Mayos Music
Guitar Lessons and Instrument Repair

Acoustic Guitar Tonal Comparisons

(An analysis of Body Size, Scale Length, and Wood Types of the Accoustic Guitar.)


Here at MayosMusic, in addition to offering great guitar, bass, ukulele, banjo and autoharp lessons, plus complete luthier services that include guitar, string instrument and amplifier repair/restorations, we are also a great resource service. Below is an analysis of Body Size, Scale Length, and Wood Types of the Accoustic Guitar.

I am going to start by telling you the perception that I had of guitars and the players who played them back when I first started playing the guitar. This was the mid-late sixties, and I was at Torrance High School, in California. After watching TV, musical variety shows, concerts, films, and studying songbook and record album covers, I drew the conclusion that the “star” or lead singer / rhythm guitarist would often play a large (dreadnought size) guitar. These guitars were mostly the top models of Martin, Gibson, or Guild guitars and were mostly made of Rosewood (sides and back) with Spruce (tops). I also noted that the lead-acoustic guitar players usually chose a less expensive guitar often made of mahogany, and often of a smaller size. I just reasoned that the star has the money to buy the fancy guitar, and the sideman makes less and buys what he can afford. Boy was I wrong! The guitars chosen by the players (lead and rhythm) were chosen for their tonal sound.

For a quick comparison test try this: You’ll need two guitar players, one rhythm/singer, and one lead. Next you’ll need two acoustic guitars, one large dreadnought size guitar of rosewood, and the other a smaller 000 sized, of mahogany. First have the singer/rhythm player play the dreadnought and the lead the 000. Listen to the overall sound in regards to the tonal balance and feel, cutting quality, etc. Now, have the players switch instruments and play the same song. Compare…

What becomes most apparent is that rhythm played on a large dreadnought rosewood guitar sounds fuller, has more depth and richness, and fills the room better than when played on the 000 guitar. Likewise, lead played on a smaller mahogany guitar cuts through the sound of the singer/rhythm played much better than the larger rosewood guitar. The lead sound played on a large bodied rosewood guitar often gets lost in the mix. Choosing the right instrument for its musical application will give you the best overall sound.

Here are some General Guitar Tonal Properties

  1. Tone Woods for Tops:

Sitka Spruce – (Northwestern North America) Extremely vibrant and rich in tone. Ideal for strong rhythmic style, but good in all styles.

Engelmann Spruce – (Western North America) Lighter in weight than Sitka Spruce, and produces a slightly louder more projected sound. Responds well to a lighter touch.

Adirondack Spruce – (North America) Most Common in pre-WWII era guitars. Tonally more dynamic than Sitka, with a higher ceiling for volume, with very sweet mids. Great for aggressive flat-pickers and strummers.

European Spruce – (Central Europe) Similar to Adirondack Spruce in power and headroom, but with a touch of Cedar’s warmth. Complex in overtones. Good with all styles.

Koa – (Big Island of Hawaii) Produces bright trebles with less volume than spruce. Will gradually mellow with age and playing. Goes well with finger picking styles.

Genuine Mahogany – (Central and South America) Less projective than Spruce, produces a subdued yet crisp and delicate response with a midrange emphasis.

Tropical Mahogany – (Central and South America) Bright tone with a punchy quality. Goes well with Blues and Roots style players.

Western Red Cedar – (Western North America) Often used in Classical guitars. Tonal character is more vibrant, slightly louder with a smoother, darker tone. Open sound with clarity when compared to spruce. Great for finger style players.

Sinker Redwood – (Northern California) A tight grain with cross grain stiffness producing a bold response, warm overtones similar to Cedar, but with extra brightness and headroom. Great for fingerpicking style, good for rhythm style in the mix (live or recorded).

  1. Tone Woods for Back and Sides:

Genuine Mahogany – (Central and South America) Lighter in weight than Rosewood, Koa or Maple. Yields a strong, loud sound with clear bright trebles, airy bass, and midrange.

Sapele – (West Africa) A cousin to Mahogany. Loud and lively sound. Used by Spanish guitar makers for years. Great for all playing styles from fingerpicking to strumming.

Hawaiian Koa – (Big Island of Hawaii) Bass response is slightly less than that of Rosewood and treble response is clear but slightly less than Mahogany. Powerful midrange.

Flame Koa – See Hawaiian Koa.

Cocobolo – (Mexico) Dense Tropical hardwood with a bright tone similar to Koa but with a deeper bass response. Fast and responsive, with moderate note decay. Good for fingerstyle playing.

Tasmanian Blackwood – (Australia) A close cousin to Hawaiian Koa, with similar tonal characteristics but having a bit more midrange, brightness, and overtone bloom. Goes well with fingerpicking and strumming styles.

European Flamed Maple – (Europe) A hard and reflective wood that produces a loud, powerful, and projecting sound. Brighter than Rosewood.

Birdseye Maple – Tonal properties similar to European Flamed Maple.

Big Leaf Maple – (Western North America) Tone is focused, dominant and fundamental. A “bright sound” with fewer overtones than medium density woods, and with quicker note decay. It has more treble sparkle than Rosewood, with clear midrange tones which cut through a mix well (live or recording). Very good for lead players.

Cherry – Similar to Maple in density and reflectivity. Produces a rich, projective midrange and balance without favoring either the bass or treble tones.

East Indian Rosewood – (India) Extremely resonant with a deep warm bass, complex harmonics, great projection and long sustain.

Brazilian Rosewood “Jacaranda” – (Brazil) Produces a louder and richer sound in all tonal ranges than East Indian Rosewood, with complex overtones. Very expensive today.

Note: Martin Guitars made with Rosewood, before mid-1969 were made with Brazilian Rosewood.

Morado or Bolivian / Sontos Rosewood – (South America) Very close in visual and tonal properties to East Indian Rosewood.

Ovangkol – (Tropical West Africa) Similar to Rosewood in harmonics and bass response, with slightly fuller midrange. Sound is lively, with sparkle. Top end is not as bright as Maple. Works well in all styles of playing.

Granadillo – (Central America) Similar to East Indian Rosewood in looks and sound but with more bell-like ring. Goes well with all playing styles.

Madagascar Ebony – (Indonesia) Dense hardwood with strong bass and strong lower midrange. Clear highs and a slightly scooped midrange. Great “old-school” heavy strumming guitar.

Claro Walnut – (Central California) Great Warmth in the mid-bass range with a quick response. Tonal characteristics between Rosewood and Mahogany.

Imbuia – (Brazil) Similar to Claro Walnut, lively and quick response.

  1. Body Depth and Tonal Effect:

Generally, the deeper the body, then the more volume, sustain, and with a deeper bass response a guitar will have. Guitars with less depth have less volume and sustain with a more prominent treble tone.

  1. Braces and Tonal Effect:

Ladder Bracing Pattern - Oldest style, still used and preferred by some makers. Simple but effective bracing that gives a unique vintage tone.

X Bracing Pattern – Invented by C.F. Martin Sr. in 1850. It allows for a freer vibrating top. The pattern also minimizes the rollercoaster top effect where the string pull force is buckling the top towards the sound hole (more noticeable the larger a guitar body, and or the heavier the string gauge).

Scalloped Bracing – The technique of carving angles or concave areas or “scallops” into the brace. This lightens the braced surface and allows for more vibration, more volume, and more projection. Scalloped bracing brings out stronger treble, and adds clarity to the bass.

Parabolic Bracing – Curved shaped braces that give a quick response with a pronounced midrange and focused bass. Also called “shaved” braces.

Fan Bracing – Used primarily in Classical guitars (nylon) is a bracing technique modeled after the work of Antonio Torres Jurado in the 1800s. There are many variants and individual fan bracing styles.

Lattice Bracing – A modern technique of smaller, lighter, thinner braces closer together in a lattice formation. Often in conjunction with double tops, and or synthetic composite materials, though not exclusive or required.

  1. Two Piece Vs. Three Piece Backs:

Two piece backs (Martin D28) are slightly more lively and flexible, while the newer three piece backs (Martin D35) have more bracing and are more rigid and tighter and thus reflect the bass frequencies more and make a tighter sound (given the same woods). Three piece backs came about because of limitations in quality size pieces of wood.

  1. Guitar Body Size and Tonal Effect:

Dreadnought – (“D” style) Full size steel string guitar. Stronger bass, loud volume, highly suitable for rhythm styles.

Grand Auditorium – (“M” style or 0000 size) Well balance of bass and treble response with slightly less volume than “D” size guitars. Notes resound, play and decay quickly resulting in optimum separation of notes for studio and stage work.

Jumbo – (“J” style) Similar profile to “M” size guitars but with the body depth of the dreadnought guitar. Yielding an increase of volume and bass response.

7/8 Size Baby Dreadnought – Loud and bright sound for its size.

Auditorium – (000 size) One size smaller than “M” models which increase treble and brightness tones. Good for lead and fingerpicking styles.

Grand Concert – (00 Size) One size smaller than 000 size models with a delicate and airy tone.

Concert – (0 Size) Smaller than 00 size models and are more bright and delicate in tone than 00 size, with slightly less drive and punch.

  1. Solid Wood Vs. Laminated Construction:

Solid wood instruments are more resonant and richer in tone and harmonics than laminated (plywood) instruments, which have a stale generic sound that favors the treble tones. If cost is an issue (laminate instruments are cheaper), spend enough to at least get a solid wood top, as that makes the most difference.

  1. Scale Length and Tonal Effect: (Same gauge of strings and tuned to the same pitch)

Longer – The longer the scale length the higher the tension, and thus the brighter and snappier the sound due to the more spaced apart the harmonic content of the string.

Shorter – The Shorter the scale lengths will have more tightly packed harmonics and have more warmth and thickness.

Experience since 1968
Providing Guitar, Electric Bass & Ukulele lessons and Guitar/Amp Repair in the Greater Phoenix Valley area of Arizona including Maricopa County and The Salt River Valley.

Mayos Music will continue to provide Guitar/Amp Repairs in Southern California's South Bay cities and Greater Los Angeles Area.
Originally located in Manhattan Beach and Torrance, California.

Now located in:
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Torrance, CA 90505

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