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What is Tonewood?

One term you'll see in every guitar listing of ours is Tonewood. While it's easy to surmise what this means, there is more to it than one might expect and it has become one of the most hotly debated subjects in all of Guitardom (maybe it should be Guitardumb?). Whatever, let's get into it!

Tonewood is not a type of wood or tree, nor is the term even recognized by any dictionary so we are left to write our own definition. While I'll pass on an attempt to Webster-ize this term, I'll do my best to explain things in as many keywords as possible :)

Typically, a piece of lumber considered 'Tonewood' is free of bug holes and defects, it is lighter in weight, clearer looking (less discoloration, knots, cracks, etc), and typically has straighter grain.

A nice bookmatched piece of Alaskan Spruce
Some straight-grained Alaskan Spruce from my personal stash.


There are outliers like Figuring, Flame, Quilt, Spalting, Burl, and Knotty woods. All have pleasing aesthetic elements to them that can, and often times do, detract from their tonefulness. In other words, if you consider looks above tone, then wood loaded with minerals, fungus, and other things concocted by Mother Nature are probably of great interest to you. Personally, I love that stuff!

Is it burled? It's it Birdseye? This slice of Redwood is unreal!
This slice of Burled/Figured/Birdseye Redwood is anything but clear!


However, its hard to beat straight, plain grained wood if the ultimate in tone is what you are after. Case and Point, when was the last time you played an Acoustic Guitar with a solid piece of Spalted or Burled wood used for any part of the guitar, let alone the top? 

Big Lebowski Gif

Basically, wood that is worthy of being built into a neck or body because it is free of 'defects', looks good, will resonate, and transfer resonance better than other pieces of wood is Tonewood.  It will also be stable under tension. There are plenty of pieces of great looking wood that can't handle the 100+ lbs of constant tension that even an electric guitar with light strings carries.

The best tonewood is often (not always) found higher up on a tree. A tree trunk supports the weight of a tree its entire life, so the wood from lower on a tree is often denser and heavier than what is found towards the top. "Stump-wood" is often extremely dense, heavy and not super toneful. Since trees get more narrow up top, that means there is less of the high quality, light weight spongy stuff than the that better suited for your fence, deck, or fire place. Not every tree produces tonewood quality lumber, hence the premium prices associated with Guitar Timbres.

This 1 Piece Cedar Body Blank is insanely light!
This Cedar blank weighs 4 lbs 15 oz and will result in a sub 6 lb guitar!


Different tonewoods can best be experienced by playing a handful of acoustic guitars. For me, comparing a Martin D-18 to a D-28 was my introduction to the 'Tonewood Shoot-out'. Since they both have Sitka Spruce tops, it was easy to take that out of the equation. Mahogany was focused, articulate, dry, and fired sound off like a canon. The perfect choice for supporting vocals!

Comparatively, Rosewood was deeper, richer, with lower lows, higher highs, and the ability to seemingly throw sound and harmonics all over the room. Rosewood produced more interesting sounds to my ears but its harmonically dense nature also made it more distracting/captivating. 000-28 vs 000-18, same exact experience with a slightly boxier sound. Gibson makes the J-45 in mahogany or rosewood and I experienced the same tonal differences when comparing them which helped gel some of my findings.


A battle for the ages! D-28 vs D-18!
Rosewood vs. Mahogany. A battle for the ages!

I wasn't surprised that there were differences between woods but I was surprised that it was THAT obvious. What I heard some 20 years ago has stuck with me ever since and I still use that experience to guide others while shopping for an acoustic.

Other tonewoods = other flavors. The back and sides of Acoustic Guitars are made from all sorts of woods these days like cocobolo, walnut, acacia, shamel ash, sapele, ziricote, sassafras, ebony, etc. The tops of acoustic guitars, while most often made from Sitka Sruce, could also be Cedar, Redwood, Mahogany, or Sapele. They all produce different tones, have their own look but have this in common... they can all sound great or terrible depending on the player, set-up, strings, pick, etc... So let's look at just a few tried-and-true tonewood combos that we can all seem to agree upon.

Classic Tonewood Combinations on Acoustic Guitars:

Mahogany back and sides with a Spruce Top: All Martin "18" Series Guitars, Gibson J-45/Hummingbird/Southern Jumbo/LG2/L-00, Countless Taylor Models. Most Manufacturers make multiple body sizes with this combo.

  • Nice Words to Describe it: Focused, articulate, canon-like.
  • Not So Nice Words to Describe it: Dry, boring, basic.

Rosewood back and sides with Spruce Top: All Martin "28" Series Guitars, Many Gibson Models are offered in Rosewood with the Deluxe or Custom moniker accompanying the model name. Countless Taylor Models. Most Manufacturers make multiple body sizes with this combo.

  • Nice Words to Describe it: Rich, dense, dynamic.
  • Not So Nice Words to Describe it: Dark, less-focused sounding, muted or dampened. 

Maple back and sides with a Spruce Top: Only the occasional Martin is built with Maple. Gibson Dove/SJ200/J-185. Guild F412. Taylor 500 Series from years ago but not all that often. Many other manufacturers use this combo on larger bodied guitars. 

  • Nice Words to Describe it: Big, Bold, Bright, Open.
  • Not So Nice Words to Describe it: Brittle, boring, bass heavy (though, I believe this is partly due to the body size of maple-bearing guitars typically being larger).

Of course at the end of the day, none of this is Law or Rule. There will be outliers, weirdos, guitars that shouldn't sound like they do. Each guitar should be judged as a whole not just for it's back panels, or top! Shame on you! It's not the maple that sounds awesome it's the guitar that sounds awesome, and even more-so, the operator. How anyone can label a guitar 'great sounding' because of one aspect of the guitar is beyond me but it happens ALL THE TIME!

This reminds me of my favorite supposed Chet Atkins story. Chet's warming up. Kid comes back stage and says, "That guitar sounds great!". Chet stops playing, sets the guitar down and asks, "How's it sound now?". 

I see what you did there! Cart before the horse, amiright?

There are plenty of other factors that SHOULD spill over into the tonewood conversation. I find body shape and size get left out more often than not. However, simply changing from a Slope Shoulder to a Square Shoulder or even a bracing pattern can throw a great set of ears for a loop! Point being, nothing on a guitar has independence from the other things on a guitar once it is all strung up. Change this and it changes that. Cause meet effect. Whoa, did I just come up with that? I think I did!

Bill and Ted get their minds blown!

Rather than open the can of worms that is the electric guitar tonewood debate, I'm going to save that for a post down the road. Also, it's much easier to hear this tonewood stuff for yourself than it is to read my gobbledygook about it but I certainly appreciate you stopping by! Please physically stop by the shop when you have the chance to experience it in person but in the meantime, I'd love to hear any thoughts you may have on the subject, so please leave your comments ! Oh, and a side-note on that... We use Shopify and their Blog System doesn't allow us to respond directly to comments. Yeah, it's maddening. But please, don't let that discourage you! 

This installment of Matt's Blog was penned by Mathew Jenkins: Jester of the Kingdumb of Guitardumb.

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