R.E works and makes Yamaha an excellent guitar for beginners.
Some luthiers buy thermally aged wood—also called torrefied, carmelized, or baked—because they believe it helps achieve better tone. If you want more information on this process, check out this article on thermally aged wood.
Gallagher Guitars has a different approach.
“We choose not to purchase wood that has been aged,” David says. “Rather, we condition our wood in the normal process of ensuring the moisture level is reduced below 10 per cent before we begin working with it. We condition it in our wood room where the humidity is kept in the low 30s and the temperature around 80 degrees. We are pleased with our results but will use torrefied wood if requested for a custom build.”
More than science
Scientific factors like humidity and wood materials aren’t the only things that make older guitars often sound better than modern models. There can be other reasons, too.
- Handmade and not mass-produced. Vintage guitars are typically handmade, and although this isn’t a guarantee they will sound and play better, it does mean that they benefit from craftsmanship. The luthier focused on the details, like the stiffness of the wood, something that a mass-produced guitar cannot promise.
- Solid wood and not laminated. Most low to mid-level guitars have laminated wood, while handmade and vintage are solid wood.
- Expensive guitars are taken care of over time. Like anything expensive, one tends to take better care of it over time. The same is true of vintage guitars. Cheaper guitars have been left to the fate of time and ended up unplayable or as tinder for a Christmas fire.
Will you sound better on an aged guitar?
Now before you run off and try to age your guitar by tossing it into the oven, let’s look at some limitations to what we’ve discussed so far.
You can’t change bad to good
Bad or cheap wood cannot be aged or torrefied or magically transformed with Yamaha’s A.R.E into a more expensive, better-sounding wood.
“We place a lot of emphasis upon the selection of the type and grade of tonewood,” David says. “Thus, it has been important to cultivate relationships with our suppliers so that we can count on a consistent source for quality tonewood.”
Tone is in the fingers
A master guitarist like Tony Rice could make a cheap guitar sound like a vintage Martin, while in the hands of a novice, the cheap guitar sounds like, well, a cheap guitar.
I learned this first-hand in college from my bass professor. I was preparing for my senior recital on my school-owned plywood bass and was having an “off day” during a lesson. I eyeballed his 1800 handmade German bass standing in the corner and thought, “I’d sound so much better on that!” As if reading my mind, my professor played my cheap Kay, and the instrument came alive! Lesson learned.
Yes, a vintage guitar will shine above its more affordable cousins, but owning a vintage Martin will not make you a master guitarist, nor will it be the end-all to improving your tone, sound, and performing abilities.
A guitar needs to be played
A guitar needs to be played regularly and often for it to age well. Some guitarists call this “breaking in” a guitar. The vibration from playing your guitar breaks down the sap in the wood. Over time, that gives the guitar better tone and sustain. So if you were thinking of locking your new Gibson acoustic in a time-capsule for 20 years to get “that vintage sound,” you’d better find another plan!
Grow old with your guitar
Hopefully, you are now better equipped to answer the age-old question: Do guitars sound better with age? I also hope you learned what you need to do as a guitarist to improve your sound with your current guitar, or have set a goal to one day upgrade to a solid wood guitar.
David Mathis sums it up best: “We are committed to attention to detail with every aspect of guitar building. We work with the wood in a way that honors that it will be presenting something to us that we can’t fully control. In fact, it is always a gift that we receive when we hear the first resonating sounds of each guitar when we strum it for the first time. I’m fortunate to be part of the great legacy of handcrafting guitars.”
If you’re lucky enough to get your hands on a quality handcrafted guitar, play it. Grow old with it. By the time it has aged enough to achieve that “vintage sound,” you’ll be skilled enough to pull that beautiful tone.