Tonewoods are at the very core and identity of what an acoustic guitar is. The choices made here not only have an aesthetic impact, but the guitar's very voice depends on the combination chosen for the soundboard (top) and tonewood (back and sides).
The first section covers the choices that have the most to do with how your guitar will sound - the soundboard, or top. As strings are played, vibration is sent through the saddle and bridge, and is sent reverberating through the top. Depending on the density and composition, slight variances in tone will be heard.
Important, but not having quite the effect as the soundboard, are the choice for the back and sides materials. Most often, these woods affect the secondary tones and can also affect the projection and sustain of a stringed instrument.
The section following the back and side woods show some of the types of figuring available in most of the tonewoods. Availability is constantly changing as the rare and unique woods are highly sought after.
Lastly, at the bottom, are some choices and examples of bindings and perfling that will accent your other choices.
Arguably the most common tonewood, Sitka is a well-rounded tonewood, one suited for many styles of playing. It’s known for its tight grain pattern and its high stiffness and relative lightness, translating to a broad, dynamic range that stands up well when strummed heartily. At the same time, it’s also quite responsive to fingerpicking, though a light touch may result in a thin sound.
Sitka tends to have stronger fundamentals than overtones, and this means that it can sound not quite as robust when played with a light touch.
Adirondack Spruce was used for the tops on many of the great pre-war American guitars. Many guitar makers today believe that this wood is a significant contributing factor to the strong, clear tone of those vintage, collectible instruments.
But over-harvesting of this wood led to its being all but phased out for use in guitars in the years after the war. For the most part, Adirondack spruce can be found on select high-end instruments.
It’s a relatively heavy and stiff wood, having strong fundamentals, but a greater overtone content than Sitka, and it tends to be the loudest and liveliest of spruces as well.
Adirondack can also be extremely wide-grained—as few as four grains per inch—and not as pretty as other spruces, but it has the uncanny ability to add complexity to the tone.
An Adirondack soundboard on a new guitar can have a bit of an edge, and many players like the way it starts to open-up with playing time
Often used as an alternative to German spruce, Engelmann spruce has uniform color, tight grain, and great sound projection. Though it has been in common use for less time than Sitka or German Spruce, Engelmann has risen in stature to equal these woods.
In appearance, it is like German Spruce, but unlike German Spruce, it seems to be more uniform in consistency and it has a beautiful ivory sheen. The tops are often more homogeneous looking with the early and late growth rings being less distinct than those of Sitka.
It’s also a lighter and less stiff variety than Sitka, and it has stronger overtones and weaker fundamentals.
An Engelmann top typically has less headroom than one made from Sitka, and its sound can suffer a little when played loudly. Engelmann is a good choice for players who want a more complex sound when playing softly.
Remarkable sounding (and looking!) spruce from the mountains of Romania. Carpathian Spruce is prized by many builders due to its "best of both worlds" properties.
Carpathian Spruce has excellent stiffness often seen in Adirondack Red Spruce, while maintaining the lower density and lightness often seen in many of the traditional Euro Spruce varieties (German, Swiss, Italian). This gives it an excellent stiffness to weight ratio.
However, unlike Adirondack Red Spruce whose aesthetics can vary wildly—with blotchy color and wavy grain, most Carpathian spruce has a white, milky uniform color and more consistent grain pattern.
Overall this is an excellent tonewood for any flat-picked or fingerstyle steel string acoustic guitar.
Visually a very clean and light tonewood with powerful projection. Strong strummers and hard pickers will appreciate the warmth and dynamic response of Lutz.
Lutz Spruce is a naturally occurring hybrid, growing among the Sitka and White Spruce in Western North America. It picks up a bit of each wood's character: high stiffness, low density, and consistent white color.
Redwoods are majestic trees, growing 200-400 feet high and living for hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of years.
Redwood can create a guitar of unsurpassed responsiveness and richness of tone.
Redwood tops typically display a rich spectrum of variegation, the result of colors uniquely imparted from silt and the mineral-rich water. The age and size of these trees, as mentioned above, translates into a tight grain with nice cross-grain stiffness, so it will tend to have a fairly bold response, with a brilliance complemented by warm overtones similar to cedar. In fact, it’s often characterized as "cedar on steroids."
The only con to using Redwood can be price. Old-growth and figuring can bring a hefty price tag.
Cedar is more fragile and not as elastic as Spruce, but it is more stable with changes in moisture content. It is liked for its warm color, straight grain, and clear crisp tap tone.
The sound of a Cedar topped guitar is regarded for its harmonic richness and complexity and for a wider dynamic range compared to Spruce – though it’s lack of “headroom” makes it a poor choice for heavy handed flat pickers.
The color ranges from light to reddish to (only rarely) chocolate brown with subtle unevenness of color being seen sometimes even in the higher grades.
It’s a less dense wood than spruce, providing you with a slightly darker, lusher tone. Cedar tends to produce slightly richer overtones, and this results in a tone with less sparkle but more character. Because there is less stiffness along the grain, it’s also relatively quiet compared to some other tops. It tends to lose clarity when it’s driven hard, so it's not favored among those who generally play hard with a pick. On the other hand, the relative prominence of the overtones in the sound it generates results in cedar being a favorite among finger-style players who value the quality and character of tone above volume and clarity.
African Blackwood (a member of the Rosewood family, Dalbergia) has long been recognized by classical guitar builders as the "holy grail" of tonewoods. With a strong responsive tap tone that surpasses even Brazilian Rosewood, it can contribute great volume, power, and brilliance to a guitar but due to it's weight and import restriction, can be pricey.
In the family of Mahogany, and with very similar tonal characteristics, African Ribbon Striped Mahogany has accentuated lines of dark and light running through the length of the wood making for a stunning visual treat.
Bocote has a Rosewood-like tap tone and features an attractive, tobacco/reddish brown color with distinct, parallel black lines. It comes from the same family as Ziricote (Cordia) and is found in the same region (Central America to Northern Amazon).
Bubinga ranges in color from a pinkish red to burgundy or brown with purple or black streaks. Sapwood is often sandy colored and in stark contrast with the heartwood.
Due to it's mass and hardness, bubinga is tonally closer to ebony than true rosewoods. It produces, clear strong mids and sparkling highs with a well balanced low end.
Stock can be found with extroidinary figuring. The uniquness of the figured wood can also make it one of the more expensive tonewoods
Chechen comes from Southern Mexico and Central America. This is a dense variegated brown hardwood that is a relative newcomer to lutherie. The wood is hard and dense and very tight-grained.
Tonally, Chechen has great sustain, and balanced high's and low's.
American cherry is an extremely stable, articulate tonewood that falls comfortably between Maple and Mahogany. Its natural light tan/reddish brown color beautifully darkens with age, and its sapwood is more pale with a light pink tone.
Tonally, American Cherry offers quick attack, good balance, and clear note separation. It avoids the dry, sometimes "thin" sound of Maple and instead offers more of a pronounced bass and mid-range, with more complex overtones.
Cocobolo has become a favorite of high-end boutique builders due to its rich tonal profile that's on par with Madagascar Rosewood, Amazon Rosewood or Brazilian rosewood.
Whether you're looking for a strong articulate voice in a dreadnought, or a rich voice infused with complex overtones for a finger style guitar, Cocobolo is a wonderful choice.
Ranging in color from light orange to deep burgundy, and with a variety of grain patterns, Cocobolo often produces guitars that are as stunning visually as they are sonically.
East Indian Rosewood has a tone that is wide-ranging and articulate, with excellent bass response and strong overtones.
When used on the back and sides of an acoustic guitar, Rosewood is often paired with Spruce (soundboard) and provides a balanced yet complex tone, due to the abundance of overtones produced.
Rosewood provides good articulation, especially of the lower end frequencies. It is less dominant in the mid ranges, but when paired with Spruce, for example, produces a balanced and wide dynamic range.
Rosewood is a very dark (chocolate) tonewood and contrasts nicely with a lighter timber top. Grain is tight and and consistent, seldom is any figuring found.
Although not a true Rosewood, Granadillo has been compared favorably to Cocobolo and East Indian Rosewood in both appearance and tonal profile. It has incredible hardness, broad frequency range, and a ringing tap tone. While it is a relatively "new" instrument wood to North American builders, Granadillo has long been popular in South America, where it is more commonly known as Macacauba. Never one to be content with just two nicknames, Granadillo is also commonly referred to as Mexican rosewood or Hormigo, as well.
Tonally, Granadillo imparts rich overtones with long sustain, amazing clarity, and a focused, deep low-end. It also tends to offer a bit more sparkle in the mids and highs similar to Brazilian Rosewood. Its tonal palette is among the broadest of all tonewoods.
Hailing from the lush and beautiful Hawaiian islands, Koa is a dense tropical hardwood that has been used on guitars dating back to the 1920s.
Tonally, Koa is positioned between Mahogany and Maple, blending qualities of both. Its mid-range is similar in sound to Mahogany while its top end more closely resembles Maple. It lends itself quite naturally to rhythm playing and yields a more open sound the more it's played.
Koa can sound very bright right out of the box and needs a good amount of ‘playing in’ before the tone reaches its sweet spot. Many argue that it’s well worth the effort and the wait! In time, the brightness mellows, resulting in a warm rounded sparkle and rich low end. Koa will not necessarily suit flat-pickers due to its pronounced brightness, but finger-pickers who use the pads of their fingers or those that like to strum with their thumbs should definitely consider Koa.
Koa is breathtakingly gorgeous, the colors range from golden amber, to rich browns and blacks, and even occasional hints of purple. And in the higher grades, Koa boasts some of the most outstanding figure of any instrument wood available.
Unfortunately, over-harvesting and strict local policies make Koa higher priced and less available as a tonewood.
One of the main assets of Madagascar Rosewood is its extremely broad dynamic range. Sparkling, clear highs are paired with strong mids and a powerful, rich low-end. Its loud, ringing tap tone serves as a glimpse into its tremendous sustain and impressive power.
Overtones are dark and complex, creating an overall sound that is full and surrounding. It's also evenly responsive across the entire tonal register, making Madagascar Rosewood suitable for a wide variety of playing styles.
Honduran Mahogany is known for its strong mid-range and its warm, organic tone. It's extremely well balanced when compared to Rosewood, with exceptional projection and good volume.
Because of its naturally even voice, Honduran Mahogany is popular in a wide variety of musical styles, from folk Americana to bluegrass and delta blues. It has a well deserved reputation for creating a superbly balanced instrument.
Colors range from light, sandy browns to medium, golden reds, often with ribbon, quilted, flamed, or beeswing figure.
Maple is a very dense hardwood, and this physical characteristic results in a relatively quick note decay. This makes it a good choice for live performance because the clarity of tone cuts through the mix well, and feedback is less likely to be problematic.
It is well known for making an instrument sound bright and loud, and generates a tight, focused tone with little overtone presence.
A wide array of figuring can be found from flamed to quilting. Flamed is shown above.
Monkeypod is a newer tonewood that's been catching on fast with builders. Its overall golden appearance with strong dark streaks make it visually similar in many ways to Koa, but slightly less dense overall.
Tonally, Monkeypod is reminiscent of lighter African "Mahoganies" such as Sapele. Its fast attack, predominate fundamental, and balanced response across the bass, middle, and trebles makes it an excellent choice for flat picked or fingerstyle guitar.
While it's technically part of the same biological family as Bubinga, Ovangkol shares many of rosewood's tonal properties, but offers a fuller midrange and brighter trebles common in mahogany.
Grown in western Africa, the trees are quite large (100' - 150') making perfectly straight grained wood easy and plentiful to acquire.
The color ranges from gold to brown with strong prominent dark grain lines and occasional black leopard spots that are stunningly beautiful under finish.
Padauk is a species native to central and tropical Africa. The trees grow quite large often reaching heights of 165 feet tall, making even straight grain wood relatively easy to source.
When first cut, the wood has a bright orange / red appearance but will eventually oxidize to a deep red/brown color. While Padauk has not been a major wood used by production builders, it has a wonderful reputation with boutique custom builders for its rich overtone profile, throaty low end, and strong mid ranges. Many builders compare it favorably to rosewood.
Pau Ferro -- sometimes known as Bolivian Rosewood, Morado, or Palo Santos -- is grown in the Atlantic coastal region of Brazil and Bolivia.
Tonally it's closer to Oregon Myrtle or Maple than a true rosewood. It has a clear, focused tone that's well balanced without overtly leaning toward the bass or treble spectrum. This makes it extremely versatile and builders have had success with it for virtually every style of music.
It also makes a strong visual statement with rich golds, browns and sometimes green shades with strong black grain lines and striking variegation in the higher grade sets.
Sapele is often referred to as one of the "African Mahoganies", but it is neither a Swietenia nor a Khaya.
Due to the large sizes of the trees and commercial availability, Sapele is an abundantly available tonewood that has many visual and tonal qualities of Honduran Mahogany.
Tonally it is dry, fast, and articulate. It is perfect for flat pickers and players looking to not get lost in a sea of ringing notes or overtones.
Sapele has many different visual properties, from plain to traditional rope figure, to intense curl, to outstanding quilt.
Found all throughout eastern United States, Black Walnut is one of the few North American species that can compete, both visually and tonally, with genuine mahogany.
Black Walnut is generally medium brown to dark chocolate in color, often with hints of gray or purple. When present, its sapwood is a smooth, pure white.
Many describe Black Walnut's tone as falling naturally between Rosewood and Mahogany. Walnut's low-end response is strong and closer to that of a Rosewood, while its mids and highs tend to be more organic and warm.
Ziricote is most striking in appearance, similar to Brazilian Rosewood, but in shades of grays and olive greens with black lines.
Tonally it has been compared to the King of tone woods, Brazilian Rosewood and has a full balanced set of highs and lows.
Some of the tonewood choices also can be found with a type of figuring called "flamed", or "curly".
When finished, the figuring displays a 3 dimensional effectwhich adds depth.
Quilting is even more rare than curly figuring but, when found, can add an extreme visual explosion of depth and color.
Sapwood is the outermost wood in a tree and can sometimes appear in complete contrast to the color of the heartwood. The contrast can be tastefully placed on the back and sides of a guitar.
Bearclaw figuring can be found in some soundboard tonewoods. The figuring literally looks like a bear scratched the surface with with its' claws and left 3 dimensional claw-marks.
Some Spruce, once opened, can have an array of incredible figuring that is reflective and 3 dimensional.
Binding is the material that lines the outer edge of the top and back of a guitar. Fretboards and headstocks can also be bound.
Following are just a few examples of the many choices available when it comes to binding and perfling combinations.
Above, you see black ABS binding and the traditonal Herringbone (perfling)
Flamed Maple binding with a brown rope perfling.
Here is an example of Black ABS binding and a brown white alternating style perfling. On this example, the perfling was also added to the center of the back to add additional effect.
In this example, a fine Herringbone was used with a White binding.
Here is a Koa binding with a simple Black/white/black stripe bordering the top.
Above is Koa again, this time with a simple black pin stripe for accent.
All of the tonewoods that I use for Zoe guitars have been chosen for uniqueness and quality. A typical $5,000 guitar will have quality tonewoods, but will not be the one-of-a-kind, exhibition grade that the higher end guitars are built with. The lower priced guitars will have straight grain wood like Honduran mahogany or East Indian rosewood - both incredible tonewoods, but not known for their museum quality, artistic look.
Both of these tonewoods are mahogany and both will sound amazing. But the difference between the two in raw material cost is about $4,000! This is an extreme example of two sets of the same type of wood that will sound very similar but will look drastically different and obviously have much different pricing.
The first photo shows straight grained wood that is basic Honduran Mahogany, one of the most recorded types of tonewoods ever used in the guitar industry.
The second photo shows figured wood from what is known as "The Tree." This is a legendary source of wood obtained from one specific tree that was harvested back in 1965. (You can read more about it by clicking on the link below.)
The next two photos show a more down to earth example how different grades of tonewoods look different and vary in price. The first photo is of straight grain cocobolo, an amazing tonewood compared to the second photo, which is a one-of-a-kind, exhibition grade piece. Again, these will both sound almost identical, but they will look very different and there will be a price difference of about $500.
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