Acoustic Guitar Wood Types: A Guide
The wood grain, colors, finish and feel of an acoustic guitar contribute to making each one a one-of-a-kind piece of music history.
Every acoustic guitar is a work of art thanks to the unique combination of tonewoods used in its construction. But did you know the type of wood affects more than appearance and feel? Below we’ll reveal the different wood types used in guitar making and how they influence the tonal quality of the instrument.
How Does Wood Affect Acoustic Guitar Tone?
The entire acoustic guitar is involved in the sound that emanates from it. When you pluck a string, sound energy transfers to the guitar's neck and body via the bridge and nut. From there, the soundwaves contact the wooden surfaces within the guitar's body. When the sound reaches your ears, the wood has shaped and influenced the tone.
The audible tone you perceive depends on the type of wood used in the guitar. Wood is an organic material with natural differences depending on the species of tree, where it grew, and the growing conditions. These factors all lead to differences in wood density, which dramatically affects tone.
When buying a new guitar, remember to balance its appearance with the right tonewood type to achieve your ideal sound.
Acoustic Guitar Tonewoods — Back and Sides
The backs and sides have a strong influence on a guitar's projection and tone. The density of the back and side woods contribute to how much the guitar vibrates and resonates as you play. Denser, harder woods create more sustain and sharper tones, while lighter woods produce softer tones and less sustain. Your playing style and personal preferences will determine which tonewoods sound best to you.
Here are some of the best tonewoods used for acoustic guitar backs and sides.
Rosewood has greater density and hardness than most other tonewoods. It produces warm, resonant tones with differences in appearance and sound depending on the species used.
- Brazilian rosewood: Brazilian rosewood is complex in tone and appearance. Its dark brown hue marked with fine black lines and hints of orange, give it a luxurious, exotic look. And its rich overtones, long sustain, and deep resonance give players a beautiful balance of bass and treble.
- East Indian rosewood: East Indian rosewood has a simpler grain pattern with colors ranging from dark brown to red and purple. Tonally, it offers deep bass with rich overtones.
- Cocobolo: Cocobolo is a tropical tonewood with high density and hardness. Cocobolo produces a reflective, bright tone that accentuates the treble response when used for guitar backs and sides. It also has an exotic appearance, making it a desirable tonewood for higher-end guitars
When comparing mahogany vs. rosewood, a mahogany acoustic guitar has a loud sound, bright treble response, and punchy mid-range. It's a bit lighter and less dense than rosewood and displays a lighter brown appearance. Mahogany guitars are sometimes preferred for studio use because they don’t have an overwhelming bass response.
Sapele wood is a guitar tonewood sourced from Africa that is comparable to genuine mahogany. It has a similar tone and sound to mahogany, but its appearance sometimes has a light and dark color banding in the grain pattern.
Sapele exhibits a powerful midrange, great punch, and bright and airy trebles.
Maple is a popular tonewood for acoustic guitar backs and sides. A maple guitar has a stunning appearance thanks to diverse figured grain patterns and a light color that sometimes includes a flamed characteristic.
Maple's high density gives it more sustain and a focused, bright sound with less complex overtones.
This Hawaiian tonewood has a stunning, vibrant appearance with various shades of red and brown. It bridges the gap between mahogany and rosewood in hardness and density.
Koa's tone captures some of the same midrange projection as mahogany but with a more rounded, smoother spectrum of sound. It also features increased sustain and an enhanced top end, perfect for fingerpicking. The tone is very well-balanced. Koa is also a common wood used for ukuleles.
Walnut has high density and brightness, much like koa but with a stronger midrange. Walnut's tone grows softer and warmer over time, boosting its low end. Its appearance features dark, rich shades of brown for a natural, rugged look with bountiful striping.
Sycamore is a lightweight tonewood that makes the guitar easier to handle. Its appearance includes stunning light brown or pink streaks on a creamy backdrop. Its lower density causes it to absorb sound, rolling off some of the highs and lows.
Acoustic Guitar Tonewoods — Tops
The top of the acoustic guitar, or soundboard, is one of the first parts of the guitar to influence the sound waves generated after plucking a string. The guitar's top wood plays a crucial role in shaping the tone the guitar produces. Different tonewoods used in solid wood top guitars have different tonal qualities and appearances. Understanding these differences will help you choose the best acoustic guitar for your needs.
Many musicians consider spruce to be the industry standard for guitar soundboards. Spruce top acoustic guitars have a timeless look with a signature tan-colored fine wood grain pattern over a creamy white or pinkish background. Spruce is also lightweight and durable, increasing its popularity as a soundboard tonewood.
A solid spruce top guitar delivers a broad dynamic tonal range with a crisp, articulate sound and few overtones. Some consider this straightforward, even sound as an absence of unique character in spruce, but it also makes spruce top guitars popular for a variety of genres and playstyles.
Several types of spruce are available for use in guitar tops, including the following:
- Sitka spruce: This is the most common spruce used in guitar soundboard construction. It is essentially the baseline of spruce tonewood, with much of the information mentioned above applying to it. Sitka spruce top guitars are great for aggressive and gentle playing styles alike.
- Lutz spruce: This is a hybrid between Sitka spruce and white spruce. The aesthetic and tonal properties are similar to Sitka spruce, but it provides a more consistent sound quality from instrument to instrument.
- Eastern red spruce: Commonly referred to as Adirondack spruce, this tonewood is slightly heavier and stiffer than Sitka spruce. These qualities give Adirondack spruce top guitars a bit more volume and complexity while maintaining good clarity. It's a great choice for guitarists with a more aggressive playing style.
- Englemann spruce: Engelmann spruce is a bit lighter and less stiff than the Sitka and Adirondack spruce varieties. These factors give it less volume and projection, making it an ideal soundboard tonewood for players with a more delicate playing style. Playing more aggressively can result in a reduction of sound quality. In terms of color, Englemann spruce has a whiter, creamier color than Sitka spruce.
- European spruce: Also known as Italian Alpine spruce, German spruce, and Carpathian spruce, it is harvested throughout Europe and is the same species that is used for high-end violins including Stradivarius violins. It has a quick response with bright trebles, warm bass, and loud projection, producing a very dynamic sound. Its appearance is whiter in color than Sitka spruce. These species are sometimes referred to as moon spruce or high-altitude moon spruce, when it’s harvested at certain phases of the moon’s cycle with the sap content of the spruce at its lowest point in the last phase called the waning moon.
Western Red Cedar
A cedar top acoustic guitar benefits from cedar's diverse natural coloring, which includes light chocolate, honey brown and cinnamon. These darker colors make it identifiable when compared to spruce.
Cedar has less density than spruce, giving it a darker sound with richer overtones. Its low density makes it ideal for fingerstyle playing, as the high overtone presence in the sound adds needed character and liveliness for the lower volume.
When you see a mahogany acoustic guitar top, the back and sides are often also made of mahogany. You can spot them by their signature reddish appearance.
Mahogany is a stiff tonewood with high hardness and density. Mahogany soundboards provide a woody and warm tone with an emphasized midrange and less harmonic complexity than spruce.
Koa has been the first choice for ukulele tops for a long time, but recent years have seen guitar manufacturers using koa for acoustic guitar soundboards, too. Its rich reddish color and beautiful grain catch the eye, but it also provides an excellent tone. Koa offers great mid-range projection and natural compression while still letting desirable overtones shine through.
Acoustic Guitar Tonewoods — Fretboards and Bridges
The tonewoods and alternative materials used for fretboards and bridges play a smaller role in the overall tone of an acoustic guitar than the body tonewoods, but they still contribute to the tone. Acoustic guitar fingerboard tonewoods do, however, play an important role in the playability and feel of the instrument as you play. Discover some of the most beautiful and popular tonewoods for guitar fretboards and bridges.
Rosewood is one of the most common tonewoods for fretboards. It offers a rich, warm sound, good overtones and tamed highs. It's an oily, dense wood, making it smooth to the touch and excellent for playability.
Ebony is highly sought after for guitar fretboards because of its high density and dark, naturally polished appearance. Ebony creates an excellent attack followed by a long, smooth sustain. Ebony shines when combined with softer woods for the rest of the guitar's construction.
Richlite is similar to ebony in appearance and tone. It has a consistent black appearance. It is an FSC® Certified composite material that is produced in a carbon-neutral manufacturing facility. Richlite is a sustainable substitution for ebony that has been used for over 20 years at Martin (Forest Stewardship Counsel® Chain-of-Custody certification License Code FSC-C008304).
Granadillo has similar properties to East Indian rosewood in both tone and cosmetics. Often used as a substitute for East Indian Rosewood, it has a wide spectrum of colors including violets, oranges, reds and browns and can have the desirable black lines like cocobolo and Brazilian rosewood.
Katalox is similar in density and tonal properties to ebony and has a purplish hue. Its color can range from dark red to deep violet and is an excellent substitute for African Ebony.
Martin Guitars — Made to Create
Over the past two centuries, we’ve made more than 2 million guitars that all went on to make something essential — music. Our guitars have inspired generations of musicians to create music that brings joy, love and friendship. Played by legends like Johnny Cash, Joan Baez, David Gilmour, Eric Clapton and John Mayer, the sound of a Martin can be heard on countless songs that mean so much to so many.
If you love music, we have a guitar for you. Pick up a Martin and make more music for the world.