What Do Guitars from the 1800s Sound Like?

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A lot of people think that old guitars sound better, but do they really? In this video Dan and Blake explore that question, and demo what two guitars probably sounded like back in the 1800's. They install three different kinds of strings and test how they change the sound. The results will surprise you!

Video Transcription

[on-screen text reads: StewMac]

Dan Erlewine: It's been a common belief all my life that old guitars sound better than new guitars, guitars like pre-war Martins, Gibson Jumbos from the 1930s, up into Les Pauls and Strats in the '50s and '60s. A lot of the reason for that is because old guitars dry out. That's what people will always say. It loses moisture in some of the sugars in the cells and gets dry and has much more sonorous sound. And then for other people, it's more of a nostalgic thing, I believe. They don't make them like they used to.

Well, the two guitars that I have here today are really old and they're really cool. Blake's holding an 1872 CF Martin 1-26, a beautiful little guitar. This is a James Ashborn model 4 from 1852. That's vintage man. These are the oldest guitars I ever played. Right?

Blake: Yeah.

Dan Erlewine: These were both in the shop at the same time for quite a bit of repair, and they sound good.

Blake: They sound really good.

Dan Erlewine: Before sending them back, we thought we'll make a little video with these so you can have a chance to hear how they sound.

Blake: Now keep in mind, when these guitars were built, they were built for gut strings and those were strings made out of animal intestine. You might have heard it called cat gut?

Dan Erlewine: They didn't have the modern synthetics like nylon and things like that back then.

Blake: And they weren't really using steel strings on these lightly-made guitars.

Dan Erlewine: They would destroy them.

Blake: Right. I mean, and since string material makes such a huge impact on the guitar, we thought we'd order some gut strings.

Dan Erlewine: You can still buy gut strings. We found that out. I didn't know that. These were $109 a set. So with both these guitars up and playing great and they both have real gut strings on, we're going to do a little demo so that we can all hear what these guitars might have sounded like back in the day. And Blake, will you do the honors?

Gut strings sound demo

Blake: No problem. Happy to do it.

[on-screen text reads: 1852 Ashborn Style 4 - Gut Strings]

[Blake plays slow music on the Ashborn acoustic guitar]

[on-screen text reads: 1872 Martin 1-26 - Gut Strings]

[Blake plays slow music on the Martin acoustic guitar]

Before we talk about the strings, I mean, just the difference between the two guitars, there's a pretty stark difference.

Dan Erlewine: I think the Martin here is brighter, more Martiny sound.

Blake: Right. This is a lot more mellow, this Ashborn.

Dan Erlewine: Tone-wise though, think the Ashborne has more powerful trebles. That to me is a stronger sound.

Blake: Yeah, it sustains longer.

Dan Erlewine: And a smaller guitar.

Blake: Which is interesting. And this has an ivory nut, where this one's just a piece of ebony.

Dan Erlewine: That's ebony. That makes a lot of difference on the open strings. I love the way that the ebony nut on that hangs over the edges. It's a decoration thing. My first impression of real gut strings was the bass strings sound horrible.

Blake: Yeah.

Dan Erlewine: Bo, bo, bo.

Blake: They sound like an upright bass. I really like the gut strings, though, after a while, once they broke in? I don't know. Just something calming about it.

Dan Erlewine: Calming is a good word for it. I think that has a lot to do with it. One thing I could say about doing this is you have to tune these for an hour or two. You've got to sit there and just keep on tuning them, because it takes a long time to stay at pitch.

Blake: Yeah, the strings stretch so much.

Dan Erlewine: And they don't sound good until they get to pitch.

Blake: Vintage guitars might sound better, but I definitely don't think they're as easy to play. Wider neck, the V profile a little bit thicker.

Dan Erlewine: How skinny the frets are.

Blake: Yeah, I mean, they're really skinny.

Dan Erlewine: These frets are really low.

Blake: Those old bar frets like that?

Dan Erlewine: These have flat fretboards. It's not a radius at all.

Blake: Right. And these guitars, they weren't really made for playing high up the neck. It's quite difficult.

Dan Erlewine: Well, we could put a cutaway on it.

Modern nylon strings demo

Okay, now let's try something else. We're not done yet. Now we're going to put modern nylon strings on these [on-screen text reads: D'Addario Pro Arte Classical Guitar Strings 3 Pack - Check it out on our website!]. Experts in the field have told me that if you put modern nylon strings on either of these guitars, it's going to bring out way more of the nuances that's in the wood of that guitar and the way it was braced.

Blake: I can't wait to find out.

[on-screen text read: 1852 Ashborn Style 4 - Nylon Strings]

[Blake plays slow music on the Ashborn acoustic guitar]

[on-screen text read: 1852 Ashborn Style 4 - Gut Strings]

[Blake plays slow music on the Ashborn acoustic guitar]

[on-screen text reads: 1872 Martin 1-26 - Nylon Strings]

[Blake plays music on the Martin acoustic guitar]

[on-screen text reads: 1872 Martin 1-26 - Gut Strings]

[Blake plays music on the Martin acoustic guitar]

Dan Erlewine: I've heard them both, the Martin and the Ashborn, with nylon strings modern-made. Do you think this brings out more in the qualities of the guitar than what you just played on those cat gut?

Blake: I think the nylon strings bring out the whole life of the guitar. They have so much more clarity than the gut strings did, especially on the bass strings. I mean-

Dan Erlewine: Listen to the brightness of that.

Blake: That's so bright. It's much better.

Dan Erlewine: Why would you need more?

Blake: I don't think you would. Not to mention that they're probably $100 cheaper.

Dan Erlewine: That's important.

Blake: Yeah. But Dan, we're not done yet, are we?

Silk and steel string demo

Dan Erlewine: Nope. We have to put on one more set of strings, only on the Martin, not on the Ashborn. It's way too old for that. It couldn't handle them. They'll be Silk & Steel [on-screen text reads: D'Addario Silk & Steel Folk Guitar Strings - Check it out on our website!]. It's known that you can get away with Silk & Steel on some of these old guitars, and man, when you do, it's another whole step up.

[on-screen text reads: 1872 Martin 1-26 - Silk & Steel Strings]

[Blake plays music on the Martin acoustic guitar]

[on-screen text reads: 1872 Martin 1-26 - Nylon Strings]

[Blake plays music on the Martin acoustic guitar]

[on-screen text reads: 1872 Martin 1-26 - Gut Strings]

[Blake plays music on the Martin acoustic guitar]

Cool it, man. Cool off. That's too hot for me.

Blake: Is that not incredible?

Dan Erlewine: Isn't it killer?

Blake: Isn't that amazing sounding? I've never heard a guitar that sounds like this.

Dan Erlewine: There's a lot of people that I talked to in the last two weeks that would say, "No, it's overdriving the top. You're not getting the nuances."

Blake: I don't know. It didn't-

Dan Erlewine: I don't believe that.

Blake: This one didn't overdrive very much. I've heard tops that go kind of flubby when you have too much going on, and this one can handle it. It just sounds great. It's so bright and clear. Those bass strings are great. The high strings are great.

Dan Erlewine: When you went up higher and played that little blues lick that was up there, clear.

Blake: Yeah, I mean, that's-

Dan Erlewine: That's Silk & Steel.

Blake: It's all there. It's like glass.

Dan Erlewine: Then let me ask you.

Blake: Uh-huh?

Dan Erlewine: Do you think you could go out today and find a modern-made guitar that could sound this good without having 150 years of music played?

Blake: It's a pretty hard question to answer.

Dan Erlewine: Yeah, how would you know?

Blake: It's kind of subjective and I would have to do some scientific side-by-side comparisons, but I guess that's a great question for our viewers.

Dan Erlewine: The sound of the perfect guitar can bring tears to your eyes. I'd love to hear from people out there. What do you own? What have you played that just, if you hear any other guitar, it doesn't compare?

Blake: Have you ever played a guitar that just makes you sleepless at night, thinking about how good it sounds?

Dan Erlewine: Which set of those strings brought out what you think is the best from that guitar?

Blake: While you guys are leaving your comments down below, me and Dan are going to play some songs and enjoy these guitars while we have them.

[Dan and Blake play acoustic guitar music together]



Dan Erlewine

Guitar Repairman and Builder