Understanding acoustic tonewoods before purchasing your next guitar
Choosing the right acoustic guitar is different for every player. Whether you are looking to find the best entry level acoustic guitar, or whether you are a more seasoned player looking to fine-tune your collection, understanding what gives acoustic guitars their sound characteristics is vitally important in the purchase process. Certain guitarist might choose different models for various reasons, including:
- guitar body size
- style of music
- size of the player
- size of the player’s hands
- favorite brand
- stage performance
- studio recording and more. . .
Perhaps one of the most important factors to consider when choosing an acoustic guitar are the tonewoods. Considering all other variables equal, including craftsmanship, finish, bracing, brand and strings, the tonewoods that are used in building the acoustic guitar body play a vital role in determining the projection, Eq (Equalization) profile or personality, and overall tone quality, initial tones, overtones, attack and release of the sound waves, and balance.
The tonewoods play a vital role in the guitar top or soundboard, sides and back of the body, creating the sound box which amplifies and give character to the transmitted vibrations of the strings through the saddle and bridge.
Let’s take a look at some of the most commonly used tonewoods and how each gives distinct qualities in shaping the tone of the guitar.
Though the two most common and popular top tone woods (used for the sound board or top of the guitar) come from a variety of either Spruce or Cedar, other woods have been used as well. Some commonly used woods for the top of the guitar are, Sitka Spruce, Cedar, Engelmann Spruce, Mahogany, and Maple.
Some of the most popular sound board tone woods
Sitka Spruce (Picea sitchensis), is one of the largest tree species in the world, in the top 4 of coniferous species. It derived its name from Sitka Alaska, and is populous all along the west coast of North America through Alaska, more so in the cooler and mountainous regions. The Sitka Spruce can grow up to 100 m tall, and nearly 5-7 meters wide, giving the luthier an incredible yield per tree and log.
Because the Sitka Spruce grows in very small growth rings, the wood is fine for guitar tops because of it’s tight, straight grain pattern. It can be thinned to small, exacting measures and still maintain great structural integrity, which is necessary to withstand the tension of the guitar strings.
Additionally, Sitka Spruce wood has one of the fastest sound velocities, the rate at which sound waves are able to travel through it, thereby making it one of the most responsive woods for guitar tops exhibiting fine tone qualities. Sitka Spruce is the most popular and widely used wood for acoustic guitar tops.
Engelmann Spruce is very similar to Sitka in it’s tone qualities, sustain, attack and release, but is slightly diminished. Additionally, the Engelmann Spruce is a smaller tree, and in less abundance than Sitka, making it a second choice among the spruce group.
Cedar also comes in a few favorite varieties, yet Western Red seems to be the choice among classical guitar luthiers due to its quick attack and rich warm tones. Although it is not the most popular top tonewood, it opens up more quickly than the spruces do in terms of improvement of sound projection due to aging.
(See Tone Woods and Acoustic Guitars – Part 2 for woods used for the top, back and sides of an acoustic guitar)