It occurred to me that one of the most important questions someone looking to buy a guitar should have is about tonewood. In this guitar tonewoods guide we’re going to take a look at some of the tonewoods available, their characteristics and what affect they have on tone. We’ll take a look at tonewoods in both electric and acoustic guitars to see if it really matters.
Does Tonewood Matter?
The first, and most significant question is whether tonewood actually matters? What’s the point in paying more for a guitar because it’s made from more expensive materials if it doesn’t matter? There are actually two answers to that question.
The first is that it depends on whether or not you’re looking at an acoustic or an electric guitar. If we’re talking about acoustic guitars then the answer is that it definitely matters. It’s not so clear cut when talking about electric guitars.
An acoustic guitar is hollow bodied and, played in it’s natural form, doesn’t rely on pickups to produce sound. The sound that’s being produced is directly affected by the design of the guitar, including the tonewood used.
Electric guitars are usually solid bodied, relying on pickups to produce the sound. There are so many factors affecting the tone produced by an electric guitar it’d be difficult to isolate whether or not tonewood actually makes a difference.
The most obvious thing that affects tone in an electric guitar is the pickups. There are a ton of pickups on the market all of which have a distinct tone. Then you have different varieties, a single coil sounds much different to a humbucker. On top of that we have to consider the bridge, the nut, whether the neck is bolted on or glued in and the selected pickup configuration.
Some people will swear that they can tell the difference between tonewoods in electric guitars, but it seems to be subjective based on each person’s ear. There are a ton of videos where people have experimented with different tonewoods in electric guitars and the conclusion is always that there doesn’t seem to be an objective difference between each wood used. You could argue that making a guitar out of an old door is no worse than using Mahogany or Alder.
It’s completely subjective with an electric guitar and you may be adamant that you hear a difference between a cheaper material like basswood and something more expensive such as mahogany. Let’s move on to talk about common tonewoods and their characteristics. We’ll then move on to talk about tonewoods in acoustic guitars.
Types of Tonewood
Electric guitars tend to have less variety of woods than acoustic guitars. The main woods used are basswood, poplar, alder, ash and mahogany:
This wood is abundant and therefore cheaper to source. Therefore it’s commonly found in cheaper guitars. It’s quite lightweight and soft. If there’s any truth that the tonewood matters in an electric guitar then lighter and less dense woods won’t provide as much resonance.
Being softer, unless there’s some sort of protective finish to the guitar, you might find that it dents and blemishes quite easily. Basswood is usually exclusively used for the body of the guitar.
Poplar is another relatively inexpensive tonewood. It’s harder than basswood, but can still be classed as reasonably soft. It’s quite commonly used in low to mid-range electric guitars. Think Squier and Epiphone guitars.
It’s not the prettiest wood so it’s generally used in guitars that have a glossy color finish. Again it’s not very dense so it doesn’t provide the best resonance. Fender used poplar in the 90’s but now favors Alder in many of their guitars.
Alder is still quite a lightweight wood. It’s quite dense so provides decent resonance. It’s harder to work than basswood or poplar, which inevitably adds to the manufacturing cost. As mentioned above many Fender guitars use Alder, from the lower end player series right through to the American made guitars.
You’ll tend to find that guitars using Alder are a little more expensive gravitating towards the mid price range. It’s grain can look pretty good, so it can sometimes be found on guitars with a more natural finish.
Ash is more scarce than Alder, which makes it more expensive. It’s also harder, more dense and heavier than Alder. Usually you’ll see the wood listed as Swamp Ash. That’s because it grows below the water level in the swamps of the southern US.
It can be used as a single piece or laminated (other tonewood layered on top of it). It’s got a nice grain so it’s used for guitars with a natural finish. The density of the wood means is provides a decent resonance and, dependent on the design of the guitar, the density may also contribute to improved natural sustain. You’ll find Ash being used in mid-range guitars, owing to it’s cost.
Mahogany is heavier than other woods. There are many different varieties of mahogany. It can be plentiful and therefore reasonably cheap. It’s very dense which contributes to better resonance and natural sustain. The color of the mahogany depends on the variety.
The grain can be quite attractive, making it a good choice for guitars with a more natural finish. Mahogany can be found across a range of guitar brands from Gibson and Epiphone to Gretsch and Ibanez. It tends to be found in guitars in the mid price range and up.
Acoustic Guitars & Tonewoods
As mentioned earlier, acoustic guitars are where tonewoods really matter. Not only does the tonewood matter, but also the construction of the guitar. Broadly there are three types of construction that we need to be concerned with:
- Solid Wood
- Solid Top
At the very expensive end of acoustic guitars you’ll find solid wood. This is where the back, sides and top of the guitar are all made from the same solid wood. Solid wood guitars tend to have a richer tone, which improves with age.
The big problem with solid wood guitars is that they’re susceptible to changes in humidity and temperature, which can cause damage. For that reason they’re not really suited to accompany you when out on the road and not ideal for live performances.
You tend to find solid wood guitars made from mahogany, maple and rosewood. Solid wood guitars often cost thousands of dollars owing to the involved manufacturing process and perceived tonal quality.
The next step down, which is where you’ll find most guitars that cost $275 upwards are solid topped guitars. These guitars range widely in price, but are pretty much based on the same design. They’ll have laminate back and/or sides. Laminate is produced by sticking thin layers of wood together, similar to ply-wood but much finer. The guitar is finished with a solid top.
The argument here is that the top material is responsible for much of the tone that the guitar produces. That’s reasonable as the top is the first thing to receive the sound when you strum the guitar. We’ll talk about types of wood later, but the tonewood used for the solid top can greatly affect tone – and price!
Finally you have all laminate guitars. These tend to be the cheapest to build and therefore lighter on the wallet. If you buy a very cheap guitar it’ll likely be all laminate. You don’t get the punch of the solid top with laminate guitars. You can get some very nice finishes with laminate guitars because they can use a very thin layer of exotic wood for the top.
Laminate guitars are not as vibrant as solid wood or solid top guitars. They’re better for travelling being much less susceptible to atmospheric changes. Laminate guitars can be good for beginners due to their low price, however I’d advise getting a solid top if you can stretch the budget a little.
Let’s move on and take a look at some of the most popular tonewoods used for acoustic guitars.
Spruce is most commonly used as a top material for solid top guitars. It’s very light in color producing a bright and resonant response. It balances this well providing some warmth so that the tone doesn’t feel too thin. There are two types of Spruce but Sitka Spruce is most commonly used.
An additional benefit of Spruce is that it combines well with other types of wood giving producers more flexibility. You might see a reasonably cheap guitar consisting of a Spruce top paired with mahogany back and sides. You might also see a solid Spruce top combined with Rosewood back and sides on a much more expensive guitar.
You’d be unlikely to find a solid wood guitar made from Spruce. Another benefit of Spruce is that tone improves with age. Just make sure to look after it!
Cedar is a very dense wood. It’s not as bright as Spruce, producing a much more mellow tone. Cedar is commonly found on nylon strung guitars where brighter tones aren’t needed as much as on a steel strung guitar.
Due to the density of the wood if you play hard it might sound like it’s distorting due to the lack of brightness. For that reason Cedar suits those who predominantly play finger picked styles. One thing Cedar does well is bring out softer play styles. You’ll often find solid Cedar topped guitars combined with other woods on the back and sides.
We’ve met mahogany before when we discussed electric guitars earlier. As we know mahogany is a hard wood, much harder than Cedar or Spruce. The density gives good resonance but it’s not a bright. Instead it produces warm bass with a rich tone. Solid mahogany or mahogany top guitars are good for folk music because they’re not as bright as Spruce.
You’ll find quite a few solid wood mahogany models out there. They tend to look rather appealing thanks to their darker coloring and grain. You can find solid mahogany top guitars from around $300 whereas solid wood mahogany guitars are much more expensive.
Rosewood is not a sustainable wood. In fact it’s classified as protected. That’s why we’re seeing more fingerboards made from alternative woods where they once would have been made from Rosewood. It’s still possible to buy rosewood guitars, either solid wood or solid top.
Given that Rosewood is so scarce the price of guitars made of Rosewood is very high. In terms of tone you can expect a warm and vibrant tone. Rosewood also brings out something that’s difficult to label. There’s a complex mix of tones produced by Rosewood, which makes it very desirable.
It’s quite common to find Rosewood guitars with solid Spruce tops, although they tend to be eye wateringly expensive! Rosewood guitars are very beautiful to look at too. The natural color and wood grain makes a great looking natural finish.
Maple is another hard wood. It’s also an attractive wood. It’s commonly used to finish the top of electric guitars due to it’s good looks. Maple produces bright and punchy tones thanks to it’s coloring and density. It produced good resonance and balances high ends well producing a reasonable bass.
The brightness of Maple allows the listener to pick out individual notes more easily giving it dynamism. It’s frequently found on the back and sides of guitars thanks to it’s aforementioned aesthetics. You can find a solid top maple guitar from around $350 upwards, so you tend to find them in the mid-price range.
Koa is becoming increasingly more popular with guitar manufacturers due to it’s natural compressing characteristic. Put simply that means the tone will even out if you play harder and bring out more of the subtleties when playing softly.
Koa is hard, similar to mahogany but has a brighter tone whilst retaining warmth. You can see why it’s popular with it’s tonal dynamism. Koa is exceptionally common for recording because of the tighter tone control.
For the reasons mentioned above Koa isn’t cheap. A Laminate Koa guitar will set you back around $350 with a solid top creeping up beyond $800 and solid wood comfortably into the thousands of dollars. It’s safe to say that this isn’t one for beginners!
Like electric guitars we can’t forget other factors that will affect the tone of an acoustic guitar. Although tonewood leads you down a certain tonal path, things like the body shape, pickups, nut and bridge material will also have a bearing on tone.
So does tonewood really matter? Arguably it doesn’t in solid bodied electric guitars. I know that’s a brave thing to say because it’s an entirely subjective matter. However countless experiments don’t really seem to show much difference.
It’s another matter entirely when considering acoustic guitars. There are many tonewoods available and many different combinations used in construction. Probably the best all round option is a solid topped guitar, but the choice of materials is something that each guitarist needs to decide on based on their preferences. Head over to my Acoustic Guitar Page to take a look at some of the guitars on the market right now.
I hope you’ve found this pose useful. Feel free to leave any comments or questions below. Alternatively you can get in touch using my contact page.