A musician’s guide to choosing tonewoods
by Paul Woolson
Scores of customers, musicians, collectors and guitar enthusiasts have asked me countless questions about how the selection (or combination) of tonewoods will influence the sound of an instrument. In fact, so many people ask me these questions that I have come to realize there is still a great deal of confusion and disagreement among the instrument-buying public regarding the impact wood selections have on the overall sound of a guitar, and the tonal nuances that each wood produces.
Let me first offer my general philosophy about the subject. The tonewoods you select are just a few of the variables that contribute to your guitar’s overall sound and tonal personality. A skilled luthier can shape a guitar’s sound to match that of the customer’s expectations by how he or she chooses to brace the instrument, how each brace is shaped, how thin or thick to leave the top and back, choice of bridge and neck materials, and about 500 other “small things” that each make a contribution to the overall sound of an instrument.
I think there is entirely too much emphasis placed on tonewood as the sole defining ingredient of a guitar’s sound. And, this perception is only exacerbated by the collector market that often prizes woods for their rarity, beauty and collectability – sometimes as much as they do for their impact on tone. Have you ever noticed that no premium tonewoods produce ugly or drab guitars?
However, while I think there is too much hype surrounding tonewood selection, I do believe that each wood provides a base “color” from which a luthier can begin to shade each instrument’s unique sound. A general familiarity with these woods and their influences will be helpful to customers who are in the market for a custom-built instrument. The following is a list of woods I commonly work with, and my experiences relating to how these woods come together in the construction of premium musical instruments. This is by no means an exhaustive list, or one that encompasses my entire palette of choices. It is simply the list of the woods I most commonly work with (and in a couple of cases choose not to work with), and a guide to how each contributes to a guitar’s final tone.
Back and Side Woods
East Indian Rosewood
This wood grew in popularity in the 1950s and 1960s as it became increasingly difficult to obtain Brazilian Rosewood in instrument grades. However, I personally find EIR to be one of the best tonewoods on the market, and superior to its much-coveted Brazilian cousin. It has a warm, rich, responsive tone that has clear and tight bass projection without overshadowing sparkling midrange or trebles. This is one of my favorite woods to build with.
This wood is gaining popularity as many builders and players are making the switch from Brazilian Rosewood to suitable alternatives. I love working with this wood and find that it produces guitars that are evenly responsive across the entire tonal register and have a crisp sound that has been attributed to old-growth Brazilian Rosewood. However, Madagascar Rosewood is not plagued by the negative flaws of Brazilian Rosewood (cracking, splitting and severe warping). Madagascar Rosewood will produce a beautiful guitar that will last for generations.
Honduran Rosewood is a wonderful tonewood that is warm, well balanced and exceptionally beautiful. Many of these sets have a deeply veined spider-web grain similar to premium sets of Brazilian Rosewood (without being subjected to all of Brazilian Rosewood’s shortcomings). Honduran Rosewood will produce a guitar of the highest quality and one that you will prize forever.
Pau Ferro (also known as Morado or Bolivian Rosewood)
Pau Ferro is not technically a rosewood. However, this wood is among my favorites for building an exceptional quality guitar. It is beautiful, has no pores to fill (so it finishes superbly), and is tonally similar to rosewood, with fast, clean response that represents the entire spectrum of the tonal register well. Cosmetically, Pau Ferro can range from chocolate brown with intense figure to perfectly straight-grained quartersawn stock that tends to lean more toward tan and gold hues (vs. EIR’s browns, reds and purples).
Honduran Mahogany (Plain and figured varieties)
Honduran Mahogany has been a staple in guitar building from the beginning. Popularized by Martin and Gibson in the pre-war era and used throughout the following decades, this is perhaps the most widely used tonewood in existence. It produces a warm sound with sparkling mids and highs. This wood is an excellent choice for a custom-built guitar. Variations are available with incredibly beautiful figure – quilt, fiddle-back, and gentle rolling flame sets are available for an additional charge. It is anticipated that Honduran Mahogany will be put on an endangered species list by CITES, so future supplies to this wonderful wood may become limited.
Sapele (plain and figured)
As traditional Honduran Mahogany rises in price and is nearing placement on the CITES treaty, instrument makers have been experimenting more and more with other variations of Mahogany. Sapele is an African mahogany that is beautiful, plentiful, and produces wonderful guitars. Tonally Sapele is very similar to Honduran Mahogany, but cosmetically it tends to exhibit more figure. Almost all Sapele exhibits strong "ribbon" figure that is much coveted, and for an additional charge sets exhibiting intense fiddleback or quilt patterns are available.
Bubinga is quickly becoming a favorite wood with custom builders, and may soon find its way into large production shops. This wood, which comes from Africa, has a tremendously rich sound replete with warm even tones and a brilliant sparkle across the entire spectrum. It is plentiful and available in a wide variety of cosmetic appearances. Typically Bubinga has a mottled "bees-wing" appearance under finish that is absolutely gorgeous, and also can be acquired with strong ropey curl.
Most of the Maple I use in guitar construction is native to North America. Maple has long been a favored tonewood due to its beauty and clean bright tones. Maple is an excellent choice as a large instrument to avoid the boomy bottom-end sound that rosewood sometimes produces. I think this is a terrific (and beautiful) tonewood and one I am happy to suggest to my customers.
Highly figured Koa is a prized tonewood for both its beauty and influence on sound. Koa produces a warm rich sound – somewhere between the darker sounds that Rosewood guitars produce and the clean bright sound of a Maple guitar. Increasingly, Koa is becoming difficult and very expensive to obtain in master-grade sets. This wood is likely to see a dramatic rise in price over the next several years. The wood is native to, and only grows on the islands of Hawaii.
Walnut is an excellent tonewood falling sonically between the warm dark sounds of East Indian Rosewood and the bright bell-like ring of Maple. I frequently build with both Black Walnut and Claro Walnut, and many sets contain fantastic flamed figure, occasionally with strongly contrasting sap wood for a beautiful overall look.
You may have gathered that I do not work with Brazilian Rosewood. You are correct in this assumption. There are three basic reasons for this decision:
First and foremost, to me, is the fact that this wood has been placed on the CITES treaty that restricts any post-ban felling of trees or export of new lumber. Beyond the fact that CITES makes it illegal to fell Brazilian trees in the rainforest, the political, humanitarian and environmental issues behind this policy are what I feel are most important. Even the use of legally harvested, pre-CITES Brazilian rosewood increases the wood's visibility within the guitar-buying public and, in my opinion, helps feed the demand for an endangered species. Without preaching these concerns, let’s just say that I’m trying to do my part in decreasing the demand for Brazilian Rosewood.
Secondly, to obtain high-quality Brazilian Rosewood, the cost of the guitar could easily rise by $1,000 to $3,000. That’s a lot of money for you, as a client, to shell out, and a lot of liability for me, as a builder, to assume. In my opinion, the extra expense doesn't provide sufficient payoff in increased quality.
And lastly, Brazilian Rosewood is exceptionally prone to severe warping, cracking, and splitting; and at some time over the life of a Brazilian Rosewood guitar, a crack will likely develop and need to be repaired – something that is costly for both the guitar owner and the luthier.
Combined, these three reasons compel me to say, “Sorry, I don’t work with Brazilian Rosewood.”
I’m happy to provide you with a list of very good luthiers who work with this resource.
Sitka Spruce is an excellent choice for just about any steel-stringed flat-top guitar. It is light, strong and tends to be consistently stiffer than other varieties of spruce I work with. The color can range from light tan to a rosy pink, and in master grades the color and grain are very tight and even. Sitka is probably my most popular top selection.
Englemann Spruce is a bit softer than Sitka, and while many sets can be quite stiff and produce wonderful tap tones, they are not as consistent as Sitka and I spend a considerable amount of time working with my suppliers to procure the best, stiffest sets. The color of Englemann tends to be a bit whiter and creamier than Sitka, and the silking patterns are very pronounced and quite striking in master-grade soundboards. Englemann seems to be more popular with finger-style players, but this is an excellent choice for any style of flat-top guitar.
Adirondack (Red) Spruce
Adirondack Spruce was popularized by Martin on many of their “pre-war” guitars and remains a revered tonewood by players and collectors alike. My experiences have been that exceptionally good Adirondack Spruce soundboards are hard to get and come at exorbitant prices. However, they do build very fine instruments. Cosmetically, Adirondack soundboards tend to have wider grain spacing than Sitka or Englemann, and their color occasionally has striping that goes from creamy to light tan.
Western Red Cedar
Western Red Cedar has traditionally been used on classical and flamenco guitars. In recent years, flat-top builders have been incorporating the wood with much success on steel-stringed instruments. The tone WRC produces tends to be a bit warmer with less sparkle. Some have described the tone as “intimate.” I enjoy working with this wood and believe that it builds very good finger-style guitars.
I choose to custom cut and laminate my necks to add strength. Solid woods are more prone to twist, warp or move under the constant stress of string tension than laminated necks. Most of my necks are laminated in a pattern of Honduran Mahogany, Hard Maple, Walnut, Hard Maple and Honduran Mahogany. Then each neck is reinforced with carbon-fiber rods to provide added stiffness, and a double-action truss rod. This provides a rock-solid neck that will last forever which resists twist, warp or bow.
Fingerboard & Bridge Selection
Ebony is the fingerboard and bridge choice of the masses in the guitar world. It is extremely dense and stable. This dense stability translates to energy being transferred to the sound box with as little energy as possible being lost. An Ebony bridge and fingerboard will ad to creating a bold sound with incredible sustain.
Rosewood is fine choice for fingerboards and bridges. It is dense and stable but not to the extent of Ebony. The rosewood will add to a slightly darker, warmer tone to the guitar. Because it is not as dense as Ebony, a Rosewood fingerboard and bridge combination could sacrifice sustain slightly.
Trim and appointments
If you are looking for plastic bindings on a guitar, you’ve come to the wrong luthier. I use only hardwood bindings which not only add to the aesthetics, but also can contribute to the tone of the guitar. I try to keep my purfling lines very simple – usually just a thin line of Maple and another of Rosewood. But if decoration is required, this is the place for it to shine. Mother of pearl and abalone can be added to the purfling scheme for an additional charge.
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