Below The Tree Line
Which trees die for which guitars, and why.
A few words on woods, compiled with the help of John Ward of Polaxe Guitars, based at the Ealing Workshop.
STARTING with steel strung acoustics, where the wood gets the chance to speak for itself, pay attention to the wording in the brochure. That soundboard or 'top': it may be chipboard with just enough veneer on it to make it "spruce topped", but it's not the same as having a fully fledged "spruce top". Those last two letters are important. The fewer the laminations, the better, with the solid wood best of all. "Cedar is very bright, loud and upfront," says John, "spruce is much more even, you can get a good even response across the whole range."
For the bodies, various plywoods are the order of the day from many of the far eastern budget manufacturers. They may be faced with mahogany or rosewood, "or some sort of rubbishy stuff that looks the same, like nato," groans John.
Rosewood and ebony are favourite for fingerboards, with ebony recommended for its hardness, strength and durability. The Italian firm Eko use something with the delightful name wenge.
For classical guitars at the upper end of the market, the very rare and expensive Brazilian rosewood is preferred. The going price for enough timber to make a guitar's back and sides is apparently upwards of £100.
For the all important soundboard, best Alpine spruce is the first choice; "split and not sawn", says John, laughing, and going on to knock a number of holes in that particular preference of mumbo-jumboing guitar makers who claim it keeps the wood fibres together.
For solid electrics, the effect of the wood on sound quality is much less important.
John favours rock maple for necks, although some makers use sycamore which is related to maple. Mahogany is another common material, and the Yamaha SG2000 boasted a sandwich with maple at the centre and mahogany on each side — an arrangement sometimes imitated.
Some maple is fungally attacked in the growth process and this results in both greater strength and the distinctive "birds-eye" markings which make it attractive, but expensive and difficult to work.
For bodies, all sorts of hardwood can be used, but benefits in sustain that come from greater density are offset by the weight penalty and the difficulty in working the wood for the maker. Fender use ash and alder; alder is easier to work, but needs painting. Ash looks good nude.
Gibson favour mahogany, with the South American variety the best and African and far eastern varieties trailing some way behind.
The basswood commonly encountered in Japanese guitar catalogues is apparently another word for alder. Then there's nato, a kind of African mahogany, "very open-grained and coarse, truss rods burst out of the back of it," says our expert, obviously not a fan.
The more exotic woods may need to be packed with filler before they become usable: for instance paduak or yew. Sometimes the wood may generate oils which blister the finish off from the inside. One last tip to would-be guitar makers: "don't use exotic wood if you are going to paint it." Wouldn't make a lot of sense, would it?
Feature by John Morrish
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