We are not wood experts nor do we fully understand the “art” of lutherie. Nonetheless, we have learned a few things in our twenty-odd years of playing and selling guitars; and if any of our insights can help you to choose the right guitar and dispel some of the myths, we are happy to share what we have learned (a note of thanks to Luthier’s Mercantile, whose literature we often reference for accurate information):
A guitar “works” by amplifying the frequency waves created by its vibrating strings. When a player plucks the strings, the vibrations are carried through the bridge to the top which itself begins to vibrate. The vibrations of the top must be reflected rather than absorbed by the back and sides, then amplified and redirected outward from the soundhole.
In order to vibrate as freely as possible, the top or soundboard of a guitar is usually constructed from a soft wood such as spruce or cedar. To reflect the sound back towards the top, a hard, dense wood such as rosewood, mahogany and maple and occasionally certain exotic woods such as koa are used. These are the general guidelines, all else is art!
Before consideration of wood varieties, it is critical to understand the following:
The wood chosen for a guitar’s top or soundboard is probably the most critical as far as the overall sound is concerned:
- More important than the choice of wood is the luthier’s art. We can not stress this fact enough. A gifted luthier can make a good sounding guitar out of second-rate materials. A poor luthier will not be able to make a good guitar with even the finest materials. However, the best guitars are made by gifted luthiers whose experience enables them to select and creatively combine premium materials.
- Closely related to the luthier’s art is the choice of size and shape of the guitar. Classical guitars are similar in size and shape, differing mostly in string length (scale) and body depth. A longer string length plays a positive role in giving a guitar more volume, but can contribute to difficulties in playability, especially for players with small or less flexible hands. Acoustic steel string guitars come in a variety of shapes and sizes, often specific to a luthier. In every case, the size and shape plays an important role in the overall sound of the guitar.
- The combination of woods is an important factor, difficult to judge by the customer. The best hand crafted instruments have their wood “matched” by the luthier to achieve the best results. For example, a luthier may decide that a certain type or piece of wood for back and sides would produce a more desirable sound if he uses cedar rather than spruce for the top.
- The player’s touch and playing style are a significant factor in the sound coming from a particular instrument. Certain combinations of wood suit certain playing styles better than others. We encourage all our customers to try a wide range of instruments to find the one that suits their playing style as well as their budget and aesthetic tastes.
Spruce is a strong, light wood, ideal for guitar tops. There are several varieties of spruce available to guitar makers, with Sitka being the most plentiful and versatile – a good choice for most acoustic guitars. Sitka is the most dense and strong of the common woods for soundboards and has the highest strength to weight ratio of almost any wood. Because of its strength and toughness, it is ideal for hard driving bluegrass flatpicking as well as for achieving exceptionally pure tones in classical guitars.
Other varieties of Spruce are German, Engelmann and Adirondack. Typically these alternative varieties are available only on the finest, custom guitars. As noted they are often in short supply and sometimes expensive.
German spruce has been the traditional wood for guitar tops, but German spruce of good quality is in very short supply. German spruce produces a bright sound, especially in the treble.
Englemann spruce is softer and is often a good choice for small body guitars used for fingerstyle playing. Since Engelmann spruce is more plentiful in supply than German spruce and has all the traits desirable in a good German top and is more economical, it is often used by makers instead of German spruce. (According to Luthier’s Mercantile, Englemann spruce logs from the United States have been shipped to Germany for years and a good lot of it has come back to us as “German Spruce”.)
Adirondack spruce is considered a finer variety of spruce than Sitka, producing a stronger, more refined sound, but it is in very short supply in premium or even acceptable grades. In other words, a good piece of Sitka spruce may be a better choice than an inferior piece of Adirondack
Another popular choice for guitar tops is cedar. Cedar is softer and not as strong nor as elastic as spruce, but it is almost twice as stable with changes in moisture content. In classical guitars the tone is often more immediately “alive” and louder than spruce, and for this reason is preferred by some luthiers.
There is some agreement that spruce takes a little while to “loosen up”, a difference which is most apparent in classical guitars. Although there has been some debate on this issue, our experience - and that of other guitar players we know - has borne out the claim that spruce does indeed develop additional depth and character after being played for even a few weeks. By contrast, Cedar tops usually produce a warm sound from first playing, although they, too, improve with age.
If you are not sure whether your guitar has a cedar or spruce top, shine a light through the top. Spruce is more transparent. You will see the light!
Even though most guitar tops are usually either spruce or cedar, occasionally other woods are used with good results: Redwood, Koa and Mahogany.