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The Evolution of Guitar Tonewoods


When guitar makers and players speak of tonewoods, they are referring to the types of wood used on the back and sides of an acoustic guitar. Traditionally, the most used tonewoods have been rosewood and mahogany. Some other types that have been used over the years are maple, koa, walnut, sycamore and cypress. The latter two have most often been used on Flamenco guitars.

In the past 15 years or so, guitar makers have sought out a wider variety of woods like sapele, ovangkol, cocobolo, myrtle, lacewood, cherry, and a host of others. The two main reasons for builders searching out different woods are an increasing shortage of quality traditional woods and the never ending search for unique sounds.

Here is a breakdown of a few types of tonewoods and their special characteristics.

Brazilian and Indian Rosewoods

Brazilian Rosewood is the granddaddy of all tonewoods for steel string guitars. It has been popular since the 1800s for its tonal qualities as well as its workability for craftsmen. This wood is extremely resonant across the tonal spectrum but is best known for a strong, rich bass response. It is a dark brown wood with many subtle shades of red and green visible in the grain.

Traditionally, straight grained Brazilian Rosewood was the most desirable to make guitars. These days, however, highly figured pieces are used to make exotic looking high-end guitars. Brazilian Rosewood has become extremely rare as it’s considered an endangered species. These days in most countries, including the United States, it is quite difficult to either import or export.

Indian Rosewood is a close cousin to Brazilian and has many of the same characteristics both visually and tonally. These days, if you hear that a new guitar is rosewood it’s almost certain to be Indian Rosewood.

Mahogany

There are many types of mahogany, but the best variety for guitar makers comes from Honduras and other parts of Central America. It’s a brighter sounding wood than rosewood, often described as a more immediate sound. Mahogany is a light brown color with a homogenous grain. It is resilient and physically lighter than rosewood. As a result, mahogany is often used in necks of guitars, so the guitar has a good balance from the headstock to the body.

Maple

Maple is an incredibly hard, light colored wood that’s been used by musical instrument makers for over 400 years. It can have exquisite lines running across the grain frequently referred to as tiger stripes or highly flamed maple. Maple has a bright and bell-like tone.

Maple first became popular in the steel string guitar world in the 1920s when it was used by the folks at Gibson Mandolin and Guitar Company in Kalamazoo, Michigan. As luck would have it, they were surrounded by forests of old growth maple trees, which made some great sounding instruments. These days, because of its bright, trebly sound, maple is often used on jumbo bodied guitars to ensure they don’t sound too tubby.

Koa

Koa is an exotic looking wood with multi-colored grain patterns and a gorgeous overall deep caramel color. It’s only grown in Hawaii, so large quantities of Koa have never been available to instrument makers. The wood is characterized sonically by a strong mid-range and treble response and has always been the go-to wood for traditional ukulele builders. Koa also makes a great sounding (and visually appealing) guitar.

Discover More About Tonewoods

The Denver Folklore Center offers beautiful tonewoods in our large selection of instruments. Check out our guitars online or come into the store and see them in person. We’d love to answer any questions you have. Contact us for more information.