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Guitar construction is a complex process with the shape and size of the instrument and each component influencing the sound that the guitar will produce. The woods used are called tone woods because they are capable of producing a tone when struck. The variety of wood used for the back, sides and top of the guitar are highly significant and more particularly the combination of woods employed. The top and the back of the guitar must work well together and luthiers (guitar makers) are skilled at selecting complimentary combinations. If you have found yourself perplexed by the choices on offer then this guide should help you understand the qualities of the various woods and which may suit your playing style best and provide precisely the sound you are looking for.
The tops or soundboards of guitars are generally considered to have the greatest influence on the sound generated by classical guitars. The thickness of the wood used and the way it is braced will also affect the tone but the type of tone wood is the starting point around which other factors are worked to manipulate the final sound. The following are the most commonly used species for the soundboards.
Spruce is a perennial favourite as it suits any style of playing. Various species are used including Sitka (the most common), Engelmann and Adirondack with all species being light and strong, qualities which result in a high velocity of sound. Spruce is creamy white to pinky light brown in colour but does tend to tan across time and so older instruments can take on a yellow hue which can be mimicked in new guitars by using an aging toner to create an aged appearance.
All varieties of spruce will produce a broad dynamic range with crisp and immediate sound. This wood gives a strong tone with little overtone resulting in a direct, powerful and uncomplicated sound that suits a variety of playing styles. Spruce can be played hard without diminishing the clarity of the sound but can lack character when played softly and this is particularly true of Sitka. Engelmann is a lighter, more flexible wood providing more depth and Adirondack can be worked even harder than Sitka whilst retaining clarity and balance. Adirondack is considered to be the ideal top wood but it is costly and can lack consistency in the grain and colour. The yield is low as the trees are much smaller than Alaskan Sitka which are huge specimens that result in a high yield and therefore a lower price.
Spruce soundboards are a great choice for all round players who require a single instrument for a variety of styles. Engelmann should be favoured by players with a light touch and Adirondack for more aggressive strumming. The following video from Collings Guitars provides some great insight into the properties of spruce.
This wood is traditionally used on classical instruments but is becoming an increasingly popular choice for steel strung flat top constructions too. Cedar is a darker wood than spruce and ranges from cinnamon to light chocolate in hue. It is a less dense wood than spruce and produces a warmer, more complex sound with a higher ratio of overtone to fundamental. Cedar produces a tone with less clarity, snap and sparkle but with more character. Less stiffness along the grain means that cedar is quieter than many woods and loses clarity when played hard. It is the choice of those who value character and warmth over clarity and volume.
It should be noted at this point that cedar tops tend to open up much quicker than those fashioned from spruce. Spruce tops can require playing in for months or even years before they reach their true potential whereas a cedar top will produce rich harmonics and a warm tone even when new.
As Cedar lacks clarity at high volume but posseses a wonderful richness of tone it is favoured by musicians with a light touch.
Mahogany is more commonly used for sides and backs but can be used for soundboards and the wood is easy to spot due to the rich dark reddish brown colour and the fact that it is often left unpolished. This wood has a distinctly warm tone with an emphasis on the fundamental but its density means that mahogany tops can require significant playing in. Mahogany tops acquire character as they age with more prominent overtones and have traditionally been favoured by those playing the blues although the punchy nature of the sound is finding favour with a variety of musicians.
Like mahogany, maple is usually used for fashioning sides and backs but maple tops can be found. It is a light coloured wood, sometimes almost white, and is very dense and heavy. That density and the high degree of internal damping provide a bright sound with good sustain and great clarity for high frequencies. This wood also allows for excellent note separation meaning that each note in a chord is clearly expressed. Maple tops are particularly suited to instruments which are to be played plugged in on stage as the crisp highs can cut through the mix.
Guitar backs and sides are generally made from the same wood and that wood is chosen for its ability to eliminate or amplify the frequencies produced by the top of the instrument. The backs and sides therefore have a great influence on the tone of the guitar. The combination of woods chosen for the tops, sides and back must be carefully considered to achieve the desired results.
Rosewood is a popular and enduring choice for acoustic guitars and there are two varieties to consider - Indian rosewood and the more costly Brazilian rosewood. Brazilian rosewood has a luxurious look with a dark brown hue which can feature orange shades. The striking figuring gives a more luxurious appearance than Indian rosewood and the Brazilian variety is highly valued for its quality of tone but there are now trade restrictions on this wood making the Indian rosewood, which is easier to produce, a far cheaper option.
Both varieties of rosewood are renowned for sparkly notes. There is great clarity across the frequencies and the wood produces a more metallic sound than the woody tone of mahogany and offers a tight bass projection that does not overpower the sparkle of the mid range and the sizzle of the top notes. There is an ongoing debate as to the relative merits of the Brazilian and Indian varieties with perhaps some of the praise heaped on the former being attributable to its rarity and heritage values. Both varieties produce a consistent tone which suits a wide range of styles and for this reason rosewood is often paired with a spruce top to produce a great all-rounder.
The rich, dark red hues of mahogany are easy to spot. It is a dense, stiff wood that produces a distinctive woody and warm tone with the emphasis on the mid range rather than the pronounced highs and lows of rosewood. As mahogany matures and after it is played in, a more prominent overtone appears adding character. This wood is well suited to blues and roots music and overall provides a punchier and darker sound than rosewood. The combination of mahogany back and sides with a spruce top is common as this partnership is one of great balance and versatility.
Sapele is a fast growing and highly sustainable African wood which is protected from over harvesting making it a fabulous choice for the environmentally aware. Its appearance is similar to mahogany although sapele tends to be a little lighter. With sapele the low end is also similar to mahogany but this wood offers a more sizzling top end and that zing makes it a great choice for brighter players and the perfect material for a multi-purpose guitar.
Renowned for its good looks, maple is a dense hardwood which produces superb clarity of tone. It is, therefore, a great choice for live performance because it will cut through competing sounds, every note is clearly defined and feedback issues are unlikely. Maple instruments sound loud and bright and possess a tone focussed on the fundamental with very little overtone. Rather than shaping the sound resonating from the top of the guitar, maple amplifies it.
Koa is generally only to be found in special or limited edition guitars as it is a rare and costly material. It is sourced from one Hawaiian island where it grows only above 5,000 feet.Traditionally used to make ukuleles, koa boasts stunning good looks and offers the mid range sound of mahogany and the bright top end of maple. Koa requires a lengthy playing in period which is worth the effort as the result is a warmer, mellowed tone and a rich low end. Koa is not a good choice for those who play with a pick as it will sound too bright but it should be strongly considered by those who strum with their thumbs.
Another wood that is sure to get your instrument noticed! This Mexican wood, like koa, is usually reserved for custom builds and limited editions and features bold stripes, swirls, fiery red hues and striking yellows. It is a dense tropical wood that boasts the bright zing of koa and maple but with more low end. Cocobolo suits most playing styles and is a good choice for musicians who love the bright highs balanced by the lows that you won't get with koa and maple.
Walnut, Tasmanian blackwood, macassar ebony and granadillo are also worthy of note but are harder to find. Walnut is a beautiful hardwood that produces a bright top end and a mid range that falls between mahogany and rosewood whilst being deeper in the low end than koa. It suits players who wish to blend brightness with warm overtones. Tasmanian blackwood is a cousin of koa with similar tonal range which lacks the physical beauty of koa but which is sourced from sustainable forests making it a great ethical choice. Granadillo is rarely available but should you stumble across it you will find it comparable to rosewood but producing a distinctive bell like chime. Macassar ebony offers a broad dynamic range with a clear, high volume tone and loves to be played hard.
With so many tone woods to consider it can be difficult to absorb all of the information so here's a video from Premier Guitar Mag that neatly sums up the principle choices and gives you the opportunity to see the appearance of the woods.
You will find that cheaper guitars are fashioned from laminated wood and more costly models from solid wood. Laminated wood is basically formed by fusing layers of cheaper wood and then adding a decent wood veneer. This material is much cheaper to use than solid wood but produces an inferior tone. Laminated wood will also deteriorate over time. Solid wood is the best option if you have the budget for it but you should be aware that solid wood can vary greatly in quality and the higher grades will be used on the more costly instruments. If your budget is tight then you could opt for an instrument with a solid top and laminated back and sides as this is a good compromise.
Hopefully you now have a better understanding of the available options and are starting to get an idea of which tone woods would suit your playing style. Your next step should be to listen to as many different instruments as you can and, of course, to play guitars fashioned from the various tone woods to gain a better feel for the wonderful materials available. At London Guitar Studio we have a fabulous and diverse collection of instruments and our friendly and knowledgeable team are always on hand to help you make that all important decision.