Guide to the various kinds of Guitar tops and tonewood, and how they impact the overall sound of the guitar. Though most musical instruments are made of wood, they all are not necessarily made of the same stuff. I’m sure you realize that wood is getting expensive, and the ones that are used on the most expensive ones are definitely different from the ones that are used in the budget guitars. Here’s a complete guide on Guitar Tops and Tonewood.
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The guitar top is the part that everyone sees, so it has to be attractive. But the more important thing is that it determines the resonant qualities of the guitar and the tone it produces.
Besides, it is something that is a permanent fixture on your guitar, unlike other parts such as strings, nuts and saddles, which have to be replaced over time.
So, it is good to know about the various kinds available, though for a particular budget you’ll most likely get a similar kind of top, across brands.
Various Guitar Tops
There are two main types of acoustic guitars — ‘arch-top’ and ‘flat-top’. Though most of the following information provided here applies to both, we are primarily concerned with the flat-top, which is more popular among guitar players.
Here are some of the common materials used for tops, and also a comparison of laminate (budget) to solid wood tops (premium).
- Laminate Top
- Solid Spruce
- Solid Mahogany
- Solid Cedar
Adirondack, Engelmann, & Sitka are the most commonly used species to make a solid spruce guitar top.
Its important to remember that the finer the grain, the higher is the overall quality. Tight grain wood means it’s stronger and resonates better than pieces with wider grain, usually comes from old growth forests.
- Solid spruce guitar tops provide clear, bright tones and chiming harmonics.
- Bluegrass pickers, country artists, Folk musicians usually prefer spruce tops, because of the bell-like tone and because the notes are bright & can easily be heard
- When chords are strummed, solid spruce tops provide a full, rich sound.
Solid mahogany top guitars (affectionately known as ‘Hog-tops’) are more used by seasoned player, than beginners, because the ‘ageing’ process is much slower. A well-seasoned Solid Mahogany Top will make itself heard in almost any venue. after the initial tinniness wears off (when its new).
Mahogany is a tropical hardwood, which has a gorgeous color, and makes for a really eye-catching guitar top. For a hardwood, it’s quite light in weight, and its inherent stiffness makes for a very responsive sounding board.
- The tones typically produced by a Solid Mahogany Top are usually brighter than what a cedar top produces, but mellower than you’d expect from a spruce top.
- A hog can fit into almost any musical genre that requires an acoustic guitar.
- A Solid Mahogany Top may cost a little more than some other types, but the extra cost and extended break-in period are a small price to pay for the versatility it offers!
- Like all solid tops, its needs more care than a laminate. A hardshell case is a must, and depending on where you’re located, you may also need a guitar humidifier, to ensure proper care and to maintains the guitar’s structural integrity.
Cedar is a beautiful aromatic softwood (reddish-brown colour), well-known for lightness of weight, high strength and rigidity, and its ability to produce sweet tones. Port Orford Cedar is a long-time favorite of discerning luthiers.
With its fine grain, usually finer than spruce, and light molecular structure, this wood doesn’t just vibrate, it SINGS. Even a steel-string guitar sounds gentle with a cedar-top. But with nylon strings, THAT’S where a cedar guitar top shines.
- Classical guitars and Flamenco guitars often have solid cedar tops, because of its weet tone; the tone is gentle, yet strong.
- Many folk artists use cedar tops because its tonal qualities is suited for vocal accompaniment, strong but not overbearing.
- They’re comparatively more affordable
- Solid Cedar tops, like any other solid-tops, need special care.
Cedar is strong but scratches easily. Some musicians are okay with it as they think of the scars as “adding character” to the instrument, but I’m sure you don’t want to completely deface your guitar unnecessarily. Buy a hard-shell case and keep your guitar there when not in use; a stand is okay for short breaks but you may not want to keep your guitar there for extended periods. Also, consider buying a guitar humidifier, depending on your ambient relative humidity, to keep your guitar from drying out and coming apart.
Solid vs. Laminate Top
As a beginner, you are most likely to start playing on a laminated top, as they are inexpensive. Most brands have a wide-range of budget guitars that use this material as they are affordable and also have a glossy finish (look better).
But a “Solid Wood” top is what an experienced/pro guitar player would use; they definitely have a much better sound & overall tonal quality. However, as with most expensive stuff (and especially with wood), you need to take care of it.
Humidity does affect most “Solid wood” (in the long run) and the wood can dry out and shrink; so if you live in a very humid area, you should consider getting a humidifier.
Find great deals on guitar humidifiers here…
It’s also important to buy a hard shell case; its more of an insurance for your solid spruce/cedar guitar, especially when you are spending in excess of $700-$800.
Here are some of the important takeaways related to guitar tops:
- Solid tops ‘age’, the longer and more they’re played, the better they sound. Cedar ages quickly (usually within 2 years whereas Mahogany takes longer)
- Spruce and cedar are in great demand for tops because they resonate well, are light-weight and strong.
- Spruce & cedar both are excellent tonewoods with cedar usually providing a mellower tone and spruce a brighter one.
- Even two ‘identical’ guitars, with consecutive serial numbers, may have slight differences in the sound (go for the one that sings to you)
- Cedar makes a nice ‘flamenco’ guitar, whereas spruce makes a better bluegrass.
- Solid wood makes for better instruments but require more care (affected by humidity).
- Cedar scars easily, so ideally NOT recommended for kids or if you intend yo use it as a campfire guitar.
- Generally, older the wood, the better is the tonal quality