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Tonewoods

The search for the right acoustic guitar can turn into a sonic odyssey even among experienced players. We each have our own personal touch, and we tend to hear tone in different ways. Let’s set aside for a moment the visual attributes of woods. Colour, figure and grain understandably seduce our eyes, but for the sake of tonal consideration, let’s focus on elements of sound. Each type of quartersawn wood has a particular density, stiffness and flexibility, which, together with the player, translate into a range of tonal frequencies. We describe tone in shadings of bass, midrange and treble, which are also characterized in degrees of brightness and darkness. Below you’ll find many samples of the tonewoods we use to create beautiful sounding and looking guitars. We’ll start by examining woods used for soundboards, followed by woods used for back and sides.

Soundboards

Sitka Spruce

Sitka Spruce is the top wood standard of the modern era. It’s used on 90 percent of the guitars that Loucin makes. Its dynamic range is very broad, allowing for everything from aggressive strumming and flatpicking to fingerpicking. Sitka Spruce is Garren’s personal favourite for an all-round great guitar sound. It has an outstanding strength to weight ratio and regular, knot free rings make it an excellent conductor of sound. It is available in large, straight grained pieces, lending this timber to a wide range of commercial uses. It is by far the largest specie of Spruce, and has been documented to reach 300 feet in height.

Origin: Northwestern North America (Alaska and Canada).

Bearclaw Sitka Spruce

 Bearclaw grain is a visual treat, this Spruce features subtle natural bearclaw striations that appear randomly across the grain. This is caused by a rippling of the longitudinal fibers, which alter the appearance of the surface of the wood with shimmering patterns. This gives the soundboard an especially distinctive appearance. Bearclaw Sitka Spruce has all the characteristics of its non-figured counterpart, but it is normally stiffer.

Origin: Northwestern North America (Alaska and Canada).

Englemann Spruce

Englemann is also known as White, European or German Spruce, although they are technically different species. It is usually visually distinguishable from Sitka by its creamier complexion. We are almost out of the “good stuff”. Englemann trees these days are so small and twisted that we get a fair amount of runout (grain that doesn’t run parallel to the surface) and as a result, mismatched tops. Sonically, Englemann has a mature tone, and yields a slightly richer midrange than Sitka, which makes a guitar sound a bit older. Old growth Englemann tends to have a sonic attribute of smoothness or refinement to it, but the days of older growth trees are gone for now.

Origin: Western North America.

Adirondack Spruce

Also known as Eastern Red or Appalachian Spruce, Adirondack defines guitars of the pre-WWII era. Its availability is beginning to increase slightly, as another generation of trees matures, although they’re still smaller than their old growth forebears. Current supplies of Adirondack tend to lack a certain aesthetic purity of look (they tend to be wider grained and more irregular in colour and grain patterns), but tonally, Adirondack is even more dynamic than Sitka, with a higher ceiling for volume. The payoff is the ability to drive the Addie top hard and hear it get louder and louder without losing clarity, it’s hard to out play it.

Origin: Eastern North America.

 

Western Red Cedar

Western Red Cedar is less dense than Spruce, and that softness typically translates into a sense of sonic warmth. If Sitka has a full dynamic range, cedar makes quieter tones louder, but also imposes more of a ceiling on high volume levels driven by an aggressive attack. If one tries to drive a cedar top hard, at a certain point it will reach a volume limit. Typically players with a lighter touch sound wonderful on a cedar top guitar. 

Origin: Western North America.

 

Redwood

Capable of reaching heights of nearly 400 feet, Redwood is the worlds largest tree specie. It grows in a very limited area on the Pacific coast of Northwestern United States from central California to mid-western Oregon, where heavy rainfall and cool, damp air create a unique environment for these trees. Redwood lumber is very soft and lightweight, with a descent strength to weight ratio. It is also exceptionally stable, with very little shrinkage or seasonal movement, with a tone similar to Western Red Cedar.

Origin: Coastal Northwestern United States.

Back & Sides

Indian Rosewood

One of the most popular and traditional guitar woods of all time, rosewood takes that basic sonic thumbprint of Mahogany and expands it in both directions. Rosewood sounds deeper in the low end and brighter on the top end. If you look at its frequency range visually, rosewood would appear to be more scooped in the middle, yielding less midrange bloom than Mahogany. Like Mahogany, Rosewoods vintage heritage helped firmly establish its acoustic legacy. It’s a great sound in part because we know that sound. In some music circles in which preserving the traditional sound helps bring a sense of authenticity to the music-certain strains of Americana, for example-Rosewood has iconic status.

Origin: East India.

 

Claro Walnut

Another beautiful hardwood, Claro Walnut has a similar density and stiffness to Hawaiian Koa, with a similar tightness initially. Like Koa, it tends to have a bright top end, but with a more present midrange, somewhere between Mahogany and Rosewood. Walnut also starts off a little deeper on the low end, initially giving it a slightly woodier sound than Koa. The low end will continue to fill out after being played in.

Origin: Central California. 

Mahogany

Mahogany is a good wood to anchor our survey of tones, as a lot of other wood tones can be described in relation to it. Its essential sonic profile is well represented in the midrange frequencies. Acoustic guitars in general tend to live in the midrange portion of the sound spectrum, but Mahogany in particular displays a lot of midrange character. That thick, present midrange sound is sometimes described in guitar circles as meaty, organic or even “chewy” – wherever a player digs in on the fretboard, they’re tapping into the core of the harmonic content of what a guitar produces. As a popular tonewood for many decades, Mahogany has been used on scads of old school acoustic recordings, and that sonic heritage carries across various strains of roots music, from blues to folk to slack key.

Origin: Central and South America.

Curly Maple

A dense hardwood, Maples tone is like a laser beam – very focused and dominant on the fundamental. Often described as a “bright” sound, Maple has fewer overtones than other medium-density woods, resulting in a quicker note decay. This makes it a preferred guitar wood for live performance settings with a band – especially with bass, drums and electric guitar, because it cuts through the mix well, allows the acoustic sound to be heard, and is less prone to feedback issues. It has some midrange, and a lot more treble sparkle than Rosewood.

Origin: Western North America.

Hawaiian Koa

A tropical hardwood, Koa’s tone blends the midrange of Mahogany with the top end of Maple. Due to its density, a new Koa guitar tends to start out sounding a little bright and tight, somewhat like Maple. But the more a Koa guitar is played the more the sound opens up, expanding the midrange and rewarding the player with a richer, sweeter, more resonant tone. A common mistake is when a player buys a Koa guitar in part for its visual beauty, finds it to be too bright, and doesn’t play it enough to allow the wood to warm up.

Origin: Big Island of Hawaii.

Myrtlewood

Considered a world-class tonewood and is sought after by luthiers. It is visually beautiful and has an extremely balanced and full tone with great over-tone harmonics. Heartwood colour can vary from light orangish brown to gray or olive, sometimes with darker streaks present. Pale sapwood is usually well defined, curly grain patterns are especially valued. It has a colour range from blonde like Maple to browns similar to Walnut.

Origin: Oregon and coastal California.

Bubinga

A very popular African hardwood known for its strength and beauty. A bit denser than Rosewood, contributing to its great sustain, clartity and note separation. The density also equates to warm even tones, bright mid-range and sparkle across the entire spectrum. Bubinga has stunning grain features, Pommele , figured or waterfall. It has a great strength to weight ratio, various red and pink colours with a slightly darker grain.

Origin: Africa.

White Limba

Limba is ideal for guitars as the wood is slightly less dense than Mahogany with excellent tonal qualities. The heartwood is light yellowish to golden brown, sometimes with grey to nearly black streaks and veins. It is one of our favourotes.

Origin: Sierra Leone, Angola and Congo

Ziricote

Ziricote’s allure comes from its rich, booming bass response, matched only by its luminous treble. Often compared visually to Brazilian Rosewood, but with inky black lines and darker ghostlike grey tones, Ziricote also boasts a natural reverb that surrounds both player and audience.Rosewood

Origin: Mexico and Central America