Guitar Tone Woods

There are many fine woods used today to build quality instruments. It is important to remember that one wood is not necessarily "better" than another; the suitability of woods for any given instrument depends on a number of factors, such as personal tastes and the type of music you will be playing. For example, a bluegrass player will need woods with a "quicker" response and louder tone than will a player of country music, who would probably opt for a warmer, more mellow tone. 

There are certain characteristics of certain woods that can be seen to be detrimental to sound. For example, Mahogany yields a quick response with great cutting ability, but to a small extent this cutting power and midrange comes at the expense of bass response, producing a slightly "thinner" tone than a Rosewood instrument. Similarly, Indian Rosewood yields greater bass response and warmth of tone, but somewhat at the expense of cutting power and balance, and can produce a "muddy" tone if not properly voiced. Because of this, I voice the bracing of my instruments to match the tonal characteristics of the woods used; Mahogany guitars are voiced to yield greater bass response and warmer tone for overall balance, and Indian Rosewood guitars are voiced to yield greater midrange and treble response as a balance to the enhanced bass created by Indian Rosewood. CB instruments are not just voiced to enhance the characteristics of the woods used, but to yield the maximum tonal response available from each piece of carefully-selected wood, which can vary significantly from piece to piece. This allows me to create an instrument of greatest possible tone, clarity and volume. If you've ever wondered why production instruments from even the most respected manufacturers can vary so widely in terms of balance and clarity of tone, this is why: only a maker who creates instruments one at a time and pays the most careful attention to the tonal response of each piece of wood can achieve an instrument of the ultimate power, balance and clarity of tone.

To help you decide which woods are right for you, I offer the following descriptions of the types of wood that I typically use. There are many other woods available to luthiers, such as Western Red Cedar, Walnut, and Koa to name a few, and I will build you an instrument from any woods you prefer. However, these are the woods that I have found to be able to offer the most pleasing characteristics to the most people.

Note: all woods shown are unfinished. Photographs were taken at the same distance from the camera and under the same lighting conditions.

 

Sitka Spruce

(Picea sitchensis)

Sitka Spruce is the most popular wood for guitar tops today. A native of the Pacific coast from Alaska to northern California, Sitka Spruce is a strong, straight-grained, even textured softwood. Sitka Spruce is sometimes called Silver Spruce. Because of its large size (trees grow to nearly 300 feet in height), straight grain, and elasticity, Sitka Spruce is valued for many applications requiring strong, light weight lumber. Color is creamy white to light pink or brown heartwood. Weight is about 27 pounds per cubic foot. Sitka Spruce has the highest strength to weight ratio of any wood available today, and is a very tough wood that resists minor dings and scratches very well. Sitka has a longer break-in time than Engelmann Spruce, and a somewhat more mellow tone with a slower response.

Sitka Spruce is Chris' "standard" top wood, and is included in Chris' "base" guitar price.

 

Engelmann Spruce

(Picea engelmannii)

 Engelmann spruce is native to the Rocky Mountain region from southwestern Alberta and central British Columbia, south in the high mountains from Washington to northern California, east to eastern Nevada, southeastern Arizona and southern New Mexico and north to Wyoming and central Montana. About two thirds of the lumber is produced in the southern Rocky Mountain States. Most of the remainder comes from the northern Rocky Mountain States and Oregon.

Somewhat lighter in color than Sitka Spruce, Engelmann offers a quicker response and greater volume potential than Sitka. Lighter in weight than Sitka Spruce (weighing approximately 23 pounds per cubic foot) and a bit softer than Sitka Spruce, Engelmann is slightly more prone to minor dings and scratches than Sitka. Still, Engelmann is by no means "fragile" and will last a lifetime given proper care.

Although Engelmann Spruce does not have the stellar reputation of Adirondack "Red" Spruce (see below), it does exhibit the same tonal characteristics as Red Spruce, and many players and collectors have learned that Engelmann is a perfect substitute for the far rarer (and far more expensive) Red Spruce.

Red Spruce can add substantially to the cost of an instrument, but as Chris says, "There's not a dime's worth of difference" tonally between Engelmann Spruce and Red Spruce.

Engelmann Spruce is a no additional cost upgrade on CB guitars.

 

Red (Adirondack) Spruce

(Picea rubens)

Red Spruce (also known as Adirondack Spruce, Blue Spruce or Canadian Spruce) is native to the Cape Breton Islands, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, west to Maine, southern Quebec and southeastern Ontario and south to central New York, northeastern Pennsylvania, northern New Jersey and Massachusetts. It also grows in the Appalachian Mountains of extreme western Maryland, eastern West Virginia, northern and western Virginia, western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee.

Red Spruce was used for the tops on many of the great pre-war (now vintage or collectible) American guitars. Red Spruce exhibits a slightly lighter color than Sitka, but is generally not as white as Engelmann. Like Engelmann, Adirondack is a softer than Sitka and requires a bit more care, but this slightly softer wood results in a top that is a bit less "stiff" and offers a quicker response, with more "snap" to the note. Red Spruce, like Engelmann, is also slightly lighter in weight than Sitka Spruce, weighing approximately 26 pounds per cubic foot. Because of the genetic qualities of this wood, as well as the extreme rarity of guitar-width sets, Red Spruce will exhibit more grain width and color variation than either Sitka or Engelmann, and will often have a "striped" appearance along its exceptionally straight grain.

Many players and collectors believe that the use of this wood was a significant contributing factor to the strong, clear tone of those older instruments. Adirondack has been in short supply for decades (which is why the major makers seldom use it anymore), and is therefore far more expensive than other species of Spruce, but is considered essential to many collectors and players seeking the ultimate "vintage" sound.

Depending on availability, Adirondack "Red" Spruce adds $100 to the base cost of a CB guitar.

 

Mahogany

(Swietenia macrophylla)

Often called Honduras Mahogany, Brazilian Mahogany, etc., depending on the country of origin, Mahogany is native to Southern Mexico southward to Colombia, Venezuela, and parts of the upper Amazon and its tributaries in Peru, Bolivia, and Brazil. Plantations have been established within its natural range and elsewhere. Mahogany varies in color from light to dark reddish-brown, to deep rich red. Dark colored gum or white deposits commonly occur in the pores; sometimes rippled grain figure is present. Weight is 34 to 40 pounds per cubic foot.

Mahogany has often gotten a "bad rap" because of its use on certain makers' more inexpensive instruments. Many players, such as Doc Watson and Norman Blake (and Chris Bozung) prefer Mahogany over Indian Rosewood because of its great clarity of tone and cutting ability for lead guitar playing. I consider Mahogany to be one of the finest, and most under-rated, tone woods available.

Mahogany is Chris' "standard" back & sides wood, and is included in "base" guitar price.

Quilted Honduras Mahogany back & sides: $150 additional depending upon availability

 

Curly Maple

(Acer macrophyllum or Acer saccharum)

Curly Maple has long been a favorite of Country musicians for its beauty and mellow tone. Curly Maple grows throughout most of North America, with commercial species in the eastern United States and Canada and the western coast of the United States. Curly Maple yields slightly less bass response and volume than either Mahogany or Rosewood, but with greater "punch" and "bite" to the note. Careful construction maximizes this wood's bass and volume, and enhances Curly Maple's warm, mellow tone. A strong, heavy wood (44+ pounds per cubic foot) with cream to reddish-brown heartwood, Curly Maple is often found with Bird's-Eye, Burl, Fiddleback, Quilted and other figured grain patterns. Curly Maple also takes a finish beautifully, and can be quite stunning visually.

Curly Maple back & sides adds $350 to the base cost of a CB guitar. Curly Maple guitar neck is $100 additional.

Curly Maple banjo neck and resonator is a standard option (no additional charge) on CB banjos.

 

Brazilian Rosewood

(Dalbergia nigra)

Of scattered occurrence in the eastern forests of the State of Bahia and southward to Espirito Santo and Rio de Janeiro and inland to include Minas Gerais, Brazilian Rosewood, due to its rarity, is an expensive tone wood.  Because of long-time exploitation, the tree has become very scarce in the more accessible regions. Brazilian Rosewood is harder than the commonly-used Indian Rosewood, but is about the same density and weighs the same (53 pounds per cubic foot).

Often considered to be the "ultimate" in tone wood, Brazilian Rosewood was used for the finest pre-war instruments by the major manufacturers. Its balance, clarity of tone, quick response, and beauty of color and figure are legendary. Hype aside, Brazilian Rosewood really is an amazing tone wood for all these reasons; unfortunately, an embargo was placed on this fine wood in the late 1960s, and since then Brazilian Rosewood has not been imported into the United States. Because of this, the quality of available Brazilian Rosewood has deteriorated to the point that slab-sawn, knotty wood, which would have been scrapped for kindling in the '40s, is today being touted as "high grade" wood. Even the currently-available inferior grades of Brazilian Rosewood are much more expensive than other tone woods, and can add thousands of dollars to the cost of an instrument.

Please contact us for pricing and availability.

 

Indian Rosewood

(Dalbergia latifolia)

Indian Rosewood grows throughout the Indian peninsula scattered in the dry deciduous forests, but is nowhere common; it attains its best growth in the Bombay region. Indian Rosewood varies in color from golden brown to dark purple-brown with darker streaks giving an attractive figure and a narrowly interlocked grain. Weighing approximately 53 pounds per cubic foot, Indian Rosewood is heavier and more dense than Mahogany. Indian Rosewood yields a warm, "bassy" tone as described above, and is thus often the preferred wood for rhythm guitarists, especially for Bluegrass music.

Since the Brazilian Rosewood embargo of the late 1960s, Indian Rosewood has become the tone wood of choice for most manufacturers' high-end instruments. 

Indian Rosewood adds $150 to the base cost of a CB guitar.

 

Honduran Rosewood

(Dalbergia stevensonii)

Honduran Rosewood grows only in Belize (British Honduras), occurring in fairly large patches along rivers but also on inter-river and drier areas mostly between the Sarstoon and Monkey Rivers. Honduran Rosewood is typically pinkish brown to purple with alternating dark and light zones forming a very attractive figure, with a medium to rather fine grain. Denser than Indian rosewood, Honduran rosewood is well known for its tonal properties, being the preferred wood for Marimba bars. It is one of the heavier hardwoods, weighing 60 to 70 pounds per cubic foot. Tonally it compares well to Brazilian rosewood, producing a well-balanced guitar with great projection.

Honduran Rosewood is very similar visually and tonally to the much harder to get Southeast Asian Rosewood; the grain lines are unusually tight and straight, yielding a subtler beauty with less figure than Brazilian or Cocobolo.

Depending on availability, Honduran Rosewood adds $350 to the base cost of a CB guitar.

 

Cocobolo

(Dalbergia retusa)

Cocobolo is a true Rosewood that grows along the Pacific seaboard from Central America to southern Mexico.  A wood of limited occurrence, Cocobolo usually grows in the drier upland regions. Weighing approximately 68 pounds per cubic foot, Cocobolo is harder, heavier and more dense than other Rosewoods; because of this, Cocobolo is a better sound reflector, absorbing less sound than the softer Rosewoods. Cocobolo's colors vary greatly from light to deep red and the hues of the rainbow, yielding stunningly beautiful colors and figure.

Cocobolo is probably closer in tone, color and figure to the finest-grade Brazilian Rosewood used on the classic guitars of yesteryear than any tone wood available today, and for far less money than the inferior-quality Brazilian currently available.  Cocobolo offers everything Brazilian Rosewood offers, and more: increased power, increased sustain, increased volume, along with beauty of color and figure not available in Brazilian Rosewood for years.

For the player seeking to capture the sound and beauty of the finest Brazilian Rosewood from the '40s and '50s, with the added benefits of greater power and sweeter tone, Cocobolo is hard to beat. I consider Cocobolo to be superior in every way to the currently-available Brazilian Rosewood, and with about one-third to one-tenth of the cost of Brazilian, Cocobolo is a real bargain. I cannot recommend this excellent tone wood highly enough.

Cocobolo adds $350 to the base cost of a CB guitar.

 

As you can see, the woods used can have a great effect on the sound of an instrument, but the maker who has an understanding of these woods and the ability to maximize the positive qualities of the woods used can have an even greater impact upon an instrument's ultimate success. I hope I have enlightened you about the qualities of different types of woods available today, and I hope you will give CB Guitars the opportunity to create for you the instrument of a lifetime.

Sincerely,

 

 

Last modified: November 27, 2015

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Last modified: November 27, 2015