A journey through tone woods.

Apr 11, 2015

As everyone knows, nearly all guitars whether they be acoustic or electric are made of wood. But, it isn't just any old wood (well, sometime it IS old wood) there can be a mind boggling amount of choice when looking at buying a new guitar. This is especially true when looking at high end or custom built guitars where you can choose from a huge range of different tone woods. Guitar manufacturers such as Suhr, Music Man, Fender, Gibson, Taylor, Collings and many more pride themselves on choosing the best wood for their instruments.  And yes, the wood you choose does make a big difference to the way the guitar plays, feels and most importantly, sounds.

So, I am going to take you through the most commonly used tone woods and explain their characteristics.

First up, and one of the most popular guitar body woods (especially in the 60s) is Alder. Alder is easy available as it is grown all over the world. It has a lovely light colour and can be very pretty with swirling patterns and rings in the grain. Tonally, Alder is a favorite of blues and rock players as it gives the player a full clear sound that is full of body. It will accentuate the mids and lows of the guitar tone and is a popular choice on Strat style guitars.

In the 80s Basswood became a very popular choice of tone wood for rock and metal shredders. It is light in weight (perfect for throwing shapes!) and light in colour. Basswood has almost no grain pattern so is best suited for solid colours rather than transparent finishes. Tonally it is perfect for rock soloing and has a well balanced smooth tone.

A more unusual wood and one mostly used on guitar necks (although it is becoming popular with acoustic builders) is Cocobolo. It can be quite expensive and is found in Central and South America. It is a beautiful looking wood with great grain patterns and blends of orange,red,browns and even purple colouring. Cocobolo is an extremely resonant wood, which is why it is popular with high end acoustic builders and has great low end and and clear highs.

Moving on to another lovely exotic wood, Koa. This comes only from Hawaii and most Koa is hand selected to pick the best pieces. It is a bit heavier than most other tone woods and has amazing curly and flamed grain patterns. Tonally Koa gives very rich and clear tones strong in the upper mids and is very warm and pleasing to the ear. Koa is quite similar in sound to Mahogany and is popular among rock and metal players.

Another wood that has been used in guitar building for a long time is Korina, this wood has been used since the 50s. Light coloured and featuring a fine grain pattern, it is a lovely looking tone wood. Korina gives a very balanced tone and will sustain for days! Popular with melodic rock players for its warm and singing sustain.

Leaving the exotic woods behind (for now), it's time to look at an all time classic tone wood, Mahogany. Most commonly found in Central America and Africa, Mahogany is used in both guitar bodies and necks, commonly used in Les Paul style guitars. This tonewood looks great with transparent finishes with its mild grain pattern. Popular with classic rock and blues players for its strong mids, highs, sustain and focused tone.

Staying with another very popular and commonly found tone wood… maple. Maple is used commonly for guitar necks and tops. It can be stunning to look at with beautifully figured quilted, flamed, spalted, birdseye or curly patterns. Used often on high end custom guitars like Suhr, Collings, Gibson, Jackson, Ibanez and Fenders. Maple is often used as a 'cap' to enhance the look and sound of a guitar by extending the frequency range of the body wood. Maple will extend the mids and high end and works well with other tone woods.

Pau Ferro
Moving on, we take a look at another exotic wood, pau ferro. This tone wood is normally found in Brazil and Bolivia and has a tight grain similar to rosewood. It is used most often on electric guitars for neck and fingerboards. It gives a very percussive attack and great clarity. Pau ferro is popular among players who use high amounts of gain for their tone.

We are nearing the end of this look at tone woods and we couldn’t finish without a look at rosewood! Among custom builders, two type of rosewood are usually available, Indian and African rosewood. Both these tone woods have similar tone, balanced lows, warm mids and sparkly highs, although African rosewood tends to be slightly brighter. Very popular among blues players looking for thick sweet tones.

Swamp Ash
We end this journey of tone with swamp ash, originating in South America and very popular in the 50s. So called because the trees have roots that spread underwater. Swamp ash tends to be lightweight with light colour and dark grain patterns. It can look stunning with transparent finishes. Very popular among country and southern rock players, swamp ash is very resonant and has a 'scooped' mid tone that accenuates the highs and lows of this excellent tone wood.

Well, that’s a run down of popular tone woods available to most guitar builders. There are other woods available but often only as a custom order and rare woods can command very high prices!

Here at Sounds Great Music we offer custom builds from Suhr, Jackson, Collings, Mcilroy, Taylor, Fender and more. So if you fancy a dream guitar of your own, don’t hesitate to call one of our sales team who are here to answer any questions you may have.