Guitar Types: Woods
Let me get a couple of things out of the way before we dive into our next subject. I am going to cover the most popular, and a couple of the up and coming woods, that are used in making an acoustic guitar. I will not get into the scientific aspects of the woods properties or their Latin name. Frankly it's not that important. After all how many people do you know that speak Latin or are a Botanist! Quick quiz; how many components of the guitar are made of wood? I'll bet your guess was below 15 correct? That's right as many as 15 ( give or take) types of woods and components made of wood can make up the acoustic guitar! And to prove my point here they are; back, binding, braces, bridge, bridge plate, end block, fret board, headstock overlay, heel cap, kerfing, neck, neck block, purfling, sides, and finally the most important component the top! No I am not going to go over these 15 definitions right now, we will save that for another section. Let's get to the woods that define a guitars sound through its top, back and sides. I will wrap up the woods section with the three remaining obvious wood components of the guitar; the bridge, fretboard and neck.
The preferred wood for violins is also the most popular wood used for tops world wide, from the
largest manufacturers down to the individual luthier. There are three types of spruce that best
reflect the characteristics of this wood; Sitka, Engelmann and Adirondack.
Sitka Spruce is the most common of the three mentioned. Its tone is best described as having a warm bright punch while also delivering a strong clarity across the guitars tonal range. It is pinkish white in color and over time will develop a light caramel tint to its hue. This top is favored by players who are more rhythmic in their style, i.e. this wood can take on a strong strummer and not lose its tonal qualities.
Engelmann Spruce is a lighter wood in both color and clarity than Sitka. Engelmann produces a warm inviting tone while responding best to fingerstyle playing which brings out the strong overtones this wood provides. Generally more expensive than Sitka, nonetheless Engelmann can offer the player with a lighter touch a beautiful guitar.
Adirondack Spruce is actually a trade name used at one time by wood suppliers in the Adirondack region in upstate New York. Both black, red and white spruce were interchangeable woods used to produce tops for guitars years ago, but today Eastern Red Spruce is the dominant wood used from that region used for guitar tops. For some reason the name Adirondack Spruce is still used today to describe that wood. This wood is actually stiffer than Sitka so its characteristics are magnified in terms of tonality versus its Pacific Northwest cousin. The drawback with Adirondack is its inconsistent grain pattern along with a lack of uniformity in the color of the wood which scares many luthiers away from it. Simply put, if it doesn't look good you don't have a sale. Many luthiers though use Adirondack in their replica models because of its wide use in the 1930's by the big two of that era, Gibson and Martin. This is an excellant soundboad wood; take advantage of it if you have the means (it is the most expensive of the three sruce's described) before it becomes too popular!
Western Red Cedar is often described as having a warmer ( not as bright) tone than spruce. This comes from its lower end or bass having a stronger presence than spruce in its sonic qualities. While not projecting as much volume, if you will, as spruce, cedar will give the player a nice smooth sound especially for the fingerstylists who requires a short break in period for their soundboard. This wood will show its true beauty when responding to a soft or moderate touch. For you flatpickers and strummers, don't be shy about taking advantage of the cedars all around balance of tonality, just don't "windmill"chords ala Pete Townshend; you will lose out on the treble side! FYI cedar is very popular with classical guitar luthiers for the reasons I covered.
BACK and SIDES
Indian Rosewood: beautiful, complex, rich, coveted. These are just a few of the adjectives mentioned when Indian Rosewood is brought up in conversation by luthiers. Yes this wood will give you a deep rich surrounding base boom, layered harmonics with a fat projection and sustain that goes on forever. True, you will pay for it but ask any guitarist who owns a guitar built with Indian Rosewood if it was worth the additional cost and they will just smile with delight! Add to its amazing tone its brilliant color hues and you have the premier wood used for back and sides. Side note; as I did mention in the opening paragraph I will cover the most popular woods used in guitar building today. Therefore Brazilian Rosewood will not be covered in this section.
Walnut will offer a deep tone in the bass arena while giving the player a nice flowing bright sound on the treble side. In addition walnut, being heavier and more dense than mahogany, will project a richer tone in the midrange and offer the player a back and side combination that is slowly becoming more popular in the guitar world. Its colors combine the dark brown spectrum and purple streaks throughout its grain. A really great looking wood especially set with a light top like Engelmann Spruce. Black and Claro Walnut are the two most widely used types of this wood used in guitar production.
The color pattern of maple can range from nearly white to yellowish with a tight grain look. Over time, with exposure to light, maple will produce a golden hue. Its sound has been described as somewhat quiet on the treble side with a clear, smooth tone on the bass side. Its well balanced sound and strong mid and low end give maple a reputation as a big sounding guitar. Eastern rock maple and western big leaf maple are the two most common varieties used in guitar production. Maple is often used in production for jumbo guitar models.
* Both mahogany and maple are also used for guitar tops but are most commonly used for back and side use.
THREE OTHER MAIN INGREDIENTS
"Has anyone seen the Bridge?" Some Led Zeppelin for you, remember, were supposed to have a little fun! The bridge itself is an integral part of the guitar in that the strings are anchored to the top of the instrument through the bridge. From the largest guitar manufactures to the individual luthier, the bridge is often used as an identity piece in its design. The two woods that dominate the bridge market are ebony and rosewood. Often the bridge and fretboard are made of the same material. In recent years other woods such as walnut, cocobolo and other exotic hardwoods are becoming more prevalent in bridge use for their variety and availability reasons.
Since your fretting hand is in some form or another in constant contact with this wood, I would say it's pretty important to your playing! With that being said, this wood should be durable, i.e. hard, and open to periodic maintenance (cleaning with a soft cloth and lemon oil for example), without damaging the surface. After all there will be some dirt and sweat that will accumulate from the player's fingertips on the fretboard. That's why only hardwoods, i.e. bridge woods, are used for this material.
The neck is the most important part of the guitar for feel and because of that is often the deciding factor
when the purchase decision is finalized. If it's too big, even though it is stable, it's too slow. If it's too
thin, even though it's fast, it might warp. Finding the happy medium is a challenge for all luthiers. Necks are
normally carved out of a single piece of wood for stability reasons and mahogany is the most common wood used.
Necks that have multiple pieces to its make up often use a combination of maple along with ebony or rosewood.
When these pieces are put together with an alternating grain pattern in place, stability is accomplished while
decreasing the chance of warping. This is a common method used when maple is the wood of choice for the guitar neck.
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