That’s right: it’s an entire blog about wood. And believe me, I want to make all kinds of immature jokes right now but considering we’re a store that often caters to families and the like, I’m gonna have to reign it in a bit and neglect the immaturity just a touch.
I know, I know, we were all looking forward to the dirty jokes...I'm sorry.
But like I said, this week we’ll be talking about the types of woods used in guitars and all the differences each type can make in your sound. I figured this might be a useful thing to address for a number of reasons, mainly because we get a lot of beginner guitarists coming in here asking about the woods as well as seasoned guitarists who claim to know a lot about the woods but half the time don’t actually have a clue other than preference. Which, really, is all it comes down to: preference dictates utility in the music world. In other words, if you like it, use it!
Nonetheless, it does help to know the differences in tonewoods and how it will affect the sound, playability, and even durability of your guitar. So I’ve taken the liberty of compiling a list of the most commonly used guitar woods and I’ll be happy to walk you through each one’s particular sound and virtue (all the while dodging potentially awkward double entendres!...ah, who am I kidding…I’m bound to offend someone).
Here we go!
Mahogany – “The Stout Beer”
Probably one of the most common types of wood used in acoustic guitars (and some electric guitars and basses), mahogany is an ideal wood for just about any type of style or genre, prized for its natural durability and excellent mid-range. I call it the “Stout Beer” of tonewood because a lot of players characterize mahogany’s sound as darker, fuller, and “chewier” than, say, spruce or maple. Not to mention, the darker color tends to make one think of yummy, yummy dark ales. Mahogany is a very full-bodied mid-range with a little extra in the low-end to give it a warmer sound and organic “bloom”. You can identify mahogany by the heavily textured-looking grain and lightish-brown color.
Man, now I’m thirsty.
Rosewood – “The Porter”
If mahogany is the stout beer of guitar tonewoods expressing a broad range of flavors while still maintaining a mellow, even taste (sound) (whatever), then rosewood is the porter. Like stout and porter ales, both mahogany and rosewood are very similar: they both provide darker, warmer sounds than spruce or maple, making them excellent body woods to better exemplify the low-end. But rosewood differs from mahogany in two ways: 1) it takes both the low-end and the high-end and gives them a little extra “mmph!” with less overtones in the mid-range and 2) rosewood’s particular sound is arguably more “traditional” than mahogany. Many folk and Americana artists prefer rosewood to mahogany for its time-tested prestige since mahogany was a less common guitar wood back in the day. Guitars that employ rosewood often have more defined high-ends and richer low-ends than mahogany, just as porter ale tends to be a little bit more intense than stout (though if you ask any real beer enthusiast, you’ll find that the debate between porter and stout is a bit of a noodle-baker, but I digress). Rosewood can be identified by its softer, sweeping grains and deeper coffee-colors.
Spruce – Everyone’s Favorite
Moving away from the beer analogies (because right now I’m in thirsty need of a Scuttlebutt run), we get into the other most common type of tonewood: spruce! Most acoustic guitars that you’ll encounter use some form of spruce or spuce-laminate as their top woods making it the considerable standard for modern players. Spruce compliments all playing styles, being essentially the “blank canvas” of tone. It has a very broad dynamic range but doesn’t add or subtract much from the player’s style, making it versatile and user friendly. Very crisp and recognizably bright sounding, spruce can be identified by its gold-to-blonde color and very straight, even, “crackery” grain pattern.
Mmm…crackers and beer…dagnabit! FOCUS.
Cedar – A Gentler Approach
Because it is less dense than spruce and a little more porous, cedar tends to have a warm, resonant sound. When comparing cedar to spruce, you’ll often find that though cedar adds a little more volume to the sound, it lacks the same aggression in the high-ends than spruce has, making it a little less bright and sparkly. Finger-pickers tend to find a lot to like in cedar since it is a bit louder than spruce but has a lighter attack and compliments a softer touch without losing volume. Cedar can be identified by its staggered, wavy grain pattern and richer golden-red color.
Maple – “Mister Fancy”
Maple tends to be one of those coveted woods in the guitar business for a few different reasons. Sound-wise, maple is characterized as very focused and bright with a lot more “sparkle” in the treble end of things than other dense hardwoods like mahogany. Maple is very durable and solid, and because of its minimal overtones and “focused” sound, it cuts through a mix well, especially in live performances with multiple-piece bands. Another reason that maple is popular and somewhat sought after is its very attractive grain pattern and pleasant aesthetics. Often guitar manufacturers opt for transparent finishes with maple guitars or guitars with maple veneers to show off its natural gloss and gentle grain patterns. You’ll see a lot of “flame” and “quilted” maple looks in both the acoustic and electric guitar worlds giving you a unique style to compliment your bright sound.
Koa – “Ages like Fine Wine”
Probably one of the most interesting hardwoods out there in production, koa is an exotic alternative to maple with a unique distinction: the sound changes with age. Initially quite bright and penetrating like maple, koa wood actually starts to sound richer, warmer and generally sweeter with use, maturing into a fuller, “blooming” mid-range. Recommended for finger-pickers with a heavier touch who want the clarity and articulation of maple without the sharpness that inevitably comes with it. Koa has a particular grain style that many people find interesting with lots of ripples "tiger stripes".
Basswood – The Basics
Basswood is a colorless wood that is softer than other hardwoods, making it very simple and easy to work with. A good percentage of electric instruments use basswood because of its cost-effectiveness and its tendency to offset the tinny sounds that can be created by guitars that employ extra hardware like Floyd Roses and other tremolo systems. A lot of shredder guitars like Jackson use basswood (though sometimes you’ll find poplar because it is similar and relatively inexpensive as well). Basswood tends to sound warmer and “growly”, ideal for the aggression demanded of shred guitars. Basswood is not easily recognized by grain pattern because of its naked look and is often covered by thicker, high-gloss finishes or a different veneer.
Alder – The Do-It-All Hardwood
Alder is a pretty non-descript hardwood not so much prized for its tonal virtue but for its durability, inexpensiveness, and stylistic accommodation. It’s another very common hardwood used in electric instruments and is often employed by Fender. It’s a heavy, extremely durable wood and will pretty much conform to whatever style you need. Stylistically, it is not a visually interesting wood so, like basswood, is often used for guitars with heavy finishes and high gloss.
Ash – Thing One and Thing Two
You’ll tend to find two very different types of ash used in guitars these days; each one has its particular upsides and downsides. The first one is “Northern Ash” which is the harder and denser of the two and takes longer to grow so isn’t as necessarily convenient manufacturing wise. Tonally, it has a good treble end and excellent sustain, though because of its solidity it tends to have less warmth and dynamics than some of the other hardwoods out there. In contrast, “southern” or “swamp”-ash is a physically lighter, more porous wood that tends to have a much sweeter, more resonant sound and is often the more sought-after of the two ashes. However, it can be a little tricky to work with from a manufacturing standpoint because it has a harder time “taking” finishes due to its larger pores. Ash grain patterns look something between spruce and maple, with very condensed yet wavy, sweeping grains. Northern ash grains tend to have a smoother surface whereas swamp ash grains run a bit deeper.
So that pretty much covers the common woods you’ll find in today’s guitars. Feel free to stop in the store and ask about them since it doesn’t just stop with one type of wood or other: each type has subcategories and varying species of each, all of them contributing in a different way to your sound and your style. And hey, I’ve managed to make an entire blog about wood without making a single sexual innuendo! I deserve some crackers and beer…
Stay excellent and have a good week!