When guitar makers and players talk about tonewoods they are referring to the woods that are used on the back and sides of an acoustic guitar. Traditionally, the most used tonewoods have been rosewood and mahogany. Some other woods that have been used for many years are maple, koa, walnut, sycamore, and cypress. The latter two have most often been used on Flamenco guitars.
More recently, in the past fifteen 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; a growing shortage of quality traditional woods and the never ending search for different sounds.
It Sounds Like What?
Using words to try to describe differing subtleties of sounds in various tonewoods is not terribly satisfying compared to listening to them but we will make an attempt.
This is the grandaddy of all tonewoods for steel string guitars. It has been used since the 1800’s for its tonal qualities as well as its workability for the craftsman. It is extremely resonant across the tonal spectrum but is best known for strong, rich bass response. It is a dark brown wood with many subtle shades of red and green visible in the grain. Traditionally, very 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 is considered an endangered species. These days in most countries, including the United States, it is very difficult to either import or export.
This is a close cousin to Brazilian Rosewood and it has many of the same characteristics both visually and tonally. These days, if you hear that a new guitar is rosewood it is almost a certainty that it is Indian Rosewood.
There are many varieties of mahogany but the best kind for guitar makers comes from Honduras and other parts of Central America. It is a brighter sounding wood than rosewood. Some people describe it as a “more immediate” sound. It is a light brown colored wood with very homogenous grain. It is extremely strong and also physically lighter than rosewood. As a result, it is often used in necks of guitars so the guitar has a good balance from the headstock to the body.
This is a very hard, light colored wood that has been used by instrument makers for over 400 years. It can have very beautiful lines running across the grain that are referred to as tiger stripes or highly flamed maple. It is a very bright and bell-like tone. Violin makers have been using maple for centuries. It first became popular in the steel string guitar world in the 1920’s when it was used by the folks at Gibson Mandolin and Guitar Company in Kalamazoo, Michigan. It just so happened that 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 so they don’t end up sounding too tubby.
A very exotic looking wood with multi-colored grain patterns and a gorgeous overall deep caramel color. It is grown only in Hawaii so there has never been large quantities of it available to instrument makers. It is characterized sonically by a strong mid-range and treble response. Koa has always been the go-to wood for traditional ukulele builders but it also make a great sounding(and looking) guitar.
But That’s Not All
Naturally, the kind of tonewood used is just one of many factors that determines the overall sound of a guitar. Other factors include: