Knowing Your Tonewoods (2 of 2)

In a previous article, we discussed the significance of particular species of tonewoods in making a good soundboard (top wood) for an acoustic guitar. Now we will delve a little deeper into the process of making a quality guitar, noting some of the most popular tonewoods used in crafting the side and back of the instrument, along with some of their sound and tonal personalities.

While the top wood (soundboard) is especially important to the quality of the acoustic, a guitarist may observe that even a guitar made by the same company, with the same crafting, and using the same top wood will produce a different sound when using different tonewoods for the back and sides of the acoustic guitar. The variations may be subtle, but a trained ear will certainly pick up the differences. In some cases, the sound differences can be obvious to even the most undeveloped ear.

If you are looking for an instrument that will stand the test of time, beware of guitars that use polycarbonate, plastic, or laminate for the sides and backs. Though some top-end guitar producers have made great sounding acoustic guitars under $1000 using laminated sides and backs, it is worth the investment of time to understand the differences between laminates and solid tonewoods and their overall effect on the life of the guitar and the quality of sound as the guitar ages. The right tonewoods will actually mature with age, opening up and producing a superior sound, while a polycarbonate or plastic will not and cannot have the capability to improve with age.

A low-budget guitar made with laminate will still produce a decent sound, but is often inferior to a high-quality tonewood and will not have the same abilities to produce subtle but sweet overtones produced by certain tonewoods. As a guitarist matures in his or her playing, these differences will become more notable. Instead of being disappointed with the instrument over time, it would be wiser to invest a little more in quality now and save yourself the trouble of finding a new guitar within a few years (as well as having a lower re-sale value on an inferior model).

Through the Woods . . .

Let’s take a look at a few different tonewoods that luthiers (guitar makers) use to make good-quality acoustic guitars. Similarly to top woods, there are several different types of woods that can be used as side and back woods. This is not an exhaustive list by any means, but an overview of some of the most popular tonewoods used today. Here is an in-depth look at a few of these woods, including:

  • Rosewood
  • Mahogany
  • Koa
  • Maple

Rosewoods are among the most-used wood for side and back tonewoods on quality acoustic guitars. These Rosewoods, of the Dalbergia genus, are grown in South America, Southeast Asia, India, and Africa. Brazilian and East Indian Rosewood offer a variety of rich hues and a sweet scent. Brazilian Rosewood has been over-harvested and strict regulations (since 1992) make it more difficult to find quality pieces at affordable prices (because harvesting is currently illegal). Many luthiers are switching to the more abundantly grown East Indian Rosewood, a close substitute and high quality wood. These dark woods (hues like chocolate and coffee) are stunning and produce a rich sound. Unlike its Brazilian cousin, Indian Rosewood is less prone to cracking, though its hues may not be quite as brilliant.

Mahogany, which is also used on occasion as a top wood (for the soundboard), is abundantly used as a side and back wood. It has been used for decades as a high-end tonewood for acoustic guitars. It is easy to work with and appealing to look at, with its reddish-brown hue that darkens over time (thought not nearly as dark as Rosewood). Mahogany has a more “woodsy” tone than its metallic sounding Rosewood counterparts. When used as a side or back wood, Mahogany will tend to accentuate the mid-range and treble. Mahogany tends to be a less expensive wood than Rosewood, and is a dominant choice (but almost always secondary to Rosewood) with luthiers in crafting new guitars.

The striking colors of Koa wood make it another popular wood for guitars. Hailing from Hawaii, this rare wood can be golden, red, brown, or even a pinkish hue. It has strong, varied markings. Koa offers a rich and warm, yet brilliant, sound. Like Mahogany, it has a high sound velocity. While not as expensive as the Brazilian Rosewood, high demand and low supply of the Koa make it very costly. Koa trees take between 25 to 70 years to mature, and do not grow anywhere outside of Hawaii.

Unlike the low-toned Koa, Maple wood produces higher tones. With its low sound velocity and high internal damping, maple is more acoustically transparent than other tonewoods and produces a much flatter EQ output (not as much width in the sound spectrum so it sounds noticeably more mono-tonic, producing a more single-dimensioned tone). Flamed maple (based on the way the wood is cut and the fiber patterns) catches the eye and tends to be more expensive than plain maple, though there is no distinct difference in the actual tone of the wood.

In summary, the guitar you choose should have the sound, personality, and look you desire. Better quality wood will produce a better quality instrument, especially in the hands of an experienced craftsman.

Avid guitarist, writer, teacher and reviewer Aaron Schulman offers his experience and insight after nearly 25 years of researching, studying, and playing the acoustic guitars. Disappointed with his own first acoustic, Aaron publishes a lot of articles on guitars, like the Taylor 110e acoustic-electric guitar review to help others make wise and economical choices with their instruments. When not spending time with his wife and children, or strumming on his own guitar, Aaron enjoys working on his best acoustic guitar reviews at StrumViews.com.

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