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Basswood versus Alder

Yup. I got around to it.

I threatened in the last post to supply some audio files which would help to illustrate the process of building the James Bisset 50th Anniversary Strat. And hey Ma! I done it!

I’ve also been working on WURK until around 3am every day this week, so tonight, in an attempt to blast it out of my system before having a cool weekend with my family, I appear to have drunk half a bottle of whisky. My delighted apologies if this post seems garbled.

To re-iterate: I had a Japanese ‘Hank Marvin’ Squier Strat which I loved. It didn’t sound fantastic, but it felt just right. So I decided to add the elusive quality to ‘Hank’ that would turn him from yet-another-guitar into what I remember one writer calling the sound of ‘silk and barbed wire’. Rather like whisky, don’t you think?

Most guitarists tend to upgrade their guitars to improve the sound by replacing the pickups, but the pickups can only reproduce what’s there already (and anyway, I’d already upgraded my pickups) and it seemed obvious to me that the guitar body wood had a significant impact on the sound. If I replaced the Basswood body on Hank with a slab of foam it would certainly sound different. What would happen if I replaced it with Alder, the traditional Strat body wood?

I hunted around for research on what are known as ‘tonewoods’ and after swithering over Ash and Swamp Ash – both woods that Leo Fender used, I plumped for Alder (I found tonosity.com very helpful – although the link doesn’t seem to be working now).

When my new guitar body arrived, I was desperate to convince myself that the cost would make a significant difference, so I recorded Hank, then stripped it down and screwed and bolted all the bits onto the new body. Then I recorded again so I could compare the two.

For the record:

  • the neck pocket on the new body was slightly deeper, which resulted in the action being so low that the strings buzzed nervously every time I picked up a plectrum. I wasn’t about to spend hours fiddling about to get the settings just right before stripping it all apart again to paint and rebuild, so I left it like that.
  • I D.I.ed the guitar straight into the computer. How can you compare guitar sounds if you introduce a valve amp, volume settings, mikes etc. into the equation?
  • I use relatively heavy strings – 11-49 D’Addario when I can get them.

Anyway, have a listen. see what difference a slab of wood makes even in the 21st century;

 

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01:30

Comments

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  1. Steve says:

    Very interesting.
    Nice demo of the two.

    The Alder seems much clearer than the Basswood. I am currently debateing between Ash or Alder body for Stratocaster.

    Thanks,
    Steve

  2. Jim says:

    As did I. Watch out on the Ash thing though, there are two different types. Northern Ash, which I think was the wood used on the early Telecasters and Swamp Ash, which is more common nowadays.

    According to tonosity.com, Swamp Ash can be unpredictable, simply because its tone depends on where in the swamp the tree grew!

    Northern Ash tends to be heavier and denser, and delivers a tone with less middle and more highs and lows.

    Wish I’d saved those pages from tonosity.com before it disappeared. :(

  3. Steve says:

    Thanks Jim,

    Very interesting stuff that tonosity
    link.

    I am still tossed between Alder and Ash. As mentioned, it is realy best to try the instruments but this is not an option for me. I currently have a Mexican 70′s strat with a Olympic White ash body. Its pretty nice, not that heavy eather. I am thinking of upgrading to the now available USA model of this but hesitate because this color is only available in Alder wood. This is not a guitar commonly on the shelf, you have to order it.

    You have now opened my eyes more to the Alder wood though. I favor classic rock music. I might even like the Alder better. I don’t know.

    Thanks again,
    Steve

  4. Mike Webster says:

    James,

    I have a Japnese Marvin strat basswood body fitted with Kinman Marvin pickups. I just bought a new Japanese strat in alder and fitted the same pickups.

    The difference in sound is incredible. The alder is much brighter with much clearer ‘bell’ tone on the treble strings.

    I am being tempted to fit a swamp ash body to my new guitar but maybe I should leave well alone!

    Great we site

    Thanks

    Mike

  5. R. Lemmers says:

    Just a matter of taste, both are tonewoods. I like the warmth of the basswood more, especially with distortion at the end of the recording.

  6. Salv says:

    This is very interesting.
    I wasnt aware of how much difference there would be tone wise between basswood and alder and this comparison has been really helpfull.

    i have to agree with lemmers, the alder just sounds a bit to bright for my taste but thats just me.

  7. Christ says:

    Thankyou James. You have helped clear something up. ‘Nothing is clear even when it is’ (I’m not an MP). I would really like to hear the samples from both guitars with very finely set up strings. The Basswood has far more midrange. I am wondering if the middle was lost on the Alder because the strings are too near the pickups. The cheaper far eastern guitar bodies are often made of Basswood. This has given me a somewhat ‘snotty’ attitude towards it as a tonewood. Apparently quite wrongly. I have just ordered an Alder body from Warmoth. Maybe it should have been basswood.

    Long may you shine.

  8. Jorn says:

    I am sorry to say this but i am leaning towards basswood !
    It all reminds me about 10 yrs ago, i bought an expensive re issue 57 strat pickups. And replaced it on my 79 Stratocaster. I got weaker output more treble and less upper bass. Was it better ? No, just different. Switch backed after 6 mnd.
    I have been playing bass for 5 yrs now, and have 7 basses.
    The one i am using most is a 2000 Japanese fender jazz bass with basswood.
    Evey one is telling me that i should use my USA Alder based jazz.

  9. This was of great help. I am in the process of building a strat to my liking. I have a basswood body and will be interested to hear the finished product with the TBX and midboost kit installed.
    Live On
    James

  10. ty millsaps says:

    Go to site “Stratocaster a True Thoroughbred of Electric Guitars”.Read for yourself:The company bigs came down with a mandate in the mid/late ’50′s to use alder wood(ash if required for see thru only).Tavares and everybody knew ash sounded better and stated so but had to go by the mandate(probably Randall as He ruined Fender).I have a heavy MIJ ’52 reissue ash(heavy)telecaster and it sounds wonderful(punchy like a Les Paul).I am currently building 2 custom strats with swamp ash bodies and they ring like a mo acoustically,so I know they’ll be good electrically.Also 2 of the biggest quartersawn maple necks available.A V and a U(ungodly huge).I have never owned an alder body strat that sounded worth a s..t,including my for real ’59 strat.I’ll never use alder again(Fender wouldn’t have either except for the mandate).Please don’t comment if you don’t have a decent tube amp or muck up your tone with a lot of effects.A Mexi strat is fine for you.The pine bodied Squires are better than the Mexi ones for real players!

    • ty millsaps says:

      if’n the basswood body is recorded on the left it sounds much better than the alder body on the recording.Unless my outputs are reversed.The basswood is deeper,stronger,meatier(fatter)overtones are better to my old ears.How a strat is wired has as much to do with the tone as the wood or pups.The main deal is to have the middle pup wide open(no tone control).1 volume control and tone control on bridge and neck pup(w/no load pots).This gets the only “true” position 2 and 4 tones.If this is not done 2 and 4 sound absolutely horrible.I don’t care what kind of wood,pups,relicing,finish whatever.Tone is what it’s about not how much you spend on a git.Build your own strat and have the parts “you” like on it.The closest thing to a build your own with the best parts you can afford is a Custom Shop relic around $3500.00.Pay any less than that for a Fender and you get inferior parts.Period!

  11. bernardint says:

    First, my choice goes to the basswood.

    2 – This would make sense if it were the same pickups fitted on both guitars as we know that every sample has its own character.

    So if you took one set of pickups plus electronics and used it throughout on both guitars, one after the other, this will give the real idea.

    That said, you did a very good job on this.

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