Tonewoods for guitars
I wrote this article to help people with selecting tonewoods for their guitar builds. Although there are many more tonewoods than what I have listed here, these are the main ones and those you would expect of a world class, top-of-the-line, Custom-built guitar.
Just before I retired the prices of top-end tonewoods were skyrocketing, especially high quality figured maple which globally was becoming harder and harder to get. Many luthiers around the world were simply stashing their prized pieces.
If you have a Gaskell Custom build with a figured top you can rest assured you have the best of the best.
Botanical name: Tilia. Also known as Linden in America and Lime in Europe, basswood is a colourless wood which is very easy to work with. It is native to Europe, Asia and North America. As a tonewood it is used for guitar bodies only. Visually it has no grain so is not used for natural finishes. It is quite soft and can dent more easily than other tone woods. Basswood has excellent mid-range tones and has a very warm and pronounced sound with very good sustain. Because of its “growl” it is very suited for Rock and Metal. It is the best wood choice for Floyd Rose equipped guitars as the tremolo tends to be very tinny sounding with other woods due to its minimal contact with the guitar body. The tonal properties of basswood eliminate that problem. All Superstrat guitars (Strat-style guitars with tremolo) are made of basswood for this very reason. Since the beginning of the 21st Century basswood has become the tonewood of choice for many international brands and has become the hallmark of the “Rock guitar.”
Genuine mahogany is of the genus Swietenia in the Mahogany family which is native to Central and Southern America and the Caribbean. It has three species, two of which have been used as tonewoods in the past. All species of Swietenia are collectively called "American Mahogany."As a tonewood mahogany gives a dark yet warm sound with a lot of bottom end. In combination with a maple cap and/or a maple neck the overall sound will brighten. Due to consequences of decades of illegal logging and exploitation mahogany can no longer be regrown natively and native sourcing has been banned since 2003. Today all newly harvested American mahogany comes from plantations in Asia and the Pacific.There are two terms to describe mahogany: “genuine mahogany” applies only to the Swietenia species, whether grown natively or elsewhere. “True mahogany” applies to any other mahogany family timber that is not specifically Swietenia. There are other species in the Mahogany family that are equally as suitable as tonewoods such as Khaya (species Khaya), Sapelli (species Entandrophragma), and Toon (species Toona.) These and other true mahogany tonewoods are commonly used as genuine mahogany alternatives.
Botanical name: Fraxinus is any of multiple species within the genus whose root systems are under water, with its above water equivalents generally being Northern Ash, Green Ash or Red Ash. Swamp ash is very light in weight and in colour and highly figured. It is used as a body wood by many American guitar manufacturers. Swamp ash is mostly obtained from the Southern parts of the United States, particularly the Carolinas and Louisiana. The swamp-ash sound is twangy, airy, and sweet. It gives firm lows, pleasant highs, and a snarly midrange, and good sustain.
Botanical name: Acer. Traditionally used for guitar necks. It is very hard. It has a uniform grain and its tonal qualities highlight and amplify the body wood well. It sustains very well. Maple is found in the northern hemisphere with most species found in Europe and Asia. Maple timber can have a highly decorative grain called “figure” and can produce “quilt”, “flamed”, “spalted” (ink-like patterns caused by fungi in the wood), “birds eye”, or “burly” appearances. Laminates of these grains are often glued to the top of a guitar body for a beautiful appearance. Veneers are usually 1mm or 2mm thick or they can be a full 5mm-18mm solid cap. Quality figured maple has gone the way of Bitcoin in price as quality pieces have become more difficult to source. This is a finite resource.
Rosewood is from the botanical family Dalbergia and consists of 275 species found in South America, Africa, Madagascar and Asia. It is commonly used for the fingerboards of guitars. It is an oily wood and is perfect for sustained human contact. Up until 1992 guitar manufacturers usually obtained rosewood from Brazil but trade in Brazilian rosewood was banned in that year due to it becoming listed in CITES Appendix I (the most restrictive.) From 2017-2019 all species of Dalbergia were commercially banned. This included all commmercial timbers in the same species such as Cocobolo, Tulipwood, Kingwood, and African Blackwood. The reasons for the species-wide ban is because of the threat from China. To put it simply, China's consumption of rosewood and other timbers has become a cultural psychosis. They are culturally obsessed with rosewood artifacts to the point of insanity. It's intensified because China has become very wealthy in the 21st Century. There are more millionaires in China than all the millionaires in every other country in the world put together. As a people, Chinese do not care about any other culture or race but themselves. They are taught to be this way. It is a criticism of their political system, their education system, and proof of what happens to a culture after generations under a left wing totalitarian regime. Communists rule by dictatorship. They fear and regard as their enemy any other political system that respects freedom of speech, individuality, and freedom of expression. The United States are experiencing their own taste of a totalitarian system in the far-left, criminal Biden administration that is at war with its own people and seeks to redefine and destroy anyone or anything opposed to their rule by "cancelling" it's perceived "enemies." The U.S Democrats are walking the path of every Fascist regime, one of perpetuating lies and deception and stripping the rights of the People. Maybe we can feel a bit sorry for the Chinese but we cannot feel sorry for Americans right now. Where did "peaceful measures" get you in the face of a rigged election? The Chinese Communist regime won't allow their own resources to be used. They have legislated this. They prefer to rape and pillage the rest of the world's resources instead. This is what China does. This is well documented. Fortunately CITES is aware of the consequences of the China threat and have introduced these international restrictions for the benefit of the rest of us which really means: we have to suffer because of China's greed. CITES restrictions were lifted in 2019 for finished musical instruments consisting of less than 10kg of any rosewood species other than Brazilian rosewood which remains restricted.
Common species used as tonewoods include:
Dalbergia nigra is native to southern Brazil and is commonly called Brazilian Rosewood or Rio Rosewood. This was the most sought after rosewood in guitar manufacturing for many years. However, due to over harvesting and habitat loss commercial trade in this species has been banned since 1992.
Dalbergia latifolia is native to eastern India and Indonesia and is the main species used in guitar manufacturing today. It is called Indian Rosewood or Indonesian Rosewood. This species has been introduced into Nigeria, Kenya, Vietnam, the Philippines, and other parts of tropical Africa and Asia as an ornamental plant. International trade of Indian rosewood was banned from 2017-2019.
Dalbergia sissoo is native to Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Oman, and Pakistan and traded as Indian Rosewood, Sissoo, and Sheesham. It has been introduced into many Asian and African countries as a plantation crop. Although it is an accepted tonewood it is commonly used in the manufacturing of percussion instruments. International trade of new supplies of Sissoo is also banned from 2017-2019 thanks to Chinese greed.
Dalbergia baronii, and Dalbergia maritima are both native to Madagascar and are traded as Madagascar Rosewood. Both species are listed in the CITES Appendix II, and are on the IUCN Red List. Trade restrictions have been in place since 2011. At present, only left over stockpiles of small turning and carving blanks are available and at very high prices.
Dalbergia stevensonii is native to Belize and is commonly traded as Honduran Rosewood. This wood species is listed in CITES Appendix II, but is not on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Trade restrictions have been in place since 2008. It was a popular choice of tonewood for musical instruments. International trade of Honduran rosewood was banned from 2017-2019.
Dalbergia melanoxylon is native to central and southern Africa and commonly called African Blackwood. This African species is known to be one of the hardest woods in the world. It is popular as a fingerboard material in the manufacturing of guitars whereby the tonal properties of rosewood are preferred over the tonal properties of ebony but with the colour of ebony.
Dalbergia retusa is called Cocobolo, and is native to Central America. It is an exotic, reddish-brown wood which has become popular with custom builders in recent times for guitar fingerboards and veneers. Tonally it is apparently a brighter sounding wood than other species of rosewood with less lower end. Woods from Panama and Guatemala were listed on CITES Appendix II in 2013. International trade of Cocobolo was banned from 2017-2019.
Dalbergia tucurensis is native to central and southern America and is known as Panama Rosewood or Yucatan Rosewood. It is fairly new to the mainstream wood market and it is not restricted. Overall it is very similar to Honduran rosewood. It is the least dense of the Dalbergia species. International trade of new Panama rosewood was banned from 2017-2019 by virtue of it being a species of rosewood..
Dalbergia decipularis (also Dalbergia frutescens) is native to northern Brazil and is available in very limited supplies. It is commonly called Tulipwood which can be confusing as Tulipwood is also a trade name for Tulip Poplar which is an unrelated North American species used for pulp and plywood. International trade in Tulipwood was banned from 2017-2019.
Botanical name Diospyros consists of 700 species found throughout Asia and Africa. Ebony is very hard and durable and is used for the fingerboards of guitars. It is usually brown-black in colour. Ebony fingerboards are popular with lead guitarists due to its perceived additional hardness over rosewood. Common traded species are:
Diospyros ebenum which is native to southern India and Sri Lanka and commonly called Ceylon Ebony or East Indian Ebony. It is difficult to source today. As a tonewood it is not only popular as fingerboards of guitars, but also for guitar inlays, nuts and acoustic guitar bridges. It is also used for piano keys.
Diospyros celebica or Makassar Ebony is endemic to the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia and is highly sought after as a tonewood. It is identifiable by its attractive streaks and stripes. It is one of the most expensive woods in the world due to limited supplies. It is not listed on CITES appendices but is listed on the IUCN Red List Of Endangered Species as “vulnerable."
Diospyros perrieri, or Madagascar Ebony is another prized ebony timber used by high-end guitar builders. Trees from this area are typically 300 years old. Unfortunately all Madagascan ebony species were added to CITES Appendix III in 2011 and then to Appendix II in 2013. This specific species of African ebony is basically impossible to obtain today.
Diospyros crassiflora is the main African species and commonly called African Ebony. It is found in Cameroon, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, Republic of Congo, Gabon and Nigeria. Ebony of this species used to be a major export timber from Africa however there are restrictions in place now and the species is listed as “endangered” on the IUCN Red List. It is noted for being the blackest of all ebony species.
Botanical name: Caesalpinia ferrea is a tree found in Brazil and Bolivia. Pau Ferro is also called Santos Rosewood. It is an attractive and popular rosewood replacement and is usually used for the fingerboards of electric guitars. Tonally it is cross between ebony and rosewood and is physically harder than rosewood. Although it is a completely different genus to genuine rosewood it is the most closely related species. It's appearance can be quite stunning and is often chosen on appearance alone as a rosewood replacement. The fact that rosewood is no longer available new means alternatives such as Pau Ferro are now the first choices.