Understanding Tonewoods-

When it comes to Solid body Electric Guitars, the wood that is used for their construction has varied over the years. These variances have been both experimental and economical in drive. But when it is all said and done, there seems to be some consensus.

By far the most popular is Mahogany, then Alder and Ash, but there are many other woods that share some of the same characteristics and tonal properties of the common woods used. One of my favorite woods to use for my ecoAxe™ is Poplar. Poplar is similar in weight to Alder and has very close tonal properties. One of the upsides of this wood as a tonewood choice is the price and it’s sustainability. Due to the fact that poplar is not as common as Alder, it is easy to obtain in the dimensions suitable for guitar construction. Poplar is a rapid growth species so it is easy to grow and harvest responsibly.

Another tonewood I use regularly is Limba or Korina. As a tonewood, Korina is very similar to Mahogany in weight and tone. Of the two varieties, I really like the White Limba. White Limba takes a finish very well and looks fantastic with my “Smokey-Ember” finish. Limba is a bit more responsive with  super sweet mid’s.

So lets take a quick look at the most common tonewoods I use in my shop. I’ll give you a brief description of the weight and a tonal comparisons.

  • Mahogany – Characteristics are a fine open grain and very dense. An average sized guitar body will weigh over 5 lbs so this is not the lightest material out there. But the tonal properties outweigh the cumbersome weight. The Low frequency response is good, with a somewhat compressed midrange and a low mid accentuation, as well as the upper mid’s a mahogany body will produce a guitar that has a “Punchy” tone. Great for Rock, Blues and Alternative.
  • Alder – Average guitar body style weight  is about 4 lbs. Alder tends to have a fairly balanced resonance that trends towards the mid-range. This helps out with the clarity and in providing a good dynamic range. Alder has been a very popular choice over the years for guitars that are generally used to play Blues and Rock. However, being an extremely sonically flexible choice, alder is a good choice for an all-around instrument.
  • Ash – There are two varieties of ash that are common to guitar building. The first is Southern Swamp Ash. Characteristics are light weight and bright tone. Plenty of warmth with loads of dynamics. Average weight of a standard sized body is approximately 5 lbs. The second and less commonly used is the Northern Ash. Often referred to as Baseball Bat Ash, is hard, heavy and dense. This will produce a bright sounding guitar weighing about 5 lbs with plenty of sustain.
  • Basswood – This wood is an extremely light weight material, under 4 lbs for a standard sized body. Basswood however, is somewhat weak as far as support for Tremolo posts or studs. there needs to be design considerations to allow enough material for support in the case of heavy tremolo use. This material is not my favorite but is a popular choice of the overseas mass produced models due to it’s being soft, tools tend to last much longer.
  • Korina or (Limba) – This is one of my favorite tonewoods to use in my custom projects. The tone is similar to that of Mahogany but with a much sweeter midrange response. Limba is not quite as dense as mahogany making it a great choice for an average sized body. Add a maple neck and you have one of our favorite combination here at Casper Guitar Technologies.
  • Poplar – Here is my go to material for the FSC Axes I build. Poplar is a rapid growth wood that is easily sustainable. Tonal response is very close to that of both Alder and Ash. The biggest issue with poplar is the green gray grain and wide patterns. Poplar is not very well suited to be finished with a transparent finish. Opaque finishes should be the choice on a poplar guitar. Once again, combined with a maple neck with any choice of fingerboard will produce a guitar that has a dynamic response and versatile tone characteristics.
  • Walnut – This is a material that is gaining some ground in the guitar industry due to it’s striking figuring. Tonally, walnut ads quite a bit of tonal variety. Providing the warm solid lows of Mahogany, the dynamic mid’s like Alder and the open grain finish options of Ash. A nice choice for a one of a kind custom guitar for an artist that requires a flexible Axe for live performances.

So, as you can see, there are plenty of options when it comes to just the tonewood that a guitar body is made from. I have left out several varieties due to their being the sonic equivalent of placing a wet bag over the guitar. Unfortunately, most of your overseas, mass produced guitars are made from such materials. There are also plenty of sites on the web that give a better description of the woods than I could. So, heads out and do some research. You will most likely be able to make a good decision on the tonewood to be used in your next custom project. And don’t forget. If you have a question for your builder, ask them. The listing here is only intended to be a partial one covering the most common woods I use in my shop and intentionally did not include the really exotic varieties used by some of the Boutique Guitar Builders.

If you have a species that I didn’t list here, let me know. I’ll look into the material and may even build a test body to do some experimenting.

~ by CGT - 0-Impact Guitars on August 10, 2010.

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