Guitar Tonewoods Guide

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Guitar Tonewoods guideA tonewood guide is essential if you want to make your own guitar. We’ll answer the following questions:

  • Which woods are the most commonly used?
  • What are their properties?
  • And, more importantly, does the sound of the guitar change depending on the wood you choose?

Everything’s answered in this article.

1. Does it change anything?

There’s an endless debate between guitar players on the importance of choosing the right tonewood. So, concretely, does that alter the guitar sound? The answer is: yes.

Of course, there are other factors to take into account. The way the guitar is made, its size, shape, age… And a lot more. Not even two identical models would sound the same, due to a simply natural reason : wood. It changes constantly.

2. On guitar wood knowledge…

You must have come to this page for a reason. Maybe you want to:

  • Repair your guitar, or replace a part that can be broken, damaged, or lacking the resonance or warmth you desire…
  • Buy a guitar: knowing more about tonewoods will give you a better understand of what you can find on the market
  • Build a guitar: if you’ve never built a guitar before, this guide will assist you in order to choose the right wood for the instrument you wish to construct.

Whichever goal you might have, you will leave this page with a greater knowledge on guitar wood, and – I hope – with your definitive idea in mind.

3. Acoustic guitar

Even though wood plays a role in modifying the sound of both electric and acoustic guitars, it certainly has more impact on the latter. But again, it goes back to the eternal debate.

There’s a couple of woods used for this instrument, let’s see first those used for the soundboard.

3.1. Top.

If you plan on making an acoustic guitar or have it built, taking your time before choosing the top wood is necessary. The top is responsible for a large part of the guitar sound. Here are two tonewoods commonly used (from left to right):

  • Spruce (Sitka Spruce): the most popular wood. Its success comes from the fact that it is less prone to break than any other top materials as it is very strong, but also quite light.
  • Cedar (Western Redcedar): the classical choice. This wood is used a lot for classical guitar these days. It gives the guitar a dark warm sound appreciated for finger-picking.

Sometimes, other types are used such as mahogany for steel-string guitars, or basswood for classical guitars. If you desire a more unique sound on your guitar, go for a rarer guitar wood, but keep in mind that it’s often more expensive, as less employed.

3.2. Side, back and neck.

Typically, hardwood is preferred for those guitar parts. What’s the right type of wood to use for the back, sides and neck of your guitar? Well… It’s not as important to know that as it is for the top. But still, if you want to make the right choice, here’s what you can find (from left to right and top to bottom):

  • Mahogany (Honduran Mahogany): really rare guitar wood. But ironically one of the most used for the body. Warm tone and long sustain.
  • Nato (also Nyatoh): cheap and used to be easily found. Many Asian guitars were made with that kind of wood. Not as luxurious as mahogany, but still a decent wood.
  • Indian Rosewood: good for classical guitars. This one is often found on guitar necks, but it’s also used for back and sides. It’s a great substitute to mahogany. It’s actually quite popular for classical guitar.
  • Khaya: the African mahogany. Khaya is a great choice if you can’t afford the price of Honduran Mahogany. The wood tone is warm and it’s a little bit denser than its Honduras cousin.

Nyatoh has become a rare wood on guitar but it’s still used by some manufacturers. To learn more about it, click here.

And there are many other woods usable for guitar neck, back and sides such as: Meranti, Australian Red Cedar, or Sapele… The choice is yours to make.

4. Electric guitar

The pickup is more important than the wood you’re going to choose. But the latter still has a role to play in the sound. Make sure you give it a thought before you buy any components.

4.1 Top

The guitar top is 50% of the time the same wood as the body. So… What about the rest? Let’s see what we have (from left to right):

  • Maple (here: Bird’s Eye Maple): the Strats’ choice. 75% of the time, the Stratocaster’s top is the same as the body. But for the rest, maple is chosen. And sometimes, it’s also added to the Telecaster’s body.
  • Swamp Ash: a good ol’ wood. This kind of wood comes from South America, where the trees have their roots under water. It was on a lot of Telecasters in the 50’s. Often used along with an ash body.

On archtop guitars, it’s not rare to see a top made of sitka spruce as an alternative to maple. But the latter remains the common choice made by manufacturers.

4.2. Body and neck.

Every piece of wood is different, even for the same type, cut nearly at the same place. Before buying a guitar, it’s good to see if the wood is of quality. Knock on it and check the resonance. If it sounds deaf, try another guitar. That said, let’s see the common neck and body woods used for the electric guitar(from left to right and top to bottom):

  • Alder (Red Alder): it’s clearly the preferred wood Fender uses for Stratocasters’ and even Telecasters’ bodies (it surpassed swamp ash over time).
  • Mahogany (Honduran mahogany): Les Paul’s favorite. Also used on Stratocasters and other guitars, it’s certainly on a Les Paul’s body and neck (Gibson, Epiphone and other copies) that mahogany is dominant.
  • Basswood (American Basswood): the cheap alternative Alder is quite expensive. Basswood is a great choice in case you cannot afford Alder or any exotic wood of your choice. Jackson employs this wood often.
  • Maple (here: Flamed Maple): a neck wood. This is the wood for Strats’ and Tele’s guitar necks. Sometimes, you even find a combination of walnut and maple. It’s also quite loved for archtop guitars along with mahogany.

5. Fretboard

Now, let’s see the kinds of wood used for both acoustic and electric guitars fingerboard:

  • Rosewood: this is clearly the most popular guitar wood here. Classical, steel-string, Strat’, Les Paul… You will find mostly rosewood on their fretboard.
  • Maple: as usual, Stratocasters and Telecasters employ this type of wood. Rarely used otherwise.
Gaboon Ebony
Gaboon Ebony
  • Ebony (Gaboon Ebony): this wood tends to be the luxury choice for any guitar players. It has grown very rare, and now, the only place we can find it is in Cameroon (except for the stock left in other countries).

Ebony on fretboards used to be jet black, and it was loved for that. Bob Taylor made the recent decision to use all the wood from the trees sown. Now you won’t find any newly made guitar with entirely black fretboards.

However, it’s still a great wood for fingerboards, certainly the best. But it comes with the price.

6. Conclusion

So what’s next? Depending on what your intentions were before coming up here, I hope I assisted you and helped you find the answer to your questions. 

Of course there are many other woods you can encounter or use on a guitar. This guitar tonewoods guide was created in order to give you an overview of the most popular woods you can come across on that instrument.

Do you want a more detailed list of guitar woods? There you go.

And because it’s a controversial subject, I would like to know if you think that tonewood affects the guitar tone. Here’s a video to warm you up (or cool you down, depending on what you think):

Any other question? Let me know in the comments below.

Peace! ✌

8 comments

  1. A very interesting post. I have a Son who plays a little bit on the guitar. I’ll be sure to direct him to this site as i’m certain he’ll learn a lot here.

  2. I really do not know much about guitars and especially the different tonewoods. I did not know that the tonewood you use could change the sound. There a lot of different tonewoods to choose from and you did a good job of explaining all of them. Thanks for the post.

    1. Hi Logan, yes, but it’s actually not the only factor, the shape, the strings, and the size can also modify the sound. Thanks for the comment!

  3. In your opinion, for sustain is Mahogany the best wood for the body of the guitar? I believe my Gibson SG is made of this wood. I don’t know what my Mexican Strat is made of because the body is Blue. I am curious, can the Flamed Maple be glued to the top of the body, more for appearance than structure? Hey thank you for this great article.

    1. Hi Kenneth, thanks for your comment!

      Any hard wood helps for sustaining the sound of your guitar. Mahogany is a great wood for sustain, and I have no doubt your Gibson is made of it. Yes, of course, you can glue the Flamed Maple top to the body, a Titebond Yellow would be nice for that kind of operation.

      It would naturally change the appearance, but it would also modify the sound of the guitar. I hope I helped you with your question.

  4. Hi Ben,

    Very informative piece on guitar body wood. I’ve always heard that for electric hardwood bodies, mahogany has always been the most revered. I had a friend who had a stratocaster delux and it had such a full rich thick natural tone. He told me that the body wood comes from a rare tree that grows in the Philippines. I remember hearing years ago that, George Lynch (guitar wiz from the band Dokken) when shopping for a guitar would first play it unplugged to check out the natural accoustics first and foremost. Makes sense.

    Thanks for this, Brad

    1. Hi Brad, thanks for your comment! That’s a great insight from George Lynch, and a good advice for anyone looking for a nice-sounding guitar. It’s true that Mahogany is extremely popular among guitars. Certainly due the wood’s workability and the tone you will get from it.

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