Guitars, both acoustic and electric, are not merely instruments of music. They’re intricate objects made from a combination of materials that interact in complex ways to produce sound. Over the years, one pervasive belief among guitar enthusiasts is that these instruments “open up” or improve in tonal quality as they age. But is there empirical evidence to back up this claim, or is it just another myth?
What Does “Opening Up” Mean?
Before diving into the meat of the topic, let’s define what “opening up” actually means in the context of guitars. Simply put, when enthusiasts refer to a guitar “opening up,” they’re talking about an improvement in the guitar’s resonance, tonal depth, and overall sound clarity. The theory is that as a guitar ages and gets played more frequently, its tonal qualities enhance, making it sound richer and fuller.
The Science Behind the Myth
There’s a fascinating relationship between wood and sound. When discussing the age of guitars, we’re predominantly talking about wooden acoustic guitars, as electric guitars rely to a greater extent on electronics for their tonal characteristics.
Wood and Its Cellular Structure
Every piece of wood has a unique cellular structure. Over time, as wood is exposed to air, its cells undergo subtle changes. In the case of guitars, the vibration from strings when played also affects the cellular makeup of the wood. It’s believed that these repeated vibrations from playing, along with natural aging, lead to a breakdown in the wood’s stiffer cells, allowing the more resonant cells to take prominence.
The Role of Adhesives
Beyond just the wood, the glues and adhesives used in guitar construction can also change over time. As these materials age and harden, they can influence how sound waves travel through the guitar, potentially enhancing its resonance and tonal characteristics.
Example: Vintage Instruments
One of the most compelling pieces of evidence for the “opening up” theory comes from the world of vintage guitars. Instruments from decades ago, such as pre-war Martins or vintage Gibsons, often command hefty price tags, not only because of their historical value but also due to their tonal qualities. Many musicians and collectors swear by the superior tone of these older instruments compared to their modern counterparts.
Other Factors at Play
The action and setup of a guitar, which often change with age and use, can significantly influence how it sounds. As guitars age, their necks can slightly warp or their bridges may settle, which can change the string height and tension. This can influence both the playability and the tonal characteristics of the instrument.
Maintenance and Care
How a guitar is maintained and stored throughout its life plays a significant role in its aging process. Guitars kept in extremely dry or humid conditions, or those that undergo significant temperature fluctuations, might not age as gracefully as those kept in optimal conditions. Regular maintenance, like cleaning and proper storage, can also contribute to how well a guitar ages and potentially “opens up.”
The Player’s Perception
It’s also worth noting that the bond between a musician and their instrument can influence perceptions of sound. As a player spends more time with their guitar, they become more attuned to its nuances, which might lead them to perceive improvements in tone over time, even if the changes are minimal or non-existent.
While there is some scientific basis for the belief that guitars can “open up” over time, the extent and significance of this phenomenon can vary greatly. Factors like the type of wood, construction methods, maintenance, and the individual player’s perceptions all come into play.
However, if we were to make a definitive statement: yes, guitars do have the potential to “open up” with age. The consistent vibrations from playing, coupled with the natural aging process of wood and other materials, can lead to subtle changes in tonal quality.
But it’s essential to approach this topic with a grain of caution. Not every aged guitar will necessarily sound better than a newer one. And while vintage instruments might offer a unique tonal palette that many find appealing, they are just one piece of the vast and varied world of guitar sounds.
In the end, whether you’re playing a brand-new guitar off the shelf or a decades-old vintage piece, the most important factor is the connection between the musician and the instrument. The journey of discovering how an individual guitar changes and grows over time is a personal and rewarding experience that every player can cherish.