Here you can find photos of some of the tonewoods we’re presently using in shop, and brief summaries of their physical and acoustical characteristics. These descriptions reflect our empirical experience working with these woods, blended with the observations other builders and players have contributed to our understanding of them.
That said, these are only our humble opinions, and we offer them as a starting point for your own discovery. How things “sound” is different for everyone, and the best thing you can do is listen to lots of guitars made with different tonewoods, and train your ear to pick up the subtle differences between them in your own terms.
You can read more about the hard science behind evaluating tonewoods here:
Sitka Spruce – Picea sitchensis
Sitka Spruce is used more than any other species for guitar soundboards. It has a relatively high velocity of sound, and the highest strength to weight ratio than any other wood. Sitka’s combination of strength and elasticity translates into a broad dynamic range, yielding crisp articulation and allowing for everything from aggressive strumming and flatpicking to fingerpicking. It is clear and loud, and tends to emphasize the fundamental of a note more than its overtones.
Red Spruce – Picea rubens
Red Spruce is heavier and stiffer than Sitka Spruce, and also has a relatively high velocity of sound. The wood has very distinct growth rings with light almost white summer growth and dense red winter growth. Like Sitka, it offers a strong fundamental, but it also produces a lush layer of overtones. Tops made out of Red Spruce have the highest volume ceiling of any species, and a unique sparkling edge to the tone that retains clarity at all dynamic levels.
Backs and Sides – Exotics
Honduran Mahogany – Swietenia macrophylla
The mid-range frequency is the sweet spot for most acoustic guitars, and Honduran Mahogany is a mid-range powerhouse. It’s also prized for volume, balance and articulation, making it one of the best all around tonewoods there is. Honduran Mahogany yields a crisp fundamental sound, with a pleasing bloom of mid-range overtones. This makes for a very clean and direct sort of sound, that is described as focused, dry, woody, and warm.
East Indian Rosewood – Dalbergia latifolia
Indian rosewood has an extremely high velocity of sound and a broad range of overtones. All rosewoods have strongly pronounced low overtones, which help create a complex bottom end that imparts an overall darkness of tone to the instrument. Strong mids and highs serve to reinforce overtones generated by the top, contributing to a fatness of tone in the upper registers.
African Mahogany – Khaya senegalensis
African Mahogany has a warm “woody” tone that accentuates the mid-range frequencies. Like all Mahogany, it’s unique internal dampening qualities create tonal balance and a crisp strong fundamental. African Mahogany is slightly stiffer and harder than Central American varieties, which expands it’s frequency response, and increases the production of overtones.
Makore – Tieghemella heckelii
Makore is a lesser known tonewood that comes from the West African Rainforest. It’s a bit harder and stiffer than African Mahogany, with a corresponding boost in overall frequency response and high frequency overtones. The wood has nice tight grain, and often displays beautiful bee’s wing and fiddleback figure.
Sapele – Entandrophragma cylindricum
Sapele is a highly sustainable West African tonewood that’s often confused with the West African wood Khaya. Sapele is much harder and stiffer than the Mahoganies, and it’s know for being difficult to bend. Tonally, it has many similarities to Mahogany, with crisp strong fundamentals, and a little extra treble zing.
Backs and Sides – Domestics
Bigleaf Maple – Acer macrophyllum
Bigleaf Maple is one of the most acoustically transparent tonewoods, due to a low velocity of sound and a high degree of internal damping. Often described as having a “bright” sound, Bigleaf Maple has fewer overtones than other medium-density woods, resulting in strong fundamentals, and rapid note decay. This makes it a preferred wood for larger guitars, because it helps reduce dominating overtones in the lower frequencies. Bigleaf has incomparable good looks with golden brown tones, and rich captivating figure.
Black Cherry – Prunus serotina
Black Cherry has a density and reflectivity approaching that of Maple. It’s low velocity of sound produces a rich, balanced mid-range, without favoring the bass or treble frequencies. It’s tone is similar to maple but less dry sounding, with more sustain and clarity in the bass and mid-range frequencies. Some describe the sound as being “buttery”. Cherry has no pores, so it finishes beautifully and develops a lovely dark, redish hue over time.
Black Walnut – Juglans nigra
Black Walnut is a little less dense than Mahogany, but is just as stiff as Indian Rosewood. Black Walnut produces excellent balance, with tonal characteristics that fall between Mahogany and Rosewood. The trebles have a unique earthy tone which records very distinctively. Often recommended for a flat-picked sound and mellow finger-style playing. With its rich brown color and occasional streaks, Black Walnut has a “stripy” appearance and finishes beautifully.
White Oak – Picea Sitchensis
White Oak was used by Stella and other makers in the 20’s, and only recently has been drawing attention as an alternative to exotic tonewoods. White Oak is another wood with a low velocity of sound and a high degree of internal damping. It’s stiffer than almost all the other tonewoods, and also very dense. This gives it a “bright” sound across the tonal spectrum, with strong fundamentals, and a rapid note decay. White Oak has huge open pores, and thus can be challenging to finish. That said, it has beautiful “flake” figure, and ages to a lovely golden brown color.