Everyone knows that older stringed instruments sound better than newer ones, but there are counter examples which the conventional wisdom ignores. The fact that “old” means something different depending on what type of instrument is being discussed should be a clue that maybe the conventional wisdom is flawed on this one. And even if it is true that older instruments sound better the difference may have less to do with age than it does with natural selection.
Last updated: January 21, 2019
The conventional wisdom has it that older instruments sound better than newer ones. And there is certainly a good deal of anecdotal evidence that this is so. Violin players consider the instruments made during the golden age of violin making in Cremona, Italy to be the best sounding. Steel string guitar players wax ecstatic over the sound of the prewar Martins. Electric guitar players may wish all such instruments could have the tone of pre CBS Fenders. But unfortunately such anecdotal evidence in no way supports the hypothesis that older instruments sound better than new ones.
To shed some light on this subject a well-designed scientific experiment is needed, one that compares older and newer instruments such that the players (and if they are a different group, the listeners) can't tell which are which. This is known as a blind evaluation, but implementing one may be a little more difficult than simply blindfolding the participants, since players may be able to detect differences in touch and even in smell. The reason the blinding is necessary is that the subjects of such an experiment bring into it their own prejudices and these must be scrupulously eliminated if a fair evaluation is to be performed. In addition to the blinding, the experiment would have to have enough subjects so that the results could not be attributed to one person's idiosyncratic opinion or that they would not be likely to have occurred by simple chance. The gold standard of scientific comparisons is the double blind study. In this type of comparison it isn't just the subjects of the experiment that don't know the identity of the instruments under evaluation. In double blind studies even the people running the experiment don't know the identifies. Although this may seem like overkill, this is done to keep potentially subtle influences from the folks running the experiment from influencing the subjects. People are highly social animals and even subtle influence can have not-to-subtle effects.
The literature contains many accounts of listening evaluations intended to determine whether differences could be detected in the tone of instruments of differing ages. But as far as I can tell methodologically rigorous experiments using statistically significant sized populations such as described above (that is, where both player and listener cannot tell the age of the instrument) has not been done for guitars. Three such experiments1-3 have been done in the violin world and their results are compelling. In these experiments players and listeners either did not express a preference for the old instruments or they actually preferred modern instruments.
Without such an experiment on guitars we are left to speculate both if it is true that older instruments sound better than newer ones, and, if it is true, then why it is true. One source of my own skepticism on this is that there appears to be no consistent age at which instruments are considered to sound better. Consider that the great sounding Cremonese violins are approximately 300 years old, the great sounding prewar Martin guitars are approximately 70 years old, and the great sounding Fender electric guitars are approximately 50 years old. Why the difference? Of course it may be that the newer of these instruments will continue to improve as they get older, but it may be also that there is some romantic association with a golden age for each of these instruments that explains what is really going on. Again, without the scientific study this is all just speculation.
One thing that might explain why older instruments are perceived to sound better is natural selection. In the case of instruments this means that only the instruments which sounded good in the first place ever made it to old age. The lesser instruments were given to students, stored in the hot attic or the wet cellar or otherwise abused. A lot of them were eventually destroyed. The good sounding instrument were worthy of expensive repair and restoration efforts. So the instruments that survived to be old today were the ones which were always good and now there are few if any of their bad sounding contemporaries left. This is such a strong possible explanation for at least part of why older instruments are considered to sound better than newer ones that it could be the worthy subject of experimentation in its own right.
Fritz, C., Curtin, J., Poitevineau, J., Morrel-Samuels, P., & Tao, F. C. (2012). “Player preferences among new and old violins.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109(3), 760-763.
Fritz, C., Curtin, J., Poitevineau, J., Borsarello, H., Tao, F. C., & Ghasarossian, T. (2014). “Soloist evaluations of six Old Italian and six new violins.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 201323367.
Fritz, C., Curtin, J., Poitevineau, J., & Tao, F. C. (2017). “Listener evaluations of new and Old Italian violins.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 114(21), 5395-5400.
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T. “An Introduction to the Stadivarian Mystique”
American Lutherie #17, p. 6.