You’ve finally mastered learning to play the guitar. But for some reason, you just can’t seem to make your “Blackbird” sound as warm and subtle as The Beatles version. Maybe it’s time to take a look at the guitar you are playing.
Countless factors go into creating that unique sound that comes from a guitar. The materials used by luthiers (string instrument builders) to build guitars play a huge role.“I would encourage [guitarists] to spend time trying out several guitars made from different woods before making a decision,” says Mark Lacey, founder of Lacey Guitars in Nashville. Along with designing and building his own line of guitars, Lacey has repaired instruments for artists such as Aerosmith, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Paul McCartney, and Bon Jovi, among many others. Here, Lacey divulges his expert advice for novice guitarists hunting for their perfect sound.
“In my opinion, there is no most popular sound. It all depends on the style of music. Bluegrass players often prefer Martin acoustics due to their strong projection and tight sound. Fingerstyle players might prefer certain Gibsons and Taylors. Others might opt for something handmade with its own distinct voice,” says Lacey.
Guitarists should first decide what kind of sound they are looking to get out of their guitar, and then do a little bit of research. Different woods produce different sounds when used to construct the various parts of the guitar. Here are some of the most popular woods used in guitar making, and the different sounds and tones that they produce.
Wood for Guitar Tops
Sitka and Adirondack spruce come from Canada, Sitka (Alaska), and the Adirondack Mountains. Spruce has a light, delicate grain. It is commonly preferred for its sound quality and strength, and a strong bright tone, says Lacey.
Engelmann spruce, also called Canadian spruce, provides a softer tone with a similar look as the other spruces.
Western red cedar delivers an even lighter, more subtle tone, according to Lacey, with increased bass response. This wood is one of the lightest in densities and has a hue similar to mahogany, with a soft, delicate grain.
Necks and Fingerboards
Most guitar necks are made from mahogany or maple. Mahogany delivers a stiff, bright sound and maple is more soft and gentle. Fingerboards are usually rosewood or ebony. Rosewood provides warm reverberations off the fingerboard. Ebony, a dark, dense wood from Africa, India, and Indonesia, delivers a more rigid and clear tone.
Guitar Back and Sides
Indian rosewood is one of the darkest, densest wood types available, and has a deep reddish hue and hair-like grain pattern. It is commonly used on the back and sides of guitars to deliver a bright, striking sound.
Maple has an even lighter hue. A guitar with a maple back and sides has a relaxed tone. This wood, usually from Canada, has a unique grain quality, which varies from horizontal patterns to circular spots.
So, which sound is right for you? “It’s a personal choice, as we all perceive sound and tone differently,” remarks Lacey. “I like an arched-back maple acoustic with a Sitka spruce top. The combination provides great projection and tone.”
It’s not just about the wood. “Other factors influence the sound—thickness of woods, nut, and saddle material, size of fret wire, and type of finish,” explains Lacey. “The size and shape of the body, and sound hole will also dictate the tone. Larger bodies are usually louder and boomier, while smaller guitars tend to have a sweeter, delicate tone.”
This Premier Model archtop made by Lacey Guitars features a spruce top. Flamed maple was used for its back, sides, and neck. The fingerboard, bridge, tailpiece, and headstock veneer are all ebony. The decorative inlays are mother-of-pearl.
Take your time and do your homework. Try as many guitars as you can to find the guitar that speaks to you.