Every guitarist knows that their prized instrument is more than just the sum of its parts: a quality instrument has a unique feel and voice that only become easier to distinguish the more it is played. But having said that, every single part of the instrument makes a difference to the sound, from the gauge of the strings to the protective layers of lacquer applied to the finished instrument. Even the materials used to make the nut and saddle will have some impact on the tone.
A sound investment
But what mostly calls the tune of course, are the woods that the luthier selected to build the body, neck and head of the instrument. And, as Antonio de Torres proved more than 150 years ago when he made his famous papier-maché guitar, this is especially true of the soundboard. Also of note of course, is how long these woods have been cut, dried and allowed to age in the workshop. This explains why the best names in Spanish guitar manufacturing all date back several decades; these dynasties can boast stockpiles of precious woods inherited from previous generations, just waiting to be put to good use.
The woods used to build guitars and other musical instruments are known as tonewoods and as the term suggests, each of these has specific acoustic qualities. One of the first steps in a luthier’s training is learning about the woods used to construct each part of the instrument in order to carefully select the optimal materials for the classical guitar, flamenco guitar or acoustic guitar.
Can’t see the wood for the trees?
Although we wouldn’t question the musical talent or creativity of any of our clients here at GFS, from student players to concert guitarists, we imagine that many of you are not experts in tonewoods. So, to help you navigate your way around the technical sheets that describe every instrument on our website, we’re going to take a look at a few representative models, and explain the qualities of the woods used to build them.
Top: Solid spruce
A spruce top is suited to many genres of music, as it produces a broad dynamic range, but it is particularly responsive to finger picking, making it an ideal wood for the soundboard of a flamenco instrument. The tonal attributes of spruce include a breathtaking openness and purity of sound, as well as a powerful and rich sonority and a lovely balance of tone.
Top: Solid red cedar
With a light weight and flawless uniform grain, cedar produces a warmer, darker and more mellow sound than spruce, as well as a quicker response time. Delivers brilliant, complex, yet balanced tones, but doesn’t drive the intensity of volume of a spruce top. The stability and close grain of this tonewood enable the guitarist to tune the instrument with precision.
Back and sides: Solid cypress
A solid cypress back and sides offer an intense, penetrating and percussive Spanish punch, which is why this wood is such a popular choice in flamenco guitars. A growling rasp of tone only adds to the appeal.
Prized for its beauty, ebony offers great sustain and projection. It is hard, dense and warp-resistant, making it an optimal choice for a fingerboard. The tight grains of the wood enhance playability.
Back and sides: Indian rosewood
Indian rosewood is characterized by a deep, throaty and warm sound. Valued for its density and durability, this tonewood produces a clear voice and balanced tones. Additionally, the beautiful dark chocolate colour of this wood and lovely contrasting wood grain pair extraordinarily well with a cedar or spruce top.
Neck: African mahogany
African mahogany is a highly sustainable tonewood, and ideal for the construction of the guitar’s neck, as it is strong and stable, with a uniform density. Produces a deep projecting sound with a lot of character. Has a clear top range and responds well to finger-style playing.
And finally… Wood you believe it?
- Top: Solid Canadian cedar and solid spruce
Looking at this state-of-the-art model, with its futuristic sound hole, it’s difficult to believe the woods used to build it were sourced by Manuel Rodriguez’s grandfather way back in the 1930s. The choice of both cedar and spruce for the soundboard is purely aesthetic, but that doesn’t mean the Cafe Olé is all sound and no fury: with an ebony fingerboard, cedar neck, and additional sound port on the upper Indian rosewood right side, this instrument is not only one of a kind – it never sounds a false note.