Probably the number one question I’m asked is about the different guitar tonewoods.
In discussing tonal differences of woods, I expose myself to a lot of critique and possible criticism. Firstly, because it’s very subjective and secondly, because there are already so many “experts” out there. So let’s be clear, I am no expert. I do however have eighteen years in the business and have heard a lot of woods and thousands of opinions from other players. What I will attempt to offer here is more of a consensus of sound.
What’s the difference between mahogany and rosewood?
The simple answer is that mahogany has more punch and clarity, while rosewood offers warmth and overtones.
But does this make one superior to the other? Absolutely not! Personal preference, as well as knowing how the guitar will be used is what really determines the right one for you. Often times, for recording and live performance, mahogany tends to have more clarity and will cut through the mix better than rosewood. Yet, playing unplugged at home or in a solo gig, rosewood will add another dimension that many prefer.
What about all the exotic woods that are available today?
Honestly all of them are actually just tonal variants of mahogany and rosewood. That’s why rosewood and mahogany have been the backbone of guitar building for over 150 years!
Most often people choose an exotic wood for its looks more than its tone. A prime example would be something like Hawaiian Koa. Highly figured Koa is absolutely breathtaking to look at. And while it is the preferred wood for a high-end ukulele, it truly does not work best on an acoustic guitar. Koa tends to be very mid-rangy and bright, which is perfect for the Uke. But on an acoustic guitar it can be rather thin and brittle sounding. This is why it is often matched with a cedar top to add some warmth.
What about top woods like Spruce and Cedar?
Great question, and thanks for asking!
I’ve been told by some legendary guitar builders that 70-80% of the sound is actually due to the top wood! The back and sides are really meant to compliment the top. I could devote an entire post to top woods but instead, let me offer a brief summation. Spruce is by far most common, and for very good reasons. Spruce produces volume, note separation and great tone. Cedar is a common substitute, and offers a warmer and more broken-in sound. The two caveats I would warn you of is that cedar is softer and dings easier, also cedar tends to sound best when it’s new. The tonal quality seems to decay over time, versus spruce that opens-up and continues sounding better over time.
So this is everything you need to know about guitar woods right?
Absolutely not! I could go on for days talking about guitar woods. Just know that there are a lot of choices and tones, and we all have different ears and tastes. Feel free to call the store anytime if you have more questions, or stop by if you are in the area!