Guitarists can become bogged down in the smallest details when getting the best sound possible on their instruments. One of the most hotly contested factors of this debate is tonewood, as some guitarists insist that it deeply affects how an instrument sounds while others argue that it doesn’t matter at all. But does the kind of wood that your guitar is made of really affect the tone?
Guitar tonewood isn’t a myth, as the types of wood your guitar is made from will affect the sound of your instrument. Tonewood may not matter as much as pickups if you’re playing with an electric guitar. The best thing for a guitar’s tone is proper care and maintenance.
This article will help you determine fact from fiction when it comes to guitar tonewood. So let’s tone it down and get to work!
What Is Tonewood?
While it may sound like a technical term, “tonewood” refers to any wood type with properties conducive to producing sound. Any guitar made of wood (that is, most of them) is made of tonewood.
The wood used for building guitars is chosen for its attractiveness and durability, in addition to its tonal qualities. Not all guitars are made of the same kinds of wood, leading to slight differences in each guitar’s sounds.
Does Tonewood Matter?
There are many qualities of tonewoods that influence the way it sounds:
- Density: The mass per volume of the wood.
- Hardness: The wood’s resistance to wear & tear.
- Flexural Rigidity: The wood’s resistance to bending.
- Compressive Strength: The capacity to resist being pushed together.
- Shrinkage or Stability: How much the wood changes with humidity.
The variations in the types of wood that give them different aesthetic qualities also cause sound to resonate differently. This study in the American Journal of Botany goes into further scientific detail as to the use of tonewood.
When Tonewood Doesn’t Make a Difference
Though tonewood can have a surprising effect on acoustic guitars, tonewoods don’t make much of a difference in the way that electrics sound. Electric guitars’ noise comes from magnetic pickups and an amplifier rather than a hollow, resonant body, so the type of wood that the guitar is made from won’t truly impact it.
Even the difference tonewood makes in acoustic guitars is relatively minimal, depending on the style of guitar you play. Guitarists who play mostly pop and rock guitar, with open and power chords, may not find a meaningful difference in the different sounds tonewoods can produce. Classical and jazz guitarists, on the other hand, may have strong preferences towards certain tonewoods.
This video outlines why electric guitars aren’t as dependent on tonewood as acoustics:
Types of Tonewoods Used for Acoustic Guitars
When building a guitar, several pieces of wood are fitted together, which means that several different types of wood can be on the same guitar, leading to slightly different voicings between every acoustic.
Different kinds of wood will work better for different parts of the guitar, depending on their different properties.
Keep in mind that there are no hard and fast rules on what wood goes where, and some luthiers may have different preferences entirely. For a more comprehensive guide on this, visit The Acoustic Guitarist’s guide to acoustic tonewoods.
The body of an acoustic guitar is where the string’s vibrations resonate, which are then projected back as sound. The kind of wood used for the body will have an outsized effect on the guitar’s tone, such as:
- Maple: Favored on the bodies, necks, and sides of acoustic guitars for their strength and aesthetic value. Maples influence the tone of instruments significantly less than other tonewood.
- Mahogany: Known as a “soft” hardwood, mahogany emphasizes mid range tones that sound very neutral and woody. Mahogany is often used for furniture for its warm red appearance and is just as striking on a guitar.
- Walnut: Similar to mahogany in the midrange tones it produces, walnut provides a light, even sound that doesn’t emphasize one particular range.
Soundboard or Top Woods
The soundboard, or top, is the guitar’s “face,” and it’s the first thing onlookers will see, so it must look aesthetically pleasing, provide a sturdy base for the strings and bridge, and contribute to the tone. The two types of woods used for this part include:
- Spruce: The most common kind of wood used for top wood, as it’s widely available, works with many different kinds of guitars and offers a bright, articulate tone. There are numerous families of Spruce, each with slightly different effects on the tone.
- Cedar: A slightly softer wood than spruce and brings out a guitar’s delicate, lighter tones that make a noticeable difference in the tone of finger-style guitarists.
Fretboard & Neck Woods
For the fretboard of an instrument, you want woods that are conducive to sound and will not be degraded by your fingers’ oils, such as:
- Rosewood: Most common for fretboard necks, because it has an oilier quality than other woods, making it ideal for fretboards. Unfortunately, trees that supply rosewood are becoming endangered. The material has become difficult to import after a 2017 regulation from the Convention of International Trade of Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna.
- Ebony: Ebony is another wood with high oil levels, offering clear bass tones and a striking aesthetic appearance.
Many other kinds of wood are used for fretboards, including maple and walnut.
Other Ways To Improve Your Guitar’s Tone
If you want to get the best quality tone out of your acoustic guitar, there are ways to improve it without worrying about what your guitar is made of.
Oil your fretboard semi-regularly, depending on how frequently you play, and make repairs to your instrument quickly. A well-loved guitar will earn some scars, and letting them go untreated for too long will affect how the guitar sounds.
This MIFOGE Guitar Repairing Maintenance Tool Kit comes with ten luthier files, six bridge pins, a winder, an action ruler, and over forty other tools to help you keep your guitar in good shape.
You should also invest in quality conditioning oils for the guitar’s soundboard and fretboard, which are the parts that see the most wear and tear. The MusicNomad Premium Guitar Care Kit comes with oil for both of these and has over 500 five-star reviews.
Changing the Strings
The strings of both electric and acoustic guitars will have a major effect on the sound. After all, this is where the sound comes from! Whenever you oil your fretboard, you should also change your strings and vice versa.
These Ernie Ball Earthwood Phosphor Bronze Medium Light Strings come in a single-pack or a three-pack, so you’ll be able to keep your tone clear no matter how much you play.
A humidifier helps combat shrinkage in the guitar’s soundbox, allowing the vibrations to resonate better and prevents the guitar from cracking. This D’Addario Humidipak Automatic Humidity Control System maintains humidity relative to your environment, so you won’t over-humidify the guitar.
While tonewood affects acoustic guitars’ sound, proper care and maintenance have a much larger influence on the quality of sound than anything else. If you’re a classical or jazz player, knowing which tonewoods create different sounds can be very rewarding.
In the end, identifying the kind of wood your instrument is made of may just help you feel more familiar and comfortable with it. With this guide, you should be able to determine how much tonewoods matter to you and your playing.