If you’ve ever wondered what the different types of tonewood do for your guitar tone, then read on…
The word ‘tonewood’ has slightly magical connotations within the guitar world. Put simply, tonewood is the wood within a guitar’s construction that contributes to its tone.
In the case of an acoustic guitar, this is largely the guitar body, which is divided into two sections: the top (or soundboard), and the back and sides (usually considered together as they are nearly always made of the same material).
It is from within the grains of these woods that a guitar’s unique voice emerges. If you’re a beginner, you may wonder what difference the tonewood makes to the tone of an acoustic guitar. Here’s a mini guide…
Laminate versus Solid Wood
When reading about acoustic guitars, you may have noticed that cheaper instruments tend to be made of laminated wood, whilst more expensive guitars tend to be made from solid wood.
In a nutshell, an all-laminated body guitar, the top, back and sides will be made from layered (laminated) pieces of wood, most typically laminated spruce for the top, and laminated mahogany for the back and sides.
Solid wood construction means that the guitar is made from solid sheets of wood. Usually, the top and back of an all-solid construction body will be made by joining two solid sheets each to form the top and back, with the join down the centre-line.
The main advantage of using solid wood is that it is far more resonant, and thus has far better tone than a laminate guitar. In addition, many solid tonewoods (particularly spruce) improves over time as the wood dries out and becomes even more resonant. However, solid wood is far harder to work with, and more expensive, making solid guitars more expensive.
Laminated wood is relatively inexpensive, and cheaper to work with, and so is a sensible option to keep costs down. However, whilst solid body guitars often improve in tonal quality over time, laminated guitars will eventually deteriorate (although this is over quite a period of time – don’t panic!).
Generally, solid construction is better. Guitars are available with solid tops and laminated back and sides, making an economical compromise between price and tone, too.
Spruce is the most popular wood used for guitar tops, and recognisable by its pale colour and (usually) understated figuring. The reason for its popularity is because it has a tone that makes it a very good ‘all-rounder’. Sweet, and smooth, but not outrageously bright, yet with enough warmth such that it doesn’t sound thin, Spruce sounds good when combined with just about any other tonewood. In addition, it also has pretty good projection and volume to boot.
Spruce is a common species of wood, adding to its guitar material credentials. Sitka spruce is the most commonly found type, with grain varieties such as ‘bear claw’ adding to the aesthetic appeal. Sitka is characterised by is clear fundamental harmonics.
Engleman spruce is typically from North America, and has a warmer, creamier tone than Sitka. Adirondack is a lesser-used type of Spruce, with a louder and brasher tone.
Cedar is probably the second most popular material for guitar tops, and can generally spotted by a colour that tends more towards a red-brown.
When compared to spruce, cedar is lot less dense. This makes it quieter, less bright, with less sustain. The upshot, however, is that Cedar is much warmer, and takes less time to reach its full tonal potential.
As a result, Cedar is a popular choice with finger-style players.
Mahogany is probably the most popular choice of tonewood for guitar backs and sides, though it’s also occasionally used as a top material, too. Mahogany is a dense wood, with a dark finish, and close grain. Tonally, it has far warmer, darker tone than both Cedar and Spruce.
As a material for back and sides, mahogany’s density can add great ‘punch’ and projection, adding warmth, but with definition, and a ‘woody’ character.
The combination of spruce and mahogany and spruce is one of the most popular, because it offers a tone that very balanced, but versatile, lending itself very well to most musical styles.
Though far less common as a tonewood, Maple nonetheless features on some of the most popular acoustic guitars ever made (the Gibson J-200, for example). One of the hardest and most dense tonewood varieties, maple is famed for its bright tone, and great projection, with excellent note definition.
All maple acoustic guitars, and maple tops are not common, but maple back and sides are more so, often adding greater power and mid-range to a more typical top material.
The dramatic figuring can also add a stunning aesthetic touch to a guitar, too.
As one of the most expensive tonewood varieties, Rosewood has a lot to live up to. However, with its smooth, warm tone, with complex harmonic overtones. Visually, Rosewood is typically a dark, chocolate brown in colour, with a widely banded dark grain, and is generally used as a material for the back and sides of a guitar body.
Combined with a Spruce top, Rosewood provides an incredibly balanced and versatile palette of tones.
Indian Rosewood is one of the most desirable (and expensive) tonewoods, with warm, but singing harmonics. Brazilian Rosewood has a slightly brighter, less complex tone, with a defined low-end.
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