A tonewood is a type of timber Luthiers (makers of stringed instruments) refer to for it’s tonal characteristics e.g. it’s ability to make a nice sounding guitar. They are almost always a hardwood. We have listed the most popular tonewoods used in guitar manufacturing below.
- Mahogany – A warm sounding timber commonly used by Gibson. Many guitarists consider this a fuller sounding tone wood that it’s counterparts. You may have noticed yourself how full sounding a Les Paul seems even on very high notes. This can’t all be attributed to the timber the guitar is constructed from but it is an essential piece of the puzzle. Speaking of Les Paul’s you will often find LP guitar kits come with a flamed maple veneer which not only looks great but will add definition to the fuller, fatter Mahogany tones.
- Ash – Much lighter than Magogany and very bright sounding. Ash will put a great emphasis on the low and high tones with less clarity on the mids. Ash however has more natural variation than most timbers and can sound a little different one guitar to the next.
- Alder – A light timber with a warm bright tone commonly used by Fender. More even tonal distribution than Ash.
- Maple – Very bright and potentially a little louder than most other tone woods. Maple can also sound very bright.
- Basswood – Close to Mahogany in characteristics but potentially a touch brighter, all things considered. A softer tonewood than Maple for example. It’s a cost effective timber and as a result you will find it used extensively as it is well suited to guitar building.
Understanding Timber and the Impact it can Have on Guitar Tone
Most people wrongly assume it’s all about the pickups when it comes to guitar tone and while this is at least partially accurate the timber your guitar is made from also plays a large part.
If this sounds a little strange to you…check the Seymour Duncan website in particular the tone wizard page which considers the timber of your guitar as a major component of your tone. It also looks to match the right pickup with the correct choice of timber for best results. Let’s face it Seymour Duncan do know a couple of things about guitar tone!
Acoustic Guitar Tonewoods
Clearly it’s a no brainer when considering the timber used in acoustic guitars and it’s impact on tone. But…..an electric guitar is also influenced by the reflective or absorptive qualities of the timber. It’s just because the sound is delivered by a pickup to your amplifier it isn’t so immediately obvious. The thing to remember is when sounds bounce of the surface of the timber the characteristics of the timber still play a part in the tone. For example the density of the timber will play a vital role in absorbing some frequencies while more effectively resonating others.
One of the biggest issues guitarists seem to have accepting this argument is there are just so many variables that make it almost impossible to compare guitars based on tone. When dissecting the tone of an electric guitar you really need to consider the pickups being used, type of amplification (e.g. tube or valve) the strings, the neck attachment e.g. neck through, glued or bolted, the guitarists ability and much more. There are a lot of factors to consider but all things being equal timber certainly does contribute to tone.
Bear this in mind when selecting a kit guitar. The advantage you have when making your own guitar is you can consider the timber you will use. If you are looking into an entry level kit such as those offered from Alston or Saga you will have limited choice as these guitars almost always are produced with basswood from Asia (a nice safe reliable timber for guitar making). However if you step up to a higher price range you will have more options. Grizzly have guitars in solid alder with maple tops and dedicated guitar kit manufacturers such as Precision Guitar Kits and Bulldog Guitar Bodies will provide you options such as Mahogany or Ash bodies to name just a few.
Obviously wood grain is a major factor when it comes to selecting the type of timber used to construct your guitar kit especially in an aesthetic sense. That’s where maple is often used as a veneer top on guitars due to it’s attractive tiger striping which not only looks great but will add definition to the overall tone of the guitar.
A timber such as Basswood while being completely acceptable in many guitars isn’t an interesting timber and has a whitish look to it which is generally less desired. Other commonly used timbers such as Mahogany are less tightly grained which makes for a more visually interesting guitar but will require grain filling prior to finishing to allow for an even surface.
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