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Acoustic Soundboard: Guitars Without Borders

Acoustic Soundboard: Guitars Without Borders
An acoustic guitar is an artful amalgam of well-traveled woods, each carefully selected to play a unique, contributing role.

Your prized acoustic was likely built in a single shop and locale, but chances are your guitar is much more worldly than you might imagine.

Most modern guitars have a small label that notes where the instrument was made. Perhaps it was the U.S. or Japan or Mexico, or maybe Canada or China. These labels are placed on most objects to satisfy the laws governing the buying, selling, and shipping of things. While they do fulfill some regulatory obligations, these labels don’t really describe much in the world of guitars. Sure, they will tell a player where the workshop and builders who assembled the instrument are located, but the reality is that most instruments are far more well traveled.

Consider a typical, acoustic flattop guitar. Its ingredients will figuratively take you around the entire world. On our hypothetical guitar, we’ll find a spruce top from a high-elevation alpine forest, perhaps from one of Europe’s mountain ranges, or from Canada or Alaska. That top will be joined to sides and a back from conceivably anywhere: maple from either side of the U.S., rosewood from India or South America, or perhaps some tropical island. The neck might be made of mahogany from Central America or even Fiji. And our fingers might be playing on a fretboard made from ebony sourced from Africa. The truth is that our guitar has a passport with enough stamps to make the most ardent traveler envious.

Pointing out this cosmopolitan background isn’t meant to showcase the exoticism of the scarcest materials. Guitars have far more practical reasons for incorporating these materials. Each part of a guitar has a very particular job to do and must perform its task as well as all the other parts play their respective roles. In other words, there can be no weak links in an instrument.

I’ve heard many players insist they like the sound of a German spruce top more than any other European spruce, as if that wood spoke with the accent of its national language.

The top must be made from a wood that’s both strong and resonant. It must be able to vibrate freely while retaining enough strength to resist deformation for generations. The back and sides must be a wood appropriate to amplify this vibration—filtering out unwanted frequencies while allowing all the good musical sounds to project. The neck needs to be structurally stable yet light enough to allow a physically comfortable weight balance. And that fretboard needs to withstand constant abrasion for decades without wearing away. If any of these parts fail to perform their task well, the others are not allowed to play their own role, and the guitar (as a whole) fails to serve the musician.

With these functional roles understood, players can appreciate the subtle variations different woods give a guitar. The variety of spruce used for a top will have a small impact on the way the guitar sounds, as will the back and sides. As guitar enthusiasts, it’s important to recognize that these woods sound slightly different due to their physical properties, not the nationality of the region where they were cut. I’ve heard many players insist they like the sound of a German-spruce top more than any other European spruce, as if that wood spoke with the accent of its national language. It turns out that forests have little respect for the international borders governments establish. They grow where they prefer, and often started growing before borders were drawn on a map.

The physical characteristics of each wood are what musicians and makers concern themselves with: attributes driven by rainfall, elevation, soil conditions, and sunlight. Those are the parameters a tree will pay attention to. Occasionally, even two samples of different species can have nearly identical sonic qualities due to the similarity of their growing conditions. This is true not only for spruce, but for all woods. Take well-loved Honduras mahogany, for example. While it became known as mahogany from British Honduras (now Belize), the wood grows throughout the region, from Mexico and Belize, and south through Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, Columbia, Venezuela, and Ecuador into Brazil and Peru. It might even be from Fiji, where British settlers planted the wood in vast quantities a century ago. Whatever language is spoken by the folks living near these trees, mahogany speaks in beautiful musical sounds not just as necks, but often as the back and sides of guitars as well.

Variations among woods do exist based on those natural factors, but even still, each component of a guitar is just one part. No musician ever hears only the back of a guitar, or only the top, or just the fretboard. We hear the completed instrument—the entire system—made of unique parts from around the globe. And they all contribute to the sound of your favorite guitar, regardless of what language it speaks or where its passport was issued.