Best Material for Guitar Back and Sides

Published Categorized as Guitar Information

The tonewoods used for guitar back and sides play a key role in shaping its voice and resonance. However, with the dizzying array of options, choosing the right woods can overwhelm even experienced players.

This guide breaks down the unique tonal characteristics of the popular back and side wood pairings. Whether you aim to accentuate low-end warmth or bright, punchy treble, these insights help match your tonal preferences with the ideal species.

guitar back and sides

Table of Contents

Rosewood

Rosewood is prized as a traditional material for high-end acoustic guitar backs and sides. Its dense structure and crisp attack produce a clear, projecting tone with rich, complex overtones. The wood’s natural beauty also makes it a popular choice.

Rosewood guitars tend to have excellent sustain and resonance across the tonal spectrum. The crisp attack accentuates the rhythm playing while the overtones add resonance and dimension. This gives great clarity and presence to melodic lines. The low end is also full and well-defined thanks to rosewood’s density. Altogether it creates a very balanced, organic tone.

The varied grain patterns of rosewood make for striking and unique cosmetics. Its hardness also makes it very durable for a tonewood—this combination of beauty and resilience suits both players and collectors. As rosewood ages, it takes on a refined, vintage look. Properly maintained rosewood guitars become family heirlooms.

Brazilian vs. Indian Rosewood

The most prized variety is Brazilian rosewood, cherished for its beauty and tonal complexity. However, due to supply constraints, most modern instruments use Indian rosewood, which offers excellent quality. Indian rosewood has a slightly brighter sound with a little less bass than Brazilian. But it shares the same balanced resonance and clarity. Ultimately both produce great tone and classic rosewood aesthetics.

Mahogany

Mahogany has been a highly popular traditional tonewood choice for acoustic guitar backs and sides. Its balanced resonance and warmth contribute to a very musical, well-rounded tonal profile.

The mahogany’s moderately dense structure focuses on the midrange frequencies. This gives it a smooth, mellow flavor, with slight boosts to overtones for airiness. The tone sits right in the sweet spot – avoiding dullness but not as brittle as very dense woods. There’s enough firmness for good note separation while still having nice sustain.

Another plus is mahogany’s ease of working. Its relatively straight grain and stability make construction more predictable for luthiers. This allows for crafting very comfortable neck profiles and smooth fretboards. The wood also has fewer of density variations that complicate building with trickier species. Overall it makes mahogany a very consistent, reliable guitar material.

Many iconic models have mahogany backs and sides, from Martin D-18s to Gibson J-45s. It helped define the “American” guitar sound in early country, folk, and rock. Mahogany delivers vintage character without the fragility of rosewoods. And as people revive roots genres, these earthy, organic flavors resonate again. Understated yet versatile, mahogany is a proven foundation for great guitar tones over generations.

Sapele

As a sustainable mahogany alternative, sapele wood brings comparable tonal properties plus some unique visual and ecological benefits. While not a perfect match, it shares mahogany’s smooth, balanced sound. The tone has a slightly brighter edge, with a bit more crispness on the attack and liveliness on the trebles. But the overall musicality stays familiar, with excellent resonance and definition.

Visually, the sapele has some striking grain patterns, ranging from straight to highly figured. This makes for very attractive guitar cosmetics, often even more striking than mahogany. Sapele’s increasing use partly comes from environmental factors. Though not endangered like rosewoods, mahogany faces supply pressures. Sapele offers more availability from well-managed sources. This eases costs while meeting the demand for great-sounding, fine-looking guitar wood.

As builders and buyers value sustainability, sapele becomes an eco-friendly option. Its tonal and visual character fit well with mahogany-style guitars too. While the sounds differ in subtle ways, deliver comparable quality. Paired with its ecological benefit and unique beauty, sapele deserves consideration alongside mahogany for crafting guitar backs and sides.

Maple

Maple brings a bright, focused sound to guitars, with clear fundamentals and crisp overtones. This tonal clarity makes it a versatile wood for many styles. The translucent quality adds precision to jazz chords and articulation to blues riffs. Maple carves out space for vocals in folk or underscores country twang. Electric players can cut through a mix. There’s still warmth – maple just leans toward clean definition rather than boom.

Visually, maple draws eyes too. Flamed maple features fiery weaves in the grain. Quilted patterns ripple like waves. Even plain maple offers a blond elegance. The wood becomes more honey-hued with age, especially once a player’s skin oils penetrate the finish. Figured maple is rare and expensive, as luthiers selectively cut the dramatic markings. But this eye candy matches the crystalline tone.

Overall maple pairs sweet-but-direct sound with finer aesthetic details. Jazzboxes use it for the speed. Hollow bodies and archtops get resonance. Blues and country players find the crispness cuts. And the intricate grains give any guitar boutique flair. With both a clear voice and classy looks, maple builds light yet complete acoustic power.

Koa

Koa brings a rare charm to guitars with its distinctive look and evolving sound. The wood originates in Hawaii, holding cultural significance and limited supply. As koa ages it reaches impressive tonal maturity, making prized instruments.

Koa trees grow exclusively in Hawaii, lending the wood a special identity. The handsome grain patterns exhibit rich colors from golden brown to reddish hues. Figured koa has dramatic streaks and flowing lines for visually appealing guitars. As a protected species, koa woods face restricted harvesting. This Hawaiian heritage and exotic allure drive koa’s prestige.

The initial sound of new koa guitars trends bright, with strong fundamentals and percussiveness. As the wood cures over years of play, richness blooms across the frequencies – lows gain a body, midrange opens up, and highs soften. The attack becomes less pronounced as sustain expands. Well-aged koa has a tonal color similar to rosewoods – balanced and multi-dimensional. Koa becomes a coveted vintage tonewood, singing with roundness.

The combination of tantalizing beauty and vocal maturity make koa a luxury choice. Its limited supply and regional mystique also increase demand. As such, koa guitars sell in the upper tiers of major manufacturers. Small shops craft koa instruments as signature offerings too, emphasizing Hawaiian tradition. For players and collectors seeking one-of-a-kind inspiration, koa brings an appealing spirit and voice.

Walnut

Walnut wood brings a rich, full sound to guitars and very appealing visuals. While not as common as rosewoods or mahoganies, walnut matches those woods’ sound quality and looks even better. The tone shows strong low notes, clear middle notes, and bright high notes for a very balanced resonance. Walnut’s ease of working allows guitar makers to fully achieve this potential. And the striking grain patterns give off warmth and beauty fitting high-end instruments.

The walnut’s density and stiffness create excellent acoustic properties for guitars. It makes clear notes with tight bass and middle notes that stand out. But there is enough flex and vibration for colorful overtones too. Compared to rosewood’s short, punchy sound or mahogany’s polite sound, walnut falls between them with strong lows and open middle and high notes. The balanced sound adapts across playing styles.

Walnut remains stable and cooperative as guitar wood. Its ease of working allows delicate braces to shape resonance and contoured necks for comfort. This combines with walnut’s durability over years of playing. As a resilient, adaptable wood, walnut enables guitar makers’ top craft expertise.

Visually walnut offers very attractive grain patterns sure to impress. The rich brown base color provides warmth, complementing complex dark lines. Figured cuts show flowing, three-dimensional shapes from gentle waves to dramatic swirls. Even plain cuts stand out more than basic mahogany. With limited American supply, the wood is exclusive. Its impression matches the musical sound of custom boutique fame suiting small workshops.

Solid Vs. Laminated Back and Sides

Solid wood and laminated wood are the two main options for acoustic guitar back and side material. Solid wood refers to continuous planks cut from a single piece of wood. Laminated wood consists of multiple thin sheets glued together.

The choice impacts tone and resonance. Solid wood interacts more freely with the vibrations of the soundboard, producing better sustain, warmth, and projection. The continuous wood grain in solid models also yields more complexity and responsiveness. Laminates limit vibration transfer, creating a brighter, thinner tone.

Durability favors laminates. They resist warping and cracks better under climate or tension shifts. Solid wood models require careful humidity control to prevent drying and splits. With care, though, solid wood ages well, as the wood molecular structure and tone evolve.

Prices reflect material costs. Solid wood requires dense, defect-free cuts, pushing costs up. Quality laminates utilize attractive face veneers but cheaper core layers, keeping prices down. Mass-market guitars often use laminates, while premium models favor solids.

The best match depends on budget and goals. Buyers wanting rich, organic tone in players or collectibles invest in solid woods. Those prioritizing resilience or affordability can enjoy laminates without compromising quality. Experimenting with each type is the ideal way to discover preferences.

Best Wood for Laminates

When choosing the best wood for laminated guitar backs and sides, builders want to balance cost and tone. The inner layers often use cheaper plywood. The outer layers use birch, mahogany, or rosewood. Though laminates limit vibration compared to solid woods, careful building and innovations can improve sound.

Benefits of Common Laminate Woods

Plywood inner layers keep prices down without hurting tone too much. Birch outer layers add visual appeal affordably. Thinner rosewood and mahogany veneers look more elegant and highlight mid and low tones. Woods like koa and maple give unique flavors. Precision gluing makes durable, good-sounding laminates accessible to more players.

Improving Laminate Body Resonance

Skillful bracing and carving make up for laminates’ reduced vibration transmission, giving a fuller tone. Some luthiers shape bracing undersides for more flexibility. Others try new sound chambers. Combining these innovations with quality materials enables surprisingly lively, balanced laminate sound.

Wrap Up

This article shows solid wood interacts more with guitar vibrations for better resonance and tone, while laminates prioritize affordability and durability. The takeaway: solid woods suit premium vintage sound and collectability, as laminates provide great value for resilient instruments. Ultimately personal preference rules; test guitars with each wood type to determine what warmth, brightness, and playability best fits your style and aims. Consult experienced builders for recommendations, while letting your own ears discern the ideal backs and sides wood matching your tonal and practical needs.

Guitar Back and Sides: FAQs

What is NATO back and sides guitar?

NATO refers to a type of laminated wood used for the back and sides of some acoustic guitars. It consists of multiple thin layers of wood glued together, providing stability and durability while reducing production costs compared to solid wood.

What is the difference between maple and rosewood guitar back and sides?

Maple back and sides produce a bright, lively tonality, while rosewood backs and sides offer a rich, complex sound with clear bass and sparkling highs. Maple is the traditional tonewood for jazz guitars, while rosewood is favored for fingerstyle playing.

How do I know if my guitar has solid back and sides?

Check inside the soundhole or removal electronic pickup cavity for wood grain running parallel with the length of your guitar. Cross-cut grain indicates laminated NATO wood, while long wood grain signifies higher-quality solid wood construction.

How thick are guitar back and sides?

Acoustic guitar backs and sides typically range from 1/4 to 3/8 of an inch thick for laminated woods, while solid woods are slightly thicker at around 5/16 to 1/2 an inch. Thicker woods tend to increase volume and enhance bass response.

By Nate Pallesen

Nate is just your average (above average) guitar player. He's no Joe Satriani, Jimi Hendrix or Jimmy Page - wait this site is about acoustic guitars (sorry) He's no Django Reinhardt, Chet Atkins, or Michael Hedges, wait? who!? He's no Robert Johnson, Eric Clapton or Ben Harper - more familiar? Anyway you get the point :-)

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