ecently, Todd Taggart from Luthiers Mercantile asked if I would write something about top woods for their new catalog. Hoping to make things easier for myself, I jokingly told him I would just say, "that all Goodall guitars sound exactly the same no matter what combination of woods used". Tonality description is definitely difficult to describe definitively!
Seriously, it can be surprising the different semantic descriptions people have when discussing what tonewoods to use for the new guitar that will most compliment their playing style, technique and choice of music. While most of my customers understand what I tell them, once in a while someone has a different concept.
I'm thinking of a time I made a Koa Grand Concert with an Engelmann top for a man who repeatedly assured me of his need for a bright sounding fingerstyle guitar. You know -- good bass but with lots of clarity and sustain in the mid range and treble. After playing it a month or so he called to apologize and say it wasn't exactly what he wanted so we exchanged it for one of our Rosewood Standard models with a Sitka top (our Standard is about the size of the Martin 'D'). He was ecstatic. Unbelievable! Just what he wanted. The worlds greatest guitar. Great, a satisfied customer. But the instrument he ended up with was quite different than what he originally described.
Another time I sent two Rosewood Standard guitars to a music store. Both had Sitka Spruce tops, one with a more flexible top than the other. The store commented that the one with the flexible top had more bass. It didn't, it just had less focus and brilliance, and possibly less power. But the perceived tone was more bass!
I thought I should make a list of some of the guitar tone terminology I use. Here is a condensed list in alphabetical order ( I added a few superlatives not directly related to anything specific). You can use a dictionary for clarification on some of these: Balanced, bassy, boomy, brilliant, bright, cool, excellent, even, fat, fantastic, focused, full, fundamental, harmonics, incredible, gnarly, loud, lyrical, majestic, midrangey, musical, open, overtones, phenomenal, powerful, rich, responsive, sensational, sensitive, strident, superior, sustain, sweet, trebly, and wonderful.
Hmm, I use most of these to describe our guitars with the exception of perhaps, boomy, bassy, midrangey, strident, and trebly. Too much of these qualities isn't good in my opinion. At least that isn't what we strive to produce. Incidentally, I equate brightness to midrange/treble responsive clarity such as in a mahogany or maple guitar as opposed to the brilliance of a Brazilian rosewood with lots of overtone harmonics.
OK, here is what I think about the different top woods:
This is the strong one. For its weight, it's one of the strongest woods in the world. Color range from light yellow to medium orange. Usually exhibits fairly strong silking (medullary rays). Best if medium gauge strings are used but good for light gauge also. It has possibly the best balance between the bass, midrange and treble. It has a strong fundamental but also a midrange brightness. Loud, but not the loudest for fingerstyle. Doesn't break up when flatpicked hard. The denser pieces can be thinned a little more than the other top woods, perhaps .005" to .007" more.
Slightly less strength than sitka and generally softer, but some pieces can be quite stiff and strong. Creamy white color, less pronounced winter growth lines, and generally good silking. Beautiful, rich, sensitive tone frequently recommended for fingerstyle and light flatpicking. Good bass, slightly less midrange brightness than Sitka, with a brilliant overtone harmonic structure. I feel opposed to using medium gauge strings, at least with the softer pieces as I think over time it can be detrimental to tone.
Red spruce, also known as Adirondack or Appalachian spruce, was used by wood-frame airplane builders early in the century because of its high strength-to-weight ratio. Some of the tops exhibit very high stiffness both with and across the grain. Red Spruce is better known for its tonal qualities than its appearance. Master grade tops look similar to Engelmann spruce being a creamy white color but exhibit very little silking (medullary rays) and rarely approach the beauty or the fine or even grain of Sitka or Engelmann spruce. Some tops have slight discoloration but because few red spruce trees are of guitar top size or quality this is perfectly acceptable. We find the tone of red spruce loud and powerful with a focused, punchy bass. Many flatpick guitarists find this to be a choice topwood.
Slightly less strength than Engelmann. Color ranging from light cocoa brown to reddish brown to medium dark chocolate. Doesn't exhibit medullary silking. Scars fairly easily and braces can shear off if bumped. My personal opinion is it's better suited to classical building than steel string but our cedar/rosewood Grand Concerts and Standards sound quite impressive right from the start. Light gauge strings only. Powerful fingerstyle tone with lots of brilliance and sustain, exceptional clarity, and focused bass (with a dry, woody sound). Less sensitive to humidity variations, and dampens the string noise less than the spruces. Some small question about long term tone quality.
Description almost identical to cedar but a little more red in color. It usually exhibits a beautiful glow, with strong medullary silking - some pieces amazingly so. Glue bond not quite as good as the spruces. Again, light gauge strings only. A quality redwood top makes a fingerstyle guitar which is hard to beat with respect to a responsive, 3-dimensional brilliance. Some tops exhibit somewhat more richness in the bass than cedar.
Acacia koa is a native hardwood exclusive to the Hawaiian Islands. Koa has an amazing variety of figure and color ranging from a light golden yellow to dark brown. It can be highly figured and exhibit a beautiful, luminous inner glow. We offer koa in five grades, all of which are gorgeous. The koa we select for our tops is picked as much for its tonal qualities as its figure. Some of the less figured wood may actually be better tonally. The tone of a koa top is of good quality, being musical and sweet with a different sustain quality than spruce top instruments. The notes don't rise and jump out as quickly and powerfully as Sitka spruce but sustain more evenly. In my opinion our instruments with all koa (back, sides and top) would be an excellent choice for jazz style playing with amplification.
There is quite a variation with the timbre of these woods. There is also a crossover in tone between the spruces and between cedar and redwood. I favor the spruces but am always pleased and impressed with the tone of our redwood and cedar top instruments. What I have described in each category is the average. I like the pieces with the highest stiffness to lightest weight ratio, especially on the larger guitar models, although my Jumbo can use a little heavier top. The Parlor and Grand Concert series instruments can sometimes benefit from a more flexible/light top.
Aloha, James Goodall