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What's the Big Deal About Alternative Tonewoods?

January 30, 2014
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The body of the Ruokangas duke classic is crafted from Spanish cedar.

The narrow selection of so-called “tonewoods” used by most makers of electric guitars implies there are very few timbers suitable to the hallowed process of building a guitar. Mahogany, maple, ash, alder, maybe with a rosewood or ebony fingerboard—and that’s all she wrote, right? But the efforts of a handful of adventurous makers, and even some of the major names experimenting with other species, raise two crucial questions: are there alternative tonewoods that will work just as well? And, are the classic tonewoods still as good as they used to be?

Before we can embrace the answers, though, we have to ditch any golden age baggage we might be carrying. As with so many things related to the electric guitar, our preconceptions stem from the fact that countless classic tones were recorded with guitars built from these woods. We guitarists can be a surprisingly conservative bunch, and if that’s what helped Buddy Holly, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, or Jimmy Page sound the way they did, well, that’s how we want our guitars spec’d out too.

“One thing to consider,” says John Reed of California’s Ronin Guitars, “is that woods such as maple, ash, and mahogany were chosen because they were cheap and readily available in the ’50s and ’60s. These woods are ingrained in our minds as the best possible options when, in reality, there are better choices if you know where to look.” Ronin makes a lot of its guitars with 1,000-year-old redwood that Reed’s family has salvaged for several generations. It isn’t a widely available alternative, but a good example of an entirely viable material from the perspective of tone. “The tone of old-growth redwood is highly resonant, sonically balanced, and provides the perfect combination of clarity and warmth,” says Reed, adding that it “always yields a final product that sounds like you’re playing an old, broken-in guitar.”

Reed’s words hint at another potential flaw in our thinking regarding the traditional tonewoods: While stocks of high-quality timber were plentiful and affordable in the good old days, the mahogany, maple, swamp ash, or rosewood you buy today might not be even close to the same caliber. Plenty of luthiers will tell you that the best, well-aged woods are mostly used up— and harder and harder to find—and that the newer, greener examples of the species just don’t yield nearly the same results when used in musical instruments.

Respected Finnish guitar maker Juha Ruokangas began seeking out alternatives in the mid 1990s, when he realized supplies of the finest traditional tonewoods were rapidly running out. “I came across a wood species called Spanish cedar,” says Ruokangas. “Traditionally it was used for classical guitar necks, but I found it to be a superb alternative for mahogany in a solidbodied guitar.” Ruokangas frequently partners Spanish cedar with an alternative from closer to home, Finnish birch. “I really love the way Finnish birch sounds, sort of similar to maple, but even nicer with a crystal clarity that works extremely well when used as a top on a Spanish cedar body. To me, it doesn’t really matter if the wood I use is traditional or not, as long as the result is what I’m after.”

Ronin and Ruokangas are far from the only reputable makers who have strayed from the traditions laid down by Gibson and Fender more than a half-century ago, but they offer two good lessons in the fact that it’s the final tone and feel that matter, more than the ingredients that get you there. If you’re seeking a perfect reissue, then perhaps it has to be maple atop mahogany, or a solid swamp ash body. But if tone is first on your shopping list, and original looks are a bonus too, there are plenty of other ways to go. And even if you’re seeking entirely classic tones from your instrument, you might find you achieve them equally well from a viable alternative tonewood.

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