Opening Up a Guitar

Rich Cohen

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Well, this is a question/factor we all deal and struggle with. I hazard a guess that many of you will have aa opinion(s) about this question, so here goes. Tell us about your experience(s) playing your guitar(s) and experiencing how it "opens up." I use the double quotes, but it's something of a mystery that this actually happens, and HOW it happens. If there are any acoustic engineers and luthiers out there that can address this question without providing just "common sense" knowledge, I would be interested in hearing it, and probably my fellow LTGers might be interested too. So here are my questions:
1. Does the "opening up" of a guitar depend on the woods involved? I expect the answer(s) is "yes," but you never know.
2. I know that we generally agree that a newly built guitar needs to be "played in." However, in my experience, and probably all of you, say that if you let a guitar "sleep" for some time, it's voice will change, and to improve it, you'll need to spend playing time with it, to the extent that you hear changes in its "opening up."
3. Some folks say that one way to get a guitar to "open up" is to play guitar music through audio near the guitar and it will respond accordingly.
4. Approximately, how much time does it take to get results from "playing in" a guitar? I know, I know, it depends, right? Still, give us your opinion.
5. What is your most satisfying experience having a guitar "open up"?
 

Stuball48

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My experience with "opening up" is I have found a direct correlation between my improving my playing and guitar "opening up." My guitars sound better and more open when I play better - agree that may be years."
 

HeyMikey

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Rich, I have very limited experience but my anecdotal observation from the guitars I purchased which sat unplayed for 6+ months is that the sound did improve to my ears after a couple weeks. I make sure to rotate through my acoustics on a regular basis. If I’m not playing it I probably don’t need it.

I’m not sure about the idea that loud music or playing through an amp helps. I know some people swear by those soundboard vibrating gizmos so perhaps anything that vibrates the soundboard has some level of effect.

Looking forward to GAD’s forthcoming scientific comparison test and analysis. 😉
 

Rich Cohen

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My experience with "opening up" is I have found a direct correlation between my improving my playing and guitar "opening up." My guitars sound better and more open when I play better - agree that may be years."
Boy have you hit the spot, exacto! Our playing improvements definitely challenge the guitar to open up more, and more, and more. You've touched on an important point.
 

GGJaguar

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1. Does the "opening up" of a guitar depend on the woods involved?

Yes. My Martin D-15SM with mahogany top is 10 years old and sounds the same today as it did when it was new (I picked it up directly at the factory and so was unplayed). The good thing is that it sounded great out of the box so its non-development is a non-issue. :) I also had a cedar topped guitar that never changed over time, but I think that's one of the characteristics of cedar.


2. ... that if you let a guitar "sleep" for some time, it's voice will change, and to improve it, you'll need to spend playing time with it, to the extent that you hear changes in its "opening up."

Yes. My Osthoff 12-fret dread has an Adirondack top and it takes a good 20 minutes of playing for it to "wake" up if it has been unplayed for more than a month.


3. Some folks say that one way to get a guitar to "open up" is to play guitar music through audio near the guitar and it will respond accordingly.

Never tried it, so I don't know.


4. Approximately, how much time does it take to get results from "playing in" a guitar?

See question 1. It depends on the guitar. For sure, my guitars with Adirondack tops took more time to reach a plateau where the tone no longer changed. In general, I think it took 2-3 years for that to happen. The only exception is the Eastman E20P which has a very thin top. That settled in very quickly (less than a year). My Sitka topped guitars all seemed to settle in within a year as well.


5. What is your most satisfying experience having a guitar "open up"?

My “holy grail” Adi-top Martin 12-fret D-18 (based off the Ditson dreadnaught in the Martin museum) took nearly 4 years to fully open up. A was going to give up that it would ever have the bottom end of my other 12-fretters, but after sitting in the case for good part of that final year, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the bass response had fully developed. I think maybe it was a combination of the top taking its time to realize it wasn’t a tree anymore and for the sinker mahogany to become resonant after being submerged in Central American river for over 100 years.
 

Guildedagain

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I've always noticed the same thing, guitars that are put away for a while sound a little forlorn. They need a few minutes of TLC and they will respond. And the more you play it, the better it sounds. That's the bane of having too many instruments, not enough time. Just imagine a strumming machine at home to keep your guitars warmed up, or in a lab where you analyze the frequencies coming from the guitar and see if there's any recordable "bloom" from new unplayed to played in. I'm not sure how and if Plek technology could be utilized to play a guitar, but considering we went to the moon in '69, a strumming machine should be within easy reach, programmable for windmills, etc ;[)
 

GAD

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When it comes to science, people don't care and anecdotal evidence wins almost all o the time. Why? Because we don't listen like a computer.

There is an entire branch of science called psychoacoustics because what we hear isn't necessarily what another person hears due to the fact that our brains process physical stimuli. Listening is not only a sensory, but also a perceptual process, and thus trying to define why someone hears something the way they do can be maddening.

Add to this the fact that we can be trained to hear things others don't and it all gets even more complicated, and this is true of most all of our senses. For example I like espresso and I hand-grind and brew specialty coffees. I can taste all sorts of nuances in different roasts but my wife and kids just taste "coffee" and that's pretty much it. Though they will say that one tastes "better" than another, they can't articulate why. The same could be said of guitars. If I handed my '66 Starfire to someone who was just learning and then handed them my Newark St. Starfire, they likely would not be able to appreciate the differences, while a seasoned player would in a heartbeat.

Then we get to simple physics. Wooden guitars are made from organic material and organic material changes over time, though that likely changes based on the tree, the degree to which the wood was kiln-dried, how it was cut, and 1000 other things. Then the wood is warped and glued and assembled into something that is then further coated with finish. Every guitar is different, and to say that they all behave the same is wrong, though if all the previously mentioned variables can be refined then a more predictable result may occur.

My take? I witnessed first hand how my beloved Taylor changed tone over the first couple of years of its life. It became mellower, and I noticed because I actually didn't like it at first! I bought it because it was bright and articulate and it lost a fair bit of its brightness over time. In a similar vein, when we got a baby grand piano delivered when I was a kid, we were warned that good pianos need to settle into their new surroundings. Part of me wonders if that's us becoming accustomed to the sound, but who knows? As humans we like to tell stories to explain the universe. It's baked into us and we'll never stop doing so.

Confronted with the idea that a guitar that's been sitting "warms up" when first played I'd say that's bunk, but I wouldn't say it out loud because I couldn't prove it, and maybe there's something going on that I haven't trained my ear to hear. Then again maybe it's just the listener becoming accustomed to the sound of the guitar again. Which is right? I'd argue that it doesn't matter because you enjoy the guitar, and so long as that's happening, it's all good.
 

wileypickett

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I've been playing since I was 14 and I can't tell if a guitar sounds better to me over time because it's opened up, or because I've opened up! (In the sense that I've grown accustomed to a guitar's strengths and weakenesses and have adjusted my playing to bring out it's best qualities, to the extent I can.)

There was an article a few years ago in *Guild of American Lutherie* (a magazine I subscribe to and highly recommend) by a guitar maker who had built two guitars that were exactly the same in every respect: dimensions, wood, design, build, etc. He couldn't tell the two apart.

A pro player bought one of the two and the luthier kept the other.

A year later the pro brought the guitar back for some adjustments. The pro had been playing the guitar virtually every day, touring with it, etc., whereas the luthier, who was more a builder than a player, hadn't spent much time with his guitar.

He reported that the difference in sound between the two guitars was huge. The one that had had the daylights played out of it was a stellar sounding instrument, whereas the one that spent more time in its case than being played hadn't changed much, soundwise, since it was made.

Not scientific maybe, but certainly more than anecdotal.
 

GGJaguar

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Confronted with the idea that a guitar that's been sitting "warms up" when first played I'd say that's bunk, but I wouldn't say it out loud because I couldn't prove it, and maybe there's something going on that I haven't trained my ear to hear.
Only one of my guitars (the Osthoff) goes to "sleep". And it's noticeable when it "wakes up" after 20 minutes of playing. At first, I think "Gee, these strings are dead and need changing", but after it wakes up it sounds like its "normal" self. It's also one of my most heavily built guitars though I have no way of knowing if that's a contributing factor.
 
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merlin6666

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My take? I witnessed first hand how my beloved Taylor changed tone over the first couple of years of its life. It became mellower, and I noticed because I actually didn't like it at first! I bought it because it was bright and articulate and it lost a fair bit of its brightness over time. In a similar vein, when we got a baby grand piano delivered when I was a kid, we were warned that good pianos need to settle into their new surroundings. Part of me wonders if that's us becoming accustomed to the sound, but who knows? As humans we like to tell stories to explain the universe. It's baked into us and we'll never stop doing so.
I experienced the same with my first "good" guitar that I bought mid 70s. It appealed to me because of its bright and crisp tone, and now more than 40 years later it's way too mellow and full of overtones for my liking and I don't play it any more.

My take is that in the long term there is just ageing which is as beneficial to guitars as to people. Though in the short term I think that a guitar that hasn't been played for a few months needs a couple hours of playing to wake up again.

The "opening up" process seems to be more one where the player subconsciously fine tunes the playing technique to optimize how the guitar sounds rather than change of the guitar.
 

chazmo

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I've always been skeptical about this subject. Glenn, your story about the A/B of two identical guitars is really interesting, I must admit. And, I have read a lot on the subject over the years. Maybe I'll come around some day. :) I've yet to experience any "aha" moments with my guitars, but then again I really don't play very much. I have witnessed major differences with string changes -- for obvious reasons. But that has nothing to do with opening up.

The only "aha" moment I recall in recent years was the playing of my (ignored) F-512 back in 2007. It had sat sadly on a wall looking all blingy and (arguably) silly compared with the Taylor aesthetic I'd gotten used to. I really don't think it was getting an y air time in the store. But it totally blew my hair back (I did have some hair back then) when I pulled it off the wall, and it remains to this day the king of my herd. I've had a lot of guitars come and go since then. I also had an "aha" moment a few years after that when I played an HD-28 in a music store. I loved having that guitar, but ultimately sold it. Probably should've kept that one.

Anyway, my advice always has been and continues to be that if you don't like the way a guitar sounds, don't buy it (or sell it). I.e., don't expect to like it more with age.
 

Rich Cohen

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Another observation: I've noticed that most of the time my experience playing a guitar first thing in the morning often results in my being overwhelmed by the beautiful sound emerging. This probably has more to do with my brain and ears than anything else. But, it's happened enough times for me to take notice.
 

Bernie

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Well, this is a question/factor we all deal and struggle with. I hazard a guess that many of you will have aa opinion(s) about this question, so here goes. Tell us about your experience(s) playing your guitar(s) and experiencing how it "opens up." I use the double quotes, but it's something of a mystery that this actually happens, and HOW it happens. If there are any acoustic engineers and luthiers out there that can address this question without providing just "common sense" knowledge, I would be interested in hearing it, and probably my fellow LTGers might be interested too. So here are my questions:
1. Does the "opening up" of a guitar depend on the woods involved? I expect the answer(s) is "yes," but you never know.
2. I know that we generally agree that a newly built guitar needs to be "played in." However, in my experience, and probably all of you, say that if you let a guitar "sleep" for some time, it's voice will change, and to improve it, you'll need to spend playing time with it, to the extent that you hear changes in its "opening up."
3. Some folks say that one way to get a guitar to "open up" is to play guitar music through audio near the guitar and it will respond accordingly.
4. Approximately, how much time does it take to get results from "playing in" a guitar? I know, I know, it depends, right? Still, give us your opinion.
5. What is your most satisfying experience having a guitar "open up"?
It seems to have a lot to do with fibers ; the envelopes around them will decay with time, allowing the vibrations to spread out more evenly, better or (and?) faster...
Some other guitar professional told me about minerals within the woods...The more the guitar vibrates, the more they get moving towards the edges, making the wood kind of lighter and therefore more responsive...It seems to make sense to me, and would explain why the guitar has to be played to open up.
What woods involved ? I read it doesn't work when it comes to laminated materials ; would think ti is (much?) more true of solid woods...Should appoly to all solid woods, possibly to various extents...I don't know much more sorry...

All this I got from people working in the guitar world (repairing, selling or even making guitars), or from people closely related to it (an expert[?] running a specialized website, writing on luthiers' made and major makes' guitars, taking part in organizing luthiers' exhibitions and so on), then should be quite relevant at least...

The thing about opening up is that if you play a guitar every day or so, the change will be very little each time - and slower if you don't !
I think I did notice a genuine improvement on the Martin (Adi top) after about 5 or even 6 years...

Sorry if all this has been said, but I had not enough time to read much of this thread.
 

Guildedagain

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Yes, your ears are completely different in the morning, or upon waking, whenever that is. I always reach for the guitar first thing. Absolutely the best time to go over yesterday's mysteries and find almost instant clarity and resolve. At this point, tone isn't a concern for me, just note arrangement.
 

Bernie

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The way a guitar will sound better, not quite as good - or even worse sometimes - according to how we feel, if we have stress, if we are tired or relaxed and feeling good, is often linked to how gentle and precise we are in touching - or hitting the strings. Rhythm too and coordinated movements will have their way too...
But it doesn't depend so much on the guitar...It will depend on us much more.
When a guitar opens up, it is something independent of how we feel mostly, and it will better up.
 

bobouz

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I never buy a guitar with a hope or expectation that it will open up. Exposure to air & humidity factors can make a very noticeable difference in tone, but otherwise with my instruments, dramatic changes in tone have always been related to a modification I initiated.
 
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