December 12, 2023

Tone woods

When it comes to the guitar it’s all about tone so today we’re going to have quick look at how different tonewoods affect the overall sound of a guitar. Unfortunately this is a rather dry, academic post  with no room for humour but if you are thinking of buying an acoustic guitar this is ESSENTIAL information.

Even within a species, no two pieces of wood are exactly alike. Environmental conditions, genetics, the age of the tree, annular growth patterns, grain orientation, curing conditions, and so on all have an effect on the tonal properties of a piece of wood. In addition, tonewoods respond differently in the hands of different makers. They can also take on different characteristics when used in different models of guitars-even those built by the same maker. And whether a particular wood sounds good or bad depends partially upon who’s doing the listening. So any attempt to sort out distinctions between tonewoods can only be offered from a relatively subjective point of view.

If you could consider emergent, ecologically friendly materials for construction you may be helping pioneer a movement toward a manufacturing industry with a holistic, low-impact, earth friendly ethic at it’s heart.

Purists may want the best in woods but in an increasingly threatened world  our destructive practices need to look beyond past tradition toward a future for everybody; else we`ll all be going to hell in a handbasket sooner or later…

Click here for some Ecologically Sound Guitars including the beautiful Mada guitars, Zero Impact and Flaxwood guitars.

World-wide demand for wood has increased by 64% since 60s and continues to rise. Over 20 African Nations have had all of their forests destroyed. Almost half of Brazil’s once plush forest landscape has gone too. And every year the US loses 10,000km2 of intact forest. So where do guitar makers fit in?

A. 200 different species are used to make musical instruments.

B. Trees like mahogany, rosewood and ebony are often solitary growers which are hidden away amongst other species. For loggers to reach the target trees, large areas of woodland need to be cleared.

C. There’s a belief that old growth timber gives superior tone and depth.

Bob Taylor of Taylor Guitars recently remarked,

“Our beloved Brazilian rosewood was taken from us more than 25 years ago. Adirondack spruce was logged out. Today we see the signs of our current woods being diminished to a point of unavailability.”

If you can`t bear the thought of playing a guitar constructed from non-traditional materials then consider buying second hand. When it`s possible I`ll be looking at fission amps, solar powered effects and guitars that recycle ambient energy.

There is a very interesting page on the Taylor Guitars website detailing the effect of string type, string guage, BONE TONE and pick materials.


Wood for the top

In very general terms, the top, or soundboard, seems to affect the guitar’s responsiveness, the quickness of its attack, its sustain, some of its overtone coloration, and the strength and quality of each note’s fundamental tone.

Spruce is the most common wood in guitar tops. For a good top, you will need wood with a tight grain. This means that it must be wood that have been growing slowly, as it does in fairly cold areas..

Adirondac (red) spruce (Picea Rubens). Characteristics similar to high elevation European alpine spruce. Red spruce was abundant in the 1930s and used on Martin guitars of that era. Its extraordinary tone, prized for its projection and tonal clarity, has created a resurgence of demand for “Adirondack” spruce. It has one of the best stiffness to weight ratios of all spruces and is very hard. It is seldom used in Classicals.

Sitka spruce (Picea Sitchensis) (Canadian and Northwest Alaska) is probably the most common wood used for steel-string tops. Extremely vibrant , bright and loud, providing an ideal “diaphragm” for transmission of sound on any size and style of stringed instrument. Primary top wood for Martin guitars. Chosen for its straight, uniform grain, longevity and tensile strength. It is not very much used for classical guitars. But there are some excellent classical guitars with Sitka spruce tops.

European spruce (Picea Abies)typically from Germany or Italy. There are several names for this wood such as Alpine Spruce; German Spruce, Silver Spruce or Italian Spruce. What ever it is called, it is perhaps the best all around wood for classicals. Often used on premium priced acoustics from custom luthiers. At a recent luthier’s convention, four top classical makers in a panel agreed that they have the best results with European Spruce! The characteristic of this wood is to contribute a noble tone with shimmering trebles and good strong basses……..but you have to pay your dues. This wood takes time to play in and it can slowly mature over a period of years until it will match anything that Cedar or Englemann can do and excel them in overall quality.

Engelman spruce (Picea EngelmannII ) Prized for its similarity in color to European (German) white spruce as well as its extreme lightness in weight which seems to produce a slightly louder, more projective or “open” sound than Sitka spruce. Very light in colour. Expect to pay more for this type of wood. It offers a middle ground between Euro Spruce and Cedar. It plays in very quickly and gives a spruce like treble. It is a softer wood and will yield good basses right away also. It is the most popular spruce used by American Classical guitar makers. Englemann can come with “BearClaw” figure which gives some visual interest and there is a debate about it’s acoustic effect. I tend to believe that it lends some stiffness and therefore I work it a little thinner.

Western Red Cedar has rich mid to dark brown colour with an extremely open, played-in sound right off the bat and sounds good almost immediately. Has long been used for classical guitars due to its warmth and openness. In steel strings it is coming into its own largely due to the efforts of Seagull Guitars (Canada) and Lowden Guitars (Ireland). If you go to a show where (classical guitar) luthiers are displaying their instruments, you’ll probably notice that most of the instruments are Cedar. That is because Cedar can make the new instrument sound it’s best right away. The other good thing about Cedar is the aesthetic of the dark appearance which matches up well to many classical guitarists preferences. Cedar often sounds louder to the guitarist while Cedar’s basses are typically huge and impressive.

Koa (Hawaii) (Acacia Koa) : Beautiful grained wood that produces a very bright sound with less volume than Spruce or Cedar.

Mahogany (South America) (Switenia Macrophylla ) has historically been used on less expensive guitars (and ukuleles too!). A mahogany-topped guitar is somewhat mellower in tone and has an
emphasized midrange.

Back and Sides

Besides serving to form the enclosure of the soundbox, the back and sides of the guitar also act as a sympathetic resonator whose oscillations contribute greatly to the harmonic mix. When judiciously selected (with due consideration given to design criteria and the other tonewoods used in the instrument), the back and sides can have a tremendous effect on the overall tone of the instrument.

The most preferred wood in high-end guitars is Rosewood.

Brazilian Rosewood (Dalbergia Negra) has a very beautiful, often stunniung visual appearance. Highly resonant, with full, deep basses and brilliant trebles. Brazilian can yield a dark bell like sound that is both deep and brilliant. No other wood can quite match it. It is generally considered the best tonewood by most luthiers as long as the quality is up to standard. This species of rosewood is no longer harvested so when the available supply is gone, it’s gone! Fortunately, many builders and manufacturers still have some on hand for use in guitars. Unfortunately, due to its “nearly extinct” status it is formidably expensive (Martin rosewood models before mid-1969 were Brazilian rosewood, thus their exhorbitant price tag on the used market). One luthier says he charge an extra $ 1.500 for a classical guitar with brazilian rosewood, compared to the price of the same model with Indian rosewood.

East Indian Rosewood (Dalbergia Latifolia) is a very richly grained dark brown wood. Very resonant, with a deep warm bass. Sources of supply have been well managed, reliable and of consistently high quality. A tad heavier than mahogany. There is a reasonable consensus that Indian will give a warmer bassier sound relative to Brazilian.

Cocobolo Rosewood (Dalbergia Retusa) stands fairly close to Brazilian in tone and has a very beautiful wood with a lot of variation in figure. It is somewhat warmer that Brazilian but it can still produce brilliant guitars. It is a heavier, denser wood than Brazilian with all of it’s faults in terms of workability.

Mahogany: Much lighter in weight than rosewood, Koa or Maple. A nice loud sound with an emphasis on clear, bright trebles.

Figured Mahogany: Beautiful and rare (often quilted) variety of genuine mahogany occurs in a very small percentage of mahogany trees. Though difficult to bend, figured mahogany shares the same tonal properties of the unfigured mahogany..

Maple is available in a variety of figure and it is an excellent tonewood. It sounds very neutral and allows the top wood to bring out it’s own sound. It is very capable of brilliance and less capable of warmth until it plays in. Less common than Mahogany or Rosewood, it is used primarily on archtop (Jazz) guitars. It is extremely hard and reflective giving it a loud, powerful sound. But the classic Gibson SJ-200 has maple body.
Quilted Maple (Acer Macrophyllum). Quilted maple is of the Pacific northeastern “bigleaf” variety and is less dense than the European hard maple varieties. The tone is slightly darker and warmer.
Flamed Maple (Acer Pseudoplantanus). Also called Fiddleback or Tiger Maple. Traditional tonewood for violins. Highly dense and reflective, wood yielding a loud, projective, and sustained tone. The classic Gibson models SJ-200 and Dove both have bodies made from flamed maple.
Birdseye Maple (Acer Saccarum). Typically forested from hard maple stands in the midwest and northeast USA. Relatively rare figuring displays tonal properties similar to flamed maple.

Walnut: Walnut is becoming more common due to its availablilty and great sound. Similar in density and grain structure to Hawaiian koa. It lies somewhere between mahogany and rosewood in terms of tone, weight, density, resinousness, etc. George Lowden has proclaimed it to be a superior tonewood for acoustic guitars.

Koa. Again, very beautiful looking stuff which is less bassy than Rosewood and less trebly than Mahogany. A well balanced compact guitar with stunning good looks.

Cherry. Density and reflectivity approach that of maple. Cherry produces a rich, projective midrange and balance without favoring the bass or treble frequencies. Vibrant, beautiful grain.

If you’ve made it this far , well done!

Jake Edwards

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