Alternative to What?
At Luthiers Mercantile International we offer over 40 species of wood for use in the construction of stringed instruments. We hear the term alternative tonewood bandied about quite often and are fond of it ourselves, but what exactly does it mean? Alternative to what, and why?
If you walk into a guitar store, chances are you’ll see a variety of wood grains on the instruments displayed there. The first thing we need to do here is to establish our bias against the majority of cheap, often imported guitars that use veneers instead of genuine tonewoods. A veneered guitar is one that is made out of very thin plywood to which an even thinner layer of veneer is attached in order to make the guitar look good.
Typically, the veneers used are made from (or made to look like) a traditional tonewood, though occasionally you’ll see some rather outrageous synthetic veneers where the grain patterns swirl around in nearly impossible ways! The manufacturers of these sorts of guitars have come a long way in making these instruments look nearly identical to more expensive solid wood guitars. Because plywood can be made thinner than in the past, plywood guitars sound better than they used to and they are very sturdy, making them a suitable choice for beginners.
But for the serious player, there is no real substitute for solid wood. The main, immediate difference in sound one hears are the numerous subtle overtones, harmonics, or partials that color the basic tone. A solid wood guitar sounds richer, more colorful and has it’s own unique sonic character. It is also a bit louder than most plywood guitars. No two solid wood guitars sound completely identical. Though there are many, many factors that contribute to the sound of an individual guitar besides the wood (the shape of the guitar, the scale length, bridge type -the list goes on and on), the woods used in a guitar are probably the most discussed component of the instrument, and they are probably the most misunderstood.
Function and Tradition
Some woods are better suited to guitar making than others and there are two main reasons for this- function and tradition. The physics of the guitar are rather delicate. The strings on a steel-string guitar exert a tremendous amount of tension on the soundboard, which the luthier hopes to have at an ideal thickness to produce the best tone. It’s a balancing act between structural integrity and the resonance of the soundboard. If the board is too thin, it will warp; if it is too thick, it will sound dead or “thuddy”. Spruce has become a popular choice for soundboards because it has the longitudinal stiffness to support both halves of the equation. If the instrument is built properly, the spruce soundboard will not warp against the tension of the strings and will also vibrate freely when the strings are plucked, thus moving the surrounding air and creating a pleasing tone.
Other qualities determine whether a particular species of wood is suitable for guitar making, such as stability (most luthiers hope their instruments will last for many, many years without repair), workability and, of course, visual beauty. Availability is also a factor. Many desirable tonewoods are very difficult to come by and others, such as Brazilian rosewood, are endangered and protected by treaty. Several species of exotic tonewoods, whether endangered or not, are very difficult to find and import. Today’s luthiery supply houses provide an invaluable service to the craft of lutherie by taking care of the difficult procurement, import, specialized sawing, storing and grading of these valuable woods.
Tradition is a factor that is somewhat subservient to function. For instance, the Martin guitar company established the American steel-string guitar as the instrument we all know today. Their decision to use particular woods for these early, influential guitars was based on the factors outlined above. For instance, rosewood was often used on many of there higher-end guitars, simply because it functioned so well as a guitar wood. It is resonant, beautiful, stable and so on. Rosewood was therefore used on Martin’s most sought-after, high-end models. Because Martin had such a formative role in the development of the instrument, rosewood became associated with high quality in general. The strength and longevity of these associations have engendered a tradition, though it could just as easily have been another type of wood.
Now, some may rightfully argue that traditions such as these are somewhat arbitrary as far as the value of an instrument is concerned, but guitars are cultural artifacts, and there is a lot more to them than just their functionality as music-making devices. Individual types of guitars are associated with periods of history, musical styles, individual artists, whole genres of music and they can have immeasurable sentimental value. Whether or not a guitar is deemed “cool” or not means a tremendous amount to those who love and appreciate guitars. The degree to which a guitar design goes with or against a guitar making ‘tradition’ has a huge effect on our appreciation of it.
So, when we say ‘alternative tonewood’ what we really mean is an alternative to the tradition of using certain woods in guitar making; but keep in mind that rarely do these alternative woods veer very far from the traditional because all these woods must be functional guitar woods. It is best to discuss them by referring to the traditional woods because the traditional woods at least provide a common point of reference.
The reasons a luthier would choose to depart from the traditional or familiar are many. Some luthiers have set out to carve a unique professional identity by using a particular alternative wood. Others seek a more environmentally responsible alternative to a wood that is endangered. Some guitar buyers/players just want something unique and have no interest in “old-fashioned” types of guitars. The scarcity and expense of some traditional, exotic woods is often an issue that will turn a builder and/or buyer to one of the alternative tonewoods. Cost often plays a role in one’s decision. Some turn to alternatives with an innovative or experimental bent -looking for “the next big thing”.
Now, there are many parts on the guitar, but most agree that it is the soundboard (or top) and the back and sides (the latter typically made from the same type of wood) that have the most to do with the sound of an acoustic guitar. Visually, these are the most apparent woods on the guitar. For this reason, I will limit my discussion to just these parts.
Soundboards are usually constructed from one of two types of woods, cedar or spruce. It should be mentioned, however, that many guitars have been made from pine, fir, and larch, though generally these woods are considered poor choices as far as tone is concerned.
Western red cedar is by far the most popular cedar used in soundboards. It is common to classical guitars and is used in a strong minority of steel-strings. It has a nice red-tan color that ranges from chocolate brown to cinnamon or beige. It is well known for its pleasant scent, which is why it is a popular choice for cigar humidors. Tonally, it is warmer and sweeter than the spruces, with more overtones and a weaker fundamental. It is said that the notes have a more ‘singing’ quality and that the tone is more “open”.
‘Openness’ is a particularly interesting characteristic. Spruce-topped guitars can sound “tight” at first and may take some time to “open up”. Normally a spruce-topped guitar needs to be played-in for a period of time (months, even years) before it fully opens up. Cedar, on the other hand, has a shorter break-in period. A new cedar guitar will have rich harmonics and a crispness that is somewhat lacking in a brand new spruce-topped guitar.
The only significant alternative to cedar is redwood. Redwood has come into its own as a legitimate tonewood. It is richer in color than cedar with darker reds. Though similar tonally to cedar, some say redwood is more robust, brighter and perhaps a better choice sonically for steel-string guitars (as opposed to nylon-stringed instruments). Unfortunately, the best redwood comes from old-growth trees, which have been seriously diminished by indiscriminate logging. Therefore, it is harder to come by and a bit more expensive. Luthiers Mercantile makes sure that the redwood we carry comes from reputable sources, but unfortunately, this cannot be said of all suppliers.
Sitka spruce has long been the staple choice for steel-string guitars made in the United States, though a handful of classical builders like it as well. It is well known for its pinkish-white color that tans nicely over the years. It imparts a strong, focused tone with a strong fundamental, making it perfect for flatpicking guitar styles. Adirondack spruce (a.k.a. red spruce) is perhaps a better choice for these instruments and, though it was used early on in the history of steel-string guitars (notably, the highly sought after pre-war Martins) it is now considered a high-end alternative because it is so difficult to procure suitable logs. Its excellent stiffness helps create an instrument with great volume, power, and immediacy.
There are other spruces that differ from Sitka in that they are a little sweeter sounding, notably Engelmann spruce from Western Canada and blue Engelmann spruce from Colorado. These have become popular with fingerstyle guitarists and are commonly found on classical guitars. Blue spruce is a rare item but has been used with great success by New Mexico luthier, Don Musser. Canadian Engelmann, on the other hand, continues to grow in popularity and is esteemed for its fine grain and bright color.
When Engelmann spruce was first being discovered by luthiers, it was touted as an inexpensive replacement for German spruce and in fact, it has many of the same fine qualities- a robust sound rich in harmonics with good projection. German spruce is the wood commonly used to build instruments in the violin family. It has an overall bright color, but with a creamy, slightly golden cast. It is considered by many to be a premier tonewood for both classical and steel-string guitars.
Recently, several European alternatives to German spruce have emerged in the American market. The first is Italian spruce and its cousin, Alpine/Italian spruce. Italian spruce is the same species as German spruce (picea excelsa) but has a slightly flatter coloration (more of a basic white) and a more focused tone. Guitars made from this wood have a sweet, singing quality.
Alpine/Italian spruce (also Picea excelsa) is similar in tone but varies in appearance in that it is a little pinker/tan in color (though still basically white). Finally, there is Ukrainian spruce from the Caucasus and Carpathian mountains that surround the Black sea; this wood has a very creamy, white appearance and often has wider grain than the other European spruces. Tops made of this material are quite stiff and offer a slightly brighter, glassier tap tone than the other European spruces. Some will be drawn to compare Ukrainian spruce to Adirondack spruce. It is slightly less expensive than the other European spruces but the best tops offer the same rich tone.
Backs and Sides
The soundboard is the main sound-producing component of the guitar and the choice of tonewood, along with the way the top is braced and thicknessed, has the greatest bearing on the overall tone of the guitar. The back and sides are said to act as a “filter and amplifier” of the tone produced by the top. The back and sides can remove or emphasize various frequencies produced by the top, coloring the tone and affecting factors such as tonal balance, volume, attack, and projection.
For many years the crème de la crème of back and side woods was Brazilian rosewood. Though this wood is still in common usage, it has been protected against import and export by the CITES [Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora] treaty since 1991. For this reason, a number of alternatives have surfaced- one being Indian rosewood, which in turn has become a standard choice and should now be considered a traditional tonewood itself. It was during the 60’s that most large manufacturers switched from using Brazilian to Indian rosewood.
Brazilian rosewood is sought after for its (usually) dark brown color that ranges from chocolate brown to rust or a warm burnt orange. Finer examples feature fine black line figuring and spider webbing (where the black lines make web-like shapes that cross from one annular ring to another). The tone, some say, is incomparable, though it is often argued that this opinion is once again, a habit of tradition. Great projection, with strong, balanced bass and highs are its trademarks.
Indian rosewood varies quite a bit in appearance from Brazilian rosewood, though it is still quite dark. Basically brown, but with purple, gray and sometimes red highlights, it is known for straighter, more homogenous grain lines and a lack of ink-line figuring. Some say it is on par with Brazilian rosewood for tone (a few say it is superior), and though it is far easier to procure and less expensive, it is nonetheless considered the mark of a higher-end instrument, especially by manufacturers. Some say it lacks a bit of the projection that Brazilian rosewood is known for, but this is debatable.
Other rosewoods are found in Asia, Africa, and South/Central America, offering a tremendous variety of choices for those who like the rosewood sound. The most exotic of these is African Blackwood. Strikingly different from other rosewoods in that it is flat black in color, and among the densest woods found on the planet, it is also one of the most expensive. The trees grow in isolated areas of the West African deserts and the trunks of these trees are twisted and small, yielding little guitar-sized wood. For those daring luthiers who don’t mind dulling their chisels on this hardest of guitar woods, African blackwood can contribute to a rare and valuable guitar with outstanding volume and power, given that the top is voiced appropriately.
There are other rosewoods that compare in density to Brazilian rosewood, such as Honduran rosewood and Amazon rosewood. Honduran is more of a brick red/brown in color and Amazon is similar in color to Brazilian but is usually found with less figure. Both of these woods feature tight grain lines and both have adherents that claim they are finest tonewoods available.
On the wild side are Southeast Asian rosewood, Palo Escrito, and cocobolo rosewood. Southeast Asian rosewood is very hard to come by and was only available from Luthiers Mercantile for a 4-year period during which we exhausted the stock from a single shipment. There may still be many good logs left but at this time, no one is harvesting them for instrument use. The wood was very dramatic in appearance, with brick reds, magentas, and purples combining in unique ways. Many sets also featured dramatic black line figure and attractive sapwood centers.
Cocobolo, on the other hand, is readily available from Mexico; this superb tonewood has bold, distinctive orange highlights with plenty of black lines that can often show exciting swirly patterns. Some sets are dark reddish-brown. Cocobolo is among the heaviest of the rosewoods and is known to impart a strong bass to guitars. Many luthiers shy away from using cocobolo because they have an allergic reaction to it when sanding and, because there are abundant oils in the wood, it can be difficult to glue.
For those who can work around these problems, cocobolo is a great favorite for both tone and beauty.
Palo Escrito is a tan wood with reddish-brown lines that create unusual patterns in some sets, much like Cocobolo. This is a lighter-weight type of rosewood. Guitars with back and sides made of Palo Escrito are known for a sweet high end and good punch. This wood is becoming a popular choice for flamenco guitars, but steel-string builders who are experimenting with it, most notably James Goodall of Goodall guitars, are getting excellent results with it.
Finally, from the rosewood category, there is Madagascar rosewood. Little can be said about it that hasn’t already been said about Brazilian rosewood! Visually, it is very similar but with more red/rust tones. The main differences between the two is that Madagascar Rosewood a little lighter in weight. More than a few builders claim that the lower weight bestows an additional sonic liveliness that surpasses Brazilian Rosewood – and indeed, most other tonewoods. The tap tone of this wood has a noticeably strong, sustaining quality.
There are a number of other woods that, because of their higher density, help create a rosewood-like sounding guitar, but do not come from the rosewood family. Visually, none of them would be mistaken for rosewood, but they are all quite attractive in their own right. On the higher-end are Macassar ebony and Ziricote. Breedlove Guitars, a company that has created models from numerous alternative tonewoods, is very fond of both of these woods. Macassar ebony, as you might guess, is a black wood but with dramatic blond streaking which creates a beautiful liquid or marbled appearance. Ziricote is grayish in color and features intense spider-web figuring and layered effects.
Both woods are brittle and hard to work with. Both are expensive but their high density allows for great tonal balance and volume and the scarcity of well-figured sets adds value to the instruments. The remaining rosewood alternatives, on the other hand, are relatively inexpensive and easy to come by. From Africa, there’s Bubinga, which has a nice reddish-mauve brown color and often sports an interesting ‘bees-wing’ figure that gives a nice three-dimensional shimmer to the wood under the finish. Also from Africa is padauk. A brilliant purple-red wood, it oxidizes to dark brown over time. Finally, there is wenge a very dark brown wood (verging on black) that some well-known builders, such as Mark Blanchard, have had good results with.
From South America there is grenadillo. This wood has a nice purple-brown color reminiscent of Indian rosewood, except that it does not have the straight lines that Indian has. Grenadillo does have a subtle wavy figure, a bright responsive tap tone, and attractive sapwood centers are commonplace. It is popular in Brazil, but it is relatively new to American lutherie. It promises to become a favorite among steel-string builders. Pau Ferro (or Morado) is well known as a fingerboard wood on electric guitars and basses and is coming into its own as a back and side wood. It is much like Indian rosewood with dark, straight, vertical lines except that gold, beige and brown substitute for the dark browns, grays, and purples found in Indian rosewood.
Alternatives to Maple and Mahogany
Maple is the only wood used for backs and sides in the violin family so it is well known to instrument makers, even though just a modest percentage of guitars are made with it. The fact that it is a domestic wood augments its popularity and it is often used on electric guitars, most notably the Gibson Les Paul. Maple with figuring is preferred over plain maple, but the figure has no real bearing on the sound of the wood. The figure is, however, strikingly beautiful. Most common are curly maple (also known as flamed maple or tiger maple) or quilted maple (a bit rarer, this wood has a billowy, bubbly appearance). Plain maple (rock maple from the East Coast) is often used for electric guitar necks, but bigleaf maple (from the Northwest) and European Maple (from the former Yugoslavia) are the common choices for acoustic guitar back and sides.
Maple is well known for imparting bright tone to an instrument, with excellent separation (a guitar with good separation allows each note of a chord to ring independently as opposed to sounding thick or clustered). It has long been a popular choice on the Gibson Jumbo series because the bright tone helps balance out the boomyness of guitars that have a large body.
It is hard to find an alternative to maple though tonally, many have had similar results with Californian walnut. Walnut is primarily dark gray in color and can also exhibit dramatic figuring. Myrtlewood (also from the Pacific Northwest) has many maple-like qualities in tone and appearance, though generally, the sets are more varied as far as color is concerned, with brown, gray and greenish vertical streaks being common.
Another set of alternatives is Hawaiian koa and its Australian cousin, black acacia (otherwise known as Australian Blackwood). These woods are among the most beautiful. Often found with a light, honey-brown color, they can combine vertical color bands with flamed figure, though flamed sets are becoming increasing more difficult to come by. Though koa is technically not endangered, good old trees are few and far between on the islands and prices for the best sets are sometimes on a par with Brazilian rosewood. Koa is sometimes compared, tonally, with mahogany, which I will discuss next.
Genuine Honduran mahogany has been an ideal choice for a variety of woodworking applications. Its cross-grained structure makes it unusually stable and easy to carve. It is a superb choice for woodcarvings, furniture making, and pattern making. It is still the most popular choice by far for guitar necks, though Spanish cedar is widely used on classical guitars and Maple is widely used on electric guitars. Genuine Honduran mahogany used to be plentiful but it is now nearing CITES treaty protection. The guitar-making world is struggling to find a suitable alternative for necks, but there is really no clear choice. Fortunately, the use of truss rods and graphite reinforcement in necks will allow the luthier to accept other mahoganies that are not quite as stable with no ill effects.
As a back and side wood, mahogany has sometimes been considered a “poor man’s choice”, but there is now a great appreciation for its unique tonal qualities. It seems that mahogany ages well and its true value may not reveal itself until a few years have passed. This is especially true when it is used as a top wood (Martin issues a mahogany-topped model from time to time). Mahogany’s trademark tone is a powerful midrange, with great punch and character.
As far as stability is concerned, Honduran mahogany has no peers, but tonally there are some good alternatives in the mahogany family. The best is Sepele mahogany which features a very attractive ribbon figure that runs parallel to the grain. Khaya mahogany looks more like Honduran but is generally softer, so it is important to find dense logs when cutting for guitar material. Outside of the mahogany species, lacewood is the most exciting alternative. According to John Greven, a luthier who has built hundreds of guitars in his career and who has a great respect for vintage Martins, lacewood has the rare ability to impart the tone of a well-aged Martin mahogany guitar to a brand-new instrument. Fruit tree woods, most notably cherry and pear, sometimes draw comparisons to mahogany.
Where to Now?
As stated previously, there are many reasons why a musician might consider buying a guitar with so-called alternative tonewoods in its make-up. I hope I have opened a doorway into exploring these woods, but regrettably, it is impossible to convey their unique characteristics with just a toolbox of adjectives to work with. Each piece of wood is different and what each individual luthier does with the wood is unique. You can read about woods all you want, and you can tap and flex the individual pieces to test their tonality, but you will learn far more by playing the instruments themselves. After all, a guitar is far more than the sum of its parts and what is magical about a particular instrument comes from none of its individual components.
So, if a luthier is building a custom instrument for you, it’s best to ask what he or she can suggest to help you meet your musical goals. Just remember that the craftsman will have a better idea of how to inject his or her gifts into the instrument then you will! Keep an open mind, because what they might suggest may surprise you. Though tradition may direct you to select a guitar made out of this or that wood, your dream guitar may very well be born of a unique, and heretofore unheard of tree!
J. Chris Herrod 5/20/04
(This article appeared originally in Mel Bay’s Webzine, Guitar Sessions).