Top Tonewood Selection

Many times I’m asked what type of top tonewood should I use for my first and subsequent instruments? That answer is not exactly an easy one to answer because it is dependent on your personal preferences, or those of a customer.

Different wood species definitely influence the tone and volume of an instrument, whether that is an acoustic guitar, classical guitar or ukulele. For the purposes of selection of a tonewood for a top plate, we will focus our attention on softwoods or conifer species of trees in this article.

Conifers are often referred to as evergreen trees and they do not shed their folage in the winter. Typically conifers have softer wood than the hardwood trees, but there are exceptions. The main species of tonewoods that are used for guitars are:

Englemann Spruce (Picea Englemannii): Englemann is another rather rare wood that is greatly sought-after by many custom guitar makers. It posses a great warm tone with lots of sustain and is a wonderful choice for fingerstyle acoustics or classical guitars.
Approximate Price: $55.00 -$60.00 (AAA): $35.00 – $45.00 (AA)
Overtone Content: High
Expected Tone Production: Warm, mellow
Color/Grain: White to Ivory, tight grain pattern
Workability: Soft, dents easily. Keep a clean workbench.
Recommended Uses: Classical Guitars, Fingerstyle Acoustics

German Spruce (Picea excelsa, P. abies): German Spruce tops have been hard to come by. An instrument with a German Spruce top will yield a strong, rich warm tone and is considered a premier tonewood for both classical and acoustic guitars. Be aware that German Spruce in known for taking several years to “open up” it’s tone.
Approximate Price: $130.00 -$135.00 (AAA): $95.00 – $110.00 (AA)
Overtone Content: Medium to High
Expected Tone Production: Soft, Warm, Clear, Medium Loud
Color/Grain: Golden Yellow, grain pattern varies
Workability: Hard and dense, does not dent easily.
Recommended Uses: High End Classical , High End Acoustics

Sitka Spruce (Picea Sitchensis): Sitka Spruce has become the defacto standard for acoustic guitars and ukuleles made today. With lack of old growth Red Spruce trees, many luthiers and guitar factories have turned to Sitka. It is a very light colored wood, fine grain and very stiff. It really produces a punchy tone and is preferred by Bluegrass guitar pickers.
Approximate Price: $50.00 -$75.00 (AAA): $35.00 – $50.00 (AA)
Overtone Content: Low
Expected Tone Production: Sharp, Clear, Loud
Color/Grain: White to Light Pink, tight grain pattern
Workability: Hard and dense, does not dent easily.
Recommended Uses: Classical Guitars, Flatpick Acoustics

Adirondack (Red) Spruce (Picea Rubens): Adirondack is the “Big Daddy” of spruce tops for acoustic guitars. It was used on all of the pre-war (1930’s to early 1040’s) Martin dreadnoughts, such as the D-18 and D-28. It is quite a stiff wood and possess a strong, clear sound. If you want to capture that pre-war vintage sound in your steel string acoustic, this should be your first choice. Note that certain luthier’s make very fine classical guitars with Adirondack Spruce tops as well.
Approximate Price: $150.00 -$175.00 (AAA): $80.00 – $90.00 (AA)
Overtone Content: High
Expected Tone Production: Warm, Clear, Loud
Color/Grain: Light Pink to Muted yellow
Workability: Quite Soft, be careful with denting.
Recommened Uses: Flatpick Acoustics

Western Red Cedar (Thuja Plicata): Although Wester Red Cedar is know for being used primarily for classical guitars, there have been some fine fingerstyle acoustics and ukuleles made from this great and plentiful wood. Known for opening up almost immediately, a guitar made from WWC will really put a smile on your face from the minute you string it up.
Approximate Price: $55.00 -$60.00 (AAA): $35.00 – $40.00 (AA)
Overtone Content: Medium to High
Expected Tone Production: Warm to Dark Mellow
Color/Grain: Light to Reddish Chocolate Brown. Fine Grain
Workability: Very Soft and Workable. Dents Easily. Keep a Clean Workbench.
Recommended Uses: High End Classical , Fingerstyle Acoustic

Redwood (Sequoia Sempervirons): A guitar made from a Redwood top will produce a tone similar to Wester Red Cedar, except it will posess a bolder, punchier tone.
Approximate Price: $60.00 -$65.00 (AAA): $45.00 – $50.00 (AA)
Overtone Content: Medium to High
Expected Tone Production: Warm to Dark Mellow
Color/Grain: Deep Reddish Brown. Fine Grain
Workability: Very Soft and Workable. Dents Easily. Keep a Clean Workbench.
Recommended Uses: High End Classical , Fingerstyle Acoustic

This list is not an exhaustive list of all the tonewoods that are available for acoustic instruments, but this list does represent the great majority of wood that is available and will produce a very fine instrument.

I would recommend that if you are building your first stringed instrument that you stick with a grade “AA” top as this is what most production guitar makers will use and it could yield an instrument value above $2,000.00.

As for the type of wood that you use – this is a personal preference. My opinion for a first timer is to build an acoustic guitar from a mid-grade Sitka spruce and a classical guitar from a mid-grade Western Red Cedar.

Confused by the grading system of woods or wondering what that talk about run-out is? Visit our article on Wood Grading for these answers.

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