The wood used in the construction of a guitar plays a strong role regarding its tone. There are a variety of traditional and alternative woods to choose from, all of which in the hands of an experienced luthier can create magnificent instruments both cosmetically and tonally. I've listed below the most commonly used descriptions of these woods and their recognized tonal properties. These descriptions were gathered from a variety of resources providing the ones most commonly used. Some of these descriptions can be found in the Martin Brochure on Tonewoods. There are other rosewoods and many alternative woods now commonly used that Martin does not mention some of which I have added below. All of these woods and others not listed make awesome guitars.
Sitka Spruce Canadian Northwest & Alaska. Sitka spruce is the primary top wood for most manufacturers today. It is chosen because of it's consistent quality as well as it's straight uniform grain, longevity, and tensile strength. Tonally, Sitka spruce is extremely vibrant providing an ideal "diaphragm" for transmission of sound on any size and style of stringed instrument.
Bear Claw Sitka Spruce A specifically named variety of Sitka Spruce. A randomly figured Sitka, due to genetic or environmental factors. It looks like a bear has clawed across the grain of the wood. This particular variety is highly coveted for it's unique patterns. From the Pacific Northwest.
Engelmann Spruce Common to the United States. Engelmann Spruce is prized for its similarity in color to European (German) White spruce as well as its extreme lightness in weight which seems to produce a slightly louder and more projection or "open" sound than Sitka spruce. Engelmann spruce grows in the alpine elevations of the American Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Cascades. It is considerably more limited in supply than Sitka spruce and is an awesome tonewood.
Adirondack (Red) Spruce This legendary wood that Martin used for its tops throughout its golden years came from the East Coast, from the Southern Mountains into New England and upper New York State. Called both Appalachian and Adirondack spruce, it has a creamy white color. Similar to Sitka, Adirondack responds well to either a light or firm touch. It has more overall resonance than Sitka. Interesting grain color variations make this another visually desirable top. Adirondack has been unavailable since the mid-1940's. Virgin growth has been (fortunately) preserved in National parks, the rest is all second growth, plentiful but up till 20 yrs ago too small to use on guitar tops. (There are tops still available today but the quality is nowhere near that of the other Spruces more readily available and there is usually a substantial markup if Adirondack is the desired choice) Loud, good tap tone, Stiff and Magical. Typical for Adirondack is the play in time it needs to show its full beauty.
Alpine Spruce Alpine spruce should not be confused with the Italian Spruce often referred to as Italian Alpine spruce, that is very hard to come by and one of the most expensive Tone woods around. The Alpine Spruce is a very stiff soundboard material that is slightly warmer in color than the Italian Spruce. It looks a little like Sitka in appearance but has the deeper, focused tap tone a bit similar to Italian Spruce. Used as a standard by Rosewood guitars. Highly recommended Tone wood.
Italian( Alpine) Spruce Picea Excelsa o Picea Abies, Italian side of the Alps. This legendary wood that Stradivarius used for his famous violins is still the no 1 Tone wood for soundboards, but very hard to come by, and very expensive when found. If C.F. Martin had used this wood in its Golden Era, it would have had similar fame as Adirondack(red) spruce. Italian Spruce has always been used in the Italian tradition of violin making and originates from the North Eastern area of the Italian Alps. The trees grow at high altitude, above 1400 up to 1800 meter and the vegetative time is only 100 days a year, the winters are long and cold, so the trees grow slowly and regularly. The growth to obtain a violin or guitar log is about 150 to 200 years, and even more for a cello log. This wood is very stiff and light: 400 kg/m3 as some studies have established. The average size of the Italian Spruce is much smaller and less regular than others kinds of Spruce, like Sitka Spruce for example. Many studies have been conducted to give a scientific explanation on why Spruce from the Italian Alps has exceptional acoustic qualities. Stiffness and lightness are of course essential properties of Italian Spruce still it has a mystical quality, because more woods have these qualities. The wood has more resonance than any other Tone wood and fantastic tap tone. European Tone-woods are often very expensive in the USA. The same goes for American Tone woods in Europe.
Carpathian Spruce From the Caucasus and Carpathian mountains that surround the Black sea This wood has a very creamy, white appearance but with slightly wider grain than the other European Spruces. These tops are quite stiff and offer a slightly brighter, glassier tap tone than the other European Spruces. Many have compared it to Adirondack Spruce and some even call it ‘Carpathian Red Spruce’. It is slightly less expensive than the other European Spruces and widely available. Nice stiffness, not too heavy and an excellent tap tone, resonant and sensitivity to a light touch.
German Spruce Said to be the "ringiest" of all spruce species. Extremely clear and bell like, with the versatility of Sitka. Exceptional sound for light to very firm techniques. Very white in color. Highly regarded Tone wood. German spruce is a common term for spruce coming from Europe. Guitar grade Spruce does not come from Germany anymore. The best material these days is found in the former Yugoslavia region. When you order ‘German Spruce’ these days, you can expect a excellent, slightly golden-colored Tone wood that is a favorite among high-end steel string and classical guitar builders. It is not uncommon to find some small, isolated bits of bear claw figure in all grades except Master grade. German spruce is often used by Santa Cruz Guitars, Rozawood guitars, Stevens guitars, Ramirez and other classical guitar makers.
Redwood A great choice for the fingerstylist with somewhat more richness in the bass than cedar. Redwood responds to subtle playing with a crisp balanced sound. The bass response is particularly round and full with a piano-like crispness. Lacquer and glue do not bond quite as well as the spruces. Because of this (as with Cedar), some Luthiers (Goodall) recommend light gauge strings only on guitars with these tops. Originally from Northern California, many luthiers (i.e. Breedlove) get redwood from recycled lumber and timber salvage.
Western Red Cedar United States, particularly the Pacific Northwest. Western Red Cedar has long been utilized as a soundboard material by classical guitar makers for its vibrancy and clarity of sound. It is extremely light in weight compared to spruce and the tonal result is generally a slightly louder, more open response. Balanced, warm and rich with bright trebles. What is most characteristic of Red Cedar is that it sounds broken-in, even when new. Exceptional sound for light to very firm techniques. Coloration runs from light (almost as light as Sitka) to a very dark reddish-brown.
Port Orford Cedar Similar in appearance and scent to Alaskan Yellow Cedar, Port Orford Cedar is stiffer, lighter and thus more suitable for soundboards. Indeed, it is highly sought after for the bold, robust, responsive tone that it imparts on an instrument. It is very even textured, with a slight golden-white color and tight, even grain. A great advantage to the builder is that this wood is more immune to splitting than absolutely any other soundboard wood. The largest growing member of the Cypress family (like Alaskan Yellow Cedar it is not a true cedar) it has the characteristic peppery smell of Cypress. It is an excellent choice for both classical and steel stringed instruments. Luthiers Greg Byers, James Goodall and Les Stansell have all had great results building with Port Orford Cedar.
Alaskan Yellow Cedar Alaskan Yellow Cedar, called Canadian Cypress by some, belongs to a genus so closely related to the true cypresses that it was once classified with them by botanists. It is one of the most stable of woods in terms of dimensional change due to moisture content change and so is more immune to cracking than any of the other soundboard woods (with the exception being Port Orford Cedar -another Cypress-like tonewood). Tonally, the wood is especially well suited for flat picking steel string guitars when a strong tone with a bright attack is desired (its specific gravity is close to Sitka and Adirondack Spruces). Some classical and flamenco guitar builders report that it imbues the instrument with a shimmery, clear, articulate tone with great sustain.
Western Larch Western larch has clearly marked annual rings and a fine uniform texture. Larch is harder and stronger than most conifers including spruce. It bears a close visual resemblance to Sitka spruce and due to its increased stiffness, it is an appropriate choice for scalloped braced models yielding a projective and crisp response.
Hawaiian Koa Historically, Koa tops have appeared primarily on small bodied 0 & 00 size Hawaiian guitars and ukuleles although recent Koa Dreadnoughts and custom guitars have been popular. Koa produces a predominately bright treble response with less volume than spruce, but the slight loss in volume is overshadowed by the extreme beauty of the grain. Koa tops are available on special order and custom instruments.
Genuine Mahogany Mahogany was first introduced as a top wood in 1922 on the lesser expensive Style 17 guitars. Tonally, mahogany is less projective than spruce, producing a subdued response that is crisp and delicate with emphasis on the midrange. Mahogany tops are usually available only custom instruments, but has recently become a standard top in the Baby Taylor travel guitars.
Walnut Using a highly figured walnut for a top wood, matched with walnut back & sides, was a first of the Breedlove company but is now offered by Taylor guitars and others. Rich and warm bass with plenty of crispness on the mid and treble side is typical of an all-walnut guitar. Walnut offers a lot of value for your dollar; with the beauty and visual impact of an all Koa guitar, but at a much lower price. Coloration is dark brown with a lot of figure and flame.
BACK & SIDES TONEWOOD
Brazilian Rosewood (Dalbergia Nigra) Brazil. Sometimes referred to as "Jacaranda", this species of genuine rosewood ranges in color from dark brown to violet with spidery black streaks. The smell is like roses when freshly cut. Brazilian rosewood is considered nearly extinct and is extremely expensive if available at all. Brazilian Rosewood is Extremely resonant producing full, deep basses and brilliant trebles. Old Growth Brazilian cut before 1969, is almost unavailable. The price for Brazilian Rosewood in the US has gone sky high. Europe builders seem to handle a less dramatic price-strategy. I need to mention there is still some old growth Brazilian Rosewood lying around without necessary Cites papers, mostly in former Eastern Europe.
Madagascar Rosewood (Dalbergia Baroni) Madagascar. There are several varieties of Dalbergia Baroni, Madagascar Rosewood or Voamboana, milled in Madagascar. The only wood almost similar in appearance and sound to Brazilian Rosewood. This wood has all of the best attributes of the old Brazilian Rosewood – brilliant, deep colors (red/orange, red/brown, brown, purple/brown) with intense black line patterning, clear ringing tap tone, easy to bend and work. Unfortunately, very hard to come by. The price is moderately high. Highly recommended as one of the best available Tone woods.
Cocobolo Rosewood (Dalbergia Retusa) Cocobolo is a true Rosewood that grows in southern Mexico and Central America along the Pacific seaboard. It’s a beautiful wood, which when freshly cut is a bright yellow and orange-red. Over time it oxidizes to a rich brown-red color with black streaks. It is probably as close to Brazilian Rosewood in beauty and tonal qualities as any wood. These visual and tonal features make Cocobolo a premium choice for many builders.
East Indian Rosewood (Dalbergia Latifolia) India. Typically richly grained with dark purple, red, and brown color, East Indian rosewood is resinous, stable and generally more consistent than most other rosewood species. East Indian rosewood is extremely resonant producing a deep warm projection bass response that is especially accentuated on large bodies guitars. o Dalbergia Latifolia is typically richly grained with dark purple, red, and brown color. o Dalbergia Sissoo is similar to Latifolia except the shades tend more towards red than purple.
Genuine (Honduran) Mahogany (Swietenia Macrophylla) Brazil. Yellowish brown to reddish brown in color, Genuine or "Amazon" mahogany is exceptionally stable and consistently clear. Honduran Mahogany is much lighter in weight than rosewood, Koa, or maple. In spite of its weight, mahogany yields a surprisingly strong loud sound with an emphasis on clear bright trebles. By tradition (Martin) used for Cheaper guitars, Mahogany doesn’t deserve this. Selected Mahogany is a Thrilling Tone wood.
Cuban Mahogany (Swietenia Mahogani) from the Caribbean. Cuban mahogany is very similar to mahogany from mainland South America in appearance except it tends towards reddish brown in color. Cuban mahogany is denser than Swietenia Macrophylla and the texture is much finer. Woodworkers often compare Cuban mahogany to silk and Honduran mahogany to burlap. But like Brazilian Rosewood it is banned in 1946 and hard to come by. The tone is similar to Honduran Mahogany with, some feel, a better treble response.
Figured Mahogany This beautiful and rare (often quilted) variety of genuine mahogany occurs in a very small percentage of mahogany trees. Though difficult to bend, figured mahogany shares the same tonal properties of the non figured mahogany except. European Flamed Maple (Acer Campestre) Germany.
Curly, flamed, tiger striped, or "Fiddleback" Maple refers to the characteristic alternating hard and soft rippling which runs perpendicular to the grain in some rarer maple trees. This particular species of European maple is very hard and reflective, producing a loud powerful projective sound.
Western Hard Rock Maple (Acer Campestre)Northern America. It is very similar to European maple, although the figure in the wood can be different. "Birdseye" maple is usually from Canada. After figured European maple became less available for the instrument-making industry Western Hard Maple became more popular. In general the European Flamed Maple is more appreciated.
Hawaiian Koa (Acacia Koa) Hawaii. Hawaiian Koa is easily one of the most sought after tonewoods available, with colors ranging from brown to gold, with rich and varying grain. Koa looks as exotic as the region it’s from. With an open pore structure like Mahogany, it needs to be filled, but works well in all respects with the usual care taken for curly figure. Curl or flame has been exhibited in Koa trees less than 20 years old and these trees grow fast. Instrument size and grade wood is rare because most of the old growth has been cut down. Luckily, Hawaiians are making an effort to plant Koa along with other native trees to help assure they will be available in the future.
Walnut A great selection with bright woodiness of mahogany when played lightly, with much of the punch and power of rosewood when you dig in. When properly braced, a walnut backed guitar can have a unique warmth and tonal depth. This is a dark brown, highly figured specialty wood which is grown in a wide variety of locations.
Monkey Pod (Cassia Marilandica) Monkey-pod originated in Central and South America, but has been successfully transplanted in many tropical countries. It has been used for years for carving and bowls, but has recently found favor with guitar builders. Monkey-pod is a golden amber color with dark streaks sometimes resembling Koa or Acacia. Its’ tonal characteristics are similar to mahogany and it has even been used as soundboard material.
Morado (Machaerium Scleroxylon) Bolivia. Also known as Caviuna, Bolivian Rosewood, or Palo Santos, this Rosewood-like wood has many names and is often imported interchangeably with other similar species. In appearance it’s much like Indian Rosewood, but substitute shades of brown, gold and yellow for the purple shades. A nonporous wood, it is a dream to finish, and has a nice tap tone. It’s heavier than Indian and Brazilian Rosewood; and it machines and glues well.
Myrtle Known as California Bay Laurel, Oregon Myrtle, or Pepperwood, it ranges in color from blond-yellow to taupe and makes very nice guitars. No two sets look alike, thus each guitar built is an original! Tonally it is similar to Maple, clear and bright with nice projection, but it is much easier to bend than Maple. For this reason it is a great wood for beginners. Many steel string makers have touted its merits.
Striped Ebony Deeper and richer sounding than East Indian Rosewood, many would characterize striped ebony as very similar to Brazilian rosewood, but I feel it is structurally different. It is dense, has similar reflective properties to Brazilian, and it also has a high specific gravity. It is probably one of the most beautiful Tone woods cosmetically. It has a striking, distinctive vertical stripe pattern, variegated dark brown, black and green. It makes a truly exceptional twelve-string. Striped ebony comes from New Guinea, is exclusively government controlled, and is not an endangered species.
Cherry With a density and reflectivity approaching that of maple, cherry produces a rich, projective midrange and balance without favoring the bass or treble frequencies.
Australian Blackwood (Acacia Melanoxylon - Australia) Australian Blackwood is in the same genus as Koa. Not surprisingly, it shares many of Koa's qualities. It is a golden-brown, medium density hardwood that takes a natural glow when polished and finished. It can be found with a stunning fiddleback figure. This often-overlooked wood can be found in general more reasonably priced than its cousin Koa.
Bloodwood (Brosimium Paraense - C. America) Bloodwood is a bolder red color then either Padauk or Bois d’ Rose, but has the advantage of not oxidizing to a warmer color over time. For this reason it is often used as decorative binding and inlay by luthiers and furniture makers alike. It is remarkably dense (about as dense as the harder rosewoods such as Honduran and Brazilian) so it is well suited for fingerboards, bridge blanks and backs and sides.
Bubinga (Didelotia Africana or Guibourtia sp.) Bubinga is a wood that has been used for years with success. It is a better tonewood than it’s been given credit for—probably because low price is not usually commensurate with high quality. Harder and heavier than either Brazilian or Indian Rosewood, Bubinga is sometimes known as African Rosewood, although it’s not a Dalbergia. The most common varieties being used for instruments include Didelotia Africana and Guibourtia Demeusei, one of four Guibourtias known as Bubinga. It has a medium texture with interlocking grain, and when finished gives a mottled “bees wing” appearance. It’s pinkish-mauve cast oxidizes to a nice brownish-red over time. Because of its interlocking grain, it can be like some of the more difficult Mahogany to bend. Overall, Bubinga is one of the best values in a tonewood.
Bubinga Special High Figure We have long carried bees-wing Bubinga for luthiers and factories who are very enthusiastic about its rosewood-like tonal qualities. Now, for the first time, we have a limited amount of Bubinga with extreme, deep quilt figure. This rivals our special figure Sapele Mahogany for intensity and beauty.
Canarywood (Centrolobium Paraense - Brazil) Canarywood is a very resonant, interesting exotic hardwood. Its color ranges from yellow to yellow-brown with some specimens exhibiting vivid red streaks.
Goncalo Alves (Astronium Fraxinifolium - South and Central America) Goncalo is typically a light peach/orange to orange/brown color. It frequently has brown streaks and occasionally has curl or mottle figure. It is dense, oily, and waxy. It takes a fine polish and will darken nicely with UV exposure. It has been growing in popularity among builders who favor bold, contrasting figure on the back and sides. Sometimes called
"Tigerwood", the color is an attractive honey-tan with broad reddish brown stripes which often paint dramatic, symmetrical shapes across the book matched guitar back. Although it is lightweight, it is only slightly porous and finishes nicely. Some say the tone is similar to Mahogany.
Granadillo (Platymiscium Pinnatum - Mexico) Granadillo is a relatively new wood to American guitar making but is fairly common in South America. It is non-porous, straight grained, very dense, and has a ringing, bright tap tone. It works easily but can dull tools a bit, has a medium to fine texture, and finishes well. The reddish brown color will darken to a brick color over time much like Honduran rosewood. It is sure to become popular for steel string guitars.
Padauk (Pterocarpus Soyauxii - w. Africa) Padauk is a bright orange or almost crimson wood when freshly cut, but oxidizes to a darker, rich purple-brown over time - although it stays redder than Indian Rosewood. Slightly harder and heavier than Indian Rosewood it is a good back and side wood in all respects - stable, easy to work, with a strong tone.
Sapele (Entandrophragma Cylindricum - W Africa) Sapele is similar to mahogany in texture and density. Like mahogany, it grows very large and thick, wide slabs are available even quarter sawn. The grain is interlocked and quarter sawn boards often show a heavy roe figure. Some has fiddleback figure, and occasionally mottled figure is possible. The color is less red/orange and more of a golden brown color than mahogany, but it can be easily mistaken for mahogany to the casual observer.
Shedua (Guibourtia Ehie - Africa) Shedua (aka Ovangkol and Amaziqoue) has been in use by several of the larger high-end factories for several years now, most notably Taylor, Lowden and Avalon, but its combination of affordability, beauty and tonality has made it a favorite with a growing number of hand makers as well. From West Africa, the figure is similar to Indian Rosewood, with dark gray straight lines over a golden-brown or olive-brown background. It comes from the same family as Bubinga and has a similar interlocking grain pattern. It is reasonably easy to bend and plane and it finishes well.
Wenge (Milletia Laurentii - Africa) Wenge is a large straight growing tree found from central through western Africa. It is abundant and should be commercially available for years to come. In recent years as the price of Indian Rosewood has increased, Wenge has become a more viable alternative body wood. The grain of the Wenge sets is tight and straight across the entire width of backs and sides. The color is chocolate brown with evenly spaced black veins. This wood is heavier than either Indian or Brazilian Rosewood and is stiffer, but softer, with large pores. Any binding/trim scheme contrasts well with the even, consistent color and grain of this wood.
Zebrawood (Microberlinia Brazzavillensis - Africa) We recommend Zebrawood as a more boldly colored alternative to Indian Rosewood. With about the same density, workability and resonance as Indian Rosewood, it is evenly striped overall with small alternating bands of gold-tan and dark brown.
Ziricote (Cordia Dodecandra) Ziricote is most striking in appearance, similar to Brazilian Rosewood but in shades of grays and olive greens with black rather than reds with black. Heavier than most Rosewoods, it works somewhat like Ebony, and tends to be brittle, but what it lacks in workability it more than makes up for in tonality. It is used by some of the finest luthiers and has been used by a number of discriminating classical and steel string builders. The special grade sets feature strong black line figure. Some sets have spider-webbing’ and a few will have sapwood centers.
(For information regarding our in stock tonewoods, Inquire)