Tonewood Intelligence

A guide to the sounds of the most popular woods used in acoustic guitar making
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The tonewoods used in the creation of an acoustic guitar are critical to how it sounds, as the instrument’s top, back and sides have the greatest overall effect on tone. The top is the soundboard that pumps air into a resonance chamber formed by the back and sides. “With tops, density and weight are particularly significant, while the weight-to-strength ratio, as well as the shape, are important regarding the reflective back and sides,” explains Santa Cruz Guitar Company founder Richard Hoover. We visited Hoover at his shop, where he was down to play a game: I named popular tonewoods from the list of available options, and he provided the following descriptions.

Richard Hoover discusses the properties of tonewoods at the Santa Cruz Guitar Company

Richard Hoover discusses the properties of tonewoods at the Santa Cruz Guitar Company

TOPS

• Sitka spruce A warm tone, forgiving and universal. Sitka spruce is the most popular choice in acoustic guitars for good reason: It fits most people most of the time.
• Adirondack spruce Brighter, clearer, and more articulate, with a faster response than Sitka.
• European spruce The same properties as Adirondack, controlled via density — i.e., the thickness of the cut. All European spruce belongs to the species picea abies, whether it’s Italian, Swiss, Carpathian or Norwegian.
• Moon spruce The same species as European spruce, moon spruce is harvested at night according to the cycles of the moon. It’s generally one of the clearest, most articulate and quickest responding woods.
• Cedar Warmer in tone but faster in response than all other tonewoods, cedar is an excellent choice for the fingerstylist who plays in open tunings because it responds to a light attack quickly and with good volume. It makes up for the loss of energy that comes from playing without a pick on strings that are tuned down and therefore have less tension.
• Redwood Redwood and cedar are interchangeable if the right pieces of wood are chosen. Unlike cedar, redwood offers more headroom and doesn’t lose its integrity when overdriven, making it more versatile.
• Mahogany If cut to the proper density, it can be clearer and more articulate than spruce. If done wrong, it is just kind of funky and dead.
• Koa Same as mahogany.
• Figured mahogany Same as mahogany. “Figured mahogany” refers to the wood’s appearance and isn’t an indicator of tone. Like bear claw spruce and grain width, it’s purely a cosmetic thing.

BACK AND SIDES

• Brazilian Rosewood Good old-growth Brazilian rosewood is dense and hard like slate. It sounds like glass — very articulate and clear. It’s also efficient and powerful, with awesome definition.
• Mahogany On the spectrum of bright to dark, mahogany is toward the center, along with koa. It maintains some warmth, so it’s pleasant but has more clarity than the warmest woods.
• Koa Extremely variable in density, it’s a very versatile tonewood.
• Maple Bright, which is why you find it in jazz guitars.
• Blackwood Bright, dense and hard like Brazilian rosewood.
• Cocobolo Bright, clear and articulate like Brazilian rosewood.
• Walnut While it leans toward the warmer end of the spectrum, walnut has to be selected and cut to achieve those qualities because, like koa, its density varies greatly.
• Sycamore Though it varies all over the place, it’s very much like mahogany when chosen right.
• Indian rosewood Moving much more toward the warmer end of the sonic spectrum, with a darker tone, Indian rosewood is also quite variable, so it must be chosen and cut to achieve the desired sound.

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