Prized for its beauty, koa possesses tonal
characteristics similar to mahogany when
used as a back and sides wood, and is
one option to consider when planning your
custom instrument. Photo by Kimberly
In my previous column [“Designing
and Ordering a Custom Guitar, Pt. 1,”
December 2012], we began discussing the
initial steps and process of having a guitar
custom built. We talked about choosing a
dealer or individual builder, determining
the best body shape and size for your needs,
and selecting the size and shape of the neck
that will be most comfortable for you. This
month, let’s take a look at the next step in
the process: choosing the woods.
Body Wood Selection
So much has already been written on this
subject that I’d barely be able to scratch
the surface even if I had 10 pages to do it.
What I’ll do is keep it brief and general in
scope by listing some common—and not
so common—woods, and provide rough
characterizations of their tonal properties.
Remember, nothing compares to your own
ear as the best device in helping with your
selection. So, get out and play a bunch of
guitars before making your choice!
Indian rosewood provides warm tone with
lots of sustain. The tonal characteristics of
this wood will back vocals very well, but
can lack in note separation and hinder lead
playing. Good-quality Indian rosewood is
readily available and it’s a very stable wood
over the long haul.
Cocobolo is our favorite, exotic rosewood
these days. It has all of the same properties as
Indian rosewood, but with an added reverb
effect that’s similar to Brazilian rosewood.
Brazilian, as many of us know, is in such short
supply now that it doesn’t warrant further
description. But if you want “Brazilian tone”
from a guitar that you can own without having
to take a second mortgage on your home,
cocobolo might be a good choice for you.
Honduran rosewood is another good
Brazilian substitute and is extremely dense,
which results in a very glassy and treble-heavy
tone. It will produce a lot of volume,
but can sound a bit harsh, especially when
paired with a dense top-wood such as
Appalachian red spruce. Honduran rosewood
is also prone to cracking.
Mahogany is less warm, but more woody
than Indian rosewood. Notes die-off faster,
which creates better separation for leads,
and mids and trebles are clearer. While
Honduras is no longer the main country of
origin, mahogany is still readily available.
And though some mahoganies are a little
softer than what we used to use, this just
makes them a bit harder to work with and
won’t have much affect on your guitar’s tone.
Walnut may very well be our favorite
mahogany-style back and side wood. With
tonal properties very similar to mahogany—
but with just a bit more darkness to
the tone—walnut is a great “in-between
choice” if neither rosewood nor mahogany
quite floats your boat.
Koa is certainly hard to beat for sheer
beauty, and there is still a bit of it available
that’s very nice. Koa’s tone is very mahogany-
like, with just a touch more sustain in
the treble register.
Australian/Tasmanian blackwood is pretty
much the same thing as koa, only it’s not
grown in Hawaii. It looks very similar to
koa, provides virtually the same tone, and is
The soundboard certainly plays a major role
in determining the overall tone of an acoustic
guitar, so let’s take a look at the variety
of top woods, running from some softer
options to the harder and denser.
Western red cedar is a very responsive tonewood
with a broad tonal spectrum. Though
it’s mostly prized for fingerstyle playing,
Western red cedar will take a light flatpick
very well. The main drawbacks are its softness—
making it prone to scratching and
denting easily—and its low-volume ceiling.
Redwood has all the volume and response
of cedar, with a bit more insofar as the
volume ceiling. Redwood’s dark, red-brown
color is very attractive, but this wood can
be hard to find.
Engelmann spruce is commonly used as
a top wood on guitars built for fingerstyle
and light flatpick playing. Engelmann will
break up tonally if played too hard, but not
as quickly as cedar. Its common drawback
is the occurrence of “run out,” which causes
a visual light/dark effect, depending on the
direction from which you’re looking at the
top. This is mostly a cosmetic issue, however,
caused by the small size of Engelmann trees.
Sitka spruce is probably the most commonly
used top wood and is said to have
the best of all tonal worlds. This can also
mean, though, that it’s a middle-of-the-road
top wood, and may not exactly meet specific
needs. If you strictly play fingerstyle, you
may want to go with one of the aforementioned
woods, and if you plan on plowing
away with a heavy flatpick, you may want
to consider a European or Appalachian
spruce. But if you’re looking for a versatile
guitar that you can play in many styles and
settings, Sitka may be the ticket.
Alpine/European spruce has Sitka’s headroom
for hard playing, but also has the
responsiveness of a cedar or redwood. In the
interest of space, I’m lumping Alpine and
European together, but most of this type
of spruce we’ve been using lately is coming
from the Italian Alps. It’s currently my
favorite top wood, and the only downside is
the price tag.
Appalachian red spruce, commonly
referred to as Adirondack spruce, is the
granddaddy of them all. Before it was
severely logged out during World War II, it
was the tonewood of choice for the iconic,
pioneering guitar builders. The headroom
(aka volume ceiling) on this stuff is off
the charts, but it’s also quite responsive to
softer playing styles. An expensive option,
the other downside is cosmetics because the
red spruce available today is often wider in
grain and less “sheet white” in color than
some other high-end top woods.
So we’ve covered body woods in a whirlwind
sort of way this month. Next column,
I’ll talk about binding possibilities and head
toward the homestretch of the finish and
Mark Dalton is a founding partner of Huss & Dalton
Guitar Company. When not building guitars, Mark and
his wife, Kimberly, tend to the draft horses and mules
that inhabit their farm in the Piedmont region of Virginia.