I prefer woods that are “live,” regardless of their grain, figure, or color.

A very live African hardwood, wenge offers sonic qualities that make it a viable substitute for Brazilian rosewood. This steel-string has a two-piece wenge back.

Long considered the holy grail of guitar-making woods, Brazilian rosewood is getting scarce, expensive, and—with such legislation as the Lacey Act coming to the fore in recent years—illegal to have unless one has the proper paperwork that shows its age, provenance, and legality to be allowed to cross borders. It comes as no surprise that wood suppliers to the industry are now offering new and supposedly more sustainable woods for making guitars— some that no one had heard of 10 years ago or that come from countries half of us can’t find on the map. And all these woods, of course, are marketed as being desirable and adequate substitutes for traditional woods in terms of grain, figure, color, dimensional stability, price, etc.

In my view, some are adequate substitutes and some are not. As a guitar maker, I prefer woods that are “live,” regardless of their grain, figure, or color. What that means in practical terms is that one will be able to get a live and musical tone from a particular slice or chunk of wood when tapping on it. The reason some woods are called tonewoods is because they literally produce a musical note. And this quality, when used to make a guitar soundbox, will make a better and more acoustically active guitar than would be the case if the woods used made some kind of thud or thunk when tapped.

There are live woods that look rather plain, while there are “dead” woods that look like Raquel Welch in 3-D. Fine for making furniture, the flash and beauty of the latter have an obvious appeal, and many guitars get made simply because their visual gorgeousness will be a strong selling point. Fully as much to the point, when considerations of tone and appearance vie for customers, heated discussions about the benefits of this or that combination of materials will occur, and a variety of woods will be presented as being “as good as,” “acoustically responsive,” “high quality,” “surprisingly good,” “improved by patented methods of treatment,” “a comparable alternative,” “now used by the so-and-so factory for their higher-end guitars,” and so on.

My own searches have brought me to wenge (pronounced WHEN-gay). It’s a dark, purplish-brown-colored African hardwood that has long been used by bowl turners and cabinet/furniture makers. For some reason, not too many builders have thought about using it for guitars yet, so it’s still relatively cheap. The thing that appeals to me about wenge is that it is very live. When you hold a piece of it up and tap on it without damping any of its vibrational modes, it’ll ring like a piece of glass, plate of steel, or a crystal brandy snifter. This quality is known as vitreousness, which literally means glasslike-ness.

Wenge’s vitreousness is a function of the wood being brittle on the cellular-structure level. It’s that very brittleness that makes the vibrational action and the sound that it produces possible. With that, the brittleness that is a plus for sound has a mechanical downside, in that the wood cracks easily if it’s mishandled (just like glass), and gives one splinters if one is careless with it. It can also take more patience to bend, because brittle woods simply don’t want to bend easily.

However, it’s this very potential for cracking that puts wenge in the same category as the aforementioned most-prized of traditional guitar-making woods. As lovely, alluring, and live that Brazilian rosewood is, it has also earned a reputation for being subject to cracking. Sound versus fragility: It’s a tradeoff for which there are few solutions, so long as one wishes to use that material. The solutions involve either overbuilding to minimize fragility (which comes at the expense of tonal response), or mindful treatment and care in the making, in the handling, and in the using (which may give you structural fragility, but much more sound).

Though the acoustic properties of a given wood might make it a joy for a guitar maker to work with, marketing a new wood can be tricky. No one will have heard of it—much less have had experience with it—so the buying public will probably be resistant to accepting it.

That said, making guitars with wenge for the back and sides should not be much of an impediment for younger guitar makers who are still establishing their reputations and styles. It’s the more established guitar makers like myself who meet the greatest resistance to anything new, since we already have reputations for using this wood or that wood, or have a familiar style or feature associated with our work.

In my case in particular, everyone wants me to make the same thing I’ve been making for my other clients, with the traditional woods and designs. After all, they have good track records. I’ve made five guitars using wenge so far, and am working on my sixth, but most of my customers still want Brazilian rosewood. That’s fine, but wenge is a really good alternative for anyone who is willing to be open-minded. And it makes the guitars less expensive. All wenge needs is a good advertising campaign behind it.

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If you ever find yourself in need of some guitar trivia—perhaps on a long van ride home from a weekend gig—here are some nuggets you can trot out when you need to perk up a conversation or keep the driver awake.

More trivia: What’s wrong with this picture?

As guitarists, we pick up an amazing amount of specialized knowledge about our instruments, technique, equipment, and, of course, music itself. But there’s always more to learn, right? If you ever find yourself in need of some guitar trivia—perhaps on a long van ride home from a weekend gig—here are some nuggets you can trot out when you need to perk up a conversation or keep the driver awake.

For example, all woodworkers know what a kerf is—it’s the space made by the path of a saw blade through a piece of material that is being cut. Most people don’t realize that kerfs are the only known things in the universe that get bigger and bigger until they disappear. Think about it: Other things only get smaller until they disappear. This is exactly the kind of trivial fact that will, if used properly, make you a sure success on your next date. Or at least entertain the driver for those last 50 miles.

Lutherie is the work of luthiers: It’s the making of stringed musical instruments. Lutherie derives from the French luthier, meaning lute-maker, obviously from before the time that guitars were being made. While luthier originally meant a maker of stringed instruments—and specifically fretted stringed instruments (as opposed to harps, violins, and pianos)—it has more lately come to be used to designate pretty much any kind of musical instrument maker, including wind instruments, harpsichords, etc.

It is from the Mongols, acknowledged as the world’s finest horsemen, that so much equine imagery has come into use when talking about stringed instruments. The head, neck, body, and saddle are terms first used by the Mongols to describe those parts of the instrument. As the world’s finest archers (think bows), the Mongols were also responsible for the violin family as we know it.

Padouk is a beautiful red hardwood that’s sometimes used in guitar making. Its proper name is Andaman padouk, as it grows only on the Andaman Islands that lie halfway between India and Malaysia in the Indian Ocean. Padouk is, in fact, the islands’ only resource of any commercial interest. Years ago, when England had a worldwide empire, the British established a penal colony on these sweltering tropical islands, whose sole work was the logging and harvesting of this special wood. Commercial logging of padouk is no longer done with convict labor, but it’s hard for me to see a plank of this lovely material without thinking of the poor creatures who were once forced to sweat out their lives in cutting it. Also, it makes me think that other woods we use probably have interesting stories behind them, too. Something to think about in today’s world of resource conservation and global trade.

And speaking of wood: Hardwoods and softwoods are not named because they are actually hard or soft. Taxonomists have labeled them according to the shapes of their leaves. Softwoods are, by definition, trees that have long, thin leaves; hardwoods are identified by their broad, flat leaves. The fir that your flooring may be made of, a material that can stand up to many years of use, is a softwood. On the other hand, balsa wood is a hardwood.

Balsa wood, which some luthiers use for bracing, is a South American tropical hardwood named for its use and not its discoverer nor its Latin name. Balsa, in Spanish, means raft. Raft-wood is simply the tree that people made rafts out of since the time they first noticed that it wasn’t all that good for flooring.

Guitar makers work with woods from all over the world—it’s one of nature’s most plentiful resources. England, however, has rather little of it: It is, in fact, Europe’s only wood-importing country. England used to be mostly covered by forests (remember Sherwood Forest and Robin Hood?), but from the 17th century on, its forests were systematically cut down to serve the needs of the Industrial Revolution—which that country gave birth to.

For one thing, raw wood was needed to construct England’s growing cities, and also to build ships for navies of war, commerce, trade, and exploration. Second, huge amounts of coal and firewood were needed to stoke the furnaces of the growing iron and glass-working industries. As the ground was dug up and trees were cut down, the forests began to disappear. Simultaneously, English landowners found that raising sheep on their lands to supply the textile industry’s ravenous need for wool was more profitable than having peasant farmers on it, so they further cut their lands bare to make pastures for sheep and thereby displaced the traditionally rural peasant population into the cities, where it could provide the labor pool for the Industrial Revolution’s workforce.

The upshot of such deforestation was that the English soil became rapidly denuded of its natural protective cover, and erosion on a ferocious scale became, for the first time, a fact of life. Floods and flooding in towns became common events—so much so that drowned domestic animals were often found lying on the ground after a storm had passed. This has given us the phrase about a downpour so intense that it rained cats and dogs.

A computerized survey of medical records has shown that 69 percent of piano players suffer back pain. That’s bad. But not as bad as the 73 percent of the harpists who hurt similarly. You’re better off as a guitarist, according to the same survey: Only 33 percent of us voice that complaint.

Good luck on your next date or road trip! With any luck it will produce an anecdote or odd bit of knowledge worth writing down. And if you know other guitar-related trivia to add to this list, I’d love to hear it.

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When you encounter an old acoustic guitar that sounds magical—like this 1941 Gibson ES-150—it’s tempting to speculate why. Is it due to vintage construction techniques? Decades of string vibration?

When you encounter an old acoustic guitar that sounds magical—like this 1941 Gibson ES-150—it’s tempting to speculate why. Is it due to vintage construction techniques? Decades of string vibration? Or could werewood actually play a role? Photo by Andy Ellis

Luthiers will generally agree that the acoustic guitar’s soundboard is the soul of the instrument. And they will choose a soundboard’s wood with care by considering such factors as species, grain count, color, age, provenance, grain evenness and orientation, weight, and stiffness. Popular choices for topwoods have traditionally included Sitka spruce, Engelmann spruce, Western red cedar, Italian alpine spruce, fir, redwood, pine, German spruce, red spruce, Adirondack spruce, sinker redwood, sinker spruce, and—with steelstring guitars—even koa and mahogany. With all the choices available, there is an endless debate about which topwood is “best” and how to properly use it.

I’ve been making guitars for a long time, so I too participate in this debate. My approach to the selection of the topwood relies on a favorable stiffness-toweight ratio—not so much on the grain’s evenness, count, color, etc. To me, the wood’s weight is critical and half the formula. I’ve sorted through many thousands of topwood sets in the last 40-plus years, and the range of their densities has never failed to impress itself on me.

The same has also been true of the many piles of spruce and cedar planks I’ve sorted through to made selections from. I’ve handled planks so heavy that they seemed fresh-felled and still full of water. And they’d be next to planks that were so light, you could sneeze and they’d practically blow off the pile. But these are woods of comparable size that had been kiln-dried together, so the moisture content would have been the same. I assumed this disparity was all normal and natural, until I learned about a European tradition of forestry based on the practice of cutting down woods at specific phases of the moon. This practice of wood felling is built on many centuries of empirical experience and observation, and it yields woods of consistently different density, durability, and working properties.

Wood that is felled in accordance with lunar cycles is referred to as “full-moon wood,” though somehow, I’m always tempted to think of it as werewood. Whatever one wants to call it, the fact is that our modern traditions of cutting lumber—which are not at all based on cutting woods selectively, in limited quantities, or for specific uses— have paid no attention to this practice. Our enterprises will cut day and night until the acreage has been clear-cut and the wood taken away by industrial containers, before moving on to the next acreage.

The back story on full-moon wood is quite interesting. Since before the start of the 1st millennium AD, foresters have noticed that the woods they cut yielded different working properties and durability as a direct function of where in the lunar cycle the woods were felled. Woods of any one species cut during the new moon, the full moon, or the waning moon, have consistently and predictably produced different results. Therefore, a number of especially advantageous uses for timber—including guitar tops—have been correlated with specific felling dates. These woods for soundboards are available to luthiers and can be found through a simple search by using the keywords “full moon wood.”

Some readers might be thinking that all this lore is sheer poppycock. Nonetheless, there are three points to consider that are hard to ignore. First, as already mentioned, the body of empirically collected wood-felling wisdom is very old. It applies to a range of practical wood uses as diverse as house construction, roof shingles, wooden chimneys (well, they had them in the old days), barrels for storing liquids, boxes for storing foodstuffs, firewood, plows, transportation of felled woods via river floatation, and of course, soundboards for musical instruments. In each case, woods felled at the appropriate phase of the lunar cycle may last longer, wear better, are more stable, are harder/stiffer or softer/more pliable, or are more fire-resistant or burn more easily—as their intended use requires. This information is articulately set out in a searchable article titled Lunar Rhythms in Forestry Traditions – Lunar-Correlated Phenomena in Tree Biology and Wood Properties, written by Swiss forestry expert Ernst Zürcher.

The knowledge achieved through centuries of hands-on forestry practices has necessarily and predictably resulted in a body of oral tradition, peasant wisdom, and folklore. But there does exist a significant body of historical writing and record keeping in which lunar rhythms (as well as the cycles of the seasons) are mentioned as having an influence on the growth, structures, characteristics, and properties of plants. One of the earliest examples is from the Roman writer Pliny, who had suggestions about the cutting of plants and further advice for farmers regarding picking fruit for the market versus fruit for their own stores—all with respect to different phases of the moon. For the market, fruit picked just before or at the full moon would weigh more and be more profitable to sell. But for the larder and pantry, fruit picked during the new moon would contain less water and therefore last longer.

While Pliny and some of the other historical sources are indeed European, it has been noted that the general rules for felling woods in Europe are very similar across the other continents. Whether in the European alpine regions, the Near East, Africa, India, Ceylon, Brazil, or Guyana, these traditions all seem to be based on independent (but matching) observations. It’s reasonable to believe that in the past, people had more time and more peace and quiet to observe how things work. Indeed, such knowledge would have been vital to them. We moderns are too caught up with television dramas, the rising price of gasoline, and the latest bodice-ripping revelations that emerge from Washington, Rome, Moscow, Damascus, or Beijing to notice how things grow.

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Mostly, the guitar is supposed to be about sound. But that’s the hardest of all of these to pin down.

Strumming chords slowly will let you discover a guitar’s distinctive voice.

The guitar is about many things: craftsmanship, commerce, history, tradition, artistry in design and ornamentation, entertainment, physics, wood, gut, magic, and a few other things. Mostly, the guitar is supposed to be about sound. But that’s the hardest of all of these to pin down.

Sound results from air molecules hitting and exciting our eardrums, pure and simple. But there’s no magic at all in this objective description. The magic in musical sound all happens subjectively—in the brain and in how it processes the neural impulses arriving from the ear. Sound is very much like food and wine, in fact. The magic happens in your own mouth, your tongue, your palate, your nose, your eyes, as well as in your ears and brain. I point this out because it is equally true that many of us “like” this or that wine or food or sound, because we’ve been told it’s good and we believe that we should like it—without ever knowing whether we genuinely do or not.

As far as guitars go, sound is complex. Good sound is, by definition, sound that pleases listeners, whether they understand anything about the sound or not. However, a guitar can have any combination or quality of bass, treble, midrange, resonance, definition, sustain, projection, dynamic range, warmth, volume, percussiveness, tonal bloom, note shape, harmonics, sweetness, clarity (or lack of it), tonal rise and decay time, cutting power, spareness, evenness of response, brittleness, dryness of tone, and tonal darkness or lightness. So, unless you have a really sophisticated and practiced ear, it won’t work to evaluate a guitar by listening to someone play a piece on it. That amount of information overwhelms the average ear within the first eight or 10 bars of the song.

There is a way of coming to grips with sound that’s so simple, almost no one ever thinks of it: really listening. In a quiet place. It’s very much like eating food or sipping a wine slowly—without distractions—to get a sense of the flavors, textures, sweetness, spiciness, and overall pleasingness. Let me explain what I mean. It will help you next time you’re shopping for a guitar.

What I do (among other things) is sit down, tune the guitar, and just play a chord. I play it slowly, so I can hear each note separately. And then I listen. One chord can provide a lot of information, so I take my time. And it’s useful to also listen to another guitar and compare it to the one you’re evaluating. The voice of the guitar is the voice of the guitar. Playing a chord will give you all the sonic information a full song can provide—without your auditory senses being clouded by a player’s flashy technique.

Here’s a checklist for what you can usefully listen for in a six-note chord. If you can’t discriminate between some of these criteria, the solution is to learn how to listen. Like playing, this takes practice. A session includes listening for:

• Dynamics: Does the guitar have a wide dynamic range? Will it produce different sounds when you play very softly, softly, medium, and hard?
• Duration: Most chords will last six to 12 seconds. This gives you a sense of systemic sustain and also of the sound’s quality—whether it’s warm, sweet, tinny, rich, lively, fundamental, shallow, breathy, open, held back, or is rich in overtones. You’ll discover whether you have to push the guitar or if it speaks easily.
• Separation: Are you able to hear each note? Or is the sound fuzzy or cloudy and lacking focus?
• Velocity: Does the chord emerge from the guitar quickly or slowly?
• Timbral balance: Is the guitar bass heavy, treble heavy, or well balanced? And regardless of the balance, does the treble or bass die down first, leaving the other to carry on by itself?
• String-to-string response: Is the strength and presence of each note even?
• Projection: Does the guitar sound best when close up or from across the room? (You’ll need a playing/listening partner to explore this.) Also, does it sound different depending on whether you’re listening from in front or from the side?
• Intonation: Does the guitar really play in tune?

If you repeat this listening exercise while playing different chords up and down the neck, you’ll get a sense of how evenly (or not) the guitar plays along the whole fretboard. Remember, you get to decide whether and how much you like or dislike any of these qualities of a guitar’s tonal response. All the information is in the soundbox. You just need to know how to listen without overwhelming your ear.

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