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Guitar Anatomy: Acoustic Guitar Tone Wood

Here in the acoustic room of D.G.S. we get allot of questions like “So whats the difference between all of these guitars?”. To a trained guitar player the difference in acoustic’s may seem obvious but to the average player it can be allot more difficult to understand. When you walk into our Electric show room it is easy enough to see the differences between the guitars. Les Pauls LOOK different than a Stratocaster. You can see they have different shaped pickups or different colors of necks. But when you look at a wall of 125 Taylors that all of the same basic shape and colored top its often hard for people to understand why a Mahogany guitar is $1500 and a Koa guitar is $3500. My answer to this question is always the same: Wood, Wood, Wood.

Acoustic guitars are defined by the wood that makes them up. Don’t get me wrong, there are build differences that dictate sound. This is especially true between brands. Play a Taylor and a Martin with the same wood and body size, they sound REALLY different. But within brands an acoustic guitar is the wood that it is made out of. Now there are a handful of parts that will change the tone of the guitar. The 3 major places you will see variance in woods on an acoustic guitar are:

1.) The back and sides.
2.) The top.
3.) the bracing.

Each one of these can have a prominent impact on the tone of an acoustic guitar and deserves their own explanation. So for this post i am just going to discuss the first of these.

The back and sides of an acoustic guitar is arguably the most important part when trying to decide on a wood type. Being that this wood will make up roughly 65% of the guitar it is going to have a very significant impact on the tone of the guitar and thus is often referred to as the tone wood.

Laminate vs. Solid Wood

One of the first things to consider when it come to the tone wood’s of acoustic guitars is that not all of them use solid wood. For years guitar companies have sought to find ways to make more durable and cheaper guitars. The invention of laminated wood was warmly received by the guitar industry as laminate is a easy material to work with, you can make it look like whatever wood you want and its a cheap alternative to using solid woods. For this reason many of the more budget friendly acoustic guitars on the market today use laminated back and sides.

-Advantages and Disadvantages of Laminate

There are some advantages when it comes to laminate guitars. Generally speaking laminate is much stronger than solid wood due to the laying process during its creation. It is also less susceptible to humidity change over the years. You can get a variety of looks in laminate with out much of a up charge and it generally had a pleasing tonal quality to it. These same qualities that serve as a benefit of laminate also serve as disadvantages. While generally speaking laminate guitars have a pleasing sound it is a very confined and static sound. No matter what the outside of laminate guitars look like the tonal characteristics are generally the same. Normally laminate guitars are paired with a solid spruce top to provide a little richer tone, however this can also lead to cracking in the top as spruce is very susceptible to humidity change. You can imagine if the back and sides of the guitar don’t move and the top wants to move this can cause cracking.

There have been some notable improvements to the world of Laminate guitars over the last few years. Taylor has developed a brace-less heat pressed back used in their 100 & 200 series guitars that vastly improves the sonic properties of laminate and Martin has developed a braced High Pressure Laminate in their “X” series that sound amazing.

Sonic Properties of Solid Tone Woods

So you have decided to dive into the world of solid wood acoustics and are now faced with the choice… which wood do you choose? This is an incredibly complex decision and one that has no “Right” answer. Allot of this choice comes down to the style of music you play, your personal ear and your technical habits. Do you play mostly with your fingers or a pick? Do you play bluegrass, blues, or pop music? These are all things you are going to want to consider when selecting the proper wood for your guitar. Here is a brief description of each of the major tone wood’s sonic properties:

 -Mahogany:  This wood is often referred to as the “warmest” of guitar woods. Its natural emphasis in the Mid range with a gentle slope to the lows and the highs provides a non-abrasive inviting tone. These guitar preform really well when played with picks or fingers and is a very popular choice for Blue’s and Bluegrass players.

-Rosewood: Often referred to as a “Hi-Fi” tone this is probably the most common of the Tone Woods. Made popular by the famous D-28’s of the 30’s-40’s. rosewood produces a wide sonic range with a gentle scoop in the mid range. This wood is very popular in just about every style of music and is commonly seen in finger style or pick played guitars. There are many different types of rosewood, all of which have slightly different tones.

-Maple: Naturally the brightest of the tone woods maple puts a heavy emphasis on the high range of the guitar. This is a very popular choice for finger picking guitarist as its bright characteristic’s provide a wonderful contrast to the warm tone of finger picking.

Koa: Koa is probably one of the more unique tone woods. Its static quality is very similar to maple’s however as the guitar is played it has a tendency to open up considerably and tunes into more of a “Mahogany on Steroids”. If you talk to anyone who owns a Koa guitar they will often recommend that you make sure the guitar is played regularly to keep it sounding its best. This accelerated maturing period can change in as quickly as a month depending on how much you play the guitar.

-Ovangkol: Sometimes referred to as “Poor Man’s Rosewood” ovangkol is almost a high-bred of Mahogany and Rosewood. It has generally the same tonal range as Rosewood but rather than scooping the mid range it actually boosts it. This creates a very rich and inviting tone.

-Cocobolo: Often called the “Piano of Tone Woods” Cocobolo produces beautiful and even tone across the full spectrum of tonal range. The individual notes ring clearly even when played in a complex chord. This is one of the most popular woods for Limited and Custom run guitars.

There are a number of other tone woods that are used in guitars, as you can see in the chart above. The 6 mentioned above are the most commonly used woods and thus require the most explanation. Next time we will tackle Top’s and Braces!

-Tylor Fischer

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