Quick Guide: Choosing A Tonewood
What is Tonewood?
Maple & Walnut –
Unlike an electric guitar that gets most of its tone from pickups and the amplification process, acoustic guitars are — barring any amplification or electronics — entirely dependent on their shape, wood choice and construction. Simply put, the wood chosen for the body, neck and fretboard of a given guitar have drastic effects on how an acoustic guitar sounds, and different tonewoods enhance or bring out different aspects of a guitar’s brightness and volume.
In recent years, logging regulations and changes to the worldwide availability of certain types of woods have reduced the use of rosewood, granadillo and bubinga, though in late 2019 the easing of these restrictions has led to an increase in rosewood and other “protected” tonewoods in acoustic guitar construction. Today, many manufacturers use a variety of tonewoods, including exotic or alternative woods that keep production going while avoiding steep taxes and fees for the consumer.
The most important thing to keep in mind about tonewood is that wood is an organic material. Over time, wood changes and “breathes,” altering its shape, density and grain, which can all have an effect on tone. Due to this, even guitars made in the same factory and same production run can have differences in tone as these imperfections make their way through the production line, such as knots or small, microscopic holes. But rather than being a deficit, this is exactly what makes each guitar unique. No two acoustic guitars will ever have the exact same tone, even if the tonewood used and production is exactly the same.
But with such variation, what’s the best wood to use for an acoustic guitar?
Unfortunately, it’s not that simple, and assembly, preference and playing style also have large roles. In general, dense wood provides enhanced attack and clarity, and indeed brightness, while soft wood gives a darker, more full sound with increased sustain. However, don’t think that all guitars are made the same. One of the main differentiators is laminated wood versus solid wood.
In order to promote intriguing wood grain, which increases the viability of a sale, some lower end guitar manufacturers will use a thin, beautiful piece on top, reinforcing the rest of the guitar with cheaper wood. Sure, it makes for a more appealing guitar, but this means that the guitar is more likely to chip, warp or mark, compared to a solid wood guitar. Furthermore, experts agree that solid wood vibrates more sympathetically and produces a richer, more appealing tone.
Nonetheless, here are the three areas to pay attention to when it comes to tonewood. While often overlooked, the sides and back of an acoustic guitar have a large impact on tone. Aside from creating the volume of a guitar, it’s actually the sides and the back that do most of the resonating, feeding rich sound out from the guitar’s top. Second is the top — also called the soundboard — which is where the strings are attached and is largely responsible for the aesthetic impression of a guitar. Top tonewoods are mainly responsible for attack and clarity. Third is the neck and fretboard, which sits under the fingers as a guitar is played. Most necks are maple or mahogany because they work well under tension and are easy to work with.
Interestingly enough, guitars are often made with different tonewoods across all three elements, each chosen for their sympathetic characteristics rather than consistency, and is often referred to as pairing.