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Though there are many, many factors that contribute to the sound of an individual guitar besides the wood, the woods used in a guitar are probably the most discussed component of the instrument, and they are probably the most misunderstood. Some woods are better suited to guitar making than others and there are two main reasons for this: function and tradition.
The physics of the guitar are rather delicate. The strings on a steel-string guitar exert a tremendous amount of tension on the soundboard, which the luthier hopes to have at an ideal thickness to produce the best tone. It’s a balancing act between structural integrity and the resonance of the soundboard. If the board is too thin, it will warp; if it is too thick, it will sound dead or “thuddy.” Ideally, the soundboard will not warp against the tension of the strings and will also vibrate freely when the strings are plucked, thus moving the surrounding air and creating a pleasing tone.
Tradition is a factor that is somewhat subservient to function. The Martin guitar company established the American steel-string guitar as the instrument we all know today. Their decision to use particular woods for these early, influential guitars was based on the factors outlined above. Rosewood was often used on many of their higherend guitars, simply because it functioned so well as a guitar wood. It is resonant, beautiful, stable and so on. Because Martin had such a formative role in the development of the instrument, rosewood became associated with high quality in general. The strength and longevity of these associations has engendered a tradition, though it could just as easily have been another type of wood.
When we say “alternative tonewood,” what we really mean is an alternative to the tradition of using certain woods in guitar making; keep in mind that rarely do these alternative woods veer very far from the traditional, because all these woods must be functional guitar woods. There are many reasons a luthier might choose to use an alternative tonewood – to carve a unique professional identity, to be environmentally responsible or to try and discover the next big thing.
In the following pages, we will highlight three of the most popular tonewoods: maple, rosewood, and mahogany, and the alternatives available for each.
Maple is the only wood used for backs and sides in the violin family so it is well known to instrument makers, even though a modest percentage of guitars are made with it. The fact that it is a domestic wood augments its popularity and it is often used on electric guitars, most notably Gibson Les Paul tops.
Maple with figuring is preferred over plain maple, but the figure has no real bearing on the sound of the wood. The figure is, however, strikingly beautiful. Most common is curly maple, also known as flamed maple or tiger maple. A bit rarer is quilted maple, a wood with a billowy, bubbly appearance. Plain maple (Rock maple from the East Coast) is often used for electric guitar necks, but Bigleaf maple (from the Northwest) and European maple (from the former Yugoslavia) are the common choices for acoustic guitar back and sides.
Maple is well known for imparting a bright tone to an instrument, with excellent separation – a guitar with good separation allows each note of a chord to ring independently as opposed to sounding thick or clustered. It has long been a popular choice on the Gibson Jumbo series because the bright tone helps balance out the booming sounds of guitars with a large body.
It is hard to find an alternative to maple, although tonally many have had similar results with Californian walnut. Walnut is primarily dark gray in color and can also exhibit dramatic figuring. Myrtlewood (also from the Pacific Northwest) has many maple-like qualities in tone and appearance, though generally the sets are more varied as far as color is concerned, with brown, gray and greenish vertical streaks being common.
Another set of alternatives is koa from Hawaii and its Australian cousin, black acacia, otherwise known as Australian blackwood. These woods are among the most beautiful available, often found with a light, honey-brown color. They can combine vertical color bands with flamed figure, though flamed sets are becoming increasingly more difficult to come by. Though koa is technically not endangered, good old trees are few and far between on the islands and prices for the best sets are sometimes on par with Brazilian rosewood. Koa is sometimes compared tonally with mahogany.