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Acoustic World - Tone Woods of Acoustic

Mar 9, 2008
Tone woods.

Believe it or not, your sound is only as good as your wood. Each wood has a very distinct sound that is individual to every acoustic guitar. Like a finger print, it cannot be recreated, even if another piece of wood is taken from the same source.

This is due to the wood's unique characteristics. Perhaps there are knots in the wood, or a slightly different grain pattern. Maybe there are some other subtle differences but in the end, it all affects how the wood resonates. Resonate is a fancy word for vibration, which is what wood does when you attach strings to it.

How freely the wood resonates will affect your volume (how loud you are) and your tone as a result of that. This explains why that plywood (laminate) guitar sitting in the pawnshop or music store doesn't sound that great: The wood is too stiff to vibrate freely.

That's why you may frequently hear the saying "Solid top". While that may sound great in a sales pitch, the reason it's actually important is that it's real wood, not plywood. This transforms your tone to give you a much nicer sounding guitar.

Before the wood actually gets to your guitar, it undergoes quite a few steps. First off, most tone woods are either industrially logged. This is common for many production model guitars. Still sounds great in most cases, but there are some imperfections.

Higher end guitars have their wood hand selected. It is usually cut by hand and the select chunks are chosen for quality and then shipped back to home base for further processing.

Most manufactures of decent acoustic guitars season their woods for a period of time. This removes excess moisture and hardens the fats, oils, murr (gum), and other sticky googy things that are naturally found in wood. This seasoning protects the wood from warping and prepares it structurally for the building stage.

From that point, a piece of wood is then book matched. This is the process where one single cut of wood is sliced into two pieces. This forms two identical pieces of wood, which can then be used for the front or back of the guitar. That explains why you have that line running down the back of your guitar (it's usually white). That line just covers up the seam.

Now, onto the woods. Here are some of the neatest and powerful woods out there:

Spruce - Spruce is an extremely strong wood, which is important for building a guitar. It offers some very nice crisp highs and a much more powerful volume. Great wood choice. Used on the majority of guitars.

Cedar - Slightly more mellow than Spruce and has a very warm feel to it. It has a beautiful glow and is aesthetically pleasing.

Maple - A great all round wood that offers a good balance of highs, mids and lows. This is something that many guitarists desire for an all round good projection and clean sound. However, because of this equal balance, it can also sound quite flat for the acoustic world so it's often used on electrics. It is highly desired for it's beautiful grain and lusture.

Koa - Known for it's high range, Koa is known for it's solid tone. It doesn't have a good bass response but makes up for it in the high end of the dynamic sound spectrum.

Mahogany - Great projection and nice treble. The flatpickers dream when combined with the dreadnaught body type because it offers such a great response and tone.

Brazilian Rosewood - This wood is probably the most wanted piece of wood for guitars in the world. It's becoming increasingly rare as it's becoming extinct, therefore jacking up the price tremendously. It offers a huge bass response with nice treble and mids. Unfortunately, most only come on limited edition guitars that are at the top end of the price spectrum.

Indian Rosewood - The more popular alternative to Brazilian Rosewood and is far more accessible. Has virtually the same tonal characteristics, just not as powerful. It's used on most professional guitars.

Cocobolo - My personal favorite! In my humble opinion, it takes many characteristics from the above woods and combines them to form a truly unique sound. It produces a great bass, awesome volume and phenomenal overtones. This wood will most likely be on my next acoustic. I suggest you do the same.

...Keep in mind that there are many, many more species of tone woods available to you. There are also some great subtypes of the above woods. For example, Taylor guitars use Sitka Spruce on many of their models and limited edition guitars. It's in the family of spruce, but offers something different.

In the end, the above comments are extremely subjective. While I have played many of the woods mentioned above, my ear likes things that your ear may not. The only way to find out is to hunt them down and try them for yourself. Many companies use the above woods listed, so it shouldn't be extremely difficult.
About the Author
Eugene W is the founder of Planet of Rock. Imagine having a real band backing you up with Guitar Jam Tracks . Check out our most popular product, the Blues Guitar Backing Tracks
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