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1. BRAZILIAN ROSEWOOD
The Big One. These days, Brazilian or ‘Rio’ rosewood is protected to the
point where it’s almost unusable and untransportable. Martin stopped using it for ‘normal’ backs and sides in 1967, but it is still available as custom order from certain manufacturers. Expect to pay massive money for this rich, warm-sounding and often breathtakingly beautiful piece of arboreal history.
This is a rosewood variant/alternative from Africa, usually lighter in colour and
less expensive. More and more companies are starting to use it for guitar making. An all-rounder.
A group of species including eastern and western American varieties. It can look
fantastic thanks to heavy figuring, and tends to exhibit a bright, punchy character; less warmth in the mids than rosewood or mahogany, but with good, solid bass. A strummer’s dream, if we’re allowed (yet another) generalisation.
4. KOAS & WALNUTS
There are plenty of other hard woods used for backs and sides, often as much
for aesthetic as tonal reasons. Koa (Acacia koa) is, loosely, tonally somewhere between mahogany and maple; walnuts (Juglans genus) between mahogany and rosewood.
5. ‘NEW’ WOODS
With increasing environmental concerns and legislation over the
use of tropical hardwoods, a number of manufacturers are looking for more sustainable timbers. Mariner Guitars is an example of a modern brand doing just that with its use of the paulownia species.
6. LAMINATES & HPL
Despite generally negative press, laminates can share some of the tonal
stamps of their solid counterparts. Quality, two- and three-piece approaches are a credible option. High-pressure laminates (HPL) are modern, sustainable and environmentally aware materials gaining popularity, if not ultimate critical acclaim for sound and looks.
7. OTHER ROSEWOODS
The species within the Dalbergia genus are many and varied: Indian tends to be
dark in colour; Madagascar often lighter; Cocobolo can be very highly figured. Whatever, they tend to be ‘warmer’ sounding than mahoganies due to more tonal colour in the lower mids and mid-range. Trebles have more sizzle and presence than mahogany in general.
Due to the way Martin and Gibson have used/priced it since the 1930s, mahogany
is often considered the ‘lesser’ tonewood to rosewood. Not so: it’s often ‘cleaner’ and more direct than rosewood with fewer mid-range overtones. The best stuff has deep, powerful bass and direct, strong trebles with superb, piano-like string separation when partnered with spruce. Genuine mahoganies are from the Swietenia genus, but the term mahogany is also (confusingly) applied to lots of related woods from Asia, Africa and the Americas.
An African species seen more and more in recent years, it’s similar to mahogany
in many respects, albeit in more plentiful supply and more sustainable. Not as traditionally pretty to look at, and a little more zingy sounding to our ears.