Did you know that the type of wood used in an acoustic guitar is responsible for more than just looks and strength? Depending on what kind of sound you would like and how you tend to play, choosing the right tonewood for your acoustic guitar can either give you exactly what you need or fight against you. A guitarist that uses a lot of finger-picking techniques for example will want to choose a wood that works best with that delicate style of playing instead of a wood that requires a pick to be used in order to get the instrument to fully resonate. Not only that, but you have to take into consideration the choice of wood for each individual part of the acoustic.
Taking into consideration the techniques used by luthiers themselves, it is believed that the choice of the wood for the top is the single most important factor in how the guitar will ultimately sound like. From there, the back, sides and neck are the next important in that order as far as overall tonality is concerned.
The choice of woods for other parts of the guitar such as the bridge, fretboard, binding and bracing can also either enhance or dilute the tonal characteristics of the other woods used in the acoustic but they don’t play a major role in defining the ultimate sound of the instrument. But don’t forget, the choice in wood is only responsible for certain traits of a guitars tone.
Things such as design, build quality and – as we learned earlier – size of the acoustic also add up towards a certain end result in tone. Still though, the choice in wood is usually the base factor is creating an acoustic guitar with a specific sound and purpose. Let’s now take a look at some of the different types of wood used.
Spruce is pretty much the standard when it comes to wood chosen for the top of the guitar due to its high rigidity and its lightweight characteristics which makes it perfect for high velocity sound. Also, the Sitka spruce in particular has a power direct tone that tends to keep its clarity even when played with force.
Cedar is also a popular top wood used mainly for its balanced warm sound. Finger pickers in particular are fond of cedar for its characteristically quick and rich response to lighter playing styles. Compared to other woods, guitars made with Mahogany tops tend to have a relatively low response rate, a good amount of density and low overtone. This creates a strong punchy sound that is favored by country blues players.
When used for the sides of back of the guitar, Mahogany has relatively high velocity of sound, which adds a lot to the overtone coloration. Maple on the other hand tends to be much more acoustically transparent. This is due to the wood’s lower response rate and high internal damping which ultimately – when used for the back or sides of the guitar – allows the tonal characteristic of the top wood to be heard without any added coloration.
And finally, Rosewood is used for its high response rate and excellent range of overtones. Not only that, it is also prized for its strength and complexity in the bottom end and an overall darkness of tone in the rest of the range. Other characteristics such as strong mids and highs also contribute to the richness of coloration in the upper registers.