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Tonewoods of the 21st Century 

            

Gaskell guitars and basses are made of different tonewoods. Here is some info about them. Note: I am not a botanist nor an expert on trees, so if there are any errors or mistakes please bear that in mind. Every effort has been made to make these descriptions as accurate and acceptable as possible to the extent of my research, knowledge and personal experience. 

NOTE: There are many other well-known tonewoods used in making acoustic guitars. This article is not about acoustic guitars. The following is to do with electric guitar manufacturing in the 21st Century.

BASSWOOD

basswood 

BASSWOOD. Botanical name: TiliaAlso 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 it's "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 it's minimal contact with the guitar body. The tonal properties of basswood elliminate 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."      

MAHOGANY

s.macrophylla 

MAHOGANY. Genuine mahogany is of the genus Swietenia in the Mahogany family which is native to Central and Southern America and the Caribbean. There are three species in this genus, 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 a maple neck the overall sound will brighten. Lighter weight pieces give a better tone than heavier pieces. Cheap guitars will be very heavy. Expensive guitars will be quite lightweight. Unfortunately, due to nearly 100 years of overlogging and abuse, genuine mahogany has all but been used up from it's native locations. It hasn't been possible to replant it either, as the land where it grew was destroyed and an additional problem with pests killing it off has never been solved. Instead the world's supply of American mahogany today comes from plantations in Asia and the Pacific. Commercial trade in native mahogany has been banned since the early 2000's. 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. Non-Swietenia mahoganies used as tonewoods include African Mahogany (Khaya), Toon (Toona), and Sapele (Entandrophragma cylindricum.) Today, if a new guitar is said to be made of mahogany it will have been made from one of the True Mahoganies or plantation American mahogany. For more information about mahogany please follow the following link to the authoritative article What Is Mahogany?

TOON

toona 

TOON. Botanical name: Toona is a Mahogany family timber native to Asia. It has four species: Chinese Mahogany (Toona sinsensis), Indonesian Mahogany (Toona sureni), Indian Mahogany (Toona ciliata), and Philippine Mahogany or Kalantis (Toona calantis.) Following the demise of original mahogany, Toon is the next best thing for higher quality, factory-made guitars where mahogany is specified. Sound wise, it is virtually indistinguishable from American mahogany and visually it is almost identical in appearance. Three of the four species have no trade restrictions. Toona has a Latin American botanical equivalent called Cedrela, more commonly known there as Spanish Cedar. Since 2011 however, trade in Cedrela timber is restricted. For a better explanation of what mahogany is please follow the following link to the Gaskell Guitars article What Is Mahogany?

ALDER

alder

ALDER. 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 tone woods. 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 lead to similar yet cheaper woods becoming popular replacements.

SWAMP ASH

swamp_ash

SWAMP ASH. Botanical name: Fraxinus pennsylvanica is a particular type of ash tree whose root systems are under water, with it's above water equivalents being Northern AshGreen 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.

JAPANESE ASH

sen

JAPANESE ASH. 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. It's 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 real ash, it is a good choice for natural finishes and can be particularly outstanding in appearance. It is quite expensive and thus not a usual option for mass-produced guitars.

MAPLE

maple flame   maple quilted   maple birdseye   spalted maple
Flamed maple   Quilted maple   Birds Eye Maple   Spalted maple 

MAPLE. Botanical name: Acer Traditonally used for guitar necks. It is very hard. It has a uniform grain and it's 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. It can have a highly decorative grain called "figure" and can produce "quilt", "flamed", "spalted" (ink-like patterns caused by fungi in the wood) 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 in expensive guitars. Many guitar manufacturers cut costs on their cheaper guitars by using photofinishes instead of real veneer. Gaskell Guitars always uses real veneers and real caps. We never use photofinishes.

KORINA (US) LIMBA (UK)

korina

KORINA / LIMBA. Botanical name: Terminalia superba. This wood is grown in the tropical regions of western Africa and has a very interesting and appealing grain. It is held in very high regard by guitar builders. It was first introduced to the world as a tonewood in 1958 By Gibson. It was only briefly used then but it has never been forgotten. 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.

POPLAR

poplar

POPLAR. Botanical name: Liriodendron tulipifera better known as TULIPWOOD is native to America. It is 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. 

WENGE

wenge

WENGE. Botanical name: Millettia laurentii is a very exotic, and very expensive hardwood native to western Africa. It is used by some high-end Custom Shops for bodies, necks and fingerboards, particularly on 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. If you have money to spend, consider getting a guitar made of this beautifully exotic wood!  

NATO

nato

NATO. Botanical name: Mora excelsa or Mora gonggrijpii is a common mahogany substitute native to South America and the Caribbean. It is mostly used for acoustic guitar necks, but can also be used for body, tops, bottoms and sides. Several well-known guitar brands use Nato. Note, there is a completely different species of timber in Asia that is also called NATO or NYATOH which sometimes goes by the name "Eastern Mahogany." This is a completely different, unrelated timber.

PHOENIX

phoenix_wutong 

PHOENIX. Botanical name: Firmiana simplex comes from the "Chinese Parasol Tree" which is native to China. It is also called WUTONG. 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 in the Western World were introduced by the Chinese. Wutong wood was one of them. It is used as a body wood on many Chinese-made guitars, often as a replacement for expensive American alder. But remember this has been a preferential tonewood in Asia for thousands of years! That's a lot longer than the Johnny-come-lately electric guitar of the Western world! Today, entry-level brand Encore (by John Hornby Skewes & Co.) use wutong for all their guitar bodies. Tanglewood also use wutong for their budget range Strat copies. 

PAULOWNIA

paulownia2 

PAULOWNIA. Botanical name: Paulownia tomentosa, also called EMPRESS WOOD (or KIRI in Japan) is a high quality, extremely light-weight Asian hardwood which has only recently been "discovered" by the Western world. Rising costs and restrictions on other tradtional tonewoods has intensified the need for good alternatives. Paulownia is native to China and is cultivated extensively in Japan and Korea. It has been used in 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 genuine mahogany.) Because of it's fast cultivation it is at the top of the list as a solution for world reforestation projects. It is used in guitar manufacturing for electric guitar bodies. Dean Guitars in the USA uses this wood for some of their guitars, and it is often used in generic DIY guitar kits.

AGATHIS

agathis 

AGATHIS. 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 it for the bodies of their budget priced guitars. Squier (by Fender) Telecasters and Stratocasters are made from Agathis as are many Tokai guitars. It is a good tonewood with similar sound properties to mahogany but has no grain like basswood, hence not suitable for natural finishes.

ROSEWOOD

brazillian_rosewood       indian_rosewood
Brazillian rosewood       Indian rosewood

ROSEWOOD. Botanical names:Dalbergia nigra (Brazilian) and Dalbergia latifolia  (Indian.) Used for fingerboards. 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 Brazillian rosewood was banned in that year due to it becoming listed as an endangered species. The rosewood used in guitar manufacturing today is usually sourced from either India or Bangladesh.

EBONY

indian_ebony       macassar_ebony       madagascar_ebony
Indian ebony       Makassar ebony       Madagascar ebony

EBONY. Botanical name: Diospyros ebenum  or Diospyros quaesitais used for fingerboards. Both are native to southern India and Sri Lanka and are commonly called Ceylon Ebony or East Indian Ebony. It is very hard and durable. Mostly it is brown-black in colour but colour depends on the piece. It is popular with lead guitarists due to it's perceived additional hardness over rosewood. Diospyros celebica or Makassar Ebony, from Indonesia, is another highly sought after ebony with 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 very prized ebony timber used by high-end boutique guitar builders. Trees from this area are typically 300 years old. Unfortunately this timber was listed as endangered in 2011. Gaskell Custom Shop guitars can be made with any of the choices of ebony listed as we have stock of all types.

Author: Kevin Gaskell. Last updated 31/03/14

              
 
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