This is a brief discussion of tone woods for acoustic guitars. I'll
be talking about wood combinations I've played quite a bit. The
reference guitars in some cases are very different styles which will
also impact the sound of the guitar, but I'll do my best to filter
that out to give a sense of what can be expected from the wood.
There is no particular significance to the order.
I'll use a naming convention of body wood, followed by top wood.
I've played this wood combination primarily on a Grit Laskin classical.
This guitar probably gets played more often than anything else I own.
The sound is incredibly rich and the ring of each note is pure. Think
of each note sounding like the ringing of a bell. The balance throughout
the three octave range that is easily accessible on a classical guitar
is perfect. I attribute most of this richness and clarity to the
While I've played many hours on this Laskin, I have played some on
other Laskin classicals with a spruce top rather than the cedar.
Based on my limited time with the Brazilian-Spruce combination, I
would characterize the cedar top as making the sound a little softer.
By soft I don't mean quieter, or muted in any way; just a bit gentler
in its presence. Because of this, I consider cedar to be the preferred
top for a classical for someone like myself who plays with their
fingertips rather than fingernails. I might choose a spruce top for
a steel string guitar.
It is highly unlikely that this guitar will leave my possession as
long as I can still play.
This is a bit of an obscure wood combination which I've played on a
PRS Tonare. The top is Bearclaw European Spruce. The tonal quality
of this guitar is quite different from anything else I've ever played.
Where I characterized the Brazilian-Cedar as sounding like ringing a
bell, I'd characterize the Pernambuco-Spruce as the bell tower. I don't
find the harmonics of an individual note quite as rich as with the
Brazilian, but the decay of the note is incredibly balanced. By that
I mean the tonal characteristics remain fairly constant as the tone decays.
Balance is really the key word for this wood combination. The notes
sustain almost forever and the tone remains balanced. The tones are
pure regardless of whether you are playing at a whisper level or shouting
it out. If you like to vary your attack and your volume level, you will
love the response you get from the Pernambuco.
Let me comment briefly on the spruce top. I have played a fair bit on
guitars with several different types of spruce, but don't feel like
the guitars are enough alike that I can honestly attribute differences
in the sound to type of spruce. I know this guitar with the European
Spruce sounds great. I know my Engelmann sounds great, but I can't
say what difference the type of spruce makes because the rest of
the guitar is so different.
I play a Taylor GS with an Engelmann top and Adirondack bracing. The
guitar has a big full sound and is quite bright harmonically. Dynamic
response is excellent and sustain is quite satisfying if not up to the
extreme benchmark set by pernambuco. Articulated notes have a nice
ring to them and a well-balanced decay.
This guitar is fun to play. I consider it to be my fun, social guitar
and is the most likely to be pulled out if I'm with another guitar player.
This guitar is a Taylor Grand Concert 12 Fret. It is the mellowest
sounding acoustic I own. I love this body style and have played it
in all koa, koa-spruce and Brazilian-spruce combinations. The smallish
body and 12 fret neck always softens the sound a bit over bigger bodied
guitars with longer necks. I find this makes the guitar an ideal choice
for smaller spaces or quite time music - like when you are the only one
awake in the house.
The only part of this guitar that isn't mahogany is the ebony fingerboard.
The full mahogany body really takes the edge off of the sound. I mostly
fingerpick this guitar to magnify that effect. The tone is quite well
balanced with a distinct favouring of the mid-range harmonics. You can
get a decent volume out of the guitar, but I use it for less aggressive
playing: think poetry rather than rant.
Koa makes for a beautiful looking instrument. I've thought for years that
someday it would be nice to own one and recently was given a Taylor 12 fret
in their Grand Concert size. I'm a big fan of this body type and think it
is a great choice for exotic woods.
The sound of an all koa acoustic is quite unique. I've played a few and they
have all had a very mellow sound. In that respect it is similar to a mahogany
guitar, but the tonal characteristics are quite different with the koa having
more balanced harmonics.
The koa's voice is gentle without needing to be quiet. What is most notable
about the sound of the koa is the note decay. As the volume fades the notes
blend together much like a choir as the voices hold a note and they come
together to create a single unified sound. It is quite remarkable and unlike
any other acoustic woods I've played. The sound of the guitar really does
live up to the beauty of the wood. This is a great guitar to play when you
In my mind, this is the baseline for a steel string acoustic. The Taylor
GS I play has a Sitka Spruce top. It is very well suited to an accompaniment
roll. Tone and volume are quite well balanced. Mid to high harmonics
are favoured. The dynamic response isn't as pronounced as rosewood,
which leads me to use this one more for chord progressions than for
articulated notes. This is the perfect guitar for a camp fire setting.
This is a bit of an unusual combination and I probably wouldn't mention
it except for the fact that it served me well enough for 30 years that
I didn't feel the need to buy another one. This guitar was made by
Normand Boucher in a small town in Quebec before the factory burned
down, was rebuilt and later sold to Godin.
The guitar has a big sound. It is quite loud and in fact is challenging
to play softly. It has a fairly well balanced tone, but is harmonically
unremarkable relative to the more exotic woods previously discussed.
To be fair, the guitar was built to a moderate price point and as such
has stood quite well. I played quite a few other guitars costing
significantly more before I found one that was worth upgrading to.
At three or four times the price I found some that were a bit better
sounding, but not enough better to make the purchase.