Ladder Bracing vs X-Bracing: Hear the Difference

Luthiers chase three adjectives when sculpting acoustic guitar tops: dry, stiff and lightweight.

Stiffness without lightness means a heavy, thick top that doesn't reverberate. A light top that isn't stiff means loose, flabby tone with blurred note definition.

To get the perfect mix, luthiers often use very thin tops for reverberation and a series of braces to provide stiffness for definition. These braces also provide structural integrity to hold fast against the stress that string tension puts on a guitar body.

The layout and precision of these braces influence a guitar's character in a big way. Here's a look at two historical approaches.

The Ladder Brace

Ladder Bracing | More Treble, More Air

The X-brace is what we now consider to be the standard top-bracing pattern on flat top guitars. But were you to dig back far enough into the history of acoustic guitar manufacturing, you would come across a period in which the ladder-braced guitar was king.

In the 1920s and 1930s, Gibson was struggling to compete with the more modestly-priced department store brands, such as Silvertone. In an effort to keep pace with their competitors, Gibson began producing budget guitars sold under the Kalamazoo and Recording King brands (among others). All of these models featured simpler appointments and ladder bracing.

In fact, a majority of the flattop acoustic guitars being produced during this period featured ladder bracing. Companies such as Oscar Schmidt, Kay, Regal and others opted for this style of top brace as a means of keeping production costs at a minimum. Many of these “budget” instruments would go on to become the defining sound of countless blues, folk, and country musicians of the era.

The X-Brace

X-Bracing | Tighter, Focused Mid-Range

Though some of the earliest guitars built by C.F. Martin in the late 19th century feature primitive versions of the X-brace, it wasn’t until the early 20th century that this design truly came into its own.

The advent of steel strings around the turn of the century demanded more surface strength from flat top guitars. Until then, they were built only to withstand the modest tension of gut strings. This also came about at a time when guitarists were in need of an instrument that was loud enough to compete with the banjos, mandolins, and fiddles that were popular in the barrooms and parlors.

In 1930, Martin introduced the OM. It was their first 6-string guitar to feature 14-frets to the body – a design that represented a monumental shift in the trajectory of guitar building.

With a larger surface area than that of a parlor guitar and featuring the perfected X-braced pattern with steel strings, the OM was unparalleled in volume and bass response. It could contend acoustically in ensembles without being drowned out by the other instruments. It was, in many ways, the first modern acoustic guitar.

Apples & Oranges

Though endless variables can make it difficult to put into words the sonic differences between a guitar with ladder bracing and one with X-bracing, perhaps the best way to dissect the two designs is to consider what might make them appealing to certain players.

As I mentioned, the X-brace came into prominence at a time when guitarists were seeking more volume and an overall stronger sound from their instrument. Though it may seem like sheer luck that brought about this timely and not-so-subtle design shift, more than likely it was a simple matter of cause and effect.

Waterloo WL-14 with X-Bracing

Indeed, the concept of the X-brace had been around for decades, and yet it was not widely utilized until society generated a demand for its use.

As players in the modern age, it’s easy to overlook the fact that the sound that we generally associate with an acoustic guitar can be directly credited to the X-brace. These guitars are often loud relative to their size with abundant low-end and shimmery highs.

Subject to build quality and design, they can be rich in overtones and feature varying amounts of mid-range, dependent on their tone woods. They respond well to both fingerstyle and flatpicking alike. For most players, they feature everything one would require sonically from an acoustic guitar.

Conversely, many of the ladder-braced guitars that we have come to know and love came about at a time when players simply could not afford anything else. The Kay and Harmony factories in Chicago, for example, had one goal in mind in the 1920s and 1930s: to make tons of guitars that nearly every American could afford. And that they did.

For many, the appeal of these early department store guitars lies in a certain inconsistency and variation in build quality. They were generally made of plywood, unlike the solid wood guitars offered by Gibson and Martin. This, when combined with their unrefined lateral bracing patterns, made for a more airy guitar with less natural overtones and a boxy sound that was entirely its own.

Often favored by fingerstyle and country-blues players, these quirky guitars have stood the test of time and have recently seen a strong resurgence in popularity. The Waterloo guitars (a sub-brand of the Collings line) featured in this video are just one set of examples that revisit these classic designs and replicate them – albeit, in a more refined manner.

Brace Yourself

The fact that bracing patterns on a guitar (being entirely invisible without the use of a mirror) are scrutinized to the extent that they are is indicative of a highly evolved culture of guitar builders and players.

There was a time when our purchases were dictated solely by what was available to us, whether from a local department store or through a catalog. It is a luxury we have as guitarists in the modern age to be able to choose what qualities we want in our instrument, right down to the shape and placement of the braces.

With more options than ever at our disposal, there’s no better time to explore all the bracing patterns available to find out what works best for you.

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