Ready for the truth about guitar construction? You’ve probably heard about solid wood guitars (not to be confused with solid-body guitars which refers to electric guitars). These are acoustic guitars, that use either solid wood or laminate in their body wall construction. Should you spend thousands of dollars to get a solid wood acoustic guitar? That decision is yours, but a little foreknowledge can help you determine the benefits and reasons for either choice!
As wood becomes more scarce and guitar companies struggle to keep price points low, one way to save resources is to use laminate woods in the body construction of the guitar, defined below. Solid wood guitars do not contain laminated (layered) wood, so as an example if you own a solid top acoustic Martin D18, the top is all solid wood, not layered in any way. As we’ll learn, the rest of any acoustic guitar might be solid or layered.
What’s the difference in laminate guitar wood and solid wood?
Great question (glad we asked!) … Laminate wood simply means money (and wood) was saved by using thinly veneered layers of wood combined to create your guitar. These layers are usually glued together to form a thicker surface. Even in furniture, all solid wood parts are less common these days, and much easier to spot than in a guitar. In an "all solid wood" acoustic guitar, each body wood component is solid, and not layered or laminated: that means the top, back, and sides are all made from solid wood components.
A keen eye can spot these tiny layers in the top if you look at the soundhole opening. Look for a change in grain direction at the edges of the soundhole. The top of your guitar, the soundboard, is less than ¼ inch thick, and it’s either a solid piece or a layered laminate top. Many guitars are laminate wood in their entire body construction. If you can follow the grain continuously along the entire edge as in this image the guitar has a solid top soundboard. See the grain lines as they curve from the top edge all the way around the edge, to under the edge, but the lines are continuous? You can see it clearly in the right most part of the image. That's a solid top. Laminated tops won't have continuous grain at the edge, and are hard to spot, as you should see multi-layers of veneer wood with the grain different in each layer. Solid wood (especially all solid body components) is expensive, especially as nice wood becomes more scarce. Really like the idea of solid wood? First consider a solid top acoustic guitar. Only the best acoustic guitars are all solid wood. Once again this refers to the top and sidewalls of the guitar body, and has nothing to do with the neck nor any other parts. Of course the guitar body as a whole is "acoustic and hollow". Generally speaking, if the guitar website or description does not state it is of solid wood construction, assume it is laminated! (Important - Do not confuse “book-matched” wood with laminate, see heading below.)
Should I worry about laminate vs solid wood on an entry level, $200 guitar?
You should be worrying to the point of sleepless nights. Just kidding. Wouldn't worry too much at this price point, because only cheaper woods are used and you’re not going to see a huge difference in sound over construction while keeping prices limited. You just won’t have much choice in tonewood, either (see our article about tonewoods here!). You’ll get what you get at this price level. One thing you can do though – try to get a “solid top” on your acoustic guitar. A solid top refers to the soundboard, that's the part of the acoustic guitar the audience sees. At this price point many acoustics will be all laminate, meaning often even the soundboard is not a solid piece of wood but one that has been thinly veneered and glued to create one piece of wood.
However a few may have solid tops, and this is a better find. A solid-top improves tone and volume, so even if the rest of the guitar is laminate, having a solid top is pretty cool and a sign of a nicer instrument that is usually at least one step up from the cheaper acoustics. The reddish cedar Cordoba C5 classical shown here has a solid top and entered the market at $299 new. Most guitarists can hear the difference easily between a solid top and non-solid top guitar. A mature aged C5 will blow the doors off your room with awesome tone and volume, and only the top is solid! This is an example of excellent build quality in a budget line guitar that positively affects sound. More on build and construction later!
Advantages of solid wood vs laminate
As the price gets higher, many companies will also make the back and sides solid wood, and now the entire body is considered solid. You will never find a guitar with a solid back and sides and laminate top. That would be like putting WalMart-brand tires on a Porsche. Nothing wrong with WalMart's private label tires, you just aren't going to find them on a high end sports car. So if that nice Gibson J45 of yours boasts all solid wood, that means the entire guitar body is made from solid pieces of wood, none are veneered or layered. But now we are talking thousands of dollars usually. There is really only one advantage to solid wood guitar bodies – they are better and louder in acoustic tone. But that's everything, right? If you’re all about the tone and volume, then the debate is over: and you need a solid wood guitar. Some companies pretty much only make solid wood acoustic guitars, such as Taylor (except for their extremely entry level student models). You can hear the difference when you strum one, a bold loud sound that reverberates against your chest. It’s pretty awesome, and an all solid-wood guitar is one you’ll probably want to own forever.
The Breedlove Atlas AD25/SR Plus acoustic dreadnought shown here is a rare combination of a solid top and solid rosewood back (but apparently laminated rosewood sides). When Breedlove first introduced the Asian made Atlas series for about $1100, also available in a concert style called the AC25 SR Plus, it was an incredible option compared to their Breedlove Focus models which were USA made and over $2000, Guitar Center even had a special display for these guitars complete with a physical cross-section sample of the back of one of the guitars so you could actually see the solid construction. Since almost no one was yet making solid wood acoustics at this price, let alone a heavy-hitter like Breedlove, it was a nice installment into the acoustic market.
Laminate wood still can create a great sounding guitar, but it technically isn’t as loud to the discriminating listener. It does come with a cheaper price point for sure. Some people say laminate guitars react better to extreme climate changes, but I haven’t heard this enough for it to be a real plus in my opinion. All guitars are at risk of extreme climate, temperature swings and dryness, so you still have to be careful with a $500 guitar or a $5000 all solid-wood rosewood acoustic. Once again, having a solid-top should be the minimum requirement for anyone wanting a nicer acoustic and should be within everyone’s budget.
An ugly truth about Laminated Guitars:
One somewhat surprising and elusive feature of many laminate guitars, is cheaper wood is covered up by the outer exposed wood. This is common on some rosewood or exotic koa guitars that are still in the “affordable” under $1000 range. So a guitar can look like actual rosewood or koa on the outside, with impressive finish and grain, but if you were to theoretically saw into the guitar cross-section, you may see layers of other unassuming wood. Even lots of guitar dealers don’t know or care to know the difference, so do your homework. Think of a laminate top countertop, with a thin layer of attractive wood covering up plywood or other hard interior. One way to tell if a salesperson knows their stuff – ask if all solid wood or laminate? A hesitation here indicates a rookie store employee who isn’t going to be much help on anything else. An easier way to check – peer in the soundhole. The vast majority of the time, you can see common-looking mahogany in your soundhole hiding inside the guitar, unfinished in it’s pure state. If you can’t tell, just look at the grain – is it much different in the soundhole than on the back? If it is, it’s laminated. Worse yet, some companies even use plywood and then laminate over that, which you usually can’t see. Yet on the outside, your guitar may be koa, rosewood, or any other combination of “impressive” tonewoods with an incredible eye-catching finish. If the grain matches perfectly on the inside and the back, the guitar is likely all solid. Believe it or not, even laminated guitars still carry much of the tone qualities of the outer woods since that part of the guitar is resonating with string vibration too. But it won’t sound as good as a pure solid wood guitar.
Don’t confuse bookmatched wood with laminate (non-solid) construction!
Book-matched guitar wood refers to finding matching pieces of look-alike wood for the soundboard, and back of the guitar. Not for the sides. This is done mostly on acoustics, but some electrics have book matched wood, especially those with figured grain and natural finishes. Most of the time these pieces are taken from the same log, sawn in sections, and then the thin slices will resemble each other in grain since they came from the same log.
These sections are often flipped over so when put together they have a book-matched appearance (think about your dad’s library and the bookends on either side of the books. The bookends were like mirror images of each other). Check out the bookmatched beauty in the photos, a limited run Takamine Koa acoustic. We can't think of a better bookmatched example among our guitars than this one! Bookmatched wood is common on cheaper and expensive guitars, and just makes for a neater appearance. Another reason it’s used? It saves wood. To have one nice flaw-free board for an entire guitar soundboard means a much larger log and more wasted wood after trimming. Being able to saw that sucker in half or quartersaw it then choose nice matching pieces is a great conservation idea all around. That’s why so many guitars appear ‘split’ down the center when you examine their tops and backs. You can still have laminate or solid wood with bookmatched wood, so you still have to ask the question about whether your guitar is solid wood. Even very expensive quality guitars (including custom shop models) use bookmatched wood, so this isn’t a bad thing at all. The goal with bookmatching is to save scarce natural resources, not to give you a half-rate product.
A solid choice ahead - what do I do?
It’s simply a question of your ear and money, my friend! The best guitars will be all solid wood. But that doesn’t mean you cant get a killer-sounding acoustic that isn’t all solid construction. Let your ear and wallet be the judge. Try many guitars. Play (but don’t get too attached to) that $3000 solid-wood masterpiece at your local guitar shop, then play the $500 or $900 version. You may find some all solid guitars in the $1500+ range. Do you hear a big difference? If not, then maybe you don’t need an all solid wood guitar. The differences will still be there, but will be subtle. There is no difference in appearance between a solid wood and laminate guitar, it’s all on the inside, and only your ears and wallet will know. Also, if you are playing on stage either plugged in or mic’d up, you may not need a solid wood guitar because no one will really be close enough acoustically to know. If money and quality are no object, by all means color it up and go for the all-solid wood guitar. Before dropping that kind of coin on a guitar though, you should also research guitar tonewood, so check out our tonewood article here.
There you have it, the key differences in laminate vs solid wood acoustics! Whatever your choice, we’re sure it’s a fine one... so keep it looking it’s best. With the Player’s Kit Guitar Scratch Remover set, you can forever banish many scratches and minor surface issues. It’s a great guitar-care tool, so why not pick up yours today, and keep your new guitar looking new for a long time to come?
by Jay Gordon - GSR Staff Writer