Acoustic Guitar Tone Wood Guide - Tops
Guitar construction is a complex business, and there are plenty of varied components that will all have their say in the final sound a guitar will generate
Guitar construction is a complex business, and there are plenty of varied components that will all have their say in the final sound a guitar will generate. The size and shape will obviously play a significant part for example, but the top woods, or ‘soundboards’ as they are often known, are commonly said to be the main physical influencing factor on the sound an acoustic guitar will generate. The thickness of the wood used, and the manner in which it is braced will effect the tone too, but most guitar luthiers will agree that each different type of tone wood has it’s own signature sound, and that this acts as a natural starting point from which the tone can be manipulated. So, what can be said about the signature sound of the most commonly employed top tone woods?
If there is such a thing as an industry standard top tone wood, then Spruce would have to tick that box. It has become a perennial favourite and features on the comfortable majority of steel strung flat tops available today. The main reason for this is that it suits just about any and every style of playing. There are varied species of Spruceused for soundboards, and the most common are Sitka (the most commonly used), Engelmann (also known as ‘European’), and Adirondack (also known as ‘Eastern Red Spruce’).
Regardless of species, Spruce is a relatively light and strong tone wood, and this results in a high velocity of sound. Engelmann tends to be marginally the lighter and less stiff of the varieties which results in slightly less projection of sound, and Adirondack (commonly abbreviated to ‘Addie’) is generally slightly heavier and stiffer resulting in a louder guitar, but they are all relatively loud top woods none the less.
Spruce is generally creamy white to a pinkish light brown in colour, depending on the variety in question. Engelmann for example, tends to be a little whiter and creamier than Sitka, but all Spruces are in the same ballpark ‘creamy white’ category. That said, it is worth noting that Spruce does tend to tan over the years resulting in older Spruce top guitars taking on more of a yellow hue. Some new guitars such as those from the Martin Vintage Series emulate this aging effect through the employment of an aging toner.
Tonally speaking, all varieties of Spruce will provide a relatively broad dynamic range, with a crisp and immediate articulation of sound. An important quality of Spruce is that it gives a strong fundamental tone and relatively little overtone content. This results in a powerful, direct, and uncomplicated tone. Another characteristic of Spruce is that it retains clarity when it is driven hard. In other words, the quality of tone will not diminish as the guitar is strummed louder and louder, unlike some other tone woods. The flipside of this advantage is that Spruce tone woods can deliver a lack of characterful tone when the guitar is played softly, particularly the Sitka variety. Engelmann, owing to it’s lighter and less stiff structure, doesn’t tend to have such a focused emphasis on the fundamental tone and this results in a more coloured quality of sound, whereas Adirondack tops can be driven even harder than Sitka, and generally manage to retain both clarity and a good balance of fundamental and overtone frequencies at all dynamic levels. Addie is considered by many to be the ideal top wood, but it’s expensive and a lack of consistency in the grain and colour of many Addie tops results in it generally falling behind Sitka in the popularity stakes.
Spruce soundboards are a good choice for all round players where just one guitar is needed for styles ranging from fingerstyle through to strumming. Addie tops are particularly good for aggressive strumming (and for those with a bigger budget!), and Engelmann is generally a better choice for those with a lighter touch.
Although Spruce is the most commonly employed top wood, Cedar comes in a firm second in the popularity stakes. Traditionally used on classical guitars, Cedar is becoming increasingly common in steel strung flat top construction.
Ranging from cinnamon, through honey brown, and onto light chocolate in colour, Cedar is relatively easily identifiable as being a darker brown than Spruce. It’s a less dense wood than Spruce too, and this results in a darker tone. Words generally bandied around when attempting to describe the inherent tone of Cedar tone wood include ‘warm’, ‘sweet’ ‘intimate’, and ‘complex’. Unlike Spruce, Cedar tends to produce a relatively high overtone to fundamental ratio, and this results in a tone with less sparkle but more character. Because there is less stiffness along the grain, Cedar is also relatively quiet compared to some other tone woods. It tends to lose clarity when it’s driven hard, so tends not to be favoured among those who generally play hard with a pick. On the other hand, the relative prominence of the overtones in the sound it generates results in Cedar being a favourite among fingerstyle players who value the quality and character of tone above volume and clarity of the fundamental.
Another point worth making about Cedar soundboards is that they tend to ‘open’ up much quicker than Sprucevarieties. Spruce tops tend to take some ‘playing in’ and loosening up before they reach their potential, and this process can take months to years. A new Cedar top will produce rich harmonics and a sweetness of tone that a Spruce top will lack in it’s brand new state.
Cedar doesn’t tend to be a great choice for those who want a guitar with real clarity across the entire dynamic range. It lacks clarity at volume, but makes up for this with a richness of tone when played quietly. As a result of all this, Cedar tends to be the more common top wood found on smaller bodied guitars and among fingerstyle players, or those with a lighter touch.
Mahogany topped acoustic guitars are not especially common, but have been around since the 20s. Although Mahogany is more commonly found being employed as a back and sides wood, it is used as the soundboard on some models. The Martin 15 series including the 000-15M and the D15M are good examples.
With a rich dark reddish-brown colour, Mahogany tops are very easy to spot, and have a very distinct look. They are often left unpolished so that the natural quality of the wood can be enjoyed. Mahogany is a stiff, hard and dense tone wood that provides a distinct tone. The most commonly employed adjectives for the inherent tone of Mahogany typically include ‘woody’, and ‘warm’. It’s a top wood that will provide a strong emphasis on the fundamental frequency and a punchy envelope of sound.
Because it’s such a dense and hard wood, soundboards made of Mahogany tend to need even more ‘playing in’ than Spruce varieties, but a pay-off for this is that they also tend to develop more and more character as they age. In time, the overtone presence in their inherent sound tends to become more prominent and this results in a more characterful and colourful tone.
Because of its place in the heritage of acoustic guitar construction, and its inherent ‘woody’ tone, Mahogany tops are a favourite among those who play blues and roots styles, although the punchy quality of the wood means that it is increasingly finding favour among those who play in different styles, too.
Maple a very light coloured wood (often appearing almost white) with tight pores and thin grain lines. Because of its density and weight, Hard Maple tone wood is very bright with a lot of bite and a good sustain. It pronounces the upper mids and high frequencies most evidently, although the bass frequencies do tend to be clearly articulated. Maple tone wood also provides excellent separation allowing each individual note in a chord to sound clearly without blurring together.
Maple is less common as a top than it is a back or side but does appear from time to time. While some might claim that Maple tops tend to be more popular for the figuring it is also worth noting that its character definitely suits an acoustic that is intend for ‘plugged-in’ on stage use where crisp highs are vital to cut through a mix and rich lows tend to be EQ’d out by the soundman anyway.