Building A Guitar-choosing tonewood timber

Published: 05th July 2009
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Over many years guitars have been built from a carefully chosen selection of timbers noted for their particular tonal qualities. These are known as tonewoods. Up until quite recently, many of these timbers have been in plentiful supply but suddenly it seems these valued timbers are becoming scarcer by the day, let alone what the future holds.

There really hasn't been much of a panic in the past about losing these timbers , after all, I expect that one mahogany tree would produce about two or three thousand guitars but recently the situation has started to really tighten up and escalate pretty quickly.

For example, take Brazilian Rosewood a very valued tonewood indeed. All of a sudden it seems, it's impossible to get. There is apparently a whole stack of it around still but you simply cant it out of the country. An export embargo was imposed on it in the late 1960's largely as a result of overharvesting the forests.

It now finally seems that many people are only now beginning to take their guitar building timbers seriously and the great Bob Taylor of Taylor guitars clearly has centred his whole raison d'etre around the conservation and preservation of beautiful timbers.

Now we are starting to see quite a few alternative timbers popping out of the forests now the other wood is going the way of all flesh.

Why is it then that Tropical Mahogany been so sought after for guitar building?

Well, availability must be one reason of course and price would be be prime factors in this and naturally the timber has good tonal qualities, especially in the mid ranges and has a very pleasant range of tonal characteristics. It has really become the standard benchmark for quality guitars over the years.

The harmonics of mahogany are very constant and the wood too is stable, a must for guitars.

Mahogany guitars have been the choice for many of the old time blues and roots players for many years and many older guitars that are now fully 'seasoned' and produce wonderful overtones and 'chewy' mid range tones are very much sought after. Smooth, balanced and stable would probably describe a Mahogany guitar and let's not forget the positive and environment friendly characteristics and woodworking abilities that have endeared it to generations of luthiers.

Another example of a relatively new Timber to the guitar building scene is Sapele, an African tonewood that is sometimes called African Mahogany. This timber gives much that Mahogany does and even excels in some of the treble range qualities. It seems that many guitar builders will be using Sapele in the future for their work.

Another timber that you are like to see developing in the future will be Ovangkol.

Once again this wood was introduced out of Africa by Bob Taylor to help supplement the timbers that were become too scarce or too difficult to obtain.

This timber is a relative of rosewood and is reputed to be a great sounding timber that shares many properties with rosewood, ie brighter at the top end and fuller in the midrange and lows.

One problem of course, with newer timbers, is that its quite one thing to claim a new timber is the 'bees knees 'but quite another to overcome natural market resistance and the ingrained habits of the 'dyed in the wool' traditional luthier has to earn its reputation like all quality products and claim a place in the heirachy of acceptable guitar tonewoods.

However the trend for new tonewood timbers is here to stay and another ( relative ) newcomer in the range of timbers is a beautiful timber Cocabola that originates from Central Mexico.

Similar to Koa across the spectrum it is bright, fresh and full of sparkle. It does not have the fuller bass ends of rosewood or Ovangkol but with time and hard playing opens up beautifully.

Well, now, on to one of my particular favourites, Big Leaf maple and of course not forgetting Australian Maple. I built a Weissenborn acoustic lap steel guitar out of Australian Maple some two years ago now and every characteristic about it is positive. The volume of my Weissenborn acoustic lapsteel slide guitar is really stunning, quite loudest guitar I have ever heard, unamplified!

The overtones that run thought this guitar are hair raising and the top end sparkles like a firework display! The decay is slow and airy and playing this guitar really is another worldly experience.

To say I am stunned every time I play it is an understatement and I a cant wait to get home to start playing it. When you get a reaction from a guitarist who has played for twenty five years you know that the timber is good, really good.

I also own a 70's Levin Goliath guitar built by Carlsson Levin, This instrument I first saw played in Putney folk club in the 60's by a great blues and calypso guitarist, Johnny Silvo.

The guitar then was huge, loud and just snapped back jauntily when it was played by Johnny as if eager to produce more and more great music. Little did I know that I would in the distant future own this great machine!!

The guitar has had a hard life and had been damaged and repaired but still wont lay down and die. If anything it is greater than ever and I have converted it to the sweetest ever slide guitar. The sound of it entrances me so much I sometimes actually forget what I am playing and just listen over and over again to certain chords..that's true love!

The table is Sitka spruce and the body Big Leaf Maple..

Heaven on Earth! Incidentally the neck is mahogany and does its fair share of contributing to it's great sound sound too.

I will continue with this series of articles about building a guitar and publish them onto to my site that is called wwwDOTbuildaweissenbornDOTcom

If you are interested in more information and would like to read more guitar building and related articles why not visit me there? Who knows you might get a little entranced yourself and decide to take the quantum leap of building your own guitar?

Terry Buddell is an enthusiastic article writer and builds and plays guitars in his spare time. Terry recently finished building his first Weissenborn lap steel acoustic guitar and has written a book How to build a Weissenborn and CD containing the plan and step by step photos of the build that he sells from his website for further information and articles about Weissenborn guitars why not visit the site now?

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