Perhaps you already have a particular type of wood in mind for your new guitar. Whether that wood is solid or laminated will make a tremendous difference in the sound that you will hear.
Solid wood is exactly what the words imply. Pieces of solid wood are carved into the necessary shape for a guitar.
A laminate is created by shaving thin strips of wood and gluing them on top of each other. The pieces are arranged so that the grain of one layer runs in the opposite direction of the grain of the next.
So is solid wood or a laminate the right choice for you? Let’s weigh the pros and cons of laminates.
- Low price. Solid wood is not cheap. Laminate is. In fact, when buying a budget guitar, be leery of a solid top. Chances are, the wood was poorly chosen, poorly aged, and poorly handled. For low-end guitars, laminate is usually a more reliable and better-sounding choice for the money.
- Durability. Laminates are built to last. They resist both hard knocks and climatic changes better than solid woods. This makes laminates particularly valuable for children and those who travel.
- Low maintenance. This is closely related to durability. Solid tops must be maintained at an even humidity to prevent warping and cracking. This may require special humidifying and/or dehumidifying equipment. While it is always a good idea to protect any guitar from sudden changes in humidity, laminated wood can usually survive in any climate-controlled building, especially if kept in a hard-shell case.
- Short break-in period. Solid woods develop their hallmark sound with age and use. A laminate guitar is what it is, right from the start.
- Feedback control. An important consideration when playing an acoustic guitar equipped with a pickup. Solid woods tend to have out-of-control feedback problems. Laminates vibrate less, creating a simpler sound with fewer overtones that are likely to cause annoying feedback.
- Variable quality control. Laminate is frequently used on low-end instruments, which in turn are typically built with less attention to quality. In particular, the manufacturer may have used too much or too little glue, creating a dull-sounding guitar in the one case or a laminate that will separate into its constituent sheets in the other. This is not a problem with laminate per se, just a factor to look into when you see “laminate” on a spec sheet. Laminates can be used to build quality instruments. The question is whether or not the manufacturer took the trouble to do so.
- Weight. Because of the quantity of glue involved, a laminate guitar can be heavier than a solid-wood guitar. The extra weight can be fatiguing when playing standing up for any length of time. Fortunately, this situation has improved with the development of new lightweight adhesives. The only way to know for sure if a laminate guitar will be too heavy is to try it out.
- Laminate sound. A solid top on a well-built and well-used guitar has a sweet, resonant, complex sound that cannot be matched. As good as a laminated top can sound, it cannot compete with the upper levels of guitar construction, particularly in the hands of a practiced guitarist who plays with a wide dynamic range. A laminated top will generally have less resonance and sustain. The difference between laminate and solid wood is far less significant when it comes to backs and sides, however.
- Tonal deterioration. Unlike solid woods, which improve in sound quality over time, laminates can actually lose their sound quality with age. This typically takes decades, but the process speeds up in particularly dry or particularly damp climates. If the glue holding the wood together becomes too dry or too moist, the guitar will vibrate differently, producing a muffled sound.
- Low resell value. If you ever upgrade your guitar and sell the original, solid-wood construction will definitely add to the guitar’s value as long as it is otherwise a quality instrument. Laminated guitars consistently resell for lower prices.
There are three scenarios that beg for a laminated guitar:
- An absolute beginner (especially a child) looking for his first instrument.
- A guitarist who frequently travels and likes to play guitar casually on the road, particularly outdoors.
- A guitarist who wants an acoustic guitar with a pickup.
Beginners should not hesitate to purchase a laminated guitar for their first guitar despite the drawbacks. Provided that they purchase a quality instrument from a reputable source, technique is far more likely to be the major limiting factor at first than wood when it comes to tone. Once the guitarist gains some experience and wants to take his playing to the next level, then it will be time enough to think about a pricier solid-wood instrument. At this point, he will have acquired the skill to bring out the full tone of the wood, and he will have developed the ear to appreciate the results.
A word of warning—some guitarists try split the difference and purchase a guitar with a solid top but laminated sides and back. There is some logic here, as the bulk of the guitar will be sturdier, but the top (which accounts for about 85% of the sound) will be more flexible and resonant. However, the top will still be prone to warping as the humidity changes, only now it will have to fight against a comparatively rigid body. While this combination of solid and laminated woods is certainly cheaper than pure solid wood and richer-sounding than pure laminate, it can also increase the risk of a cracked top. Extra care will be needed to protect the instrument from fluctuating humidity levels.