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Peter Kun Frary, Professor of Music, UH Leeward
The woods used in the construction of musical instruments are called tone woods. The guitar's value and quality are strongly influenced by the manufacturer's choice of tone woods.
The soundboard is the most vital component because it vibrates to create the guitar's sonic personality. Soundboards in better guitars are made from solid spruce or cedar, soft woods that vibrate easily. As a solid wood soundboard is played over months, even years, it grows in beauty of tone and volume, i.e., it breaks in.
Veneer or ply soundboards are less resonate than solid wood and don't break in. However, veneer is considerably stronger than solid wood and thus makes a good choice for children or outdoor use. Moreover, a quality veneer top will sound better than a poorly made solid top. Nevertheless, design and construction quality being equal, solid wood sounds better than veneer.
Cedar Top Takamine ETN40C Cedar has straight grain and a medium brown color
Spruce Top Takamine EG511SSC Dreadnought Spruce has straight grain and a light yellow to amber color
Back & Sides
The back and sides, constructed of hardwood, provide structural support for the soundboard and neck. They also form a resonating chamber; that is, they amplify the sounds from the strings and soundboard. Rosewood is traditionally used for backs and sides.
Softer hardwoods such as nato, mahogany, walnut, koa and maple are excellent and are often less expensive than rosewood. These hardwoods are common on steel-string guitars whereas classical designs are predominately rosewood.
Hardwood veneers are often used in the back and sides of guitars costing under $1000. Hardwood veneers have 95% of the musical properties of solid hardwood but are stronger, less prone to cracking and relatively inexpensive. Nevertheless, if you can afford it, a well designed and constructed solid wood guitar offers the ultimate tone.
Back & Sides Takamine ENT40C NEX with Sapele back & sides. Sapele is a variety of farmed mahogany • Middle: Takamine EG544CK NEX with Hawaiian Koa back & sides • Bottom: Takamine EG128SC with Indian Rosewood back & sides.
Necks & Fingerboards
Necks are primarily constructed of mahogany, but other hardwoods such as maple or nato may be used. Fingerboards take a beating and thus are made from dense hardwoods such as ebony or rosewood. Ebony is preferred due to its durability and stiffness but is normally found in guitars costing over $1000, e.g., Hirade H5. Rosewood fingerboards are the norm in mid-priced instruments, e.g., Takamine C132S. Nato, veneer or soft woods are used in fingerboards of budget guitars.
Ebony Fingerboard • Takamine LTD2012C
Wood Choice Influences Sound
The choice of wood is not just about beauty or durability. Each type of wood has a unique sonic signature. Cedar soundboards take six months to a year to break in and sound relatively dark and robust. Moreover, they are more forgiving of sloppy right-hand technique than spruce. In contrast, spruce soundboards take several years to break in and offer more clarity than cedar, but less warmth. Is one better than the other? Nope. It's all about choosing the soundboard that fits your technique and taste.
The density of the hardwood used in the back and sides also influences timbre. Dense hardwoods, e.g., rosewood, produce the darkest timbre. Softer hardwoods, e.g., maple, koa, walnut or mahogany, have a brighter timbre.
The combination of tone woods also influences timbre. Spruce and cedar sound boards are traditionally coupled with rosewood back and sides, yielding a balanced timbre. A spruce soundboard and soft hardwood back and sides--e.g., maple or mahogany--yields the brightest sound. A cedar top and soft hardwood back and sides--e.g., koa or walnut--yields a full-bodied voice with a touch of crispiness.
©Copyright 1998-2012 by Peter Kun Frary • All rights reserved
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