85-90% of the sound of an electric guitar comes from the pickups. The other 10-15% is a combination of things including the body wood, neck wood, fret board, bridge and nut, overall weight of the guitar and other things. The list goes on. But if your guitar only sounds 90% good, in my opinion that is not good enough. If you pick up guitars made of different woods and strum them unplugged you can hear, and feel, the resonance of the wood.
The body wood is probably the next most crucial factor in the guitars sound. As an experiment I once put a set of very nice Lindy Fralin pickups into an Asian particle board body. Guess what, it didn’t sound all that bad! I was really surprised. Mentally I could not handle the fact that it was a particleboard guitar so I took it apart quickly, it just bugged me too much. But think about it, particleboard is very dense and very uniform. Not particularly bad characteristics for tone wood.
A wood typically absorbs an amount of vibration from the guitar. If it absorbs none of the vibration it is deemed totally inert. Hard, dense woods are more inert than soft light woods. Maple is probably one of the most inert woods around. On the other hand soft light woods absorb vibrations from the guitar. The amount of vibration and the frequencies being absorbed or accented gives a wood it’s tone.
Notice that you can have your rig set up to sound just the way you want it in your home or in the studio. But what happens when you go to play an outside gig. The bass notes have no problem penetrating deep into the outdoors. Of course it takes more wattage to push those bass sounds. On the other your sound man will be turning up your treble because it is not carrying like it does in close quarters. The reason behind this is that the sound waves on the treble end of the spectrum are weaker than bass sound waves. That’s why it takes more wattage to push bass sounds and high sounds get absorbed more readily. What does this have to do with wood…let’s put 2 + 2 together.
The treble notes, being weaker are more quickly absorbed into non-inert woods. But that doesn’t mean you should have a guitar made of wood as inert as you can find it. An all maple guitar sounds very tinny and bright. To bright for most people’s likes. A softer wood is going to give you a warmer tone. Harder, heavier woods will give you a more punchy tone. Because the softer woods are absorbing more vibration into the wood and the vibration that gets absorbed most is the weakest of the vibrations, the high pitched ones.
So do you want a soft wood are a hard wood. Or do you want a combination of woods. A maple top on a soft wood body like Ash, Alder, even basswood or poplar can be a wonderful combination. A wood like mahogany or walnut can be the perfect in-between soft and hard wood. Then there is korina. The king of the tone woods. Why? Because it is a light wood and has some absorbency properties. But it is a brittle wood and so has some inert type properties. And last but not least because it is consistent throughout (like the particle board earlier in this rant) and there fore the sound resonates through the whole body evenly.