As the title of this article indicates, most acoustic guitars are made out of wood. The types of wood used are generally referred to as “tone woods”, because the type and quality of the wood used in building the body of an acoustic guitar can, and does determine the sound of the instrument. As there are many types of tone woods available to build the body of acoustic guitars, and only a limited amount of space, I am going to talk about what I consider to be the four most commonly used types of tone woods and their properties and the types of tones that they produce.
Sitka Spruce – Sitka Spruce comes from Alaska and is used as the top or “soundboard” for the vast majority of acoustic guitars being built today. It is considered to be a strong, even textured, and straight grained wood. It has the highest strength to weight ratio of any wood that is available, and is very tough to the point that it tends to resist minor dings and scratches. There are other types of spruce that are used for the soundboards of acoustic guitars. However, Sitka spruce has a more mellow tone. It is light, strong and flexible. The perfect qualities for the soundboard of an acoustic guitar.
Maple – Maple is sometimes used to make the back and sides of an acoustic guitar. It grows throughout most of North America, and produces slightly less bass response than either Mahogany or Rosewood (the other two most popular tone woods that are used to make the back and sides of an acoustic guitar). The properties of Mahogany and Rosewood will be discussed below. However, they must be briefly mentioned here in order to discuss the sound properties of Maple. Maple produces slightly less bass response and volume than either Mahogany or Rosewood, but it adds a greater punch and bite to the notes produced from the guitar. It is considered a bright sounding wood and will cut through, especially in a band setting. Maple is a strong, heavy and dense wood, which is the reason is produces it’s brighter sound. The grain pattern of Maple is often figured, and can be found quilted, with “bird’s eye” or other patterns that make it very visually stunning when finished.
Mahogany – Mahogany is also very often used to make the back and sides of an acoustic guitar, and is sometimes used to make the top as well. It can be found growing from the southern portion of Mexico down to Columbia, Venezuela, Bolivia, Peru and Brazil. It is more porous and less dense than Maple and varies in color from light to a dark reddish brown. Due to these properties, Mahogany produces a great clarity of tone and tends to feature more of the midrange of the sound frequencies than either Maple or Rosewood. For these reasons, Mahogany is often preferred by guitarists for playing lead lines and solos. However the properties of Mahogany, with it’s clarity of tone and midrange frequency response tends to result in a loss of bass response. Mahogany, like Maple, can sometimes be found to be highly figured, but this is a very rare occurrence.
Rosewood – Rosewood can mainly be found growing in Brazil and India. In addition to being used to make the back and sides of an acoustic guitar, it is very often used to make the fingerboard as well. Due to it being over used and exploited, Brazilian Rosewood has become very scarce and has become protected by laws and international treaties. It is difficult to get and is not used today as much as it had been before for these reasons. In fact, an embargo was placed on it’s importation into the United States in the late 1960’s. Due to this, wood that had been determined to have been unusable prior to the embargo is now considered to be of a high grade quality. Brazilian Rosewood’s balance, clarity of tone and quick response produces a rich, full, warm tone due to it’s porosity and density. It is slightly harder than today’s more commonly used Indian Rosewood, but it is approximately the same density and weight as Indian Rosewood. The use of Brazilian Rosewood can add considerably to the price of an acoustic guitar due to it’s scarcity. The color of Brazilian Rosewood can run from a deep reddish to a dark chocolate brown and provides an attractive grain pattern. Indian Rosewood, on the other hand, can be found growing through the entire Indian sub-continent. It has color variations from a golden brown to a dark purplish brown, with darker streaking in the grain pattern. This not only gives it an attractive look, but also a grain pattern that is narrowly interlocked. Rosewood, due to it’s properties produces a very warm tone favoring the bass end of the frequency spectrum. Because of this, it is preferred for rhythm playing and is the choice of may Bluegrass and Country Music players. Due to the above mentioned embargo of Brazilian Rosewood, Indian Rosewood has become the tone wood of choice for the majority of the manufacturers’ top level, high end guitars.
If you have any questions about tone woods or acoustic guitars, feel free to give me a call or drop me an email – Ira