While electric guitars and basses are first and foremost musical tools, for many players looks run a close second to tone. For years guitar builders have used various types of wood tops to enhance the looks — and sometimes tone — of solid and semi-hollow electric guitars. Flamed and quilted maple tops have been a perennial option from many manufacturers including G&L, Gibson, PRS, Fender, Godin and others. But one of the more interesting materials of late has been spalted woods. These materials are not part of the regular G&L price book, but they show up depending on availability.
Spalting is caused by fungus that attacks both live and dead trees causing unique coloration and figuring of the wood. It can lead to weight and strength loss, and also reduced density. So while you would not want to build a whole guitar out of a spalted wood, when stained and finished they are unique and eye-catching. Some guitar builders will also use dyes injected into the wood grain to accentuate the look even further.
Tone impact? – Maple tops have been used for years, and in many cases not only look good but have a beneficial impact on tone. This is especially true on set-neck, shorter scale guitars like a Gibson Les Paul, which tend to have a darker tone, and less pronounced attack and harmonics. The dense maple top brightens up the tone and is more reflective. It’s a good complement to warmer more mid-focused sound of mahogany, humbuckers, etc.
But maple as a top is not a particularly complex or rich sounding material. While this works well to “liven up” a Les Paul, the effect is different on a bolt-on, longer scale guitar with single coil pickups. Maple combined with the snappy, more focused tones of a single coil can sound a little dry and one-dimensional. We’ve had maple tops on various G&L’s, and our impression is that they have very clear emphasis on the fundamental note, but not a lot of complexity. We are not totally down on maple, but it benefits from fuller sounding pickups and more complex sounding woods for the back materials: Think humbuckers, most MFD’s (maybe not the Z-coil) and swamp ash.
The spalted woods tend to be different, and our own hypothesis is that the effect of the spalting makes them less dense and softer, even when the material is maple. We’ve found spalted top guitars to be every bit as complex and musical as a good swamp ash bodied guitar. The top may lend even more warmth and richness, but with no two guitars ever being exactly alike, we don’t want to go overboard on analysis. Suffice to say on something like a G&L or other single coil guitar, we very much like the sound of a spalted top, and feel it complements the tone.
Other Materials? – While not a spalted wood, we find Black Limba works nice on G&L-style guitars too. Limba is mahogany-like in tone — though actually not part of the mahogany species — and a Limba cap adds some warmth and mid-range emphasis to a single coil, bolt-on guitar. And it looks pretty. Something we would not do? Maple and Empress: That’s bright/focused on top of bright/focused. It might work on a bass (we like Empress for a bass) but would be as dry and crisp as James Bond’s Martini.
Choosing the cosmetics of your guitar is a fun part of the buying process. But choosing just on looks can have unintended consequences. Keeping in mind what works well together, it’s completely possible to combine both good looks and good tone.