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If you are in the market for a new guitar, your first guitar, or even looking to custom build, you may be wondering about the best wood for acoustic guitars.
This is going to depend on the tone you desire and how much money you can/are willing to spend on the guitar.
Why the Wood Matters
The wood that is used to create a guitar makes a huge difference to the sounds that the guitar will produce.
There are many influences on the sound of the guitar (body shape, bracing, strings, bridge saddle etc), but the type of wood used is one of the most influential.
The wood on any one guitar could be different for the top (soundboard) of the body, back and sides of the body, the neck, the fretboard, bracing, the bridge & the headstock.
The fretboard and neck wood can have some affect on tonal quality but is unlikely to be noticeable.
The wood of the body will have the most influence and the top of the body will have the most say in how the guitar sounds. This article is going to focus on the tonal influence of the body woods but check out other pages on this site to see how other parts of the guitar affect its tone.
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What Wood for What part of the Guitar?
Different parts of the guitar suit different woods and it is often the case the wood of the top will be different to the rest of the body and the wood of the neck will be different etc.
What you go for will depend on your budget, your personal tonal preferences and the style of music you like to play.
The Top (Soundboard)
Out of all of the wood on the guitar the soundboard makes the most difference to the sound.
The sound produced by the strings of the guitar is transferred through the bridge onto the soundboard (the top) and is amplified by the top as it vibrates. This is why the larger the soundboard the louder the guitar will be (but that’s about the shape and not the wood so let’s get back on topic :-)).
You can see then why the soundboard is so important.
The cheapest top option: The cheapest option for the soundboard is to use laminate wood. Whilst this is great on the budget, it won’t be quite as nice on the ears!
Laminate wood is made by bonding several thin layers of wood together. Usually there is a higher quality layer on the top and cheaper layers underneath. Laminate wood does not make for the best tone, especially for tops.
If you are on a serious budget then this could be an option but I would avoid it at least for the soundboard if you can – often you can pick up something cheap that has a solid top but laminate back and sides.
Cedar: Cedar is a bright sounding wood option, though produces a warmer tone than spruce (the most common top wood – see below), when used as a top.
This is often used on classical guitars but also sometimes on steel string acoustics.
Koa: Koa is a pricier wood as it’s less common. This is one of those woods that sounds better with time. A guitar with a Koa soundboard will start out life with a very bright sound. But as it ages (the more it is played) it will mellow out and become richer and warmer sounding and show more emphasis toward mid range tones.
Koa is suited mostly to finger picking.
Koa, in my opinion, looks amazing – but that of course is in the eye of the beholder.
Mahogany: Mahogany is a dense wood and gives a “slower response rate” – don’t ask me what that means in scientific terms! But what it does mean in practical terms is that it produces a strong/meaty mid range sound with more subtle overtones (a very “non-abrasive” sound) which leads to an “earthy” “mid-rangy” sound.
Mahogany tops are great for playing blues.
They are also great in situation where you are playing with other instruments. The strong sound produced is easier to hear in a multi instrumental environment.
Whilst it is more commonly used in the back and sides (see below) it also makes for a great top if it suits what you are playing.
Spruce: Spruce is the most common top wood. Spruce is light but strong and comes in a number of varieties with the most common variety for guitar tops being Sitka Spruce.
It is characterized by it’s light colour and often looks great contrasted against darker colored back and sides tonewoods.
Sitka Spruce is a great all round soundboard material and responds well to both aggressive playing and more subtle playing. Spruce has a wide dynamic range and resonates well with a wide range of tones.
This all round ability is most likely the reason it is so common as a soundboard material.
Adirondack Spruce is another variety of spruce that is great for soundboards. The advantage of Adirondack is it’s dynamic tonal range and the ability to play loud without losing clarity of sound.
This soundboard is great for guitarists who like to play aggressively.
Engelmann and European Spruce are also used for soundboards – this is great for those with a softer touch as it responds well to that soft touch – it doesn’t sound as good when you play aggressively.
Back and sides of the body
The back and sides of the guitar are important tonally and can really compliment the sound that is created through the top.
Koa: In addition to being a great soundboard material Koa is also great for the back and sides. It goes great with a Koa top. Again this wood sounds better with age and is typically found on more high end guitars.
Mahogany: Mahogany is great for the backs and sides of a guitar as it has a great mid range character. It can enhance the mid range tones and add meatiness/thickness to the sound. If this is what you after, then this is a great wood option for you.
As with using Mahogany as a top, it is great for blues as back and sides – but combined with other tops it can work well with a large range of different styles.
You can use it with a Mahogany top to really get that mid-range dominant, compressed, warm, thick kind of sound. Or you can use it with another top (such as Sitka Spruce) to “mellow” out or add warmth.
Maple: Maple works well in the back and sides of the body if the guitar because it has a “low response rate”, a bit like Mahogany. And, like Mahogany this means that it has fewer overtones which leads to notes having a quick decay (less resonance – dies off quicker).
This means it complements the sound of the top without messing with it too much.
This is a great wood for those playing in a band situation, or with other instruments in general, as it does well to cut through in the mix so it is heard and also because of the quick decay of sounds it is less prone to feedback issues.
Unlike Mahogany though, Maple has more emphasis on higher notes and brings “focus” to individual notes.
This also helps in the band situation and makes it appealing to lead players who are looking for note definition.
Maple is a very light coloured wood. When used as back and sides it is sometimes stained to produce a darker color – particularly when used with a spruce top to add contrast.
Rosewood: Rosewood is a very popular wood for guitars and has been used a lot traditionally too.
Very different to Maple, Rosewood has a “high response rate”. It has great mid-range like Mahogany but also expands well into the high-end tones and low-end tones, producing deep bass notes and bright treble notes.
Goes well with bluegrass players looking for that punch in both the low end and high end – but it’s very versatile and will go well with a lot styles depending on the top. It is also accommodating for finger-picking, flat-picking and strumming.
Rosewood has rich overtones and that high response rate allows for a sharp attack into the note and a lot of resonance. It is probably not ideal in a band setting because it might be prone to feedback issues.
Rosewood back and sides with a Sitka Spruce top is sometimes referred to as the “Holy Grail” of tonewoods as some people consider this the best combination you can have – personally I think tone tastes are individual.
Walnut: Walnut has some of the qualities of Koa in that it changes its tonal character with time. The low end will start out deeper and fill in the more it is played. It has a bright top end like Koa but stronger mid tones coming through.
It is said to have mid range qualities somewhere in between Mahogany and Rosewood.
If you paired Walnut back and sides with a Cedar top and a smaller guitar this would be great for finger-style. If you paired it with a Spruce top and a larger guitar it would be bolder and more aggressive for strummers and flat-pickers.
Sapele: Sapele is similar to Mahogany but there are some subtle differences.
Fretboard (a.k.a. Fingerboard)
The best woods for fretboards are rosewood and ebony. Check out the link below for a more in depth discussion about fretboard woods.
The neck of the acoustic guitar is usually made from Mahogany, particularly with steel string guitars and often Spanish Cedar for Nylon string guitars. Maple is also common though more common in electric guitars than acoustics.
Frequently Asked Questions
What Types of Wood Are Used For Guitars?
The wood used to make a guitar, whether it is acoustic or electric, is tremendously important. Different woods can determine the guitar’s overall quality, durability, and, of course, sound.
The largest part of a guitar is the body and this is made from varying types of wood. This is where the sound emanates from. Then you have the neck and fingerboard of a guitar where you will find the frets. Different types of wood used in these parts affect the sound, tone, weight, and design of the guitar.
For electric guitars, the main types of wood used on the body are:
The neck and fingerboard are made from:
Acoustic guitars are entirely different from electric guitars and are typically made from solid wood or wood laminate. Solid wood guitars are made from:
Are all Guitars Made from Wood?
Generally speaking, when you think of a guitar, you think of a wooden instrument with either a natural finish like an acoustic, or painted finish like an electric, but did you know that guitars don’t necessarily have to be made out of wood?
What Other Materials can be Used?
The most common alternative to wood guitars are metal guitars. Typically referred to as steel, slide, lap slide, or resonator guitars, metal imbues notes with a unique tone.
Electric guitars can also be crafted using plastics such as acrylic such as the one used by Dave Grohl in the Foo Fighters? video for All My Life, or fiberglass such as the 1964 Montgomery Ward JB Hutto Airline made famous by Jack White.
Why is Wood Preferred
One of the reasons simply has to do with tradition. When guitars were invented in the 15th century, wood was the only option. Another reason is that wood is a highly resonant material that doesn’t impede sound waves or vibrations as much as others.
What are Common Types of Wood for Acoustic Guitars?
The type of wood used for an acoustic guitar is hugely important, affecting elements of the quality such as tone and sound, durability, and ultimately how well-made it is. Divided into two sections, the guitar’s body is mostly made up of wood, often from the following types.
- Laminate: This is typically found on cheaper instruments and doesn’t produce the best sound overall.
- Solid wood: Solid wood is slightly more expensive, but also more resonant and delivers better tonal quality.
- Spruce: Great for all styles of music, spruce provides a warm tone that doesn’t sound too thin.
- Cedar: Popular among finger-style players, cedar is also warm but it’s quieter and not as bright.
- Mahogany: Dense, dark, and with a close grain, mahogany can pack a powerful punch in your music.
- Maple: It?s not the most common, but it adds a beautiful aesthetic and projects well.
- Rosewood: Rosewood is often expensive, but it delivers a balanced and versatile tonal palette.
How do Different Woods Affect Guitar Tone?
Different woods make huge differences to the sound of a guitar. While many factors influence the guitar’s sounds such as its body shape and strings, its wood type is the most influential.
While woods can differ throughout the guitar’s makeup, it’s the main body’s wood that holds the biggest impact on the guitar’s sound. Some woods used to make guitars include Koa, Mahogany, Spruce, Maple, and Rosewood. The different textures, thickness, and strength of certain woods affect the acoustics of the guitar creating either brighter or warmer, deeper sounds from the body, neck, fretboard, and bridge of the guitar.
Which Wood is Best For Electric Guitar?
There are many kinds of wood to choose from when building an electric guitar. An electric guitar’s body wood is arguably one of the most important parts.
For the guitar’s main body, alder is regarded as one of the most popular choices because of its versatility. It has been used in Fender guitars since the 1950s and is very adaptable. It can be used for many different styles and still sound excellent. Alder is also cheaper than many other types of wood so construction costs less.
For the neck of the guitar, maple is the most popular choice as it brings in a good amount of high-end with good bass boosting levels.
How Do You Tell if a Guitar is Solid Wood or Laminate?
Laminate wood guitars are cheaper to make and purchase. Instead of a solid piece of wood, these guitars are made from thinly veneered layers of wood that are glued together to make a thicker surface.
A solid wood guitar’s body wood components are completely solid and not layered or laminated. Therefore, the top, back, and sides of the guitar are all made from solid wood components.
You can see the difference by looking for a change in the grain direction at the edges of the guitar’s soundhole. If this grain can be followed continuously along the whole edge, the guitar is solid wood type. Those without this continuous edge are laminate guitars with layers of veneer wood with different grains on each layer.
Why Are Electric Guitars Made Of Wood?
There are many reasons why wood is used to make electric guitars but one main reason is its cost. Wood is considerably cheaper than other materials such as acrylic and fiberglass. Wood is also in plentiful supply and beautiful to look at. It can be easily manipulated to create distinct designs and patterns which are so familiar with certain guitars.
The electric guitar dates back to the later 1900s and those were made with wood. This was before the advent of some man-made materials that are used on some guitars today. Most guitarists love the traditionalist sense of electric guitars and the tonal qualities which wood is thought to bring to guitars.
Wood has gaps and grains which allow vibrations to occur when the strings are plucked. This is more resonant in acoustic guitars as electric guitars have many electrical components built-in which affect their sound more.
Is Okoume Wood Good For Guitars?
These days, Okoume wood is regarded as a direct alternative to lightweight mahogany guitars. Okoume wood is available in large quantities and is very affordable compared to other kinds of wood. Some guitarists believe it is almost identical to mahogany with very similar sounds. However, Okoume wood tends to be lighter and easier to handle for some.
Okoume wood guitars generally have very dynamic tones with a bright sound. However, this bright sound can be a bit too vibrant for some players. The bass resonates thickly even when unplugged but this can differ with some models of guitar.
There are some downsides to this wood as the grain can become easily frayed when being shaped and these parts may not last as long as mahogany wood.
Is Mahogany Good For Guitars?
Mahogany is a very good wood for a guitar’s construction. Mahogany displays a lot of midrange characters with a guitar’s tone meaning it is neither too bright nor too dull sounding.
It is one of the only hardwoods that can make quality top wood. Mahogany can also be used on a guitar’s neck, block, and just about every part of a guitar. Its biggest impact is on the back and sides of a steel-string guitar as it mellows out the brightness of the sound and adds more warmth with a stronger mid-range instead. Mahogany also softens the highs of a guitar’s sounds and reduces the overtones.
Is Sapele Good For Guitars?
Like mahogany, Sapele can be used on the top wood, neck, back, and sides of a guitar. This is because it is quite hardwood and easy to carve for certain components of a guitar. It is worth noting that Sapele on one guitar can sound different on another due to different constructions and setups but this is the same for all kinds of wood.
Sapele is very similar to mahogany but has some subtle differences. It has a stronger presence than mahogany and has a slightly more complex tone. Sapele is also stronger than other wood types such as African and Honduran mahogany which are both widely used in guitar constructions.
Do Mahogany Guitars Sound Better With Age?
Mahogany is typically dark and dense with a very close grain that helps produce powerful sounds from a guitar. This sound can change as the wood ages along with the guitar.
As with most materials, the aging process impacts the wood’s structure. As wood, including mahogany ages, its tensile strength to weight ratio improves somewhat. This can result in the guitar becoming more responsive as well as resonant because the materials in the wood’s cell walls reduce over time. Therefore, holding moisture within the wood becomes more limited in relation to the humidity of its surroundings.
Sap within the wood also hardens stiffening the timber. This results in the guitar’s soundboard becoming more resonant while maintaining, or even increasing, its original strength.
Thanks for Reading
Thanks for reading and I hope you now are a lot more educated on the different types of wood that can make up an acoustic guitar and what sounds those woods will create and the styles each wood is best suited for.
Knowing the different characteristic of woods now, would this influence your decision in buying your next guitar? Let me know what you think in the comments below. All other comments or questions very welcome also.
Photo Credits from Top
Top Photo by Larry Jacobsen [CC BY 2.0], via Flikr
Koa top Photo by David Wirth [CC BY 2.0], via Flikr
Spruce top Photo by Larry Jacobsen [CC BY 2.0], via Flikr
Koa back & sides Photo by Larry Jacobsen [CC BY 2.0], via Flikr
Rosewood back & sides Photo by Larry Jacobsen [CC BY 2.0], via Flikr