Have you ever wondered what the best woods for an acoustic guitar might be? I’m not a luthier, but I recently did a little research of my own which may help to shed some light on the subject.
I discovered that the dynamic response of an acoustic guitar, and the sound it produces, are determined by the density of woods used and the overall construction the instrument itself.
Makes perfect sense, right? But did you know that sound travels faster through some woods and slower through others? This little phenomenon effects the overall tone, or “color” of a particular acoustic guitar.
Perhaps you’ve noticed this yourself if you’ve ever compared the sound of one guitar with another. For instance, one guitar may sound bright and clear, the other warm and mellow.
Many guitarists know that Sitka Spruce is the most common of the woods used for building the face (top) of an acoustic guitar. This wood was used in Martin’s highly prized D28 model and it’s high velocity produces a bright, clear tone that has a broad dynamic response.
Red Spruce on the other hand, is heavier. It’s grain is the stiffest of all the top woods used for building acoustic guitars. This particular characteristic produces the highest volume with more intricate overtones. That’s probably why it’s a favorite choice for steel-string acoustic guitar players. All you Bluegrass guitarists out there can really get down and rip it up!
Brazilian Rosewood has often been considered ideal for the sides and back of an acoustic guitar. Not only does it produce rich tones, natural reverb qualities and wonderful clarity, it also has a beautiful appearance. However, due to the high demand for this product the Brazilian Rosewood tree has become a threatened species and is now being protected. This obviously makes the wood more scarce and harder to come by.
But difficult circumstances can be the mother of invention- which leads me to one of the coolest things I learned while doing my research about guitar woods…
The Martin Guitar Company has developed a custom guitar model that is designed to sound good and help protect the environment. The Martin Jeff Tweedy Custom Acoustic Guitar. Needless to say, it’s not cheap, but it is innovative and admirable on their part for taking such an initiative in the first place. Read their own words…
“The real star of this guitar is the quality that sustainable wood provides to the guitar. Sustainable wood is planted and harvested by ethical means as not to promote erosion and sustain the ecosystem as it is in it’s natural environment. It’s no surprise one of the original proponents and users of a DCE is Trey Anastasio of Phish and other environmentally conscious musicians.”
All I can say is two thumbs up for Martin!
Other woods that are also used for the back and sides are Mahogany, Maple and sometimes Cherry.
Mahogany is denser than those previously mentioned. It has lower sound velocity but produces a solid tone.
Maple also has lower sound velocity and can be somewhat dull when used as a top for an acoustic guitar. On the other hand, the grain is particularly attractive when used for the back. Be aware that beauty and adornment are added features which will drive the price higher. Maple responds well when amplified and therefore it’s a popular choice for solid-bodied electric guitar tops.
I do not know the specs on Cherry, but because it is a hard wood and not as common, I assume it would be more expensive.
The bridge is another important factor to consider when buying an acoustic guitar. Some would even say it’s the most important because the vibrations produced from strumming the strings are transmitted through the bridge into the sound chamber. It then bounces around inside the guitar and comes out the sound hole.
A good bridge will be made of hard woods such as Ebony, (which is also used on fretboards), Rosewood, or Ash.
Above all, try to stay away from laminated guitars as they will crack and separate under certain conditions. To make your choice simpler, I suggest sticking with reputable companies that you know and trust such as Martin, Yamaha, Gibson, Takimene, and Taylor, etc. If you do decide to go with a custom built guitar, make sure you know what you’re paying for. Always look for sound quality and playability first; beauty last. That way you will have years of enjoyment playing an instrument you truly love.