If you’re new to guitars, you’ll also be new to the range of tonewoods that can be incorporated into making a guitar.
Choosing a guitar isn’t just about its playability, size, and aesthetic finish, it’s also about what it’s made with.
Did you know certain wood grains, tree defects, and patterns are in high demand for the making of your guitar?
But, what happens when there’s very little of this wood available for manufacturing?
We’ll get into alternative techniques here as well as we take you through the most popular types of tonewoods that have always been used, still used, and will continue to be used to make the best guitars in the market!
Why Would Wood Matter?
It’s a little bit of a tongue twister to ask this question, but it’s not so much so when answering it. Just as different types of wood are sought after for their durability, color, and unique characteristics for home-building, flooring, furniture, etc, tonewoods are sought after for the exact same reasons.
In a guitar, each wood offers distinct value to the shape, size, durability, and sound of the instrument. Of all the components put into the making of a guitar, such as strings, bracing, saddles, etc, the wood is the most influential on sound.
“Blasphemy!”, you say. While many know that it’s the strings that actually produce the main source of sound, because it’s what produces the vibrational sound waves, without a soundboard, that energy wouldn’t be able to be transferred efficiently throughout the body of the guitar to create volume without amplification.
This is because sound in an acoustic is dependent upon the bridge, saddle, and soundboard’s (top) ability to transfer string vibration through the sound hole of the body. The top (soundboard), back, and sides makes the body of the guitar where the sound hole is designed and cut.
Knowing this, you’ll not only need wood that’s strong, but wood that can offer unique acoustic properties that emphasize its ability to project differing sounds at various frequencies. Of course, your choice of strings also lends to the harmonic ranges of a guitar.
Now we know why wood matters and how influential it is on sound impact. Now, let’s take you through the most popular guitar tonewoods to ensure you achieve your unique voice imprint every time you put finger to string!
The Best Acoustic Guitar Tonewoods
Tonewoods have changed over time as fads die out, the availability of resources change, and new woods prove to be stronger, resonate better, and look flashier. Here’s the best tonewoods used for soundboards and the body of a guitar!
It’s bright, but it’s also warm.
This exotic Hawaiian wood can be used on both the soundboard and body of a guitar. It’s a typical wood that often sounds better as it ages. It starts off very bright, similar to a ukelele, but over time, it mellows to develop rich and balanced tones. The Taylor GS Mini-e Koa guitar sports this stunning exotic tonewood.
One of the most popular tonewoods used for not just soundboards, but for the back, sides, and even necks of the guitar too! This tonewood is strong and dense, and its sound projection is beefy enough to produce some distinct mid-range tones even you’re playing amongst other instruments.
This beautiful wood is not a very common tonewood for the construction of a guitar body, but you may see it more commonly in neck construction. However, it has been done to build a guitar body, and it was done well on the famous Gibson J-200 that the Epiphone EJ-200SCE also imitated. It’s a very solid, hard, and dense wood that has amazing sound punch and bright tones.
Maple can also be used to cap soundboards to add some bite to mahogany. Maple comes in various species with their own unique distinctions such as Flamed Maple, Quilted Maple, and Birdseye Maple.
Also known as Mora tonewood. Epiphone, Takamine, and Yamaha incorporate Nato in their guitar construction as its dominant, reddish, brown color is very similar to Mahogany. It’s a very dense, strong, durable, and cheaper wood that comes in large cuts making it an excellent construction material.
Similar to Mahogany in appearance, it also has similar acoustic properties with warm and deep resonance with bell-like overtones.
This tonewood is nearly always seen in the material used for a fretboard on the neck. The various species of Rosewood add their own harmonic overtones with Indian Rosewood being the most warm. In general, Rosewood provides incredible harmonic complexity, personality, and resonance that’s worthy of stage and studio recording as can be seen on the solid Rosewood body of the Yamaha A3R A-Series Guitar.
Another exotic tonewood is making a name for itself in the guitar industry. It’s similar in appearance and sound performance as Mahogany. It has a distinctive punch for the mid-range tones, but it emphasizes the bright trebles that can be an asset in music when you achieve pitch-perfect intonation. The Martin Road Series DRS1 Guitar sports Sapele beauty perfectly!
To group all Spruce species as one wouldn’t do the tonewoods justice. Like many other quality woods, there’s more than one specie. However, the most widely-used soundboard Spruce tonewood is definitely the Sitka Spruce. It’s a favorite of Martin Guitars because it’s dense, long-lasting, has a uniform grain, and it’s extremely vibrant.
Its lighter colored wood contrasts beautifully with darker tonewoods on the back and sides. Its dynamic range allows for players of all skills and types to strum aggressively or pick with clarity.
This tonewood isn’t a very common wood used. But, when it is used on a solid-body guitar, you’re definitely going to have access to deeper, richer, and woodier tones. However, pair it with a Cedar top and you can have bright and warm overtones. Paired with a Spruce top, you can play to get an aggressive bite on the trebles with a definite presence on the low end.
If getting to know the tonewoods was a little overwhelming, wait until you hear that there’s also a type of wood construction that you’ll need to get familiar with too!
Laminate guitars are not made with solid pieces of wood. Instead, a laminate guitar is made with layered pieces of wood, like a veneer, to create the body of the guitar. Despite its reputation among music snobs, laminate guitars can be top-selling, high-performing instruments.
Just check out the Fender CD-60CE Acoustic Electric Guitar for proof of a beautiful, all-laminate, highly-popular instrument!
Pros & Cons of Laminate Guitars
- Cheap to make
- Easier to make
- More affordable than solid-body guitars
- Durable and light-weight
- More forgiving against accidental damage
- More impervious to environmental damage VS solid woods
- Multiple finish and color options available
- Not the highest quality
- Shorter life than solid-body guitars
Solid-body guitars are made with solid sheets of tonewoods that make up the soundboard, back, and sides. Solid tonewoods tend to dry out and age better with time further evolving your music signature as the guitar ages.
One such gorgeous solid-body guitar is the Seagull Artist Mosaic Acoustic Guitar that we have done a full review on. You could also see what the Yamaha A3R A-Series Acoustic Electric Guitar sports for a solid-wood body!
Pros & Cons of Solid-Body Guitars
- Long-lasting life VS laminate
- Beautiful aesthetic appeal
- Increased resonance
- Improved natural acoustic sound
- Often manufactured from highly-reputable brands
- Expensive to make
- Harder to manufacture
- Very expensive guitars
Solid/Laminate Combo Guitars
While this seems like you’d be stuck on either extreme of the guitar industry, don’t panic. There is a compromise between the two. You can get a guitar with a solid top and laminate back and sides like the LX1E Little Martin Acoustic Electric Travel Guitar.
Martin shows you that guitars with this construction tonewood combo doesn’t always mean it’s going to be a poorly-made guitar. However, it does provide enough jump up in quality to improve sound performance while still keeping costs within the affordable range.
Acoustic VS Acoustic Electric Tonewoods
Over the last five centuries, acoustic guitars haven’t changed a whole bunch. However, within the last century, the Piezo pickup was designed, and it changed the dominant role that tonewood once served. This may beg the question, “Does tonewood still matter on an Acoustic Electric Guitar?””
We answer this with a resounding, “Yes!” While electric guitars depend solely on pickups to be heard and to change or distort sound, acoustic electric guitars just provide the ability to amplify the sounds of an acoustic.
The acoustic electric guitar construction is still built the same way as an acoustic but with pickups added in the design. You now have the ability to play plugged-in to amplify the natural acoustic harmonics of your tonewoods, or you can play unplugged when jammin’ it at a Summer bonfire.
Alternative Tonewood Techniques
You have to have wood to get wood, and it’s unfortunate that a noticeable depletion on this natural resource is affecting the guitar industry even though guitar-making isn’t the primary reason for this depletion.
When you talk about tonewoods, you have to mention sustainability in order to protect the natural resource and ensure a future of musical instruments.
Some species like Mahogany, Maple, and Rosewood were once thought of as being inexhaustible and that isn’t the case anymore. For these reasons, guitar manufacturers are looking into alternative tonewoods.
What does this mean? Is it some sort of composite guitar? To get the full low-down, you’ll have to check out our “Sustainable Tonewoods & Eco Friendly Guitars Guide.”
Tonewoods: The Be All, End All?
Tonewoods have a great deal to do with the sound of your guitar, and if it were that simple to be the be all, end all, that would be easy. However, to be a pro player is going to take more effort than just being “easy” or just choosing the right tonewoods for you.
It does take a level of skill to be able to make music magic from any kind of guitar. Tonewoods are just the start!
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Trent is a music lover, musical instrument player and passionate audio afficionado.