Quick Guide: Choosing A Tonewood
So you have decided to dive into the world of solid wood acoustic guitars and are now faced with the choice… which wood do you choose? There is no “right” answer to this question, as it depends on what style of music you play, technical habits, and your personal ear. Acoustic guitars are defined by the wood they are made of, and that wood directly affects the tone and sound.
The range of different tones largely comes from the guitar body, which is divided into two sections: the top – or soundboard, and the back and sides – usually grouped together, as they are always made of the same material. It is the combination of these parts that gives each guitar it’s own unique voice. If you’re just starting out or having trouble deciding on a wood, here’s an outline of the most popular wood choices and their one-of-a-kind tones.
Spruce is the most popular wood used for guitar tops. It’s characterized by its pale color and understated figuring. Spruce has a very good all-rouder tone: sweet and smooth, but not outrageously bright, with just enough warmth so that it doesn’t sound thin. Spruce sounds good when combined with just about any other tonewood. Sitka spruce is the most commonly found type, with grain varieties such as ‘bear claw’ that add to the aesthetic appeal. Sitka is characterized 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.
Most likely the second most popular wood for guitar tops, cedar’s color is a bit richer and redish-brown. Cedar is lot less dense than spruce, which makes it quieter and less bright, with less sustain. However, 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 a dense wood with a dark finish and close grain. It has a much warmer, darker tone than both spruce and cedar. Mahogany-topped guitars play with a strong “punchy” tone that would be well-suited for country blues playing. As it’s dark color alludes, mahogany is tonally deep and robust.
A hardwood from Hawaii, koa’s tone is the midrange of mahogany mixed with the top end of maple. Due to its density, a new koa guitar starts out sounding a little bright and tight. But the more a koa guitar is played, the more the sound opens up, expanding the midrange with a richer, sweeter, more resonant tone. Koa has a somewhat more “midrangy” tone that works well for rhythm and truly shines in guitars made for Hawaiian-style slide playing.
Back And Sides:
One of the most desirable and sought-after guitar woods, rosewood takes the strong midrange of mahogany and expands it in both directions. Rosewood sounds deeper in the low end to create a complex bottom, and brighter on the top end which contributes to a fatness of tone on the upper registers. Guitars made of rosewood also have a pronounced “reverby” tone, caused by a strong, clear set of sympathetic harmonics. It has a traditional, iconic sound that’s very familiar to the ear.
When chosen for the back and sides, mahogany has somewhat high velocities of sound, contributing a lot to overtone coloration. Lacking low-end frequencies and sustaining reverberation, the tone of mahogany is described as “woody” as opposed to “metallic”.
Koa makes a very balanced sounding guitar when used for the back and sides. It combines the warmth of rosewood with much of the brightness of mahogany. Koa seems to have a little more fullness in the midrange, and can tend to be a bit variable.
Maple & Walnut –
Maple and Walnut tend to be more acoustically transparent than other tonewoods, due to a low velocity of sound and a high degree of internal damping. This means that they allow tonal characteristics of the top to be heard without the addition of unneeded coloration and may even serve to reduce some of the overtones from the top. The harder, denser examples of these woods tend to lean slightly more toward the tonal direction of mahogany, while softer examples tend toward greater tonal transparency.
There are so many different choices and combinations of woods that your acoustic guitar can be made of. We suggest playing a wide variety of guitars to find the perfect one that matches your style and character.