Wood vs Carbon Fiber

I’ve started a new “day job” (though I shouldn’t really use that term because it’s not like I’m gigging anymore), and not surprisingly, the new income seems to have stimulated a desire for a new guitar. Or, perhaps the desire began because I’ve been actively and consistently working on music for the first time in a few years, and I didn’t allow myself to consider it while I was unemployed. Either way.

In any case, I desperately wanted an electric baritone guitar for a few weeks. I had my eye on a few models, but trying them out would’ve necessitated a trip to Chicago, and I don’t have the cash right now, so why go? I did visit a couple of stores in Madison, but neither had any baritone electrics. And as with most impulses, I think having to wait will probably work out for the best.

While I use electric guitars, I’m largely an acoustic guy. I use them for writing and am most comfortable using an acoustic when I perform. If I go back to gigging, I’ll do so as a solo acoustic guy. There is very little chance I’ll ever consistently be part of a band ever again, and if I am, it will probably be an acoustic act. But, electric guitars do have their place, and the keys in which I sing the best are conducive to baritone guitars.

However.

I don’t own a baritone acoustic. I do have two carbon fiber acoustic guitars, and one has been used as a baritone for years. But it occurred to me it would probably be preferable to have one designed to function as a baritone, which leads me to Emerald Guitars. To the best of my knowledge, they are the only maker of carbon fiber guitars that has a baritone model. CA Guitars (the brand of my two carbon fiber guitars) used to make one before they went out of business and Peavey acquired them, but finding one would be next to impossible, and as I recall, the fretboard met the body at the 12th fret. As a slide player, that’s a problem.

This brings me to the topic I wanted to discuss - carbon fiber / composite vs traditional wooden guitars.

While I was researching the purchase of my first high end guitar that wouldn’t be used for slide, I became well acquainted with the tonal properties of the various types of woods. I won’t go into details here; suffice it to say my Woolson guitar has black limba back and sides with a double top of spruce and redwood (double tops are fairly rare), with the redwood being visible. The guitar is amazing, and I’ve taken it out on the road many times.

I’ve decided I never will again.

It’s not worth the risk. Many working musicians have acoustics they call “beaters,” as opposed to instruments which never leave a home or studio. I now understand why. My Woolson cost me right around $5000 back in 2008. Replacing it with an instrument of equal quality would likely be far more expensive now, and as much as I love the guitar, I’ve decided I’ll never buy a wooden acoustic again.

Why not?

Carbon fiber / composite guitars are nearly indestructible, and there are now a number of companies producing different models, each with their own sound. The same way no Martin sounds like a Gibson, a CA Guitar doesn’t sound like Rainsong, Emerald, or Blackbird. Even McPherson Guitars - whose wooden models now start around $8k and were about $4k when I considered buying one - has two composite models. A top end wooden guitar does sound better than a top end carbon fiber guitar - at least to my ear - but not better enough.

Wooden acoustic guitars are often horribly sensitive instruments. They have to be babied, and the better the guitar, the more delicate it usually is. I’ve heard the best acoustics are constantly on the edge of flying apart, and there is some truth to the statement. But composite materials are so much stronger; it’s not an issue. The trade off isn’t worth it. Again, I love my Woolson guitar. Its sound constantly amazes me, especially when I put on new strings. I don’t think I’d give it up for anything.

But…if it was destroyed, lost, or stolen? I’d replace it with a carbon fiber guitar, if I replaced it at all.

And replaceability is a factor. A friend and mentor of mine once said “never fall in love with your sword.” To me, it means “never fail in love with a tool.” The sounds a guitar makes come primarily from the player. There was a time in my life when I didn’t understand how anyone could pay $1000.00 for a guitar, never mind more. Then I played an Ibanez priced at $1100, and I understood. It was so much better than anything I’d played before. Then I explored better instruments. It’s safe to say that each guitar I use consistently is of a higher quality than that Ibanez. And maybe more importantly, if my house burned down and I lost all my guitars, I know where I could get suitable acoustic replacements for $2000 (or less) each. Carbon fiber is uniform in a way that wood simply isn’t. Obviously, not every composite model is a gem, but in my hands and to my ear, they are far more consistent than wooden instruments.

In short, I think they’re better tools.

That’s it for now. Be good.

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