Types of Guitar Woods (Tonewoods) and Components: A Basic Explanation Guide

Types of Guitar Woods (Tonewoods) and Components: A Basic Explanation Guide

We here at Rockin' Instruments like to think of ourselves as the no-judgement zone of the musical instrument space, realizing that none of us was born with every piece of guitar knowledge in our brain or play like Steve Vai right out of the case.  Alas our fellow musician enthusiasts, we want to provide a place for all to feel comfortable and confident in buying decisions. 

One of the most common FAQ topics we get here, and virtually every guitar dealer or manufacturer out there, is about guitar wood. When anyone first sees the term 'Ovangkol', ourselves included, we wondered how the heck to pronounce it (that would be: oh-van-gual), let alone know the use in a guitar. 

So here are some of the most commonly used guitar wood definitions and how it impacts playing or the guitar itself (based on many writers on the subject):

 

Abalone (for decorative inlays): 

Definition: "an edible mollusk of warm seas, with a shallow ear-shaped shell lined with mother-of-pearl and pierced with a line of respiratory holes."

  • Much like a sea shell kaleidoscope with incredible pearl-like gloss sheen used as almost an ‘accessory’ on your guitar as an inlay.

Example:

https://rockininstruments.com/products/washburn-bella-tono-elegante-s24s-studio-acoustic-guitar?_pos=1&_sid=85df03c6e&_ss=r

 

Acacia (Blackwood)

Definition: “Acacia, commonly known as the wattles or acacias, is a large genus of shrubs and trees in the subfamily Mimosoideae of the pea family Fabaceae. Initially, it comprised a group of plant species native to Africa and Australia.”

  • Contrary to its name, Acacia is neither black or even a dark wood.  It is however, a beautiful, less expensive comparable wood to Koa, with a bit more of a 'dry' sound. 

Example:

https://rockininstruments.com/products/hilo-ukulele-2953-premier-series-acacia-soprano?_pos=1&_sid=0ff1b9f87&_ss=r

 

Agathis

Definition: "a small genus of evergreen trees (family Araucariaceae) chiefly of Australasia and the Philippines that are distinguished from members of the genus Araucaria by having larger leaves with flat stalks and the seed free from the cone scale and are valued for their wood and fragrant resins".

  • The "hated" wood of grand luthiers and guitar wood gods for its softness and cheapness; however, like pine, it does have tonal properties that can be brought out according to the other components of the guitar. 
  • Depending on who you ask it can be neutral sounding and unless you are thrashing your guitar everywhere, it can be good lower priced option for a guitar. If you are an active gigging performer, this is not the guitar wood for you. 

 

Example:

https://rockininstruments.com/products/washburn-nuno-bettancourt-n2-padauk-stain-w-bag?_pos=1&_sid=0147aa8de&_ss=r

 

Alder

Definition: "any of a genus (Alnus) of toothed-leaved trees or shrubs of the birch family that have catkins which become woody, that typically grow in cool moist ground, and that have wood used especially in turnery". 

  • Alder has been a common body wood for electric Fender guitars and will probably become more so now (2020) that Ash wood is ever increasingly scarce.  Red alder remains a more common choice for US guitar production with sources along the California coast. It is a harder wood that usually will  produce strong, clear, full-bodied sound, with beefy mid range and excellent lows. 

Example:

https://rockininstruments.com/products/washburn-nuno-bettencourt-n4-authentic-usa-distressed-matte?_pos=4&_sid=430f4a86b&_ss=r

  

Ash:

  • Ash is tough hardwood that is also known for its flexibility. This makes it a popular choice for furniture that requires curves. It comes from the family of trees known as Oleaceae – the olive tree family. Ashwood is one of the more durable varieties of wood, right behind maple and white oak as popular choices. The term “Swamp Ash” (soft ash) does not refer to any particular species of ash (Fraxinus genus), but is generally used by luthiers to describe lightweight wood yielded from ash trees which are usually found in wet or swampy areas producing warmer tones.
  • Japanese Ash (or Tamo Ash): One of the most rare and beautiful hardwoods. On the more expensive side of woods, it does produce some of the best bright highs, good bass and great sustain. Ash is becoming rarer so if you have a chance to score a great ash body guitar, it's only our opinion, but it just may increase in value over time just that much more. 

Example:

https://rockininstruments.com/products/warwick-rockbass-corvette-5-string-burgundy-red-transparent-satin?_pos=2&_sid=77e21c4af&_ss=r

 

Basswood (pronounced like the fish not the guitar) aka Lindin wood

Definition: "soft light-colored wood of any of various linden trees; used in making crates and boxes and in carving and millwork".

  • The wood is light and soft with generally low strength properties and a poor steam-bending classification. However, the solid basswood bodies can have a balanced tonality with subjective warmth in the tones versus bright. Basswood can 'dent' easily. A well-made guitar though that uses basswood can yield full-bodied sounding and good dynamics. 

Example:

https://rockininstruments.com/products/washburn-idol-t160-duncan-designed-stacked-tele-electric-guitar-gloss-black?_pos=5&_sid=0fe427363&_ss=r

Carolena

  • primarily found in certain Warwick bass guitars, the term refers to the wood industry term "Carolina Pine" or Yellow or Red Pine, which refers to longleaf pine grown in the rolling sand hills of the Piedmont traversing North and South Carolina. Although botanically classified as a softwood, you'll find longleaf pine to be quite a hard wood. It is also similar to Oregon Pine (Douglas Fir). The different colors of the rings give it a distinct decorative pattern.  

 Catalpa

  • It's very light and soft for a hardwood, but it is still durable, stable, rot resistant and has a nice grain. It is indigenous to the United States, very resonant, responsive has clear fundamentals and crystalline trebles.  

Example:

https://rockininstruments.com/products/washburn-festival-ea15atb-mini-jumbo-cutaway-acoustic-electric-guitar?_pos=2&_sid=cb1eb7f70&_ss=r

 

Cocobolo 

  • "Cocobolo is an exotic wood native to Mexico, Panama, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua, and is favored for custom pool cues, fine furniture and cabinetry, inlays, and musical instruments. The wood is very durable and strong, with a fine texture. It is extremely beautiful, ranging in color from dark red to reddish brown, with an irregular grain pattern. Cocobolo has fantastic working characteristics, making it a favorite for turning and carving, and finishes very smoothly."

 

European Spruce

  • The European Spruce is one of the top perfected wood for guitars as it's lightweight and stiff which is important to, particularly, classical guitar. It is a wood that stands the test of time, produces the best of tones.

Example:

https://rockininstruments.com/products/washburn-florentine-cutaway-mandolin?_pos=3&_sid=73d74770f&_ss=r

 

Flame Maple

  • A variation of pattern (not the grain) of maple, the flame maple (also known as curly, ripple, fiddleback or tiger stripeor flamed maple), in which the growth of the  fibers is distorted produce twisted lines that look like flames, and they way the light hits it gives it a 3-D effect. Because of it's gorgeous look it is commonly used in fine furniture and musical instruments, such as violins, guitars, and bassoons. Gibson's Les Paul's are one of the most famous guitars that are flame maple and the wood itself is thought to produce a bright, shimmering sound, due to its rigidity and reflection against sound waves. 

Example:

https://rockininstruments.com/products/hamer-electric-guitar?_pos=3&_sid=716f7a66a&_ss=r

 

Japanese Sen

  • Sen is a very popular wood and veneer in Japan and IS different than Japenese Ash as it comes from a different species of woods known as Acanthopanax ricinifolius of the Family Araliaceae.  Some guitarist say the tone is somewhat between an ash and alder body. It was used in the Ibanez Destroyer of the 70's.

Koa

  • Koa wood guitars tend to have brighter tone at first and do require some 'playing in'. The more they are played the warmer, rich and resonant the tone becomes. For those of you who are undecided between a maple or rosewood acoustic, you may want to choose Koa as a happy medium to both. 

Example:

https://rockininstruments.com/products/washburn-wcg55ce-comfort-acoustic-electric-guitar-with-hardshell-case?_pos=2&_sid=fdc343b41&_ss=r

 

Korina

  • The Korina (also known as white limba) wood's origins are in Africa.It is a mid-weight wood.  The wood is more common to electric guitars to be a choice, like that of the original Flying V's. Similar to mahogany in regards to weight and tone, but it's is more abundant making for an environmentally conscious option.  Ultimately, its balanced, warm tonal spectrum has a slightly more pronounced mid-range and distinct treble and bass. 

 

Mahogany

  • Mahogany has been a revered hardwood in fine furniture forever, but is sometimes up for debate in the guitar world. It is a common wood for Acoustic guitars and for Gibson's electric guitars; and some might say because of it's bountiful resources and properties, mahogany is mostly good for low level instruments. However, the likes of Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Beatles and Bob Marley may have disagreed based on their mahogany guitar choices in the past. Less expensive than Rosewood, it is still a resilient wood that resists decay and can remain in your family for generations. The reason that mahogany is used in both acoustic and electric guitars is because although the tones can be warm and soft, there is also the flip side of that depth that is balanced out with grit and sharpness.  

Example:

https://rockininstruments.com/products/washburn-wcg15sce12-12-string-acoustic-electric-guitar?_pos=4&_sid=64651d81f&_ss=r


Ovangkol (usually used for the fingerboard) 

  • The dense wood of the African evergreen tree; The wood has a medium texture and features very small pores. Ovangkol's grain is typically straight but may be slightly interlocking. Ovangkol is very dense, with a weight of 53 pounds per cubic foot. It is considered moderately durable and is resistant to insects. It is, however, relatively soft: the wood's Janka hardness rating of 710 is comparable to that of sycamore and several species of yellow pine. Deep bass and articulate treble, but with added mid-range fullness. 

Example:

https://rockininstruments.com/products/washburn-hd30sce-o-u?_pos=3&_sid=71afd693f&_ss=r

 

Okoume 

  • Okoume is a little misleading, it's is a hardwood with soft properties found in Africa.  However, in terms of common use and particularly with guitars, is it often pressed into plywood and used for veneers or neck wood.

Example:

https://rockininstruments.com/products/washburn-vintage-p33s-royal-sapphire-parlor-acoustic-guitar-gloss-natural-with-royal-sapphire-back?_pos=1&_sid=9d7b8eb5c&_ss=r

  

Pau Ferro (Bolivian Rosewood, Santos Rosewood,Morado)

  • A South American beautiful and dense exotic wood which hails a high luster finish. It tends to be Fender's choice for fingerboards, especially since Rosewood became off limits since is produces a crisp and clear sound. Washburn also incorporates it as a back and/or sides in many models primarily for its beauty. It is not common at all, but for some people it can be an allergen, so it would be wise if you have wood allergies to ask about it.

Example:

https://rockininstruments.com/products/washburn-hd20sce-heritage-acoustic-electric-guitar?_pos=1&_sid=dbc1db564&_ss=r

 

Quilted Maple

Definition: “Quilt or quilted maple refers to a type of figure in maple wood. It is seen on the tangential plane (flat-sawn) and looks like a wavy "quilted" pattern, often similar to ripples on water. The highest quality quilted figure is found in the Western Big Leaf species of maple.”

  • Mostly prized for its beauty for the backs of guitars.

Example:

https://rockininstruments.com/products/washburn-michael-sweet-j40sce-acoustic-guitar?_pos=1&_sid=f93674e07&_ss=r

 

Rosewood

  • Ahhh, the royalty of the guitar woods. Rosewood (Brazilian Rosewood) is divine in scent and is a strong, medium density wood that has a natural oil finish that resonates tones fit for a King and Queen.  It became an Endangered Species back in 2017 and although CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) lifted, in November of 2019, some restrictions of travelling with such a wood guitar, the policy still restricts the ability for this to be a wood used as this point. 

  

Sapele

  • Definition: “Sapele is an African Redwood with some similarities to African Mahogany. Sapele tone is very similar to Mahogany it has a warm, rich, and wood tone. Sapele is valued because of its figuring and stripes that really stand out when finished.”

Example:

https://rockininstruments.com/products/lag-tramontane-t70dce-dreadnought-acoustic-electric-guitar?_pos=3&_sid=18b03966a&_ss=r

 

Sitka Spruce (one of the most commonly top woods used for Acoustic Guitars):

  • Definition: "a spruce, of western North America, having long, silvery-white needles, grown as an ornamental. The soft, pale-brown wood of this tree, used for making furniture and in the construction of houses" Improves and  darkens with age. Not as dark tonality or cost as Mahagony, the Sitka Spruce tends to be a somewhat bright topwood that is more along of expected tones to a regular player. 
  • Bearclaw - a visual variation with "bearclaw" like marks that go against the grain. This gives the soundboard an especially distinctive appearance. It is an preference that impacts looks only, not the tone. 
  • Solid - usually termed as Solid Sitka Spruce Top and that means  means the guitar is made with one board for the sound board.
  • Sawn/Quarter Sawn: High quality Sitka spruce can be sawed, glued and tapered with a rounded shape to maintain a full body in the mid-section while reducing thickness along the sides. This gives the soundboard more flexibility than other materials offer, along with the added bonus of allowing it to vibrate freely in a way that’s most pleasing to the ear.

Example:

https://rockininstruments.com/products/washburn-comfort-wcg20sce-6-string-with-ergonomic-arm-rest-solid-spruce-top?_pos=1&_sid=654280b94&_ss=r



Spalted Maple

  • This is actually a fungal discoloration (black striping called 'zone lines') caused by partially decayed (spalting) maple (most common) wood that produces an amazing color contrast design, think of marble. For guitars it is typically used as a veneer with a mahogany body. "It's going to help create really tight lows and crystal clear highs, adding a nice level of clarity to the ends of the tonal spectrum and extend your instruments dynamic range. It pairs well with a mahogany body that is balanced and produces more mid-range. The one advantage you may find in spalted maple is greater sustain. The dryer the wood, the more resonant the tone, and because spalted wood has higher moisture content the drying process is much longer and more rigorous than standard maple, often creating a more complex top end and elongated sustain."

Example:

https://rockininstruments.com/products/hilo-2957-a-u-premier-series-ukulel?_pos=2&_sid=5a189dd81&_ss=r

 

Striped Ebony (Macassar Ebony)

  • Extremely dense hard wood. The tones warm up and become richer the more the instrument is played. L"lo-fi" vibe. Also, a gorgeous aesthetic look on the back side of guitars like the Washburn Heritage Elite HD80 acoustic.

Example:

https://rockininstruments.com/products/washburn-heritage-elite-hd80-acoustic-guitar-natural-striped-ebony?_pos=3&_sid=4a990618b&_ss=r

 

Western Red Cedar

  • Indigenous to the Norwest regions of the United States and Canada. It is light weight, with a strong and tight uniform grain. Some people find it faster to break in than let’s say a Spruce. It tends over time to produce warmer tones and has become a choice wood for classical and finger style guitars.

Example:

https://rockininstruments.com/products/lag-t118asce-brs-tramontane-auditorium-acoustic-electric-guitar?_pos=3&_sid=2ca2e3d4b&_ss=r

 

Wendge

Definition per Wikipedia - “Wenge (/ˈwɛŋɡeɪ/ WENG) is a tropical timber, very dark in color with a distinctive figure and a strong partridge wood pattern. The wood is heavy and hard, suitable for flooring and staircases.

Several musical instrument makers employ wenge in their products. Mosrite used it for bodies of their Brass Rail models. Ibanez and Cort use it for the five-piece necks of some of their electric basses. Warwick electric basses use FSC sourced wenge for fingerboards and necks as of 2013. Conklin Guitars and Basses makes use of wenge for bodies, fingerboards and necks. Crush drums use it on their limited reserve wenge drum kit. It is also used by Yamaha as the center ply of their Absolute Hybrid Maple drums.

The wood is popular in segmented woodturning because of its dimensional stability and color contrast when mixed with lighter woods such as maple. This makes it especially sought after in the manufacture of high-end wood canes and chess boards. The wood is sometimes used in the making of archery bows, particularly as a laminate in the production of flatbows. It can also be used in the making of rails or pin blocks on hammered dulcimers.”

 

Walnut 

Walnut is a resilient wood somewhere between a rosewood and a mahogany. Primarily used for back and sides or with a combination with cedar, it’s density and grain structure can also be found similar to Koa wood. It is a smooth tonal wood leaning toward a brighter tone, but with a great sound balance.

Example:

https://rockininstruments.com/products/washburn-bella-tono-s9-studio-9-charcoal?_pos=1&_sid=b77f08f4e&_ss=r

 

 

BONUS WORD: Purfling

“Purfling is a narrow decorative edge inlaid into the top plate and often the back plate of a stringed instrument. Inexpensive instruments may have no purfling and instead simulate the appearance with paint. Purfling was originally made of laminated strips of wood, often contrasting in color as a visual accent.”- Wikipedia