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What makes a guitar "open up"???

BluesBop HarryBluesBop Harry Mexico city, MexicoVirtuoso
I'm just curious about what factors come into play in a guitar opening up...

-Is it just time??
-How much it is played??
-Drying??
-Do different woods age better or take more time to do so??

I'd appreciate the opinions of more knowledgeable people about this.

Seems to me that my Gitane took over two years to open up, but my Dupont MDC60 opens up a little bit daily/weekly and my Nomade has improved considerably over just one month, this last one due in part to drying up some since I got it (came from a very humid room and the inside of the case smelled musky) and I also suspect it was seldom played by the previous owner.

Thanks for your opinions.
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Comments

  • BluesBop HarryBluesBop Harry Mexico city, MexicoVirtuoso
    Posts: 1,376
    I did a little googling and found out some people think the opening up phenomenon is a myth.
    I may be nuts but I swear I experienced it first hand with a number of guitars, the fact that several luthiers use old wood for their tops seems to affirm the theory that soundboards improve with age.

    I also stumbled upon this video clip, I'll leave it uncommented for now and wait for your reactions.


    I gonna start feeding more Django to my guitar!! :wink:
  • Bill BarnesBill Barnes New HampshireNew
    Posts: 63
    As the owner of a fresh, out of the box guitar, I have been researching this topic as well. Here's a very interesting website page, about a more or less scientific study using a special machine which vibrates a guitar at an intensified level, with sonic tests and musicians' input on sound and playability, before and after the use of this machine. http://www.acousticguitar.com/Gear/advi ... tion.shtml

    It has been suggested that positioning a new guitar in front of a loud stereo speaker and playing music into the sound hole will achieve results similar to playing it for hours.

    One day when I was going to be away from the house I tried this method with my new Dell'Arte. Unfortunately the only CD I had handy was an oldies compilation, which got stuck on Sam the Sham's Woolly Bully for six hours. Now I can't event tune the freakin' guitar, nor play without dropping half measures here and there.
    Bill
    www.billbarnestrio.com
    "Listen to this, it speaks like a cathedral!"- Django, on the Selmer (from Michael Dregni's Django, the Life and Music of a Gypsy Legend)
  • simplygoodmusicsimplygoodmusic Rome, ItalyNew
    Posts: 81
    This is all very interesting, and I am the first guy to say that a guitar changes over the years, and I have seen that video before, but I gotta say - these are just theories some guy came up with. Granted, a guy with credentials, but some of these things sound a little far fetched to me.

    Sorry for being cynical.
  • RivieraRiviera Wellington, New ZealandNew
    Posts: 15
    This guy says that the guitar has to be played for the fibres in the wood to line up, then why do luthiers like Maurice Dupont use aged tops that have sat around for 40 years. Surely an old piece of wood, unless it has been part of a guitar, is not going to be any different to a 5 year old top.
    Another thing worth considering is that Django didn't play vintage guitars, most of the recordings we know and love were on mainly new selmers, and it appears that he changed guitars regularly rather than letting them age.
    I took delivery of a brand new Dupont MD 50B this January and I am sure that in 3 months it has changed in tone and got louder and bassier, but I have no proof of this as there are so many variables. One of the biggest variables being the type of room I am playing in and the direction I am facing in. Anyway I loved the sound of it from day 1 so it doesn't really matter. Very interesting subject thanks for posting....
    Cheers
    Leigh Jackson
  • KlezmorimKlezmorim South Carolina, USANew
    Posts: 160
    This topic takes me down several side-streets off of Memory Lane!

    I remember in the mid-70s reading an article about Charlie Kaman and his inspiration for the unique bracing patterns for the tops and composite materials for the molded body of his Ovation guitars. Chladni plate resonances factored greatly, as I recall.

    Check out a couple interesting US Patent applications:
    http://www.freepatentsonline.com/4955274.html
    http://www.freepatentsonline.com/3880040.html

    I recall also when the notion came out, a bunch of fellow musicians and I propped our guitars in front of speakers and let the *record player* play the same lp side over and over again.

    Bill, I *do* hope you live in an isolated home in New Hampshire. The thought of being your neighbor and suffering through an endless loop of "Wooly Bully" gives me the willies! I believe the Geneva Convention expressly proscribes such treatment....

    Back to the aging process of guitars. The same wood preferred for instrument tops is the same sought after by the pulp and paper industry: Spruce. Here's the thing... the botanical name for Sitka spruce is "Picea sitchensis," "picea" coming from the Latin word for pitch, a tar-like substance that has been used for millennia. Spruce contains from 2-8% of this goo, which is a complex mixture of sugars, lignins, di- and tri-pentenes, resins and so forth. Pitch is the papermaker's nightmare. It gunks up all of the processing equipment used to make paper. I spent the last couple years of my career as a chemist designing pitch treatments for papermills. If I'd been more successful, I might own a vintage Selmer... :roll:

    As pitch ages, it becomes harder... and harder... and harder. *Some* of that is due to evaporation of water and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), but a lot of it is due to the natural polymerization of the resinous fractions of pitch. Indeed, given enough time, pitch hardens to the point where it becomes nature's plastic: amber.

    Why do luthiers so love those 40-year-old planks of spruce? Well, not because the pitch has turned to amber (that takes a few millenia). It's because that old wood has had a chance to stabilize dimensionally. The sap remaining in the wood has lost excess water and VOCs. Those old boards aren't as likely to crack or warp when fashioned into guitar tops.

    The speculation that's been floating around (and would make for a lovely doctoral thesis!) is that the vibrations produced by music frequencies helps align the resinous molecules which have begun the process of polymerization (known as "oligomers") along the axis of the wood fibers. During this phase more water and VOCs are driven off. Add in any effects of oxidation and a "played-in" guitar is going to have a different dynamic response than one straight from the maker.

    -k
  • djangologydjangology Portland, OregonModerator Dell Arte Hommage
    Posts: 887
    I did a little googling and found out some people think the opening up phenomenon is a myth.

    I totally agree with this although the color of my Shelley Park Sitka Spruce top darkened a little over 9 years.
    ---
    "I want to party like its 1939!"
  • Bill BarnesBill Barnes New HampshireNew
    Posts: 63
    Bill, I *do* hope you live in an isolated home in New Hampshire. The thought of being your neighbor and suffering through an endless loop of "Wooly Bully" gives me the willies! I believe the Geneva Convention expressly proscribes such treatment....
    LOL Klezmorim, it could have been worse: endless repetition of "Afternoon Delight..."
    Seriously, when I can't play the bejesus out of the guitar I am pumping in Vivaldi, Django, Bach, any good music I can. Call me superstitious, but it couldn't hurt- and some luthiers do the same to new instruments prior to delivery, or so they say. I believe that the secret to 'opening up' a guitar is playing it the way you would normally play- as much and often as possible. If you love the guitar, this is no sacrifice. An interesting topic, Mr. Blues Bop Harry!
    ...the vibrations produced by music frequencies helps align the resinous molecules which have begun the process of polymerization (known as "oligomers") along the axis of the wood fibers...
    Klezmorim, that was an extremely lucid and fascinating explanation. You didn't say that you agree. Do you, as a scientist accept this theory? Just curious.[
    Bill
    www.billbarnestrio.com
    "Listen to this, it speaks like a cathedral!"- Django, on the Selmer (from Michael Dregni's Django, the Life and Music of a Gypsy Legend)
  • Craig BumgarnerCraig Bumgarner Drayden, MarylandVirtuoso Bumgarner S/N 001
    edited April 2008 Posts: 794
    Interesting topic. "Opening Up" has been an accepted concept or folklore, depending on how you view it, for ages, but it is very subjective. The proof seems to rest entirely on the perception of the player. Clearly, many players believe they have perceived the phenom. I remain skeptical.

    The theory of the man in the video seems as good as any. I not sure about the fibers aligning part, that seems a bit far fetched, but there is no doubt that many materials including wood get more flexible when worked. Course that would infer that more flexible is always better which clearly it is not. What about a guitar with a top that is too flexible to start with? Might not it sound worsen as it "opens up"? Yet I've never heard someone complain how the guitar sounded great when it was new but after a couple months it opened up and sounds like crap.

    It occurs to me the amplitude of flexure of the wood when played is REALLY small, so it is hard for me to see how much "work" (cycles x amplitude) is going on with the wood itself. Yes, there are millions of cycles, but the amplitude (distance moved) of cycles is tiny. A WHOLE lot less than a tree undergoes in even a moderate breeze. (I know, live wood in a tree is a lot different than seasoned "dead" wood in a guitar, but you get my point)

    My guess is it less to do with the guitar itself changing in some (anthropomorphic) response to playing and more with the player finding that particular magic it takes to make the instrument sing.

    One minor proof of this is how it still takes (me, at least) weeks on a well played instrument to get the best out of it. I think this is not the instrument opening up, it's the player opening up to the instrument.

    I like Klezmorim's description of the resins hardening. That makes sense, but again not all changes are going to be for the good. The resin hardening after the guitar is built would stiffen the top eh? That may or may not be good. But, if you build with old wood, as Klez sez, you at least know that what you build will stay that way (for better or worse).

    Oh well, it's beyond me and I'm willing to admit I just don't know, but it is interesting to think about.

    Craig
  • KlezmorimKlezmorim South Carolina, USANew
    Posts: 160
    "Afternoon Delight..."

    Oh that would be cru-elle!
    ... when I can't play the bejesus out of the guitar I am pumping in Vivaldi, Django, Bach, any good music I can.

    If the aim is to set up some "good vibrations," wouldn't it make more sense to blast our guitars with music that is bass-heavy and has a strong beat? Like hip-hop or techno? *We* don't necessarily have to like it... just as long as our guitars *do*! 8)
    Klezmorim wrote:
    ...the vibrations produced by music frequencies helps align the resinous molecules which have begun the process of polymerization (known as "oligomers") along the axis of the wood fibers...
    Klezmorim, that was an extremely lucid and fascinating explanation. You didn't say that you agree. Do you, as a scientist accept this theory?

    Speaking as a former chemist (I haven't worn a lab coat in 15 years), I'd say that this theory makes a lot of sense. What is wood? Cellulose and hemicellulose fibers, lignins and pitch. The cellulosic components do not really change with age. (Good quality paper is almost pure cellulose and stays white forever.) The lignins gradually oxidize, which is why guitar tops turn yellow over time, even under oxygen-permeable cellulose nitrate lacquer. This, though, is a surface effect that can be sanded, scraped or chipped away. The only remaining component that could significantly change with age *and* playing in such a way as to influence an instrument's tone is the resinous pitch.

    I think we've all heard enough comment regarding how a guitar "opens up" with use to be more than an "Urban Legend." I believe there must be some truth to it. But, as with all theories, this needs to be tested to see if it holds up under the rigors of a controlled study. Although I changed careers, I'd be willing to go back to grad school (one more time!) to test these theories... but only if I was underwritten by a grant from Dupont (the luthiers, not the chemical company!)

    -k
  • Bill BarnesBill Barnes New HampshireNew
    Posts: 63
    Thought provoking, guys. There really is better living through chemistry...

    When I read that some feel the phenomenon of a stringed instrument opening up through time and constant playing is myth or conjecture I'm reminded of the common opinion of many westerners for whom the concept of chi (or ki) energy is so much eastern mystic exoticism. If this were the case, why do investors and corporations that own priceless Stradivarius violins keep them in the hands of symphonic orchestra players, rather than store them in vaults? They know that an instrument needs to be played to retain its tonal qualities. Klezmorim, I hope you do go back and do the research. This is a really cool discussion.
    Bill
    www.billbarnestrio.com
    "Listen to this, it speaks like a cathedral!"- Django, on the Selmer (from Michael Dregni's Django, the Life and Music of a Gypsy Legend)
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