Has anyone ever asked you what your guitar was made out of? Did you consider what it was made out of when you bought it? Many players, especially those gleefully wanking away on their first axes don’t realize what their babies are made of, or how it contributes to their sound. Today, I’d like to take a look at some of the most common tonewoods used in the construction of guitars, both acoustic and electric.
So what exactly is a tonewood?
“Tonewood. Tone-wood.. Tone Wood… Is it when you hear a trigger sound and your…”
No! No, that’s certainly not it! Tonewood is actually a deceptive name. All woods are tonewoods. That is, they all have certain properties that effect the manner in which they resonate and transfer that resonation. The more common tonewoods have properties that make them attractive choices for use in instrument building.
This article will provide a primer on the physical and tonal properties of the most common tonewoods, as well as an idea of which ones common guitars are built out of. I’ll also throw in my unwanted opinions too, just to make things more scandalous. So without any further gabber, on to the show!
Alder is the not-so-secret weapon of many electric guitar manufacturers, especially those in the USA. Physically, it is a light (both color and weight), tight-grained wood that takes stains, dyes, and finish very evenly. It has a very acoustic natural resonation, and is used extensively in solid body electric guitars for its emphasis on bright, punchy sound. Alder isn’t extremely hard, and you can very easy put marks in it if you aren’t careful. I personally love the look of a worn out alder guitar thats finish has stripped, allowing sweat to soak into the unprotected wood-grain. But then, I’ve been told that I’m sadistic.
So who builds with alder? Are you kidding? You can find alder guitars in the line-ups of Jackson, Fender, Yamaha, and Squire. Among others. Many, MANY others.
Alder’s a classic
If alder is the hottest, most shallow drunk chick at the party, ash is her best friend. You know, the one taking a footing behind her friend, not wanting to cause such large ripples. The one with her own intellectual quirks that drive you wild. Ash can vary widely in properties, and for this reason it’s usually divided into two separate species. I guess that would make the girl in the analogy a skitzo, wouldn’t it? Swamp ash is slightly heavier than alder and generally exhibits patterns of dark brown streaking. Tonally, it is similar to alder with a noticeable increase in upper-midrange frequencies. The second, less common species of ash is heavier yet, and exhibits a brighter, more ringing tone.
Swamp Ash was the tonal champion of Fender all through the 50s. It was commonly used on all of their guitars. Today, the stereotypical ash guitar is the Telecaster. It is also highly prevalent among Japanese made guitars, especially through Fender’s Japanese era, due to its availability in Asia.
Ash, beautiful with nothing on
Poplar is used in the construction of guitars for one very good reason. It’s cheap. Physically, it’s a tight-grained wood that weighs slightly more than alder. It takes finish very well, and finish it you should. Without some kind of color, it looks like watered-down green/yellow puke. Tonally, poplar exhibits similar properties to that of alder. It lacks the elements that give alder its cutting edge, however.
You can find poplar guitars with many names on them. Perhaps the best way to illustrate what role poplar has been designated as a tonewood is this: Squire
Puke.. err. Poplar
A good cut of basswood is extremely light and nearly white. A bad cut is full of dark streaks that don’t seem to hide very well behind any kind of finish. And speaking of finish, you better have lots if you want to finish a piece of basswood because it will absorb it faster than a kid juiced up on Redbull will try to jump off the bookshelf! Don’t expect to take a basswood guitar with you to your grave either if you’re as abusive of your axe as most are. Basswood will mark just by tapping on it. Of course, it has some favorable tonal properties. It tends to have an almost hollow reverberation while resonating, and gives off a deep, smooth tone.
Basswood is an application specific tonewood. It’s fairly inexpensive, making it a common appearance in Squire’s lineup, but its tonal properties also win it use in the more rhythm-oriented offerings from Ibanez.
My favorite wood of all time, and not only for its tonal characteristics, mahogany is one of the market mainstays today. The most common species used is Honduran mahogany. Physically, it’s a relatively light-weight hardwood with a rich red or brown coloring. It’s open grain often leads to thin black speckles that create a sense of depth. It takes finish, but you need to prepare it more extensively than other woods. As a tonewood, mahogany provides for as rich a sound as it does a smell. Mids and lows are accentuated, and the wood vibrates in a way that reminds me of a tender encounter with true love.
Mahogany is used almost as extensively as alder. Perhaps the most prevalent manufacturer using mahogany is Gibson, but Paul Reed Smith, Ibanez, Yamaha, Epiphone, and many others are on the same boat. Incidentally, the wood is used both for electric guitars and acoustic guitars to similar effect.
Mahogany! My love!
Maple is the almighty balance in the universe. It’s an extremely heavy wood, and playing a guitar made entirely out of maple is like asking your chiropractor to cause back-pain. It can vary greatly in appearance, exhibiting remarkable cross-grain patterns that resemble flames, tiger’s stripes, bird’s eyes, or ripples in water. Maple is also very hard. Getting hit by a maple pole resembles getting hit by a steel pole in many ways. Yes, I have firsthand experience on this matter. Tonally, maple is very bright, almost shrill. Maple fingerboards and necks tend to brighten up a guitar’s sound.
Very few guitars are made exclusively from Maple, largely due to its weight and tonal properties. Cost is also a major factor, as this wood doesn’t come cheap. Gibson’s Les Paul uses a slab of carved (and often beautifully figured) maple as a soundboard, to bring balance to a mahogany back. ESP follows a similar principle with their guitars, as does Paul Reed Smith. Maple fingerboards and necks are used by many manufacturers, including Fender.
Sweet tiger maple!
Korina is all the rage in the guitar building community. It can come very light, with a nicely streaked off-white color that suits natural finishes very well. This is good, because its waxy surface makes it hard to dye. Where its real power shows is in its tone. It exhibits tonal properties much like that of Mahogany. For aging Les Paul players who don’t want to dislocate their shoulders with eleven pound guitars, korina is an interesting idea.
Korina is used by many independent builders, but is largely shunned from mass production. Some major names produce lines of basses built from Korina.
Korina, like a forest
Spruce is an extremely light softwood with a long straight grain pattern. It often exhibits knotholes, which either need to be worked around, patched, or used as character. Tonally, spruce is bright and punchy with plenty of volume when used as an acoustic guitar’s soundboard.
Most builders of acoustic guitars have some models with spruce (usually Canadian Sitka Spruce) soundboards. These include Martin, Taylor, Cort and Yamaha.
Spruce.. or, sand?
Cedar shares many physical properties with spruce. It can range in color from a deep red all the way to white. Cedar tends to produce a warmer, more whole bodied sound when used as an acoustic soundboard.
Classical guitars like those made by Almanza, Yamaha, or Jasmine (By Takamine) make extensive use of cedar as a soundboard material. Some larger guitars take advantage of the overall loudness of cedar, including the concert jumbo class guitars from Cort.
Rich red cedar
Bubinga is often called African rosewood, but it’s from an entirely different species. It is very heavy, somewhat waxy, and usually has a purple tinge to it. Its figuring can be breathtaking. I have a 2″ board of bubinga sitting downstairs just waiting for me to get a larger bandsaw so that it can be resawn and made into my new coffee table! Tonally, bubinga exhibits many of the characteristics that rosewood does.
Bubinga is nowhere near as commonly used for guitar bodies as rosewood, but it is a common sight on cheaper guitars that claim to have a rosewood fingerboard.
Indian rosewood is what most people refer to when they say rosewood. It is a dark wood with a mix of browns, reds, and purples, and can display intricate grain patterns. It is very heavy. Like many exotic woods, its waxy surface makes it difficult to finish. Tonally, rosewood is warm and rich with an unusual amount of bite.
While you’re more likely to find rosewood on a guitar’s fingerboard, it is also used as a body wood by builders like Fender. Their rosewood telecaster rocketed to instant fame due to its ties to George Harrison and the Beatles’ Abbey Road. Indian rosewood is also a common sight on acoustic guitars, which take advantage of its properties to provide much more bite and cutting tone than Mahogany gives.
I love India for the rosewood
Brazilian rosewood is the thing of legends. It’s the holy grail of guitar tonewoods. It is physically very similar to Indian rosewood with an even more elaborate grain pattern and a wider range of colors that combine to make true beauty. It is also very waxy, and hard to finish. All the warmth of Indian rosewood is there, with new frequencies that cut through like no other.
While Indian rosewood is occasionally used for guitar bodies, Brazilian rosewood is not. It is extremely expensive, and illegal to forest or export from Brazil. This is strictly a fingerboard wood. And is it ever. I have had the pleasure of playing 3 guitars sporting Brazilian rosewood so far, and I must say that its a pleasure to play on. That said, I reside myself to accepting that I will never own a guitar like that. In the not too distant future, Brazilian rosewood fingerboards will join ivory nuts as extinct guitar legends.
Brazilian rosewood, exotic
Ebony is a very hard, very black wood that screams “too cool for school” when you see it on a guitar. It’s very heavy, and nearly pointless to finish. If getting hit by a maple bat is like getting hit by a steel poll, an ebony bat is like a front-end loader! Tonally, ebony is very bright and can contribute to making a guitar shrill sounding if its not built for tonal balance.
Ebony is highly used as a fingerboard material by such manufacturers as Gibson. It’s rarely (ever?) used for bodies because, well, you try holding thirty pounds on a one-inch leather strap over your shoulder for four hours!
Black magic, ebony
Make It Work For You
There are many other tonewoods that I’d be happy to discuss, but even some that I presented here push the border between common and obscure. Does any of this mean that your guitar from Walmart made out of the famous tonewood “Godknowswhat” sounds any worse than other guitars? No. Every part of a guitar contributes to its tone, but what oozes out of your fingers is you! The way you play will make your tone, no matter what your instrument is made out of.
Wow, that was long, wasn’t it? Why don’t we take it easy next time. I think I’d like to take a little trip to a place called “Acoustic Land” where we’ll look at all of the different kind of strings available, and how they’ll affect your playing.
Have anything you’d like to add? This article is open for discussion at the Studio-Central Forums: