Knowing Your Tonewoods (1 of 2)

Instruments seem to have their own style and personality – much like the people who play them. Whether you are an advanced player looking for your next axe, or more of a novice looking for reviews on the best acoustic or acoustic electric guitars, you have to put some effort into getting to know the instrument you are investing in before making the purchase.

First, consider the two basic types of acoustic guitars constructed: steel string and classical. Steel string guitars have a more commonly recognized acoustic wood and steel sound and are used in popular music such as rock, blues and country. Classical guitars strings are better suited for more classical pieces, finger-style and flamenco (Spanish) style playing.

Many other factors play a part in the sound a luthier (guitar maker) will get from a guitar. But luthiers agree that one of the most important things to contemplate before making your final decision is the type of tonewood that is used to make the guitar. No two pieces of wood are the same, even if they come from the same species of tree. The sound will also be affected by the way the trees are cut and handled and the way the luthier shapes it. For example, it is important that the top wood is quarter-sawn (cut into fours like a pie) instead of made into planks because of the resulting grain pattern and the strength it provides at thing gauges. The tonewood used will affect the tone, resonance, and velocity of the sound that travels through the guitar (affecting the projection qualities that people hear).

The tonewood used in creating the face of the guitar (or the top wood), is often considered one of the most essential pieces in sound production. Each wood will produce its own unique look and sound. You have to search for the wood that makes the sound you are looking to play (and you have to have an understanding of the subtle differences between tonewoods that are commonly used to produce acoustic guitars). Additionally, better quality wood will make better quality acoustic sound.

So how do you know what type of wood to look for?

It depends on the final result you are looking to achieve. There are many tonewoods to consider, but there are a few popular choices that stand out in the world of acoustic guitars.

Take, for instance, Mahogany, which was traditionally used in making acoustic guitars for years. Mahogany trees, found in abundance in tropical rainforests in Latin America, grow about 75 feet tall and 2-3 feet in diameter. Mahogany tops have a lower sound velocity than Sitka and other Spruces variations, and produce a solid, yet warm, full tone good for playing the blues and country. For about the past twenty years, Mahogany had all but ceased as a top wood for acoustic guitars. But it is more recently making a comeback for certain manufacturers looking for a more mellow response from sound boards. Mahogany is also used extensively in the sides and backs of many acoustic guitars, being one of the top choices among luthiers (second to Rosewood), which will be discussed in future articles.

One of the most popular tonewoods used in making guitar tops today is the Sitka Spruce. The Sitka Spruce species can reach approximately 160 – 230 feet in height and are about 16 – 20 ft in diameter (a fairly massive tree indeed). This conifer is widely available and is harvested abundantly in the North-western United States and Canada. Another reason for the Sitka’s popularity is its high strength to weight ratio. Guitar tops need to be fairly thin in order to resonate and project the vibrations of the strings, while begin able to counteract nearly 180 lbs of tension induced by the steel strings, so strength at very thin gauges is an important characteristic.

Before World War II, Adirondack Spruce was more often used. However, due to over-harvesting, Adirondack became scarce and luthiers switched to the similar and more abundant Sitka (which turned out to be one of the most excellent and widely used top woods today). Many acoustic guitars feature Sitka Spruce for the soundboard, including both low end budget guitars and high end professional guitars.

Cedar is another popular top wood (sound board). Similarly to the Sitka, it is a straight-grained wood and has a high strength to weight ratio. Cedar trees grow to about 130 – 165 feet tall. They can also grow anywhere from 5 to 20 feet in diameter, depending on the variety and climate subtleties. Cedar is more widely used in classical guitars, but it is also used for steel string models. Cedar produces a warmer sound than spruce, but can produce a crisp, shorter sustain on some of the mid range and higher end of the eq spectrum. So if you are looking for a Flamenco, Spanish / Mexican, or Classical sound, a Cedar top is well suited.

Whether you are just starting out learning guitar or you are aspiring to be the lead guitarist in the band, your passion for playing quality music is what counts. So it is certainly worth investing some time to know your guitars and tonewoods that would suit the job. Take some time to understand acoustic guitars and you will be able to acquire the right instrument for the job. Discover your own style and find the guitar made to compliment your personal goals and playing style.

This article was contributed by Aaron Schulman of — a guitar player, teacher, writer and musician for over 25 years. He has studied guitar construction extensively, interviewing many different guitar makers over the years. He has written many extensive reviews to help people make the right choice, including a review on the baby Taylor acoustic guitar, and another on the Taylor 110 e acoustic electric guitar.


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