"How important is the wood in my guitar, and the tone it creates?" Read on to determine why ‘tonewood’ matters in your next guitar purchase, and how to make sense of the many wood choices out there in your next acoustic.
Tonewood, or tone wood, is simply the description of the wood species components of your guitar and the sound created while vibrating. Beating on a paint bucket versus a drum, or a countertop versus a crafted guitar surface, all have characteristic sounds. Playing guitar strings creates vibrations, which in turn vibrate the wooden body of your acoustic guitar, creating tone. Woods have different tonal qualities, and therein are many choices.
Before we get too deeply ingrained, there is a longstanding argument on whether wood affects tone on electric guitars. It clearly does on acoustic guitars and can be easily heard. On electric guitars it’s hotly debated, and there are intelligent people on both sides of the issue. Proponents say that wood makes a difference in body and neck tone and is therefore translated into the strings, pickups and then into your amp. Opponents argue that electric guitar pickups only access metallic magnetic signals, which is only the vibration of the metal string and therefore can’t collect “acoustic’ wood vibration aspects. We won’t attempt to resolve this debate today, but rather this article will focus on acoustic guitars and their tonewoods. Whatever side of the electric fence you're on, one thing is certain: the influence of sonic tonewood is absolutely all-important on acoustic guitars and can be heard by even a complete guitar novice. When this article refers to tonewood, it’s talking about acoustic guitars unless otherwise stated.
Top It Off
The first tonewood you need to know about is the soundboard, or “top” of the guitar. This is the front of the guitar body the audience sees and is THE MOST important part of your acoustic guitar’s sound, and so you should know what tonewood you are dealing with. Amazingly some people buy $3000 guitars without any consideration of the wood components or tonewood, they buy simply because they “like the guitar”. If you're reading this then this probably isn't you! If this is you, no problem - you can let your ear be the judge and you won’t need much further knowledge about tonewoods. For the rest of us, we’ll cover some background about various tonewoods and tops.
The two most common soundboards are spruce and cedar. There are subsets within, but they are distinct enough to just focus on these two species for now. Both are common, yet are very different.
Cedar is generally darker in tone and visible color than spruce, creating a warm, mellow sound. It is also an incredibly soft and fragile wood, this alone is reason to know what you are getting in a guitar. Be careful with cedar top guitars, the wood is soft enough to dent with pressure from fingernails or small impacts. Pictured is a red cedar Cordoba C5. It gives smooth, warm tone for fingerpicking and strumming. Cedar tends to get even better sounding with age, as do many woods. Spruce on the other hand, is lighter in color, and a true hardwood. You couldn’t put a nick in it with your fingernails if you tried. It is bright, responsive, and percussive sounding. Some have described it as a sparkly, airy sound adding crisp highs and treble response to strumming and fingerpicking. It's bright, rock-hard nature also makes it a great choice for flamenco players who are always tapping on their soundboards. Both are excellent tonewoods for a guitar’s top; which you choose is up to you.
There are also "one wood" bodies, like all koa (pictured) or all maple guitars. Lately some companies such as PRS (Paul Reed Smith) have begun making all mahogany guitars. Try them all and see, they each have their own characteristics. We think most people will want to stick with a cedar or spruce top, which has been the most common option for over one hundred years. Plus you still can pair koa, mahogany, with another tonewoods for the rest of the guitar once you’ve chosen a well-serving cedar or spruce top), for a very sonically refined instrument.
Watch Your Back (and Sides)
We said above that the soundboard of the guitar creates the most important tonal qualities of your sound. Next is the back and sides, which complement the sound. The most common option here is mahogany, sometimes spelled 'mahaghany'. It’s a common, inexpensive but quality wood, that is known for a solid performance and good bass response. It has an orange brown appearance, is extremely hard, and often has a grid-like, tight, grain pattern up close. Most acoustic guitars built today have mahogany back and sides covering a very wide price range, like this mahagany acoustic shown here.
An improvement over mahogany is rosewood, which has even deeper excellent bass response, but is tighter and less muddy than mahogany. It’s not that mahogany is bad, it’s just that rosewood is considered a premium and more desirable wood (some people find mahogany has a more pleasant midrange tone than rosewood, so this is subjective).
Rosewood also comes with a large price tag in most cases. It is dark brown to reddish brown and sometimes nearly black in appearance.
In the past Brazilian rosewood was considered the best tonewood ever. But due to near extinction, import restrictions and extreme rarity, you can pretty much expect to never buy a new Brazilian rosewood guitar and consider yourself lucky if you even get to play one. You probably couldn’t afford one anyway as it is an extremely valuable commodity. If you do find one for sale, be assured the manufacturer has had their Brazilian rosewood for awhile under strict lock and key, only for limited run guitars.
For this reason, classical guitar manufacturer Ramirez offers their incredible “1A” model (pictured here) for a mere $10-15,000 and it is solid Brazilian rosewood, and your choice of cedar or spruce tops. If you are lucky enough to even play a 1A, you'll be thunderstruck with how much sound comes out of it. There are a few other companies with rare, dwindling Brazilian rosewood stock also.
More available today is prized Indian rosewood, still excellent and considered a top-notch tonewood. When you hear people today discuss rosewood, they are talking about Indian (more correctly East Indian, from East India) Rosewood. It is more expensive than mahogany. When coupled with a spruce soundboard, rosewood adds deep, tight bass to a sparkly and crisp treble top. The result is a complex hybrid tone, which many regard as the best combination of tonewoods. Rosewood is also paired with cedar tops. While dedicated fans of cedar and rosewood will adamantly argue why one is better than the other, know full well they are both excellent tools for different aural needs and it's a personal preference.
There are many other tonewoods, too many to cover here, but we can touch on a bunch knowing we covered the main ones. Maple is probably the next most common tonewood, and is used in guitar tops as well as back and sides. Depending on woods it is paired with, it can produce both a flat and treble-like tone. I’ve played some Dean all-maple acoustic guitars that were not impressive, just no expressive tone to get excited about. Then I played a Cordoba 55FCE Flamenco guitar with spruce top paired with maple back and sides, which sounds so complex and brightly amazing, it’s practically a sin Cordoba stopped making that model! (pictured 55FCE)
Maple is extremely beautiful when stained and finished, and perhaps is the most beautiful looking tonewood. So much so it is often seen on electric guitar tops as well, with flames and figured grain. If you're into nice looking wood grain, it's really hard to beat flamed maple, also called curly, figured, and striped maple. It looks good with natural stain as well as a wide range of sunburst and tinted transparent colors. In our view, maple works best when it is paired with other woods, as sometimes it can be rather flat sounding on it’s own.
Koa is also an excellent very unique tonewood, it grows natively only in Hawaii and therefore is pricey as well. Can't get much more unique than that, can we? (Okay, so sequoia wood is rare too, only growing on the west slope of the Sierra Nevada at a certain elevation, but it's way too soft for guitars and crumbles in your hand!) Folklore has it that koa was first used by native peoples for hollowing out logs into canoes. I like to think of Koa as similar to rosewood but with a tonal sweet twist that lingers. Maybe like cinnamon in your coffee? It’s hard to describe so if you ever get the chance to play a quality koa guitar, you just might fall in sonic love, dreaming of palm trees, sweet Kona coffee, and Hawaiian breezes. It is also a beautiful looking wood with a sound all it's own. Koa sounds good paired with other woods or as a standalone wood for an entire guitar body (Takamine Koa 544 limited edition pictured).
There are still other tonewoods, such as walnut, ebony, bubinga, ovankol, sapele, and wenge, to name a few. The latter of this bunch are (African) hardwoods that mimic rosewood but are a bit more abundant. Some have striking grain patterns adding an amazing look to fantastic tone, such as ovangkol.
Cypress and sycamore are too often forgotten woods in the tonewood discussion, but no flamenco guitar would be complete without them. Never used in steel string acoustics, these woods produce a treble-rich punch nearly devoid of bass, making a Spanish flamenco punch that cuts through like a hot knife through butter (Pictured is a Yamaha CGX171 Flamenco with a cypress body. Cypress as well as sycamore usually has an unassuming mild yellow color, but is the best choice for high treble tones in flamenco classical guitars). Ebony is occasionally seen in guitar bodies, but is most prevalent as a premium choice for fingerboards, it's one of the hardest, densest woods on the planet, and accentuates bass tone with a dominating black appearance.
This collection of tonewoods all have their unique subtle tonal attributes. Overwhelmed yet? Do some research, play some guitars, and experience the amazing world of tonewood in sight and sound. Sometimes an average-looking wood sounds better than an exotic wood, so always let your ear be the final judge! Price is only a guide, not a guarantee of a better guitar, but price is a good place to start.
Solid vs Laminate
Another crucial matter that relates to tonewood is whether your guitar is of solid wood construction or laminate materials. For a good rundown on this check out that article here.
Final Word on Tonewood = Construction Matters Most!
While I’m super picky about tonewoods and what goes into my guitars, including some custom guitar experiences I've had, I can tell you that great construction and building techniques trumps tonewood every time (solid vs laminate wood also matters as mentioned above). That means a $1700 Taylor of any wood combination is going to sound better than a $500 guitar with the perfect tonewoods you think you want. To prove this point, Taylor used to have a guitar in their corporate showroom made of junk pallet wood, yes wood from old pallets outside by the trash dumpsters. They took the wood and put it through their process and viola! It's an amazing sounding guitar made out of pallets, I’ve seen it, played it… it sounds great. It even has nail holes in the wood which were filled and glossed over. Maybe not as great as a ‘real’ Taylor – but I’ve also played rosewood guitars for $500 that sounded horrible, so here again build quality techniques trumps all else.
Construction and build quality is everything with guitars, higher prices means better brand, build, and wood. Pictured here is an ovankol back and sides Taylor 414ce. Taylor has taken guitar construction perfection to new levels, and the 414 is one of the best sounding acoustic guitars at any price. Perhaps this is why Taylor has virtually taken over the acoustic gutiar world as relatively young company when compared to it's competitors who have been around for twice as long or more. Quality companies, or quality guitar luthier shops, only use the best wood, that has been stored properly, aged, treated, and crafted into amazing guitars with the best processes. Play a great Martin, Gibson, or Taylor, and you'll know what we mean - as well as other quality companies too many to mention. Last but not least, remember body style also affects tone tremendously... sounds like another good blog topic soon enough. Take all of this into consideration when getting your next acoustic!
Any questions about this article? Contact us here... We love talking guitars!
- Jay Gordon, GSR Staff Writer
By the way, did you know the Player’s Kit Guitar Scratch Remover set can forever remove many scratches and minor surface issues? Why not pick up your kit today, and keep that new tonewood masterpiece of yours looking new for a long time to come.