Great instruments all share fine design, fine materials and fine craftsmanship.
During the period in which the great historical vintage acoustic instruments of the 1920s and 1930s and electric instruments of the 1950s were produced, raw materials were readily available.
Major manufacturers used air-dried, well-seasoned wood and were able to buy Adirondack red spruce, Brazilian rosewood, mahogany, curly maple and ebony in quantity. Today Brazilian rosewood is protected as an endangered species on Appendix I of the CITES treaty (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species). Importation of Brazilian rosewood cut after June 11, 1992 is strictly prohibited. In 2011, Gibson was raided by the US Justice Department on suspicion of using illegal materials. Indian rosewood is a relatively good replacement tonally, but is not physically as attractive as most Brazilian rosewood. Ebony is increasingly more difficult to obtain and Adirondack red spruce is no longer available commercially in quantity.
When new materials are introduced there tends to be a steadfast group of enthusiasts who have a hard time accepting the change. Sometimes newer alternatives lower the build and sound quality of a design. Sadly, the reality is major manufacturers need more wood than ever before, from an ever reducing supply of wood supply, to meet their increased production schedules.
In this post we cover some of the most common woods used in construction of modern guitars, and why they’re chosen.
Maple is a very hard type of wood with good tonal qualities and good sustain. Guitar necks are traditionally made from maple, because the material can highlight and amplify the wood in the body. Maple is also often used as a top for the guitar body, partly because it is beautiful (think flame, or quilted maple tops), and partly because it can brighten a sound that would otherwise be murky.
Many guitar and bass bodies are made from Mahogany. There are 49 types of Mahogany, but many are practically extinct because of the wood’s popularity for furniture and musical instruments, and the types used today are not the same as the Mahogany used in guitars in the 1940s or 1950s. Mahogany gives a warm timbre with a lot of bottom end. Les Paul type guitars often combine a mahogany body with a maple top for a total that is balanced overall.
Basswood comes from Linden trees, and it is soft and easy to work with. A side effect of being soft is that it also dents easy. Because it doesn’t have much of a grain or color, it’s most commonly used on instruments that have an opaque paint-job, though this isn’t always the case (as in the photo above). Basswood has a warm, balanced sound with great mid range and good sustain.
Alder used to be very popular in the 1950s and 1960s, and many Fender guitars from that era are made from Alder. Today it is a bit more expensive of a wood, relatively, and isn’t as common. It is lightweight, has beautiful grain patterns, and gives a warm sound with plenty of highs. An instrument made from Alder is likely to have less midrange and bass than instruments made from other types of wood.
Many American guitar factories use Swamp Ash because the wood is lightweight, pretty, and has a pleasant timbre. Swamp Ash has good sustain, firm bass tones, bite in the midrange, and airy highs.
Other Popular Guitar Woods
Other popular guitar woods include Korina, which was made popular by Gibson in the late 1950s. It is beautiful yet light, and gives a warm and balanced sound with good sustain.
Japanese Ash isn’t really related to any other form of Ash, but it looks similar. This is an expensive guitar wood with bright highs and midrange, good bass, and great sustain
Besides the type of wood, individual pieces or blanks each have their own unique characteristics in terms of feel and tone. It depends on where the tree grew, how quickly it grew, and how the wood was treated once the tree was cut down.
Given the short supply of high-quality woods, the large manufacturers dominate much of the market stockpiling materials. Given the mass-produced models that flood the modern guitar market, there is simply not enough time for manufacturers to wait hundreds of years for trees to grow to full-size, nor space to properly dry and treat the wood once it has been felled.
Vintage guitars have the edge when it comes to materials, and are arguably the reason they often outlast modern variations (some back to the 1835 in our price database). Beware if buying internationally, there are strict import and export restrictions for guitars built using endangered or restricted materials.
You can access our complete guitar price database of over 30,000 guitars, basses, ukuleles, banjos, amps and tons of other gear constructed from a range of woods by signing up for Vintage Guitar Price account.