The type of wood chosen for a custom guitar is probably the single most influential factor contributing to tone, aside from quality construction and design.
There are many varieties of woods to choose from. Below are many different woods with descriptions of their general tonal properties.
TONE WOODS for SOUNDBOARDS
Sitka Spruce(Picea Sitchensis) Canadian Northwest & Alaska.
Sitka spruce is the primary topwood for Martin Guitars. It is chosen because of its consistent quality as well as it's straight uniform grain, longevity, and tensile strength. Tonally, Sitka spruce is extremely vibrant providing an ideal "diaphragm" for transmission of sound on any size and style of stringed instrument.
Bear Claw Sitka Spruce A specifically named variety of Sitka Spruce. A randomly figured Sitka, due to genetic or environmental factors. It looks like a bear has clawed across the grain of the wood. This particular variety is highly coveted for it's unique patterns. From the Pacific Northwest.
Engelmann Spruce (Picea Engelmannii) United States.
Englemann spruce is prized for its similarity in color to European (German) White spruce as well as its extreme lightness in weight which seems to produce a slightly louder and more projective or "open" sound than Sitka spruce. Englemann spruce grows in the alpine elevations of the American Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Cascades. It is considerably more limited in supply than Sitka spruce.
Adirondack (Red) Spruce
This legendary wood that Martin used for its tops throughout its golden years came from the East Coast, from the Southern Mountains into New England and upper New York State. Called both Appalachian and Adirondack spruce, it has a creamy white color. Similar to Sitka, Adirondack responds well to either a light or firm touch. It has more overall resonance than Sitka. Interesting grain color variations make this another visually desirable top. Adirondack has been unavailable since the mid-1940's. Virgin growth has been (fortunately) preserved in National parks, the rest is all second growth, plentiful but up till 20yrs ago to small to use on guitar tops. Loud, good tap tone, Stiff and Magical. Typicall for Adirondack is the play in time it needs to show its full beauty.
Alpine spruce should not be confused with the Italian Spruce often refered to as Italian Alpine spruce, that is very hard to come by and one of the most expensive Tone woods around. The Alpine Spruce is a very stiff soundboard material that is slightly warmer in color than the Italian Spruce. It looks a little like Sitka in appearance but has the deeper, focused tap tone a bit similar to Italian Spruce. Used as a standard by Rozawood guitars. Highly recommended Tone wood.
Italian( Alpine) Spruce Picea Excelsa o Picea Abies, Italian side of the Alps.
This legendary wood that Stradivarius used for his famous violins is still the no1 Tone wood for soundboards, but very hard to come by, and very expensive when found. If C.F. Would have used this wood in its Golden Era, it would have had similar fame as Adirondack(red) spruce. Italian Spruce has always been used in the Italian tradition of violin making and originates from the North Eastern area of the Italian Alps. The trees grow at high altitude, above 1400 up to 1800 meter and the vegetative time is only 100 days a year, the winters are long and cold, so the trees grow slowly and regularly. The growth to obtain a violin or guitar log is about 150 to 200 years, and even more for a cello log. This wood is very stiff and light: 400 kg/m3 as some studies have established. The average size of the Italian Spruce is much smaller and less regular than others kinds of Spruce, like Sitka Spruce for example. Many studies have been conducted to give a scientific explanation on why Spruce from the Italian Alps has exceptional acoustic qualities. Stiffness and lightness are of course essential properties of Italian Spruce still it has a mystical quality, because more woods have these qualities. The wood has more resonance than any other Tone wood and fantastic tap tone. European Tone-woods are often very expensive in the USA. The same goes for American Tone woods in Europe.
Carpathian/Ukrainian Spruce” . From the Caucasus and Carpathian mountains that surround the Black sea
This wood has a very creamy, white appearance but with slightly wider grain than the other European Spruces. These tops are quite stiff and offer a slightly brighter, glassier tap tone than the other European Spruces. Many have compared it to Adirondack Spruce and some even call it ‘Carpathian Red Spruce’. It is slightly less expensive than the other European Spruces and widely available. Marc Beneteau I knew when I bought the Carpathian that it had good potential. Nice stiffness, not too heavy and an excellent tap tone, resonant and sensitivity to a light touch.
German Spruce Picea excelsa, P. abies Europe,
The "ringiest" of all spruce species. Extremely clear and bell like, with the versatility of Sitka. Exceptional sound for light to very firm techniques. Very white in color. Highly regarded Tone wood. German spruce is a common term for spruce coming from Europe. Guitar grade Spruce does not come from Germany anymore. The best material these days is found in the former Yugoslavia region. When you order ‘German Spruce’ these days, you can expect a excellent, slightly golden-colored Tone wood that is a favorite among high-end steel string and classical guitar builders. It is not uncommon to find some small, isolated bits of bearclaw figure in all grades except Master grade. German spruce is often used by Santa Cruz Guitars, Rozawood guitars, Stevens guitars, Ramirez and other classical guitar makers.
A great choice for the fingerstylist with somewhat more richness in the bass than cedar. Redwood responds to subtle playing with a crisp balanced sound. The bass response is particularly round and full with a
piano-like crispness. Lacquer and glue do not bond quite as well as the spruces. Because of this (as with Cedar), some Luthiers (Goodall) recommend light gauge strings only on guitars with these tops. Originally from Northern California, many luthiers (i.e. Breedlove) get redwood from recycled lumber and timber salvage.
Western Red Cedar
(Thuja Plicata) United States, particularly the Pacific Northwest. Western Red Cedar has long been utilized as a soundboard material by classical guitar makers for its vibrance and clarity of sound. It is extremely light in weight compared to spruce and the tonal result is generally a slightly louder, more open response. Balanced, warm and rich with bright trebles. What is most characteristic of Red Cedar is that it sounds broken-in, even when new. Exceptional sound for light to very firm techniques. Coloration runs from light (almost as light as Sitka) to a very dark reddish-brown.
Port Orford Cedar (Chamaecyparis Lawsoniana)
Similar in appearance and scent to Alaskan Yellow Cedar, Port Orford Cedar is stiffer, lighter and thus more suitable for soundboards. Indeed, it is highly sought after for the bold, robust, responsive tone that it imparts on an instrument. It is very even textured, with a slight golden-white color and tight, even grain. A great advantage to the builder is that this wood is more immune to splitting than absolutely any other soundboard wood. The largest growing member of the Cypress family (like Alaskan Yellow Cedar it is not a true cedar) it has the characteristic peppery smell of Cypress. It is an excellent choice for both classical and steel stringed instruments. Luthiers Greg Byers, James Goodall and Les Stansell have all had great results building with Port Orford Cedar.
Alaskan Yellow Cedar (Chamaecyparis nootkatensis)
Alaskan Yellow Cedar, called Canadian Cypress by some, belongs to a genus so closely related to the true cypresses that it was once classified with them by botanists. It is one of the most stable of woods in terms of dimensional change due to moisture content change and so is more immune to cracking than any of the other soundboard woods (with the exception being Port Orford Cedar -another Cypress-like tonewood). Tonally, the wood is especially well suited for flatpicking steel string guitars when a strong tone with a bright attack is desired (its specific gravity is close to Sitka and Adirondack Spruces). Some classical and flamenco guitar builders report that it imbues the instrument with a chimey, clear, articulate tone with great sustain.
(Larix Occidentalis) United States. Western larch has clearly marked annual rings and a fine uniform texture. Larch is harder and stronger than most conifers including spruce. It bears a close visual resemblance to Sitka spruce and due to its increased stiffness, it is an appropriate choice for scalloped braced models yielding a projective and crisp response.
(Acacia Koa) Hawaii. Historically, koa tops have appeared primarily on small bodied 0 & 00 size Hawaiian guitars and ukuleles although recent koa Dreadnoughts and custom guitars have been popular. Koa produces a predominately bright treble response with less volume than spruce, but the slight loss in volume is overshadowed by the extreme beauty of the grain. Koa tops are available on special order and custom instruments.
(Swietenia Macrophylla) Brazil. Mahogany was first introduced as a topwood in 1922 on the lesser expensive Style 17 guitars. Tonally, mahogany is less projective than spruce, producing a subdued response that is crisp and delicate with emphasis on the midrange. Mahogany tops are usually available only custom instruments, but has recently become a standard top in the Baby Taylor travel guitars.
Using a highly figured walnut for a top wood, matched with walnut back & sides, was a first of the Breedlove company but is now offered by Taylor guitars and others. Rich and warm bass with plenty of crispness on the mid and treble side is typical of an all-walnut guitar. Walnut offers a lot of value for your dollar; with the beauty and visual impact of an all Koa guitar, but at a much lower price. Coloration is dark brown with a lot of figure and flame.
TONE WOODS for BACK & SIDES
(Dalbergia Nigra) Brazil. Sometimes referred to as "Jacaranda", this species of genuine rosewood ranges in color from dark brown to violet with spidery black streaks. The smell is like roses when freshly cut. Brazilian rosewood is considered nearly extinct and is extremely expensive if available at all. Brazilian Rosewood is Extremely resonant producing full, deep basses and brilliant trebles. Old Growth Brazilian cut before 1969, is almost unavailable. The price for Brazilian Rosewood in the US has gone skyhigh. Europe builders seem to handle a less dramatic price-strategy. I need to mention there is still some old growth Brazilian Rosewood lying around without necessary Cites papers, mostly in former Eastern Europe.
Bubinga (Guibourtia spp. (G. demeusei, G. pellegriniana, G. tessmannii)) - Equatorial Africa
An immensely popular imported African hardwood, Bubinga may be loved as much for its quirky name as it is for its strength and beauty. Also sometimes called Kevazingo, usually in reference to its decorative rotary-cut veneer. Bubinga has a close resemblance to rosewood, and is often use in place of more expensive woods. Yet Bubinga also features a host of stunning grain figures, such as flamed, pommele, and waterfall, which make this wood truly unique. Bubinga also has an exceptional strength-to-weight ratio.
Madagascar Rosewood(Dalbergia Baroni) - Madagascar.
There are several varieties of Dalbergia Baroni, Madagascar Rosewood or Voamboana, milled in Madagascar. The only wood almost similar in appearance and sound to Brazilian Rosewood. This wood has all of the best attributes of the old Brazilian Rosewood – brilliant, deep colors (red/orange, red/brown, brown, purple/brown) with intense black line patterning, clear ringing tap tone, easy to bend and work. Unfortunately, very hard to come by. The price is moderately high. Highly recommended as one of the best available Tone woods.
Cocobolo is a hardwood from Central America yielded by two to four closely related species of the genus Dalbergia. The best known species is Dalbergia retusa, a fair-sized tree, reported to reach 20-25 m in height. Because of its great beauty and high value, this species has been heavily exploited and the tree is now in danger of extinction outside of national parks, reserves and plantations. Cocobolo is a very beautiful wood, known to change color after being cut. It is typically orange or reddish-brown in color, often with a figuring of darker irregular traces weaving through the wood. Cocobolo is a exceptionally fine Tone wood, close to Madagascar in Tone Quality.
Reports indicate that Cocobolo is stronger and denser than Brazilian Rosewood
East Indian Rosewood (Dalbergia Latifolia) India.
Typically richly grained with dark purple, red, and brown color, East Indian rosewood is resinous, stable and generally more consistent than most other rosewood species. East Indian rosewood is extremely resonant producing a deep warm projective bass response that is especially accentuated on large bodies guitars.
o Dalbergia latifolia is typically richly grained with dark purple, red, and brown color.
o Dalbergia sissoo is similar to latifolia except the shades tend more towards red than purple.
Genuine (Honduran) Mahogany
(Swietenia Macrophylla) Brazil. Yellowish brown to reddish brown in color, Genuine or "Amazon" mahogany is exceptionally stable and consistently clear. Honduran Mahogany is much lighter in weight than rosewood, koa, or maple. In spite of its weight, mahogany yields a surprisingly strong loud sound with an emphasis on clear bright trebles. By tradition (Martin) used for Cheaper guitars, Mahogany doesn’t deserve this. Selected Mahogany is a Thrilling Tone wood.
Cuban Mahogany (Swietenia mahogani) from the Caribbean.
Cuban mahogany is very similar to mahogany from mainland South America in appearance except it tends towards reddish brown in color. Cuban mahogany is denser than Swietenia macrophylla and the texture is much finer. Woodworkers often compare Cuban mahogany to silk and Honduran mahogany to burlap. But like Brazilian Rosewood it is banned in 1946 and hard to come by. The tone is similar to Honduran Mahogany with, some feel, a better treble response.
This beautiful and rare (often quilted) variety of genuine mahogany occurs in a very small percentage of mahogany trees. Though difficult to bend, figured mahogany shares the same tonal properties of the unfigured mahogany except.
European Flamed Maple (Acer Campestre) Germany.
Curly maple, fiddleback maple, tiger maple, flamed maple, rippled mapleNot a distinct species of maple. Curly maple is considered a grain pattern that can be found in nearly all Acer species.
Not a distinct species of maple. Curly maple is considered a grain pattern that can be found in nearly all Acer species.
Called curly maple because the ripples in the grain pattern create a three dimensional effect that appears as if the grain has “curled” along the length of the board. It’s also referred to as fiddleback maple, in reference to its historic use for the backs and sides of violins.
Curly maple figuring is similar to quilted maple, but curl is a primarily horizontal pattern perpendicular to the wood grain. Unlike quilted maple, curly maple is most pronounced when the board is quartersawn, and the curls usually become much less pronounced or absent in flatsawn sections of boards. It is not completely clear what environmental conditions (if any) cause this phenomenon, but there are different grades of curly maple, which greatly affect its price.
maple refers to the characteristic alternating hard and soft rippling which runs perpendicular to the grain in some rarer maple trees. This particular species of European maple is very hard and reflective, producing a loud powerful projective sound.
Hard Maple - Sugar Maple (Acer campestre)Northern America.
It is very similar to European maple, although the figure in the wood can be different. "Birdseye" maple is a variant with tiny whorles that resemble eyes.
Eastern Red Maple
Red maple is appropriately named, as its flowers, twigs, seeds, and autumn leaves (shown below) are all red. Red maple is common over a very large area of the eastern Untied States, and its wood tends to be slightly heavier, stronger, and harder than other species in the grouping of soft maples, though it is still not as strong as hard maple. Moderately priced, though figured pieces such as curly or quilted grain patterns are likely to be much more expensive.
Hawaiian Koa (Acacia Koa) Hawaii.
Golden brown color with dark streaks and a lustrous sheen. Koa wood occasionally develops a curly or flamed figure. Regardless of any figuring, koa seems to have a bass response that is slightly less than that of rosewood and treble response that is slightly less than that of mahogany. The result is a very equally balanced instrument.
A great selection with bright woodiness of mahogany when played lightly, with much of the punchiness and power of rosewood when you dig in. When properly braced, a walnut backed guitar can have a unique warmth and tonal depth. This is a dark brown, highly figured specialty wood which is grown in a wide variety of locations.
(Machaerium Scleroxylon) Bolivia. Also known as Bolivian or Santos "rosewood", morado ranges in color from a light violet brown to reddish brown with occasional olive and black streaks. Finer in texture than most rosewoods, morado is a close visual substitute for East Indian rosewood, and has very similar tonal properties.
The best way to describe Myrtlewood is that it has the powerful voice of rosewood coupled with all the clarity, brightness and balance of maple. Myrtlewood can be found in the coastal mountain regions of northern California and southern Oregon. With coloration anywhere from an elegant whitish/straight grained look (a blonde mahogany), to yellow/green with flame, the tonal personality of Myrtlewood is consistent. Use of this wood on a guitar was first done by Breedlove and is featured on the Breedlove "Northwest" guitar. Prior to this, using Myrtlewood to build a guitar has never been done.
Deeper and richer sounding than East Indian Rosewood, many would characterize striped ebony as very similar to Brazilian rosewood, but I feel it is structurally different. It is dense, has similar reflective properties to Brazilian, and it also has a high specific gravity. It is probably one of the most beautiful Tone woods cosmetically. It has a striking, distinctive vertical stripe pattern, variegated dark brown, black and green. It makes a truly exceptional twelve-string. Striped ebony comes from New Guinea, is exclusively government controlled, and is not an endangered species.
With a density and reflectivity approaching that of maple, cherry produces a rich, projective midrange and balance without favoring the bass or treble frequencies.
Tone Woods For SOLID BODY Electrics
The tonal character of ash issurprisingly loud and bright, with a strong midrange and a crisp bass. White Ash has a "snappy" loud tone with a bright edge, but with a warm bass and long sustain. It is more aggressive sounding than alder. Ash is considered as the "traditional" Fender Telecaster body wood. The tonal character of ash is surprisingly loud and bright, with a strong midrange and a crisp bass. Ash is not used very often for acoustic guitars Swamp Ash is the
White ash from the Swamps, can be extremely light of weight or extremely heavy. Has similar tone qualities as White ash. Normally used for Solid body guitars only but white Ash was utilized on a limited but extremely popular run of D-16A Martin guitars made between 1987 and 1990! The tonal character of ash surprisingly loud and bright, with a strong midrange and a crisp bass.
Alder (Alnus spp.)
has a full and rich sound with a fat low end and nice cutting mids, and good overall warmth and sustain. It has less bite and lesser highs than ash. Alder is the most common body woods used by Fender and is usually found in Stratocasters.
Poplar (Populus spp.).
One of the softer hardwoods, nicely resonant with a meaty tone. This wood is being used by many electric guitar manufacturers as a substitute for alder as it is quite similar in tone.
The principal wood used on most Japanese made instruments since it is the best available tonewood in Asia, although customer demand made the Japanese builders turn more to ash since 2004. It is a very light wood but it also isn't very sturdy and has no real grain. Its tonal response is very similar to alder.
Various Mahogany species are used for electric guitar bodies. Honduran and African Mahogany most widely, but also variants such as Sapele, Khaya, Sipo and others. Mahoganies tend to be a bit heavier that Alder, Swamp Ash, or Basswood.
Walnut and other domestic hardwoods.