Friday, March 14, 2014

Guitar and Mandolin Tonewood Qualities

Maybe because I'm a lefty I'm always thinking about custom made instruments, and one of the cool things about hand made instruments is the choice of tonewoods.  The following images and descriptions comes from Chris Baird, the maker of Arches Mandolins and other fine musical instruments.  I copied this text directly from an old page on his site so any first person use of the word "I" or "we" below is Chris' language.  I don't have this kind of knowledge - I'm just sharing this info because I found it interesting!  Here goes.  

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The material properties of a tonewood are a factor affecting the tone of the finished instrument. However, because wood's material properties (even among the same species) can vary widely, only generalities can be considered. The way an instrument is constructed, it's plate thickness, bracing arrangement and shape, overall design, etc., have just as much (if not more) to do with an instrument's tone than the woods used to construct it.

Below I've attempted to outline the generalities of the tonewoods I'm familiar with. Ultimately, I will only use these generalities to get me started when trying to attain a certain type of tone. However, when the instrument is under construction I pay no attention to the species, but, rather, consider the specific material qualities of the wood in hand when thicknessing plates, carving braces, etc. This is because each piece of wood may or may not fall within its species general specifications.

Some general rules of thumb:
1. Greater stiffness contributes to brighter more treble heavy responses.
2. Greater density contributes to darker more bass heavy responses.
3. Greater internal dampening (Q-Value) contributes to mellow round tones.
4. Each piece of wood will have a unique combination of the above 3.

TONEWOOD GENERALITIES:
Birdseye Maple
Birdseye Maple
A hard maple harvested in the northeastern part of the United States. This maple is dense, moderately stiff, and has low to medium internal dampening. It produces a clear, cutting, bright, and fundamental targeted tone. Very responsive in the mid to upper register with clear although un-complex bass overtones. Sustains slightly better than softer maples.
Curly Maple
Curly Maple
Curly Maple comes in both soft and hard varieties. See Birdseye for a description of hard Curly Maple. Soft Curly maple is similar to hard although with a general tendency to be more bassy. Soft maple is slightly more responsive than Hard Maple but with less sustain.
Walnut
Walnut
Walnut shares many characteristics of maple. Its material properties can range from that of Hard to Soft Maple. Slightly higher internal dampening often gives a warmer/rounder tone over maple.
Blackwood
Tazmanian Blackwood
Lightweight, stiff, and with moderate internal dampening this wood offers a mid-way point between the cutting and bright tones of Maple and Walnut and the darker more complex tones of Rosewood and Bubinga.
Mahogany
Mahogany
Very lightweight, moderate stiffness, and moderate to low internal dampening. Mahogany is also a good midpoint between dark and bright. This wood is very open and responsive. Mahogany is usually a bit warmer than Tazmanian Blackwood. Also used for necks and internal blocks. One of the world's most stable woods.
Spanish Cedar
Spanish Cedar
An aromatic wood with nearly the same material qualities of Mahogany. We only use this wood for internal linings.
Cocobolo
Cocobolo
Cocobolo is a true S. American rosewood. It is very dense, very stiff, and has low internal dampening. Cocobolo gives strong bass and treble overtones as well as lots of sustain. This makes for a more complex/darker tone. Low internal dampening gives an aggressive quality to the overtones. Strengths are in the treble and bass with the midrange being less punchy than maple.
Honduran Rosewood
Rosewoods (other)
Other types of rosewoods are occasionally available with similar qualities to cocobolo. Honduran rosewood is pictured. Rosewoods have low dimensional stability and require more care with regard to climate control.
Bubinga
Bubinga
Bubinga has similar qualities to rosewood with one notable exception, it has higher internal dampening. This gives Bubinga a rosewood like tone, dark and complex, but with less aggressive and rounder overtones. Often referred to as "African Rosewood". Those wanting a dark sound but who find rosewoods too "harsh" should consider Bubinga.
Zebrawood
Zebrawood
Stiff, moderately dense, with moderate to low internal dampening, Zebrawood often falls between maple and rosewood in tonal quality. Similar to Tazmanian Blackwood and Mahogany although brighter in tone.
Macassar Ebony
Macassar Ebony
An often brown and black streaked ebony variety used for fingerboards, headplates, and other decorative elements. Can be used for back and sides but is not recommended due to low dimensional stability.
Ebony - Gaboon
Ebony (other)
West African and Gaboon ebony are used for fingerboards, headplates, bridges, endpins, and decorative elements. Usually too unstable for use in back and sides.
Spruce
Spruce
We primarily use Adirondack Red Spruce for our instrument top plates. Red Spruce is relatively dense and stiff lending itself to a crisp clear tone that can be played hard without losing quality. Red Spruce may take some "playing in" to achieve its full potential. Softer Spruce varieties may be available for softer playing styles that require more responsiveness.
Burlwood
Other Decorative Woods
Many other woods are used for decorative elements when available. Pictured is Afzelia burlwood.

The woods in these pictures sure are pretty aren't they!?  If it was just by looks alone I think I'd choose bubinga!


2 comments:

  1. All woods are "tonewoods". It matters more how the instrument is made. One way to think about tonewood is to look at the ratio of stiffness (Young's modulus) to density. I originally was enamored by exotic woods with colorful and figured grains, but now I'd rather not make that kind of statement about cutting foreign trees. There are so many nice native woods that are not endangered. For my last fiddle, I have no ebony on it!

    Woody

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    1. Well said, Woody. Thanks for your input!

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