LMI Help Center

Soundboard Expertise; Choosing the Perfect Top

When it comes to sound, there is no more critical component to the guitar than the soundboard. At LMI, we recognize this. Our aim is to put a top into your hands that will be perfect for the guitar you are building or planning to build.

To this end, we make the widest variety of species in the industry available to you. Each species presents a unique set of tonal potentials to the luthier. It’s a huge topic, and there are a lot of reasonable and differing opinions, but we’d like to at least scratch the surface here and attempt to categorize the various top woods with a rough description of their tonal signature.

Adirondack Spruce: The stiffest of the tops woods, this wood gained its reputation for a bold, loud tone and strong fundamental as the main topwood choice of vintage Martin guitars, specifically those geared for flatpicking.

Sitka Spruce: More refined-looking and more plentiful than Adirondack spruce, expect the same sort of sound but with a bit more versatility and with a potential for greater warmth and responsiveness.

German Spruce and Engelman Spruce: We will cover these at the same time as they have very similar tonal signatures. German Spruce is the traditional tonewood used in bowed instruments and fine classical guitars. Engelmann has a clearer, brighter color but is similar in the tonal sweetness, complexity, and versatility of German. It is more plentiful and less expensive, but very refined in appearance. German Spruce is now only rarely harvested in the country of Germany and so we usually refer to it as European Spruce to avoid confusion. Italian Spruce is the same species as German, just culled from the Alps. Some claim this wood offers greater focus and clarity to the tone.

Carpathian Spruce: Also from Europe, this wood is a tonal cousin of Adirondack but with (typically) tighter grain and more complex mids. There are plenty of experienced builders who use this wood exclusively.

Cedar and Redwood: These woods offer a darker color and also darker tone, but which we mean greater harmonic complexity and warmth. Very responsive to a light touch, they can in some circumstances suffer from ‘low headroom’ meaning that the sound can break-up when pushed hard with a pick. Redwood is a little closer to Spruce than Cedar in that there is better support of the trebles and evenness across the range.

Port Orford Cedar: Port Orford Cedar is not a true Cedar and is more closely related to Cypress. Tonally, it is akin to Sitka Spruce but with more density and solidity in the mids, a little like a Mahogany top.

Mahogany: The only hardwood on our list here, players with a strong touch love the power, fatness, and ability to cut through that Mahogany imparts, especially on older instruments where the wood has had some time to open up.

At LMI, we firmly believe that the cosmetic factors that determine a top’s grade (such as tightness of grain, evenness of color, evenness of grain) have little effect on the how the top performs musically. All of our tops are dry, well-prepared, evenly dimensioned and quartersawn. They will vary in stiffness and weight (prime effectors of tone) within a narrow range, and each grade will have a similar variety. Choose the grade you want based on your budget and the commercial requirements of your instrument. This means that if you intend to charge a small fortune for your guitar, you will undoubtedly want a very refined-looking top on it and should stick to the 3A or 4A grade soundboards.
On the LMI website, we photograph nearly every back and side set we sell so you can select from a comprehensive gallery. But topwoods are very difficult to photograph in a way that will meaningfully convey their cosmetic, and certainly their tonal, values. For this reason, we invite you to ask us to specially select your top according to your specific requirements. You can use the ‘special instructions’ box on the checkout page for these comments when ordering online, or just give us a call. Please use as much detail as you can when asking for special selection. We take great pride in selecting the perfect top for you! If your top is not customized or serviced, then it is freely returnable for a full refund. In fact, you are welcome to order a few extra if you want to go through a stack and select the perfect top yourself, returning the rest for a refund. Return instructions are in the Help Center on our website.
Be sure you consider adding some time-saving customizations to your top. We can sand to thickness, join the halves and cut a rough profile for you. We can also inlay a number of popular rosette motifs into the soundboard for you. Just add the customizations to the top you want directly from the product page before you add it to your cart. Our skilled staff will go right to work on the soundboard so that your order is only delayed a few short days!