What's the Big Deal About Laminated Guitar Woods?

May 12, 2016
Most of these Guitar Player “What’s The Big Deal…” pieces approach their subject from a prosecution-style, cross-examination of a presumed positive factor—one we’re putting up on the stand for a good grilling. What’s so great about vintage pickups? Alnico speakers? Brazilian-rosewood fretboards? The end of the exercise being, “Are they really all that special?”

This one comes at it more like the defense attorney supporting a wrongly-accused component that has come to be seen as a presumed negative. Or, in other words, “What’s the big deal against laminated woods?” The answer requires some unraveling of what we mean by laminated, and where it is used.

In a world where solid tonewoods are celebrated, anything laminated is usually seen as cheap and inferior. This might very well be the case with acoustic flat-top guitars or carved-top acoustic archtops, where thin fillets of solid wood enable the sweetest, most lively resonance from the instrument. In the world of semi-acoustic electrics, however, the situation is often reversed. With other design goals in mind, solid tonewoods might actually impede a performance, rather than enhance it.

What does solid wood do for you when you want to dampen down overtones created by too-lively resonances from the guitar’s soundboard in order to combat feedback, tighten up the guitar’s fundamentals, put more emphasis on snap and attack, or focus on the electric properties of the guitar, rather than the acoustic?

At the same time, what does solid wood do for you when you’re trying to manufacture a semi-acoustic electric guitar that benefits little from the added cost and labor of solid wood, and works against your goal of producing an instrument that many thousands of players can easily afford?

In all such cases, a well-conceived design using laminated woods often offers the rigidity and neutral platform to best get the job done, along with a savings in manufacturing costs that benefits all parties.

Gibson was the most prominent pioneer in quality acoustic- and semi-acoustic-electric guitars using laminated woods. When the company designed the ES-175 in 1949 and the ES-335 in 1958, both became overnight classics, and the laminated body woods enhanced these guitars’ snap, clarity, and definition, and helped to combat unwanted feedback.

“The Electric Spanish guitar’s airy vocal ‘cluck’ seems to only be obtainable through laminated builds,” says high-end builder Ron Thorn of Thorn Custom Guitars. “In addition, their reluctance to reach the ‘non-musical’ undesirable feedback point is usually a welcome feature. Stability-wise, cross-grained ply glue-ups formed into an arch yield a very strong result. There’s a reason they board up windows with it during hurricanes.”

Examining laminates from a different part of the build, we find that the thinner “round lam” rosewood fretboards used by Fender from the end of 1962 onward are also criticized in some circles, with the thicker “slab board” fretboards assumed to be superior. But Master Builder Chris Fleming of the Fender Custom Shop says, “I’ve made a lot of slab-board rosewood fretboards and what we call ‘round lams’—the thinner laminated board—and I prefer round lams. Somebody asked me why Leo decided to do round lams, and, although I can’t know for sure, I think it was because he liked the idea of maple being more of a majority of the wood, and he liked the idea that it was a kind of custom way to do it—it was proprietary. I’d also like to think that he liked the sound of it.”

Whatever your feelings about laminated woods, it makes sense to examine the builder’s intentions, and the ultimate results, before passing judgment on a guitar according to its inclusion of this engineered form of tonewood.
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