This probably won’t surprise you, but the woods that go into your acoustic guitar have a major impact on its sound. Every type of wood produces its own distinctive type of sound, and different sounds suit different playing styles.
So when you’re looking for your next guitar, what kind of woods should you consider? Below we have listed some of the common and uncommon woods used to make guitars, as well as their unique characteristics.
The top is the most important piece of the guitar because it is responsible for projecting and sustaining sound. Solid spruce is the most common and most versatile type and is typically the wood of choice for a bluegrass guitar top, but there are several varieties of spruce to choose from. (Note that laminates are not as favored as solid wood tops because they do not produce the same quality of sound.)
Sitka spruce is the most common solid wood for a guitar top, and it is the wood of choice for bluegrass. Its notable characteristics include:
- Long break-in time.
- Excellent sound projection.
- Vibrant, but mellow tone.
Adirondack spruce was once more popular than it is today. Unfortunately, it is now very rare and can be cost-prohibitive. Its characteristics include:
- Quick response.
- Incredible sound projection.
- Unique vintage sound.
The other guitar top woods you are most likely to see are cedar, koa, and mahogany. The first two are rich, warm-sounding woods better suited to the nuances of fingerstyle guitar than aggressive picking. The last option is a stiffer wood, which can sound unusual in a guitar top—it has a slow response and clear, punchy tone suited to the earthy sounds of blues and the like.
Backs and Sides
The woods used in the back and sides of the guitar give the instrument its distinctive voice. The two most common varieties are mahogany and rosewood, but there are others.
Mahogany tends to be a favorite with lead guitarists. It is noted for the following characteristics:
- Warm, bright tone.
- Good cooperation with a microphone.
- Emphasis on the high and mid-range notes.
- Peak sound quality at 25 to 30 years of age.
Rosewood tends to be preferred by rhythm guitarists. It is noted for the following characteristics:
- Complex tones.
- Deep, dark sound.
- Full-bodied resonance.
- Emphasis on the low notes.
- Peak sound quality at 35 to 50 years of age.
The wood used to make the fretboard is important because the fretboard is the surface that you will be pushing the strings against. Although the difference in sound any given fretboard wood may make is subtle, it is nevertheless real and worthy of consideration.
Ebony is usually the wood of choice for a fretboard. Don’t confuse it with ebonized rosewood—there is a difference. Characteristics of genuine ebony include:
- Crisp, bright sound.
- Emphasis on high notes.
- Smooth “feel” to the fingertips.
However, rosewood is a legitimate choice for fretboard wood, as well. Old Brazilian rosewood, which shares some of the hardness and longevity of ebony, is rare now, so you may have to settle for the softer Indian rosewood. Characteristics of Indian rosewood fretboards include:
- Warm, mild sound.
- More moderated high tones.
A Few Reminders
Bear in mind that the different woods on your guitar will interact as you play it. Often players try to choose woods that will balance each other. Choosing too many warm-sounding woods can result in a muffled guitar, while choosing too many bright-sounding woods can result in harsh tones.
The other thing to remember is that your guitar’s sound will only improve with age. Both tops and backs take time to break in. Over time, your instrument will develop a richer, more full-bodied tone, no matter what woods went into its construction.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of choosing a new guitar is the array of options available to you. Spend a little time and thought sifting through your choices to come up with an instrument that will be truly your own. Happy picking!