NOTE: There are many other well-known tonewoods used in the making of acoustic guitars. This article is not about acoustic guitars. Tonewoods are listed in no particular order.
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 tonewoods. 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 compensate for that. 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.” [Note. I keep this in stock.]
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. Mahogany gives a dark yet warm sound with a lot of bottom end. In combination with a maple cap and/or 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 quite a few 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. No mass-produced guitars today are made of genuine mahogany. For more information about mahogany we encourage you to read the 3-part authoritative article What Is Mahogany? [Note. I have plantation-grown American Mahogany from Fiji in stock.]
Botanical name: Alnus is grown all over the world and is most commonly associated with Fender® guitars. It is light in weight with soft tight pores like basswood but with large swirling grain patterns and rings. Alder gives more highs and less of the mids and is relatively deficient in bass in comparison with other tonewoods. It has a very warm sound but does not quite have as much “bite” as ash. It was most popular in the 1950’s and 1960’s. It has become quite expensive and this has led to similar yet cheaper woods becoming popular replacements. [Note. I have this in stock.]
Botanical name: Fraxinus pennsylvanica is a particular type of ash tree whose root systems are under water, with its above water equivalents being Northern Ash, Green Ash or Red Ash. It is used as a body wood by many American guitar manufacturers. It is mostly obtained from the Southern parts of the United States. It is very light and attractive and is a popular choice for natural finish instruments. The swamp-ash sound is twangy, airy, and “sweet.” It gives firm lows, pleasant highs, and a snarly midrange, and good sustain. [Note, I have genuine Louisiana swamp ash in stock.]
Botanical name: Acanthopanax ricinifolius also called SEN or SEN ASH is a high quality tonewood native to Japan and south western China, most recognized on Japanese-made Fenders and Tokai guitars. Although it’s trade name includes the word “ash” it is not related to real ash other than by visual resemblance. Its tonal qualities are similar to that of alder hence the commonly used quick description “looks like ash, sounds like alder.” It has a bright, and even cutting midrange tone, good bass, and excellent sustain. Like genuine ash, it is a good choice for natural finishes and can be particularly outstanding in appearance. It is quite expensive and very unusual to see on factory-made guitars. [Note, I do not have this in stock but can get it.]
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. [Note, I have in stock.]
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 is becoming more and more difficult to source with each passing year as world supplies are actually dwindling. [Note, I have select figured maple in stock imported from the same place in the USA that PRS and Gibson get their private stock from.]
Botanical name: Terminalia superba. Called KORINA in the USA and LIMBA in the UK. This wood is grown in the tropical regions of western Africa and has a very interesting and appealing grain. It was first introduced to the world as a tonewood in 1958 By Gibson Guitars Corporation. It was only briefly used then. It has a very warm, balanced sound with excellent sustain. For a hardwood it is quite lightweight. Some pieces can have dark or light stripes and/or lots of interesting swirls and some can have a mahogany-like appearance. Korina these days is mostly offered as an option in Custom Shop guitar builds. [Note, I do not keep stock of this wood.]
Botanical name: Liriodendron tulipifera also known as AMERICAN TULIPWOOD is native to America. It is cheap and used for guitar bodies of mass produced lower-end American guitars. Tonally it is similar to alder but has a bit more “snarl.” Tulipwood tends to have an undesirable green tinge and often little figure and suits painting in solid colours only. Jackson, Fender and Parker guitars are often made of this wood. There is one other species, Liriodendron chinense, which is native to China and Vietnam. Both these species should not to be mistaken for another timber also called Poplar from the genus Populas which is grown all around the world and is used mainly as a pulp wood. [Note, I have this in stock.]
Botanical name: Millettia laurentii is a very exotic and very expensive hardwood native to western Africa. It is used by some Custom guitar builders for bodies, necks and fingerboards, particularly for bass guitars. It it is very dark with lots of brown streaks and is very rich and warm sounding. It is a lot more porous than other woods and is thus much harder to work with. The dust of this wood is also extremely hazardous to one’s health and personal protective equipment and other dust removal systems are essential in any workshop that uses this wood. [Note, I do have some small quantities of this wood.]
Botanical name: Firmiana simplex comes from the “Chinese Parasol Tree” which is native to China. It is also called WUTONG (梧桐.) It has been used by the Chinese for thousands of years in high quality traditional Asian musical instruments. At the end of the 20th century when China superseded Korea as the leading world manufacturer of musical instruments, many new and interesting tonewoods previously unheard of outside of Asia were introduced by the Chinese. This was one of them. Phoenix is used as a body wood on many Chinese factory-made guitars, often as a replacement for American alder. Entry-level brand Encore (by John Hornby Skewes & Co.) use it for all their guitar bodies. Tanglewood also use this wood for their budget range Strat copies. These brands are both made in China. Although it is a cheap tonewood, it generally has a nice sound. [Note, I do not stock this wood.]
Botanical name: Paulownia tomentosa, also called EMPRESS WOOD or KIRI (桐) in Japan, is a nice-sounding, extremely light-weight Asian hardwood similar in appearance to Ash which has only recently become known to the Western world. Rising costs and restrictions on other traditional tonewoods has intensified the need for good alternatives. Paulownia is native to China and is also cultivated extensively in Japan and Korea. It has been used throughout Asia for hundreds of years to make high-quality traditional musical instruments (including the Japanese koto.) Paulownia is the fastest growing hardwood species in the world, taking only 5-7 years from planting to harvesting (as opposed to 35+ years for mahogany.) Because of its fast cultivation it is at the top of the list as a solution for world reforestation projects. Asian guitar factories are using it more and more for electric guitar bodies. It has a sound similar to poplar but is quite soft so can dent easily. Well-known USA brand Dean Guitars uses this wood for some of their instruments, and it is often used in cheap Chinese-made DIY guitar kits. [Note, I do not stock this wood.]
Botanical name: Agathis is called KAURI in New Zealand and Australia. There are 21 species and it only grows in Australia, New Zealand, New Caledonia, Fiji, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, Philippines, and on the island of Borneo. It’s timber has many uses. Some modern guitar manufacturers use the Asian species for the bodies of their budget priced guitars, generally made in China. Squier brand Telecasters and Stratocasters (Chinese-made Fenders) are usually made from Agathis as are many Tokai guitars. It can still be a good tonewood with similar sound properties to mahogany but has no grain like basswood, hence is not suitable for natural finishes. [Note, I do not keep supplies of this wood.]
Botanical name Agathis australis is the name given to the very ancient Kauri trees found only in New Zealand which have been buried and preserved underground in peat swamps for more than 45,000 years, making it the oldest workable wood in the world. It is also called SWAMP KAURI. Pieces of this unique wood are highly figured with swirling, iridescent patterns like no other timber and no two pieces every look the same. It is a choice for very high-end guitar builds used for guitar bodies specifically. It is very expensive and in limited supply. It can only be bought directly from New Zealand. [Note, I do not keep supplies of this wood and it has to be ordered in from New Zealand.]
Botanical family Dalbergia consists of 275 species found in South America, Africa, Madagascar and Asia. Rosewood is 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.) Rosewood has warm tones and interesting appearances. Common species used as tonewoods include:
- Dalbergia nigra is native to southern Brazil and is commonly called BRAZILLIAN ROSEWOOD or RIO ROSEWOOD. This was the most sought after rosewood species 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, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka and is the main rosewood species used in guitar manufacturing today. It is called INDIAN ROSEWOOD or INDONESIAN ROSEWOOD. It is grown in plantations in India and Java. There are no restrictions on its trade.
- Dalbergia sissoo is native to Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Oman, and Pakistan and traded as NORTH INDIAN ROSEWOOD, SISSOO, and SHEESHAM. It is used as a cheaper alternative to other rosewood species for both guitars and percussion instruments. There are no trade restrictions.
- Dalbergia baronii, and Dalbergia maritima are both native to Madagascar and are traded as MADAGASCAR ROSEWOOD. Both species were added to CITES Appendix II in 2011 and carry trade restrictions. At present, only left over stockpiles of small turning and carving blanks are available and at very high prices.
- Dalbergia oliveri and Dalbergia bariensis are native to Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam and are traded as BURMESE ROSEWOOD. The Myanmar species is heading for commercial extinction due to China’s multi-billion dollar rosewood furniture boom which has lead to considerable illegal logging and smuggling in order to meet the demands of the Chinese market, a market that thrives on plundering other nation’s resources without guilt or regard.
- Dalbergia melanoxylon is native to central and southern Africa and is commonly called AFRICAN BLACKWOOD. This African species is known to be one of the hardest woods in the world. If you want the sound of rosewood with the colour of ebony then this wood is ideal for the fingerboard of your guitar. There are no trade restrictions.
- 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 veneers as well as fingerboards. 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.
- 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. Overall it is very similar to Honduran rosewood. It is the least dense of the Dalbergia species.
- Dalbergia decipularis (also Dalbergia frutescens) is native to northern Brazil and is available in very limited supplies. It is used in the manufacture of percussion instruments. 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. There are no trade restrictions.
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. Sound-wise ebony is bright and crisp with good attack. 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 not only popular as a fingerboard for guitars, but is also used for guitar inlays, nuts and acoustic guitar bridges. It is also used for piano keys. It is difficult to source today as there are export restrictions in both India and Sri Lanka.
- 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.
- 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 and is very difficult to obtain today. China was the largest export market for Madagascan timber exports.
- Diospyros crassiflora is the main African species and is 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: Libidibia ferrea (formerly Caesalpinia ferrea) is a tree found in Brazil and Bolivia. Also called SANTOS ROSEWOOD or LEOPARD TREE, it is a popular rosewood replacement and is usually used for 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. Another unrelated, non-rosewood species Machaerium scleroxylon is also called PAU FERRO, BOLIVIAN ROSEWOOD or SANTOS ROSEWOOD and is used as a rosewood substitute in electric and acoustic guitar manufacturing. This species is native to Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay. There are no trade restrictions on either species. [Note, I do not keep supplies of this wood.]
Latest update: July 14, 2016