You see it all the time when shopping for an acoustic guitar: Sitka spruce top, mahogany back and sides, rosewood bridge, this wood, that wood, another wood. All very impressive, but what does it mean? Most of us aren’t wood experts, so what exactly do different woods have to do with the sound of an acoustic guitar? A great deal, actually. The woods used to build guitars—acoustic guitars in particular—are called tonewoods, and they have enormous effects on the sound and price of an instrument. Various woods have distinct sound qualities, especially when used for the top of an acoustic guitar, which is the most important wooden tonal element of the instrument. You’re not going to be tested, but here are the ABCs of tonewoods — various woods and the sound qualities they’re noted for: Mahogany
As a guitar top, dense mahogany has a solid, punchy tone with low overtone content and good high-end response. Mahogany back and sides often emphasize bass and treble, with more overtone coloration and a “woody” sound (as opposed to the more metallic sound of, say, rosewood back and sides). Though it's probably more commonly used as a tonewood for guitar backs and sides, mahogany is occasionally used as a top material, too. Mahogany is a dense wood, with a dark finish, and close grain. Tonally, it has far warmer, darker tone than both Cedar and Spruce. As a material for back and sides, mahogany’s density can add great ‘punch’ and projection, adding warmth, but with definition, and a ‘woody’ character. The combination of spruce and mahogany and spruce is one of the most popular, because it offers a tone that very balanced, but versatile, lending itself very well to most musical styles. Maple
A heavier, flat-sounding and often beautiful wood of which there are several species, maple is used in acoustic guitars because of its sonically “transparent” qualities, which let the tonal character of the top ring through without significant tone coloration from the back and sides. Though far less common as a tonewood, Maple nonetheless features on some of the most popular acoustic guitars ever made (the Gibson J-200, for example). One of the hardest and most dense tonewood varieties, maple produces a bright sounding tone alongside great projection and excellent note definition. All maple acoustic guitars, and maple tops are not common, but maple back and sides are more so, often adding greater power and mid-range to a more typical top material. The dramatic figuring can also add a stunning aesthetic touch to a guitar, too. Sitka Spruce
Spruce is the most popular wood used for guitar tops, and recognisable by its pale colour and (usually) understated figuring. The reason for its popularity is because it has a tone that makes it a very good ‘all-rounder’. Sweet, and smooth, but not outrageously bright, yet with enough warmth such that it doesn’t sound thin, Spruce sounds good when combined with just about any other tonewood. In addition, it also has pretty good projection and volume to boot. Spruce is a common species of wood, adding to its guitar material credentials. Sitka spruce is the most commonly found type, with grain varieties such as ‘bear claw’ adding to the aesthetic appeal. Sitka is characterised by is clear fundamental harmonics. Engelmann spruce is typically from North America, and has a warmer, creamier tone than Sitka. Adirondack is a lesser-used type of Spruce, with a louder and brasher tone. Red Spruce
Highly desirable for steel-string acoustic tops because of its rich, full, clear and loud tonal quality. Brazilian Rosewood
Strong and clear at the low end, rich and sparkly at the top end, with a reverberant quality. As one of the most expensive tonewood varieties, Rosewood has a lot to live up to. However, with its smooth, warm tone, with complex harmonic overtones. Visually, Rosewood is typically a dark, chocolate brown in colour, with a widely banded dark grain, and is generally used as a material for the back and sides of a guitar body. Combined with a Spruce top, Rosewood provides an incredibly balanced and versatile palette of tones. Indian Rosewood is one of the most desirable (and expensive) tonewoods, with warm, but singing harmonics. Brazilian Rosewood has a slightly brighter, less complex tone, with a defined low-end Indian Rosewood
Very similar to the Brazilian variety, but with thicker, more midrange-y tonality. Koa
A dense hardwood that, when used for guitar tops, produces solid tone, particularly at the high end, with pronounced midrange-y quality. Used for back and sides, koa’s tonality resembles mahogany.