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Wood selection

( First published in Guitarist magazine, issue #461)

I love a bit of aesthetic flair in a handmade guitar, but no one can argue that beyond the fancy details it’s all about the wood. I’m not sure there are many guitarists or luthiers out there that would disagree with me. It might be the exotic allure of cocobolo, the Englishness of a piece of indigenous walnut, or a slab of reclaimed timber with a story but what’s certain is that for today’s discriminating guitarist there is plenty of choice.

Fortunately for a one-man-band luthier like me, life in a coronavirus induced lockdown has been a relatively unchanged affair with the exception of some socially distanced repair drop-offs, alongside the sudden disappearance of all forms of teaching (and gigging). Nevertheless it was a pleasant surprise to pick up a couple of commissions soon after the shutters dropped, triggering a couple of lengthy zoom chats and telephone conversations on timber selection. So where does one start?

The two main considerations when choosing the wood for your guitar are probably obvious: aesthetics and tone. With regard to looks, it’s really a matter of opinion. For some people the showy figuring of AAA quilted maple is divine, for others it’s garish. The word ‘figuring’ is generally used to describe this almost three-dimensional effect caused by unique growth patterns in the tree. Sapele, walnut, spruce and many others all exhibit their own variations. Just look up guitars made from ‘The Tree’ (a mahogany with deep tortoiseshell quilting) to see how the world’s best luthiers deal with such eye-catching timber.

How do such growth patterns affect the tone? The quick answer is that you’re unlikely to hear a major difference, rather it is the species of wood used for the back and sides that will provide most of the ‘flavour’. Maples tend to deliver a bright tone, whereas rosewoods will offer the familiar warmth loved by fingerstyle players and folk guitarists. I’ve found most other woods like walnut and mahogany sit somewhere between the two. But these words simplify what we actually hear, so in order to make sure I’m talking the same language with a client it helps to have a reference guitar to use as a starting point when discussing tone.

Where this is not possible we can use a little history to direct things. One of my recent commissions is for a gypsy-jazz style tenor guitar. The customer is looking for something with a traditional sound, permitting a couple of modern appointments including an arm bevel. A European spruce top matched with walnut seems the obvious choice, as this was the standard for the Selmer factory in the 1930s. I happen to have one last beautiful straight-grained set of English walnut in my wood store, with heart wood running down the middle. A couple of photos on my camera phone later, and the decision is made. There are other considerations too. Certain woods are covered by CITES restrictions so don’t expect to take your brand new Brazilian rosewood parlour guitar on holiday without the relevant paperwork. The type of timber you choose can also limit the creativity of the design. Inlay work can get lost in the visual noise of highly figured woods, so it doesn’t pay to throw in the proverbial “kitchen sink”, even if your budget is a big one.

Instead it’s working within limits that makes for the most enjoyable challenge and a meaningful end result. Last month I was supposed to be exhibiting at the Holy Grail Guitar Show, and although the event was cancelled I rose to their challenge to build an instrument from reclaimed wood. This all-mahogany gypsy jazz guitar is build from an old table, with oak bindings and a fingerboard from an old house beam, avoiding softwood for the soundboard altogether. As a result it’s seen me experiment with cedar lattice bracing to strengthen the extra-thin mahogany top. Add to this concoction the fact that this instrument has been built under lockdown during a virus pandemic and the end result is going to be a guitar with a fascinating story behind it before it has even sung its first note.

Copyright (c) Future Publishing Ltd

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