Acoustic Guitar Tonewoods
While there are many and varied tonewoods from which to choose in flattop acoustic guitar building today it’s a good thing to remember that there is no real “best answer” when it comes to choosing the tone wood for your next guitar. Tone is subjective for the most part. This guide is designed to give you a general overview of the characteristics most of the more popular tone woods and how they are viewed as “best used” over the years by some of the best guitars builders today such as Collings and Huss & Dalton. As I stated above, tone is subjective but there are some rules of the road to help you in a decision. As an example: In broad strokes, folks who pick harder (flatpickers) would usually be best served by choosing a wood that delivers "quicker" response, which means harder or stiffer woods. Finger style players generally prefer a more mellow tone so softer woods tend to work better. Below is a list of the woods offered by Bourgeois, Collings, and Huss & Dalton along with useful information on their tonal characteristics to help you make a good choice in your next guitar.
You will see in the information below lots of information on the various tone woods available for tops, back and sides of acoustic guitars. One thing that sometimes gets lost in this discussion is how much bracing comes into play. Location and what the braces are made of contributes to how much sound comes out of the hole as well as the other factors so keep that in mind too.
First some “generally accepted” information about woods for the back and sides of the guitar: Mahogany has become increasingly popular choice for those who are looking for guitars that produce a lot of volume. Because of its tight grain pattern it tends to produce a fast and midrange-heavy response that cuts through. For some players however, this cutting ability and midrange forward tone comes at the expense of bass response. When compared to the same guitar using Rosewood for the back and sides, some feel that Mahogany guitars have a thinner sound and they lose some bass response. Conversely, Rosewood tends to produce a better bass response a somewhat warmer tone but in most cases at the expense of cutting ability and balance. This is where bracing can help “even out” these differences in some cases. It’s the goal of all the builders we work with to deliver a guitar that is as balanced as the materials will allow so knowing the “limitations” of each wood will help you make a more informed decision.
Adirondack Spruce: Also known at Eastern Red Spruce, Adirondack Spruce, is native to the Eastern part of North America from Canada to North Carolina. Adirondack was used almost exclusively for flattop steel string guitar before World War II. Adirondack tends to be a slightly softer wood that results in a top that is a bit less "stiff" and offers a quicker response, with more "snap" to the note. Adirondack Spruce is also slightly lighter in weight than Sitka Spruce. As a result of over harvesting this wood for years there is now a lack trees that produce logs wide enough to produce of guitar-width sets. Adirondack Spruce will also show more grain width and color variation than either Sitka or Engelmann, and will often have a "striped" appearance along the grain. Adirondack is often associated with a strong, clear tone.
Sitka Spruce: Currently Sitka is the most popular wood for tops produced by Collings and Huss & Dalton. It has become more popular because of its abundance as compared to Adirondack, which has become more and more scarce lately. Sitka used in guitar building generally comes from the Pacific Northwest of the United States. For it’s relative softness Sitka is a strong and it’s even texture makes for a very uniform grain pattern. Sitka works well for many different playing styles. It can work well for Bluegrass flatpickers on D-style guitars as well as smaller body guitars. Sitka tends to be brighter than both Adirondack and Engleman.
Engleman Spruce: Native to western North America, Engleman grows at the higher elevations in the areas around the Rocky Mountains. Engelmann tends to be very consistent in coloring. It offers a tight grain pattern, and its lightweight. It is selected for guitar tops mainly because It projects louder than many other woods. Also, it generally produces a more open sound than the more common Sitka spruce. Because of a lower yield from smaller logs Engelmann is often more expensive than Sitka. Some builders believe that the negative to Engelmann is that the wood can have a lower "headroom" than Sitka, which results in less clarity and definition when played loudly.
German Spruce: Sometimes this tone wood can also be called Alpine Spruce, Silver Spruce or Italian Spruce. The characteristic of this wood is to contribute a noble tone with shimmering trebles and strong bass response. German Spruce tends to offer a ringing bell tone, with great harmonic richness and sparkling overtones. It can also be a strong and powerful tonewood. German Spruce is a great choice for fingerstyle players or for those looking for a lot of harmonic richness in a larger D-style guitar.
Back & Sides
Mahogany: Honduran Mahogany has long been a standard for back and sides of guitar construction. Used to builds some of the most iconic pre-war guitars from Martin and Gibson, this tone wood is still the most widely used tonewood in today. Mahogany is so popular because it tends to produce a warm sound with bright mids and highs. As a result of it’s popularity many suppliers are anticipating that Honduran Mahogany will be put on an endangered species list by CITES, so future supplies may be limited.
East Indian Rosewood: When compared to Mahogany, East Indian Rosewood is more dense and heavier and as a result tends to give a warmer, big bass tone. Often preferred by rhythm players in the Bluegrass world because it tends to be deeper on the low end and brighter on the higher end than Mahogany. However, you don’t have to be a flatpicker to appreciate East Indian Rosewood because it produces some of the most complex tones found in tonewoods.
More Exotic Options: There are a number of more exotic options for back and sides for a flattop acoustic guitar. Collings offers Flamed Koa, Flamed European Maple and Madagascar Rosewood. Huss & Dalton offers Sinker Mahogany, Cocobolo, and Claro Walnut. Bourgeois also offers many of the woods mentioned above as well as Curly Walnut, Curly Maple and Brazilian Rosewood.