Tone Woods

Wood has been used for thousands of years for the making of stringed musical instruments. Primitive harps were in existence in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia as far back as 3,000 B.C. Other ancient wooden instruments from China (Pipa), Japan (Koto), Arabia (Oud), and the Mediterranean (Lyre) date back thousands of years as well. Today’s stringed instrument makers known as Luthiers still use wood as the primary material in their instruments. Most of the modern bowed instruments like the violin, viola, cello, and double bass are made from spruce, maple, and other hardwoods. The front or “top” of the instrument is often constructed of spruce because it is a light, pliable wood that is fairly strong. Most of the sound that an instrument makes comes from the vibration of the top, which occurs when the bow passes over the strings or when the strings are plucked. The chemical and physical makeup of spruce makes it ideal as a top wood, and spruce produces a strong, even, resonant tone. Some of the finest spruce for bowed instruments comes from Germany and the alpine region of Italy. Maple in bowed instruments is used for the back, sides and neck. Much of the maple that is used for the better instruments is European or Big Leaf maple which is hard, fairly light weight, and oftentimes has attractive flame, quilt, or birds-eye pattern. Maple imparts a fairly clean, dry, color to the sound or the instrument. The fingerboard of the bowed instrument can be made from a number of hardwoods, with the traditional choices being rosewood and ebony.

Black walnut wood tone

Credit: frederick.forestryboard.org - Mike Kay

Acoustic guitars have been around for hundreds of years. These instruments are normally plucked to produce their sound. Most of the higher quality acoustic guitars have a spruce or cedar top made from varieties like Adirondack, Sitka, Engelmann, German, or Italian spruce and western red or yellow cedar. Some think that cedar imparts a louder sound with more overtones than spruce, but it is not as focused. Some acoustic guitar tops can also be made out of redwood, mahogany, and koa wood as well. Traditional back and side woods for acoustic guitars include maple, rosewood, mahogany and cypress. Some of the traditional back and side woods are becoming scarce, especially Brazilian rosewood and certain types of mahogany. For this reason modern day luthiers are experimenting with a number of alternate tone woods for backs and sides such as macassar ebony, koa, zircote, myrtle, walnut, black cherry, and sassafras.

There is a growing trend to utilize more sustainable tonewoods such as cherry, walnut, myrtle, Indian rosewood, and koa that are grown and harvested in a sustainable way versus tropical hardwoods that are the byproduct of deforestation. The fingerboard of acoustic guitars is often made of a hard wood that can withstand abuse like rosewood and ebony. Some modern day instruments are now being made with synthetic material like carbon fiber, nomex, and plywood, but it is safe to say that wooden musical instruments will continue to be made, played, and enjoyed far into the future.

Article by FCFCDB member

Nature Notes for 6/24/2012