In the case of an electric guitar, there are a number of different design aspects that contribute to the overall sound; pickup types, configuration of electronics, hardware and tonewood choices are just a handful of things to consider. When it comes to acoustic guitars, however, the wood configuration arguably plays a more crucial role. The wood choices for the body, neck and fretboard form upwards of 90% of the construction of an acoustic guitar, and if you take electronics and hardware out of the equation, they’re almost entirely responsible for the way an acoustic guitar sounds!
Different manufacturers tend to have their favoured wood choices, but in recent years the industry has seen a shift in trends. This is partially due to changes in regulation that restrict the circulation of certain rare woods, most notably affecting woods like rosewood, granadillo and bubinga. These changes were implemented by CITES (short for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) to protect species from drastic reduction in numbers, and it’s meant that any guitar that uses these woods requires CITES certification to be traded across borders – naturally, this has meant a lengthier process and an increase in prices.
Nowadays, acoustic guitar manufacturers use a wealth of different wood types, with exotic and alternative woods being used more commonly to avoid hefty fees and maintain consistent output; so without further ado, let’s delve deep into the world of acoustic guitar tonewoods!
Why do acoustic guitar tonewoods sound different from each other?
While it’s common knowledge that some woods sound brighter, darker or fuller than others, not everyone necessarily knows why!
Because wood is an organic material, it changes shape and density as it grows; with age, wood develops deeper grains that change almost immeasurably during its lifespan. Due to the unpredictable and ever-changing nature of this growth, you can almost certainly expect inconsistencies and imperfections at every level of detail, whether it’s an unmistakable fist-sized knot or a microscopic hole. Different types of wood have different types of imperfections and characteristics in their make-up, and it’s this variation that makes them sound different from each other.
Imagine two rooms, one small and one large. If you strum a guitar in the small room, there’s less space for the sound to move around in, so the sound dies down quicker but is clear. In the large room however, you’ll notice the sound echoes around more, meaning the sound lasts longer but loses clarity. Now apply this to the gaps between the grains in different types of wood: if wood is dense, there will be less space among the grain for the sound to move around in, so you can expect quick attack and bright clarity. If the wood is less dense, the sound will have more space in the grain to move around in, so you can expect a darker resonance with increased sustain!
Laminated Wood vs. Solid Wood
Wood can be arranged and utilised in a number of ways when it comes to building acoustic guitars. One of the most common comparisons is that between laminated and solid wood.
Naturally, the pieces of wood that are used to make acoustic guitars are thin, as they need to be manipulated into a shape that works with the intended design. As the term may suggest, laminated wood is a number of thinner layers of wood that are stuck together with adhesives and pressure to form a sheet. One of the most common reasons for this practice is so that the guitar can feature an attractive natural grain on the surface without needing to use a thicker piece of wood. The luthier simply takes the thinnest possible piece and reinforces it with cheaper materials, meaning that the attractive piece wood can be used for a number of instruments.
Solid wood is the opposite approach. You simply use the thicker, more expensive piece of wood. In some cases (particularly for guitar tops), the solid piece of wood is divided into two and mirrored – you’ll often notice a distinct divide in the middle of a guitar top when this is the case. While employing solid wood is more expensive, it arguably yields superior results. Because it’s a single piece of wood, the grain is all going in the same direction, meaning it’ll last longer in its battle against time and the elements. Laminated wood is often quicker to warp or mark due to its compound nature. Many argue that solid wood also offers a more resonant tone, again due to the uniform grain and thickness. Better vibration means better sustain and better tone!
Acoustic Guitar Tonewood – Back & Sides
The wood used to form the back and sides of an acoustic guitar sound chamber does a lot more than simply look good and create an enclosure. Through eliminating or amplifying different frequencies produced by the strings, these tonewoods can have a considerable effect on the overall tone generated by any given guitar. The combinations of woods therefore need to be considered carefully when they are paired up, and it is for this reason that acoustic guitars frequently feature different woods on the back and sides than they do on the top. Let’s take a look at some of the most common choices for acoustic guitar backs & sides:
Rosewood is without question one of the most popular and enduring tone woods known in acoustic guitar construction. It’s been used to very good effect for decades, and there are two main varieties that have been employed throughout this time: East Indian rosewood, and it’s more elusive and expensive alternative, Brazilian rosewood.
Brazilian rosewood has a luxurious appearance and rich, sparkly tone, making it highly sought-after. Due to the aforementioned changes in CITES regulations, it’s becoming less and less common, with the East Indian variety being used more often in acoustic guitar construction. East Indian Rosewood (often referred to as EIR) is far more common, easier to produce, and therefore considerably cheaper.
The Brazilian variety tends to have the more striking appearance of the two, with a dark brown complexion with rich orange hints, and fine black lines in the figuring. EIR is generally pretty easy to spot as being different, although the colouring is often a similar dark chocolate brown. It has a straighter grain pattern than its Brazilian counterpart with less striking figuring, and it can include hints of purple, red, and grey highlights.
Both varieties offer a clear, bright sound with a fairly even response across all frequencies. Some observe a slight mid-scoop with slightly enhanced lows as well as highs. Its resonance could be described as dark and complex, with notably rich overtones and a metallic zing that’s difficult to replicate with other woods!
Summary: rich sound with complex overtones and crystal-clear high frequencies. A dark, luxurious appearance with fine black lines in the grain.
Made popular by Martin and Gibson in the pre-war era, mahogany was seen as a cheaper alternative to rosewood. Don’t be fooled into believing that means that is a lesser quality, however; it’s just different.
With a rich dark reddish-brown colour, mahogany is very easy to spot. It’s a stiff, hard and dense tone wood that provides a distinctly wood and warm tone. Denser sets of mahogany can start to take on some of the sonic characteristics of the rosewood, but generally, it’s a tone wood that will provide a punchy and balanced tone with a relatively emphasized midrange, certainly compared to the enhanced highs and lows that rosewood will generate.
As mahogany matures, its tendency to produce a focused fundamental tone will start to give way to make room for more prominent overtone content. This results in a more characterful and colourful tone, and the quality of tone generated by a mahogany guitar will therefore change through time.
Because of its rich heritage and place in guitar history, mahogany backs and sides can be heard on loads of old school recordings, and the inherent character of the tone lends itself well to blues and roots music to this day. In summary, it provides a punchier and darker tone than rosewood, with a prominent midrange.
Summary: warm tone with excellent midrange and bass emphasis, with a reddish-orange colour and an even grain pattern.
An African tone wood closely related to Mahogany, Sapele is similar in both look and sound. Sapele trees are protected in such a way as to prevent over-harvesting which makes this a relatively sustainable wood that is being harvested responsibly. The deep, pronounced grain is very reminiscent of mahogany but sapele tends to be a little lighter red/amber coloured and can often be striped between large dark and light patches (sometimes an inch or more in thickness).
With sapele, you’ll notice a strong low-end and midrange bark, very similar to mahogany, but it delivers more top-end definition than its African counterpart. That makes it a highly versatile wood for an acoustic guitar, ideal for a number of styles. It largely depends on how you play it; the midrange and warmth will lend itself nicely to strumming and softer playing, while that added sparkle makes it great for contemporary styles, lead playing and fingerpicking parts alike!
Summary: similar tone to mahogany but with a little extra high-end definition, with stripy red colouration.
Although maple is frequently employed as the back and sides tone wood for violins, it’s not quite as common in acoustic guitar building. There are several reasons for this, but its appearance certainly isn’t one of them; maple tonewood can boast numerous different figuring patterns, all of which can look absolutely stunning! Many people have been charmed into spending their hard-earned cash on a guitar with maple back and sides almost purely thanks to its spellbinding aesthetics.
Curly maple (also known as flamed Maple) and quilted maple are the two most commonly seen, although birdseye maple does make an appearance every now and then. It’s important to note that although the quality of the figuring in the wood can have a bearing on the price tag, it will not have any impact on the tone of the wood. That said, the density of each particular piece will to a certain extent.
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.
As a tonewood, maple provides excellent separation where every note sounding at the same time has clear definition. In other words, maple makes it possible to identify each individual note in a chord relatively clearly compared to some other varieties of wood that will provide a more blurred, overtone-heavy sound. ‘Transparent’ is a word commonly used to describe the inherent tone of maple, and it will frequently provide considerably more treble than the rosewood or mahogany alternatives mentioned earlier.
Summary: bright, immediate tone with excellent projection. Light, golden colour with a rich variety of distinct grain types.
Koa hails from Hawaii, where it’s known as the traditional wood of choice for ukuleles construction. It certainly isn’t a cheap wood to get hold of which accounts for it generally only appearing on special or limited-edition guitars; Taylor are one of the few manufacturers that offer Koa on a wide range of models.
Its stunning appearance is one of the main reasons that Koa is so sought-after, but it has more than a little to do with tone as well. Koa can sound very bright right out of the box and need 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 to get it there though! In time, the brightness mellows, resulting in a warm rounded sparkle and rich low end. Koa will not necessarily suit plectrum players 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. If you do buy a Koa guitar, bear in mind that it will seem very bright at first and will need some attention and use over time to mellow out.
Summary: extremely bright tone that mellows over time, resulting in a well-rounded high and low emphasis. Caramel colour with contrasting patterned grain.
Much like koa, walnut is a dense wood that delivers a sparkly brightness. The midrange is where it differs, however, with a healthy bark that puts it somewhere in between rosewood and mahogany. It’s worth noting that again, similarly to koa, the tone of walnut will become warmer and softer with age.
Walnut is a popular alternative to koa; it’s often easier to source and work with, resulting in more common usage and a more affordable price tag. Its tonal brightness, woody midrange and dark, rich appearance have proven popular among numerous luthiers; for many, it’s something of a departure from the usual suspects, resulting in a uniquely beautiful instrument that remains versatile and playable.
Summary: bright, sparkly tone with slightly boosted low and mid frequencies compared to koa. Dark, stripy appearance.
Acoustic Guitar Tonewood – Tops
The top wood of an acoustic guitar isn’t just the first bit that you notice; it plays a pivotal part in your instrument’s sound. The top (also referred to as the soundboard) is one of the components that stands in between your strings and the bulk of the guitar’s body, so the wood used has to be carefully considered. It also has to look great, right? Here’s a breakdown of some of the most popular choices for acoustic guitar tops:
If there is such a thing as an industry standard top tone wood, then Spruce would have to tick that box. It has become a perennial favourite and features on the comfortable majority of steel-string acoustics available today. The main reason for this is that it suits just about any and every style of playing. You’ll see a number of species of used in acoustic guitar construction, the most common being Sitka, Engelmann (also known as European) and Adirondack (also known as Eastern Red Spruce).
Overall, spruce delivers a broad dynamic range, with a crisp and immediate articulation of sound and little harmonic complexity. You’ll get a consistent sound regardless of your style of playing; some consider this to be lacking in character, but it does mean that spruce could be considered versatile in terms of its sound. Engelmann tends to be marginally lighter and less stiff, which results in slightly less projection, while Adirondack is generally slightly heavier and stiffer resulting in a louder guitar, but they are all relatively loud top woods.
Spruce is generally creamy white to a pinkish light brown in colour, depending on the variety in question. Engelmann for example, tends to be a little whiter and creamier than Sitka, but all Spruces are in the same ballpark ‘creamy white’ category. It’s worth noting that Spruce does tend to tan over the years resulting in older Spruce top guitars taking on more of a yellow hue.
Summary: immediate, balanced tone with little complexity. Light and unassuming in appearance.
Although spruce is the most commonly employed top wood, cedar comes in at second place. Traditionally used on classical guitars, cedar is becoming increasingly common in steel-string instruments.
It’s a less dense wood than spruce, providing you with a slightly darker 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 tonewoods. It tends to lose clarity when it’s driven hard, so tends not to be favoured 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 favourite among fingerstyle players who value the quality and character of tone above volume and clarity.
Ranging from cinnamon, through honey brown, and onto light chocolate in colour, cedar is relatively easily identifiable as being a darker brown than spruce.
Mahogany topped acoustic guitars are not especially common but have been around since the ‘20s. Although Mahogany is more commonly found being employed as a back and sides wood, it is used as the soundboard on some models. The Martin 15 series is a good example of modern mahogany-topped acoustics
As mentioned earlier, mahogany is relatively easy to spot, with a distinct reddish appearance. Mahogany tops are often left unpolished so that the natural aesthetic of the wood can be enjoyed. As we touched on earlier in this article, mahogany is a stiff, hard and dense tone wood that provides a distinctly wood and warm tone. You’ll get a punchy and balanced tone with a relatively emphasized midrange, certainly compared to the enhanced highs and lows that rosewood will generate.
Summary: rarely used as a top, but produces a warm tone with excellent midrange and bass emphasis, with a reddish-orange colour and an even grain pattern.
Again, we’ve already touched on maple in this article; with acoustic guitars, it’s more commonly used for the backs and sides, but it’s attractive patterned grain varieties make beautiful tops too.
Maple is known for its dense brightness and definition. As well as looking great on the top of an acoustic, it lends itself very well to plugged-in performances thanks to that quality note definition. The brightness and clarity responds brilliantly to instrument microphones or pickup systems, allowing you to sit nicely in any mix.
Summary: bright, immediate tone with excellent projection that suits amplified performance. Light, golden colour with a rich variety of distinct grain types.
Acoustic Guitar Tonewood – Necks & Fretboards
For the most part, acoustic necks consist of either maple or mahogany. That’s because they’re easy to work with and respond well to tension. The fretboard is where you tend to get a broader variety, as this is one of the main parts that you’re in contact with when playing your instrument. Because of this, the choice of fretboard wood is one of the most important things to consider in terms of feel and playability. Here’s a selection of some of the most common options and their characteristics:
Rosewood has arguably been the most common fretboard wood for quite some time, although it’s now under heavy CITES restrictions. As mentioned earlier, there are two types most commonly used: Indian and Brazilian. Indian rosewood is far more widespread, but the CITES restrictions mean that it’s quite rare to see Brazilian rosewood in use on a new guitar nowadays – if you’ve got one, count yourself lucky!
Rosewood is popular for fretboards thanks to its smooth feel, but its durability is also crucial. Rosewood isn’t susceptible to staining or wearing out like some softer tonewoods can be, so it’s perfect for fretboards – the most frequently attacked bit of your guitar! The wood is also naturally oily so it doesn’t need its own finish, meaning it feels extremely soft and natural under the fingers.
Ebony has also been a staple fretboard wood choice for years, though it’s more commonly seen on electric guitars. Its instantly recognisable dark appearance is both subtle and striking at the same time. There are two varieties used in fretboard construction; African and Asian. The Asian variety often features brown stripes that many players find ugly or distracting when they are looking for frets, which means that it’s the African alternative with its uniform colour that is more commonly found on guitar fretboards.
Ebony is a very dense and heavy but smooth tonewood. It has high natural oil content, meaning that it can be left unfinished. This is an appealing trait to many players who tend to refer to it as playing ‘fast’ because of its naturally smooth, solid feel. It also wears very well and will hold up to years of playing, even more so than some of the less dense options available like rosewood. In terms of tone, ebony provides a very responsive bright, snappy and crisp attack coupled with a smooth sustain.
Maple is known for its density, resulting in a loud, bright and transparent tone as we mentioned earlier. It’s not a particularly common fretboard wood for acoustic guitars, more often seen on electrics. Darker woods are generally considered more attractive, aesthetically at least, for acoustic guitar fretboards. Maple might make a good option for a fingerboard if your body wood offers a darker, warmer tone; the maple will balance it out and deliver a more balanced tone.
Walnut is a resilient wood similar to rosewood. For this reason, as with rosewood, it makes a great choice as a fretboard, although it isn’t as common. As with maple, this could be a cosmetic issue; acoustic guitars are widely perceived to look better with darker fretboards. As discussed earlier, walnut has a striking, rich appearance when used for acoustic guitar backs and sides, and would stand out in a similar fashion if used for the fretboard.
Walnut offers smooth playability and a bright tone, but with just the right amount of low and mid emphasis to sound balance and relatively transparent.
Micarta is worth a mention; though it’s not technically a type of tonewood, it’s becoming more popular as a significantly cheaper alternative. It’s technically a brand name, but in the guitar world, it means a composite of materials that’s bonded by a number of resins. The result is a tough, resilient material that lends itself well to fretboard use.
Looking for more tonewood info? Check out our ‘Electric Guitar Tonewood‘ guide!
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