Fair warning: This post contains pie-charts. ;-)
It’s worth it though. Honestly. This is stuff that every musician should be aware of.
I’ve long been interested in how our weird, flawed, squishy brains can make weird, flawed, and erm… squishy decisions for us. The things we think we know colour the things we actually experience. It’s fascinating really.
And, the world of musical instruments is a hotbed of squishy-brained preconceptions.
Take tone-wood, for instance.
Which is just what The Leonardo Guitar Research Project did.
What the heck’s The Leonardo Project thing?
The Leonardo Guitar Research Project is a non-profit group of European luthiers and lutherie schools. Their goal is to study and demonstrate the possibilities of building acoustic and classical guitars from non-tropical woods.
That’s a mouthful so I’ll give you some context.
For a very long time, we’ve made some wonderful guitars out of beautiful, exotic woods. Tropical woods like rosewood and mahogany are probably the most commonly used.
And, like anything that’s done a particular way for a long time, we eventually accept that this is the way it should be.
We see a guitar with a back and sides made from a plain, locally-grown boxwood and we dismiss it as inferior.
Wait. What’s that you say—I should actually listen to it before dismissing it? Oh, ok then.
OK, I’ve listened. It’s no good. Now where’s that Brazilian rosewood guitar?
Ah. Turns out, that might have been a ‘squishy’ decision.
We are all at the mercy of our biases and preconceptions. We think we’re all Johnny or Jenny Smarty-Pants, but we’ve all got brains trying to make shortcuts to a decision that fits us perfectly.
The Leonardo Project people set out to see if this might the case for tropical woods.
What they did was to build fifteen classical guitars of the same type (based on a Torres FE19 model). All fifteen used equivalent quality European spruce for tops and braces. The sides and backs of five instruments were of traditional, tropical woods and the other ten were each a different, non-tropical (and therefore 'non-traditional') wood.
The build process was carefully controlled to ensure each was as alike as possible. The neck and fingerboard sizes and shapes were duplicated carefully and each was set-up to play identically.
Then, they tested them.
There were a few different tests but I’ll just summarise the player and listener ‘pair’ tests. The guitars were tested in pairs—one tropical wood and one non-tropical—with a guitarist and a listener.
Well, pretty much as you’d expect, I suppose.
On average, 78% of the guitarists preferred the guitars made from tropical wood. 72% of listeners also preferred the tropical instruments.