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Delving Into The World of Tops

In the world of high-end luthierie, especially surrounded as we are by builders with access to such exotic and visually captivating tonewoods as we are, the top can sometimes find itself coming second place to the back and sides in the contest for ones immediate attention, but when it comes to the tone and response of the instrument the top really is it's beating heart.

In the construction of anything as complex and nuanced as an acoustic guitar, it's fair to say that a change to any aspect of the build will see repercussions in culminate instrument, but the top is very much the driving force for translating that magical conversation between hands and strings into something characterful and emotive, something musical.

The key factor in any acoustic soundboard is the strength-to-weight ratio of the wood and as such, lightweight woods such as Cedar and Spruce have been championed by luthiers for the longest time. But as you delve deeper you find that even within just these two, each specific species brings a different flavour to the voice of the guitar.

In this feature we take a look at what some of our favourite Tonewoods bring to that crucial role in the drivers seat, as well as picking the brains of a handful of our Luthiers for their invaluable insight on all the crucial factors that make a top just right for you, the player!



Adirondack Spruce

 

A wonderful example of a well defined Adirondack Red Spruce on this gorgeous Pre-Owned F-20 Nick Lucas model from Dale Fairbanks.

 

Often referred to as the 'King of Spruces', Adirondack is the much loved Red Spruce variant historically found on the legendary pre-war acoustics that have had such an impact on both guitar making and music itself, named for the Northeastern American Mountain range in which it grows.

Widely regarded as a premium choice for a soundboard, Adi has a fantastic strength-to-weight ratio and so offers a strong and robust platform characterised by its high-headroom and lively response perfect for flat pickers and those seeking more level from their instrument without compression or distortion.

Visually, Adirondack has a slightly darker, golden hue with a gorgeous strong grain often accompanied by distinctive reddish streaks.

In a recent conversation with Luthier Ciaran McNally of McNally Guitars, he voiced his fondness for this iconic species;

"My own personal preference would be for Adirondack soundboards. To me the sound is extremely dynamic, very different from a light touch through to a heavy hand. It can really take a hammering too. It may just be missing some of the sparkle that really good Sitka Spruce provides."

Which conveniently leads us to our next tonewood...



 

Sitka Spruce

 

This jaw-dropping NAMM Special OM Custom from Santa Cruz Guitars features one of the most exquisite examples of Sitka Spruce we've ever seen. More from Richard Hoover on this extraordinary wood to come...


From early logging in Alaska came the influx of readily available, quality Sitka Spruce that subsequently found its way into the majority of acoustic guitars built by major brands after the second-world war, and to this day it remains one of the most commonly seen Spruces out there.

Naturally well rounded and versatile, Sitka presents a strong fundamental with less overtones than its counterparts lending to an instrument that sits beautifully in a mix as well as in a solo arrangement with a lovely clear voice and sparkling trebles.

Sitka can also be visually striking, often tightly grained with lovely horizontal figuring that, at its most extreme, can be seen as 'bear-claw' patterning.

Over the years we have had the pleasure of seeing some truly wonderful examples of this classic wood, but worth a special mention is the 3,000 Year Old Ancient Sitka we've seen on instruments from Santa Cruz including a couple of stunning examples currently in our showroom.

In recent conversation with Richard Hoover, he had a lot to say about this remarkable material;

“This here is the perfect encapsulation of what we do. This spruce top is from Alaska… It was frozen for 3000 years in the permafrost, then it was unearthed and carbon-dated at 3000 years old. Now this has not been fossilised or petrified, it was preserved in the deep freeze.

So, the quality of sound is everything you’d expect with the benefit of the secret of why old instruments sound good; the resins have polymerised and become like crystal, meaning it sounds way better than a new piece of wood would.

The providence of this is an awesome story, and the reason we do it is not that someone needs this kind of wood to make an excellent sounding guitar, but it is to begin the dialogue and give our true message which is 'we can make the best stuff in the world but we don’t have to make the world a worse place by how we use the materials'. 

So reclamation, not only do we have better sounding wood but don’t have to cut a tree and there’s a very cool story that goes along with it… In this case, this spruce is going to give a bright, clear, articulate sound, not treble, just clear.”

 





Swiss Moon Spruce

 

The striking, almost white hue to the set of Swiss Moon Spruce atop this sensational RL16 from Gerber Guitars really helps his gorgeous accents pop, as well as adding to the incredibly detailed and defined voice of the instrument.


To talk about the organic formation of a woods internal structures naturally leads one to an approach to spruce we have seen and loved in a number of builds from a range of luthiers, Swiss or 'Alpine' Moon Spruce.

Typically harvested at high altitudes, the critical aspect of this very special top-wood is the traditional point on the lunar cycle in which the tree is felled, with the sap content of the wood at it's lowest and the wood subsequently at its driest, this translates in context to a very articulate, punchy and clear tone with plenty of power and headroom.

As seen in this remarkable build from the one and only Ryan Gerber, Swiss Moon Spruce sports a very tight grain, with a classy and striking pale colouring that really helps accents across the body and detail in the rosette stand out and shine.

Another of our luthiers with a preference for this wonderful wood is the UK's own Rory Dowling aka Taran Guitars. In a recent conversation about his craft, Rory shared a wonderful insight on both the building process and this particular material;

"There are lots of schools of thought on which parts of the guitar influence the overall sound the most. It is my belief that by changing one part of a guitar, you change every other element (almost like quantum mechanics).

For example, if you put Cedar over the top of Rosewood, you will get the sweetness and warmth that Rosewood has without so much of the overtone, whereas if you put Swiss Spruce over Rosewood, you will get some of the warmth but infinitely more of the overtone and by adding the Spruce you are also going to gain power and reduce the sweetness. My predominant top wood is Swiss Spruce.

As any engine of any guitar has to be it is incredibly light and stiff, it can retain its integral rigidity below thicknesses of the same species of lesser quality. In terms of directional strength, a Swiss Spruce top can be looser across the grain than with the grain which we can use to great benefit when bracing the top."


 

European/German Spruce

 

Since 2008, Jason Kostal has favoured German Spruce for his builds and we love seeing these superb tops amongst a wide range of other materials in his builds. Check out the wonderful tight grain and colouring on this remarkable Kostal 00 in German Spruce and Brazilian Rosewood.


For many years now, German Spruce has been a key material in the making of bowed instruments as well as luthiers building both steel-string and classical guitars. Being both lighter and softer than Sitka, it lends to luscious overtones and a stunning complexity even when played softly while remaining robust enough for an individual with a stronger attack.

We've seen some truly astounding high-end builds sporting this versatile species atop a diverse range of backs and sides, but more than any other we've seen German Spruce as a real favourite in the hands of one of the worlds finest, Jason Kostal.

As his near exclusive top-wood for over ten years, who better for a testimonial on this wonderful variant. When asked, Jason not only touched on the importance of this critical component of the instrument, but also shared with us the story of how he came to this now synonymous Tonewood;
"I have been using German Spruce pretty exclusively since 2008 or so and it is my preference of wood for my guitars. While at Ervin’s we used mostly European spruce as well as Sitka and Adirondack as well. The European spruce was beautiful in color and tone yet varied from top to top in consistency given its growing location and conditions. We never really knew where the wood came from given its generic name... some of it came from Croatia, Bosnia, Switzerland, Italy, Germany and a few other places. Altitude, weather conditions and season length all affect the growing conditions of the tree and that meant that each top was very different. In my head I kept thinking that it would be nice to be able to buy wood from one location and set of conditions to minimize the differences, but at the time I was not aware of anyone offering that for European spruce. It was, however, available for Sitka grown in Alaska and a few other species as well.

A friend of mine that I served in the Army with ended up marrying a German citizen and after he left the military, moved to Germany to work. We were talking one day and he asked me if I had ever used German Spruce and anted to know if I was interested in buying some. His father-in-law has cut down some spruce trees on his property in the late 70s and was selling the wood in Germany to local artisans, craftsmen and violin makers. I jumped at the opportunity to purchase wood that has been air dried for over 40 years and also came from, not only the same location, but the same set of trees. This is why I use German Spruce... I have a source that allows me consistency from top to top and it allows me to learn what the tops want to do and how they want to do it, which makes it more of a known entity for me than an unknown. Understanding the wood helps me with voicing as I know more about its natural properties and allows me to better manipulate the wood to create the desired outcome. In a world full of variables, the more things I can control the better I am at creating the guitar voice that I, or my clients, are seeking. I have found German spruce to be a beautiful tonewood that is very versatile. It is not as stiff as Sitka or Adirondack so you get a lot of warmth and overtones in the wood, but it is still stiff enough to give great strength to weight ratio and allow me to keep it thin and lightweight while still getting the projection and articulation that I want. It really is the perfect wood for myself and my builds. Because I have gotten so used to using it, I am always hesitant to work with other top woods as my knowledge and understanding of those woods is limited compared to German. It also does everything I want it to so varying from that doesn’t make much sense to me. I have built with Adirondack and Sitka and European in the past, and just recently added Sinker Redwood to the mix, but I will always prefer German spruce on my guitars because of its ability to handle the simple to complex tonal palettes that I seek.

The top is one of the most important aspects of the guitar in my opinion. The back and sides add color and depth, but it is the top that creates the sound... the voice. You can use a wood for the back and sides that you don’t understand that much and still create a beautiful sounding guitar. If you mess up the top though, I don’t believe the same is true. I think there are a lot of great tonewoods out there and different luthiers use them to different degrees with varying results, but for me, German spruce is my “go to” wood, and will remain so as long as I can source I responsibly and in the quality that I want for my instruments."



 

Cedar

 

What better match could there be for the striking set of Cocobolo on our brand new McNally Parlour that this handsome Master Grade Western Red Cedar. Not only does it look the part, but sonically brings out lush overtones with a delicate warmth to match.


Moving away from Spruce another popular choice, especially among finger style players, is Red Cedar. Often hailing from western North America this gorgeous honey-coloured wood delivers warm and silky tone thanks to its soft and stable nature. This 'dry' colour can blend beautifully with a richer back and sides such as Rosewood or Cocobolo for a simultaneously soft yet complex tonality.

The perfect example of this would be a recent build we took in from Ciaran McNally, an inspiring and intimate parlour built in a combination of exquisite Cocobolo and a charming set of Master Grade Western Red.

We caught up with Ciaran about the choices on this guitar, and he shared his thoughts on the role the soundboard plays in it's distinctive voice;

"I had a bit of hiatus from using Cedar a few years ago. I found I didn't like the sound I was getting from it, but I did have requests for it.

I found that some of it's qualities can become negatives if their too prominent. It's softer and more eager to vibrate than stiffer soundboards, this means the initial attack can be quite strong.

The sound wouldn't 'swell' quite like spruce, a quality I quite like. Because you can get all that energy in one lump on the attack, and with it being a softer wood, it can actually breakup/ feedback with even a slightly heavy hand. With this in mind I started to brace my Cedar topped guitars a little stiffer.

The soundboard is also thicker too, but that's mostly because the stiffness/weight is always lower than spruces. I also found that pairing the softer soundboards with more dense back and sides can help to add more punch and strength to the tone.
Really it's about matching the soundboard to the guitar, and the guitar to the player. I tend to have a good idea from a client's playing if Cedar will be suitable for them.

If I was choosing Cedar on a stock guitar, I would really have a clear idea of what that guitars purpose is. As with the TNAG parlour... it's a short scale 12 fret, unlikely to be getting a heavy strumming anyway, so really suits a warm complex tone."



 

Redwood

 

A recent build from Taran Guitars, this Tirga Mhor features and absolutely mind-blowing set of Sinker Curly Redwood for the top that really sets it apart. Rory's bespoke builds have our jaws on the floor every time! 


Completing the set for our deep-dive on top-woods is a routinely gorgeous and delightful wood from the coastal mountains of Northern California, Redwood.

Often considered an alternative to Cedar for a steel string acoustic, Redwood has a slightly more robust and intrinsically bright tone, feeling almost like a hybrid of the characteristics exhibited by Cedar and a fine Sitka Spruce with an excellent strength-to-weight ratio.

Again akin to cedar, this wood is favoured by finger style players due to its warmth and response. There are of course variations such as 'Sinker' that present mildly differing variations of this tonality.

Visually, Redwood has a very deep and rich colouring with 'Sinker' sets often displaying stunning figuring and patina from mineral deposits in the wood and even three dimensional 'flame' or 'curl' figuring.

Our good friend Rory Dowling of Taran Guitars recently completed a jaw-dropping build that featured a particularly staggering set of Sinker Curly Redwood, and we just had to hear his thoughts on the the journey of making and the final instrument! Here's what he had to say;

"On receiving the wood a couple of years ago, my first impression was (after the passing fear of having such an expensive tone wood in my hands!) that there was a brittleness that you might expect to feel from a piece of Western Red Cedar but also an even flex across the grain similar to Swiss Spruce. After glueing and thicknessing the plates, as any top does, it came to life when it got close to the final thickness. The brittleness had disappeared, which is completely different from Cedar that becomes more brittle, and you could almost feel the wood relaxing. An incredible experience.

In terms of directional strength, a Swiss Spruce top can be looser across the grain than with the grain which we can use to great benefit when bracing the top. On the other hand Sinker Curly Redwood is very similar in flex in all directions, which again makes it unique. However, to turn this feature into a benefit we have to think carefully about bracing the top. One thing to mention at this point is that my experience of Sinker Redwood and Tunnel 13 Redwood is different and I am currently exploring what makes this so.

Tonally, I was delighted with the outcome. I recently built a Claro Walnut Tirga Mhor with a Padauk Neck and African Blackwood Fretboard using Sinker Curly Redwood for the top. Once you get past the striking visual and play the guitar, there is a fullness and depth to the sound that I have not heard before. It doesn’t have the volume or extreme power that Swiss Spruce or Adirondack has, but for a player who is looking for an intimate, encompassing sound I would highly recommend considering this combination."

 

To find out more about any of these wonderful Tonewoods, the guitars they feature on or our extraordinary luthiers, please don't hesitate to get in touch either on email at hello@thenorthamericanguitar.com or by phone on +44 (0) 207 835 5597.

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