Do tonewoods matter on an electric guitar at all?
You'll notice I purposely put electric guitar in the title of this blog and not just guitar on its own. The reason for that is because when it comes to acoustic guitars, the woods chosen in the build absolutely matter.
The word tonewood is defined as "any wood suitable in the construction of a musical instrument". Concerning electric guitars specifically, there's a lot of confusion as to how the wood actually affects the tone since an electric guitar's tone is all-electric.
Before continuing, the answer to The Big Question:
Do tonewoods matter on a solid-body electric guitar?
Why? Because modern pickups aren't affected by the body wood a guitar is constructed out of.
Did tonewood actually matter at one point?
Yes, but not for the reasons you would think.
Early electric guitars of the 1950s and 1960s used very microphonic pickups. They were so microphonic that they would even pick up the sounds coming from under the pick guard, so when an electric guitar's body had a wood that vibrated more when strings were played, this did in fact affect the tone.
However, with modern pickups the wood doesn't matter at all because the days of those overly microphonic pickups have been gone for decades.
Would you want overly microphonic pickups like they used to make in the 50s and 60s for "vintage tone"?
No, because they're awful. Any overdrive or distortion effect applied to them will cause feedback (squealing noises) so they're pretty much useless. You'll even get massive feedback even if playing "clean" with no overdrive/distortion effect applied at all.
I'll talk more about pickups in a moment.
My 2012 Bullet HH body has the same "resonance" as a 1962 Stratocaster
This should put to rest any doubt you would have as to why tonewoods don't matter anymore with solid-body electric guitars.
My 2012 Squier Bullet HH guitar has amazing body vibration to it. It's a basswood body just like almost every other solid-body Squier electric guitar made right now, but when you strum strings, you can really feel the "correct" type of vibration going through the body. This correct body vibration is something cork-sniffer types pay tens of thousands of dollars for, and I have it on a guitar I bought for under $120. I'm not kidding when I say that acoustically, the Bullet HH really projects well. In other words, when strummed unplugged, you can really hear it and feel it.
What does this mean? It means that the Bullet HH has just as much of a "resonant" body as a real-deal 1962 Fender Stratocaster. If you don't believe me, go to a guitar store, play the Bullet HH unplugged just like a true cork-sniffer snobby guitar collector would, and you'll feel the correct vibration (but of course the cork-sniffer collector would never admit this!)
Any cork-sniffer type who reads this will instantly think, "NOT POSSIBLE!" Oh yes, very possible. I know the tests cork-sniffer types use to test the vibration of a Strat body. Example: Plucking the B string unplugged while the guitar is hanging on the wall, then touching the end of the body to test for resonance while the string is vibrating. The Bullet HH passes the test with flying colors and the resonance is there (not that it matters because body resonance on a solid-body Strat electric is nonsense anyway).
"So... it's all about the pickups?"
For the most part, yes. The four things that make up an electric guitar's tone are pickups, electronics, strings and the pick you use.
Throw in a cheap set of Fender Tex Mex Pickups, and yes, your Fender or Squier Strat will "sing" vintage-style like you want it to.
This simply means using proper potentiometers (commonly known as "pots") and good wiring. On the Strat, wire it as you wish, use good solder connections, a good set of 250k pots (which do work best with Strat single-coil pickups), and it will sound great.
I've talked about strings before, but here's a refresher.
Strats do typically sound best with nickel-plated steel strings such as the Dean Markley 1972 Vintage Reissue, the D'Addario EXL120 and so on.
If you want a more "hard" or "biting" sound, you use plain steel strings.
If you want somethnig "really vintagey", pure nickel strings like GHS Nickel Rockers or D'Addario Pure Nickel series strings work well.
The hardness or softness of the pick you use does change how an electric guitar sounds because it affects the vibration of the strings as you pluck or strum. There are many to choose from. My personal preference is the Jim Dunlop Tortex series. I list a bunch of those here.
So anyway, there you go. Ignore the wood and concentrate on pickups, electronics, strings and picks instead.