Wood Eye? Big Ears
The joke, of course, goes something like this.
A man loses an eye and can’t afford a realistic
glass replacement, so he gets a wooden eye
and becomes self-conscious and defensive.
One day while riding the bus, a woman with
really large ears gets on. He asks her if she
would like the open seat next to him. With
excited appreciation, she responds, “Would
I!” Thinking she’s making fun of him, the
offended man counters with “Big Ears!”
The process of building an acoustic guitar is
amazing. When choosing a type of wood for
guitar, many factors come into play, but what
the wood looks like is certainly the first indication of the quality. This is where the mysterious journey of creating a guitar begins,
eventually ending with thin pieces of these
select woods held together with glue, making
for a beautiful sound. The guys that do this
well have a wood eye and big ears!
I’ve had a number of firsthand experiences
with high quality acoustic guitars that are as
unique as their owners. The mind blower is
the various types of wood that are used and
the wide variety of sounds that are produced.
There are some generalizations that are commonly accepted about wood varieties and I
would like to share some with you.
Let’s start with mahogany. It is the most
commonly used hardwood for guitar backs
and sides because it’s relatively economical,
durable, attractive, easy to work with and
resonant. Mahogany is also known for its
fast response and good balance, and is the
most stable wood used for backs and sides.
Mahogany is also used for necks because it
is stable, strong and lighter in weight. Most
hardwoods fall somewhere between rosewood and mahogany both in density and
predictability of tone.
Rosewood is one of the most dense and
heavy woods. You will commonly see Indian
rosewood in modern acoustics, but there are
still rare pieces of Brazilian rosewood floating
around. Brazilian rosewood guitars typically
sell for higher prices and are known for a
sweeter, fuller, and more even sound. Lately,
Madagascar rosewood is turning up more and
more, often being touted as the new Brazilian.
It is generally considered that the darker the
rosewood, the denser it is and the more it will
emphasize bass. Cocobolo resembles Brazilian
rosewood, but is somewhat heavier, harder to
Walnut falls into the same category as mahogany, producing a mellow instrument with dark,
eye-catching grain. Walnut is a naturally pleasant sounding wood whose tone markedly
deepens with age. Like maple, it is also stable
enough to use in guitar necks.
Maple seems to live in a world of its own. It
makes for a great sounding guitar with good
projection and generally has a bright, fast and
balanced tone. Maple is favored in the construction of jazz guitars because of its bright,
dry and precise tone. As I mentioned, it is also
commonly used for guitar necks.
Koa is a gorgeous wood with well defined
curly and flamed grain patterns as found in
instrument quality maple. It falls in the middle of the tonal spectrum, giving the instrument a brightness of tone without sacrificing
warmth. It is slightly less round in tone than
Spruce tops are the standard for acoustic guitars. The primary reason for this is
because spruce is number one on the list of
strength-to-weight ratios for all the woods
in the world. A wide grained top will tend to
produce stronger bass response; a narrow
grained top will have comparatively stronger treble and more subtle bass. That said,
spruce has a number of varieties, each with
its own tonal signature. Sitka spruce produces
clear highs; Engelmann spruce is more brilliant in tone, but still produces a balanced
instrument and can be built to produce more
depth in the bass register; European spruce
tends to produce more intense highs with
Several other woods are used for guitar tops.
Western red cedar produces a more open
sounding guitar from the start; there is some
question about its longevity and durability
for steel string use, but it produces a high
quality classical guitar. Cedar and redwood
are immediately usable, whereas spruce can
take a year of regular playing to really open
up. Redwood sounds much the same as
cedar, although it is darker in color and not
well suited for use on a steel string guitar.
It does make an excellent top on a classical
guitar and may be used on small-bodied steel
strings with light gauge strings.
The next time you are in a guitar store, take
some time to check out the woods. Look at
the grains, the way the wood is cut, and try
to imagine the journey from raw wood to
refined musical instrument. The truly remarkable result and the joy that comes from these
creations are worth the reflection. And as
bizarre as this sounds, I hope you all get a
wood eye and big ears!
Rick Wheeler currently works as Larry Carlton’s guitar
tech and front of house engineer. He is also an accom-
plished jazz guitarist, vocalist, and educator.
You can contact Rick at firstname.lastname@example.org