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Alternative Tone Woods For Acoustic Guitars.

By Edited Apr 20, 2014 0 2

Traditional and Non Traditional Tone Woods For Acoustic Guitars.

Basically, nearly all modern acoustic guitars are based on designs made by either the C.F. Martin & Co or the Gibson Guitar Company prior to the second world war.  Those guitars are still out there, and they sell at astronomical prices as they are considered the HOLY GRAIL guitars that only the very wealthy, or the very lucky own.  It's true that many of those guitars, and especially the Martin guitars, are amazing instruments that resonate such complex and beautiful tones that it's tough to imagine better instruments.


It's rather foolish to think that nothing has been learned or improved upon in guitar building.  Every manufacturer in the industrialized world has looked over those instruments or their designs, and found a way to tweak them to their on specifications and desired qualities.  Right here and right now is the true Golden Age of guitar building.  The finest instruments in the world are on sale right here and right now in modern America.

Now truly, guitars made with Brazilian Rosewood back and sides are both physically beautiful to the eye and also embody a truly mysterious sound full of unique overtones that no other wood can seem to replicate. . .but that doesn't mean that other woods don't have equally unique and beautiful properties.  Brazilian Rosewood has been overly abused as a wood for musical instruments and other things.  We've other beautiful tones to explore now - but if you've got the money, then go right ahead and buy yourself either a brand new or a used guitar with solid Brazilian Rosewood backs and sides - keep it, treasure it - it's a treasure.

East Indian Rosewood, however, is not a inferior wood, but only a different wood - and no two guitars are ever equal even when made from the same trees by the same builder to the exact same specifications - they are still going to be unique, and have characteristics that are their own.

Adirondack Spruce was the typical sound board tone wood used in conjunction with Brazilian Rosewood on the Holy Grail Martin and Gibson guitars - but like Brazilian Rosewood, Adirondack Spruce is now far too over used, and the forests have not replenished themselves.  How can forests ever replenish themselves in a world of capitalist consumerism greed?  They can NOT, I tell you - and probably the will not.

Sitka Spruce is now used on most good acoustic guitars.  A spruce sound board's quality is NOT found in the tree that it came from, and never really was - and truly, not everyone prefers Adirondack Red Spruce or even German Silver Spruce.  Sitka Spruce is a fine tone wood.  I'm truly an acoustic guitar snob - but I'm not a tone wood snob.  I'm open to new woods and new sounds.  I think everyone should be.

Now days things are changing, and woods like Sitka Spruce and East Indian Rosewood are no longer considered as alternative tone woods, but are now standard tone woods.  Builders and players of fine acoustic guitars, however, must not stop there - but go beyond rosewood, spruce, mahogany, and maple.  There's tons of other good species of tree out there for both body and tops on acoustic guitars.  We must be not driven by capitalist foolishness, but rather, the desire to preserve things for the future.  

Pre War Martin D 28 With Brazilian Rosewood and Adirondack Spruce

The Tony Rice/Clarence White Martin D 28

Tony Rice Playing His Brazilian and Adirondack Pre War Martin D 28

So what are the NEW Alternative Tone Woods Used For Building Acoustic Guitars?

There are many different new tone woods being used by many different guitar builders for all parts of guitar building, including back and sides, necks, sound boards, and fret boards.  The only thing sad at all about any of this is that good Brazilian Rosewood is still not available, and probably won't be ever again.  These new tone woods, however, should be given a chance.  The reason why the pre world war two era Martin and Gibson guitars sound so good - has more to do with how old those guitars are, and you have to realize that the wood that was used to build those guitars may have already been many years old before they were built.

What I mean by "old" is that the wood used to build the legendary pre war guitars could very well have been sitting in the warehouse on shelves at Gibson and Martin for any number of years.

What most often makes a guitar sound great besides it's construction and the type of woods used is how loudly and often it's been played.  Someone using a heavy pick and a heavy attack can and will break in a guitar much quicker and much more thoroughly than will someone who plays with a meek and thin plectrum, or who finger picks.  Wood has to vibrate and breathe to reach it's sonic potential.

A solid wood sound board is the first upgrade between an all laminate Wal-mart special, and a real guitar - and mostly one form of spruce or another is used, but there are also all mahogany guitars, and they have a nice warm sound to them - but less volume without amplification.  But also more and more Western Red Cedar is used for the sound boards of fine acoustic guitars.  One of my uncles has a Yamaki, a fairly rare Japanese built guitar of very good quality, and it has a Western Red Cedar Top for it's sound board.  Western Red Cedar is said to have a more "open and broke in" sound to it than does spruce - in other words, it sounds like an older guitar right out of the box should a guitar have Western Red Cedar as it's sound board.  The one complaint about the wood is that it can be "overdriven" by a heavy pick attack, and that notes can become distorted in that way.  I've just not seen that happen, as I've tried to see and hear that for myself on a number of guitars that I've picked a tune out on having Western Red Cedar tops.

Redwood is another tone wood being used for sound boards these days.  I personally have not played a guitar with a Redwood sound board.  I believe that most often these types of sound boards are found on classical guitars, and I'm more of  a steel string guitar fan.  I'm told that Redwood , somehow, offers greater note to note clarity than does other tone woods for sound boards - but I'm also told that it's a lighter and more delicate wood.

Western Red Cedar Sound Board

Here's an 8 string classical guitar with a Western Red Cedar sound board

New Tone Woods For Acoustic Guitar Bodies

Claro Walnut is an exceedingly beautiful wood that is being used by some manufacturers for acoustic guitar backs and sides, this wood is deep and dark brown, and sometimes has some very attractive wave or flame type grain to it.  Walnut is said to have the "bottom end" of rosewood, and the clarity of mahogany.

American Cherry is another tone wood receiving attention.  Cherry produces a tone similar to either maple or mahogany, and strangely enough; used to be called "American Mahogany."  The C.F. Martin Smartwood guitars have American Wild Cherry as the tone wood for it's back and sides,  and by all accounts it's a great guitar.

Basically - acoustic guitar body woods are always dreamt up and experimented as possible replacements for either Brazilian Rosewood, or Mahogany.    That's just the way it's going to be until someone makes a guitar that folks think of as superior to the Martin D 18 (mahogany) or the Martin D 28, 35, and 45 (traditionally Brazilian Rosewood).

Here's a list of what all is being used by various and sundry builders in hopes of catching that Brazilian Rosewood hype and dollar:

1. Myrlewood - also known as California Laurel or Pepperwood

2.  Madrone - known for it's striking cherry color, produces a "bright" sound.

3. Asian Rosewood - brick red in color, with dark spider web type grains.

4.  Honduran Rosewood - orange to brick red in color, but heavier and harder a wood.

5. Cocobolo -

6. Pauferro

7.  Tasmanian blackwood

8.  Black Acacia

and my favorite of these

9.  Ovangkol - I've played a guitar made with this wood, and I would have bought it on the spot had I the money to do so.

My thoughts on all this are that you should be your own judge, and that you should find a music store big enough to have something of high quality made with all of these woods, so that you can find the guitar most suited to your budget and needs.


Behold the beauty of Ovangkol


Apr 18, 2012 7:48pm
Thanks for the run-down. I never really understood the difference in tonewoods until I started working at a guitar store and had a chance to play and hear so many, side-by-side.

I'm also amazed how two guitar, same model, same wood, same manufacturer, can sound different! I guess there are other factors like the tree and who actually crafted it.

Apr 18, 2012 11:07pm

Another thing folks don't get is that with solid wood acoustics - more expensive wood don't make things "better"

The world's fetish for Brazilian rosewood doesn't mean the wood is "better," it is just a supply/demand thing,,,,,and also a thing to consider in cost is how much time was spent.....I'm told that mahogany can be shaped for an instrument exponentially faster than rosewoods!.
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