Acoustic Guitar Tonewoods: A Guide
Have you ever wondered why do some musicians choose spruce and others mahogany? Is it a question of style, sound, or just good marketing?
It turns out that there isn’t the best wood for acoustic guitars, but the choice of wood does matter. Keep reading to find out why.
Why does the tonewood matter?
Acoustic guitar woods, known as the tonewoods, are a huge factor in determining the guitar’s sound. The most important one being the wood used for the soundboard. This is because the best acoustic guitars rely on resonance to project sound, and different woods resonate differently depending upon their density, strength, flexibility, and moisture (1).
What the listener ultimately hears is the sum of complex interactions among combinations of various tonewoods.
If you’re a guitarist on a budget, bear in mind that choice of tonewood will also affect the cost.
What makes a good tonewood?
For the top of the guitar, most hardwoods are too hard. Their density makes them less resonant, leading to a guitar that sounds muted. The exception is mahogany, which is one of the softest hardwoods. In contrast, many softwoods are unsuitable because they lack the strength to withstand the tension in the soundboard.
This leaves a small number of softwoods with the right combination of flexibility and tensile strength to make them ideal as a topwood. The most common are spruce, cedar, and mahogany.
For the back and sides, strength and stability are more important than flexibility, so you’ll find more hardwoods in use. Popular tonewoods include mahogany, koa, rosewood, maple, sapele, and walnut. It’s also essential to choose a back and side wood whose tone pairs well with the topwood.
The choice of wood for the neck is based on structural integrity more than sound quality, so hardwoods like maple, rosewood, and mahogany are standard. For the fretboard, texture and playability are more significant factors. Many players seek out a smooth, fast-playing material like ebony, rosewood, or maple.
Popular tonewoods and their qualities
Spruce is the most common choice of topwood, thanks to its ideal combination of lightweight, high strength, and flexibility.
This gives it a wide dynamic range and bright, crisp tones that only improve with age.
Spruce’s popularity also stems from its full availability. There are many spruce varieties, but the most common for guitars are Sitka spruce, Engelmann spruce, and Adirondack spruce (aka Eastern red spruce).
Cedar is another common topwood. It’s softer than spruce, with a warmer, more vibrant, and more complex tonal characteristics. It’s better for highlighting lighter sounding tones, which makes it an excellent choice for classical guitars that are built to be played with the fingers rather than strummed. Cedar isn’t as strong or flexible as spruce, so it doesn’t generate quite as much volume.
Mahogany, with properties that straddle the line between hard and softwood, is one of the most versatile tonewoods. You can find it used for the top, sides, back, neck, and fretboard. It has a natural sound, with a strong mid-range and warm tones, but it lacks the bright punchiness of spruce or cedar.
Maple is an increasingly popular choice for the back and sides of acoustic guitars. It’s known for its sonic invisibility, meaning it contributes little to the guitar’s overall tone. Maple is a great choice to pair with a high-end topwood whose sound you don’t want to impact. Maple necks also add a poppy tone that helps reinforce the top end of a big-bodied guitar.
Rosewood is another widely-used back and sides tonewood. It’s a sturdy wood and comes in a wide variety of beautiful colors, from red to brown to purple. It provides a very clear tone with a warm sound and a big volume. There are two rose varieties that have been commonly used: the east Indian rosewood and the Brazilian rosewood. The Brazilian rosewood has a richer tone compared to that of the east Indian rosewood.
Ultimately, there is no best tonewood. It’s all about what sound suits your style of play. Whether you opt for warm mahogany, bright spruce, or knotty cedar, any well-made solid-wood guitar will sound beautiful and only improve with age.
Guitars sound better with age because older wood becomes more stable, making it lighter and stiffer, an ideal combination for all guitar body types.
Solid wood guitars are better, because when it comes to solid wood versus laminated guitars, solid wood is typically higher quality, and thus higher priced.
Rosewood is banned because it’s protected under the 2017 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. However, an exemption has been made for musical instruments (2).
- Bourgeois, D. (2019, November 15). Guitar Guru: Can You Hear the Difference in Tonewoods? Retrieved from https://acousticguitar.com/guitar-guru-can-you-hear-the-difference-in-tonewoods/
- Benincasa, R. (2019, August 27). Musical Instruments To Be Exempt From Restrictions On Heavily Trafficked Rosewood. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/2019/08/27/754509680/musical-instruments-to-be-exempt-from-restrictions-on-heavily-trafficked-rosewoo