TNAG Connoisseur, Tonewoods

Tonewood Tours: Alternatives

In the latest issue of Connoisseur, Dave Hunter concludes our six-part series, Tonewood Tours, which explores the most popular woods and worthwhile alternatives used in acoustic-guitar making.  This month, he spoke with prominent luthiers and a prolific supplier about the use and acceptance of several alternative tonewoods.

Guitarists as a whole have tended to circle the wagons around a relatively limited number of species of tonewoods over the last century or so, but several forces are working against the industry’s ability to simply continue churning out guitars made from the same old stuff year after year. Issues regarding both availability and sustainability are inspiring more thoughtful luthiers to consider viable alternatives, and many have discovered several varieties of lesser-known woods that can be used to produce guitars that are not only acceptable, but exceptional.  

As much as anything, however, it’s the conservative attitudes of guitarists that often hold back wider proliferation of alternative tonewoods, though plenty of adventurous players have been delighted by both the beauty and the sonic virtuosity that many of these can yield in a well-crafted instrument. Let’s check in with some of the makers we’ve spoken to throughout the series, to learn how they feel about using alternative tonewoods.

Eric Weigeshoff of Skytop Guitars

One of the more enthusiastic embracers of the alternatives is Eric Weigeshoff of Skytop Guitars in New York’s Hudson Valley. When asked whether he thought more builders should explore such woods he concisely summed up part of the challenge with dragging the industry forward. 

Yes, they should!” Weigeshoff declares. “There’s so much out there to work with. The guitar world is unfortunately very traditional, but I’m hoping that people start seeing the benefits of opening their minds. It is truly a golden age of lutherie, and I think things will start changing as old-school tonewoods become less available.” 

Of the many alternative tonewoods he has personally embraced in his building, Weigeshoff name checks several that are less-often discussed. “I love finding tonewoods that do the job and are not on the radar,” he tells us, “mango, ebony, bog oak, myrtle, tamarind and others.” Ebony? While certainly common as a fingerboard wood, and often used in bridges on high-end flat-top guitars, Weigeshoff is one of the few builders who regularly uses it as an option for the backs and sides of his flat-tops.  

“Ebony is glass-like, and really powerful. Tamarind is everything a rosewood is. Bog oak is insane, just really powerful, with a happy streak. There’s so much out there that needs to be experimented with!”

Dion James of Dion Guitars

Canadian maker Dion James is encouraged by the willingness of many players in the acoustic market to support the exploratory process necessary to bring alternatives closer to the mainstream.

“The acoustic guitar market is in a wonderful place right now and seems happy to embrace experimentation,” James tells Connoisseur. “This willingness of clients to let us makers build on tradition, coupled with the open-source sharing of ideas between builders, has ushered us into a very interesting era for the acoustic guitar, one that I believe is and will continue to bring some of the best acoustic guitars ever made into existence!” 

Of the more unusual woods he has used himself, James tells us, “I’ve built quite a number of instruments with Lapacho over the last couple years. Very nice stuff. It’s among the most dense and heavy woods available, making for a slower moving guitar. That is to say, it requires more energy to set in motion. However, paired with a top made from very stiff and light cedar one can build a guitar that walks a wonderful line between overtone and quickness of response. Walnut is a great tonewood, and I just got a set of Granadillo that I’m excited to build with. My old shopmate Jeremy Clark build a few guitars with satinwood, and I loved those guitars. He gifted me a beautiful set about a decade ago that I’m saving for just the right project.”

Rory Dowling of Taran Guitars

For Rory Dowling, who builds his guitars with a small team in Fife, Scotland, pursuing the strengths of alternative tonewoods is one of the fundamental pleasures of the work. 

“I use a huge amount of different species of wood all for different purposes,” he tells us. “Visually, the wood is very important as an aesthetic element, although it is the tonal quality that I look for from a piece of wood. When you look at the whole spectrum of tone woods then all of a sudden you’re thinking about everything from mahogany for a dry tone or walnut for warm earthy tones, through to more transparent bright tone woods like maple or sycamore. All bring a very, very different palette to the instrument. It’s incredible!  

“The Acacia’s are very exciting—Koa, Tasmanian Blackwood—as they combine the warmth like walnut and brilliance of maple. I’m looking forward to my first 5,000-year-old Fenland Oak guitar that I’m working on just now. It has a tap tone strangely not dissimilar to Malaysian Blackwood. I love woods from the Ebony family like Malaysian Blackwood or Macassar because they bring a fullness and solidity to the tone. It is my job to decide which wood to use for which guitar—and with such sonic variation and beauty between the species it makes my job an absolute pleasure!”  

Stephen Ondich of Commercial Forest Products

Despite the willingness of several skilled luthiers to fold alternative tonewoods into their desirable creations, it’s difficult not to keep circling back to the fact that many players still relate more readily to the woods found in the guitars of their heroes. Buyers in the high-end market might trust the small-shop makers to achieve any desired tonal ends with a wide variety of timbers, but in the broader market the more familiar woods still provide a way for guitarists to pinpoint what they believe they’ll get from any given guitar. 

“Players definitely associate certain woods with feelings, memories and performances,” says Stephen Ondich of Commercial Forest Products, a respected supplier of high-end tonewoods. “How many people want a Stratocaster like Jimi Hendrix had? Well, if he had any strong feelings about wood specie, it’s news to me. I’ve never read an interview where he spoke about ash verses alder. It would not surprise me if he had no idea what was under the paint when he played Monterey Pop.”

Otherwise, as a supplier who needs to provide both the traditional and the alternative, Ondich is well positioned to relate a broad perspective on the issue:

“The pragmatic part of me recognizes the fact that resources are limited and makers should be open to alternative species. I also enjoy the creativity part of finding new options. However, I also like the fact that there are prized woods. Quilted Maple is not the same as the one-by-eight number-three shop pine you can pick up at any big-box store. 

“Bob Taylor takes a most sensible approach. Taylor Guitars uses Ebony but encourages a more efficient use of that very limited resource. If you love ebony, then you should love the sapwood along with the heartwood, for example. Interestingly, Taylor also experiments with alternative tonewoods, probably more than any other large manufacturer. Scott Paul, the Natural Resources Director at Taylor, is a very knowledgeable guy. They have an eye on the future, as we all should.” 

Richard Hoover of the Santa Cruz Guitar Company

Although virtually everyone in the industry is well aware of the need these days to explore the viable alternatives, some makers got into it earlier than others. Richard Hoover of SCGC, for one, virtually launched his career on the use of less common tonewoods. 

“We were the first modern builders to use Koa in a steel-string guitar,” Hoover tells Connoisseur. “Now it’s accepted as a real wood, but boy, was that a hard sell! When people didn’t know who we were, why we were launching a new brand with a wood that most people hadn’t heard of… it was really difficult. And we had to get Martin and Taylor interested before it really took off. 

“So having known that, we were shy for a while. But now we’ve been around for almost 50 years and our opinion is respected, so we can introduce untraditional woods, so we are doing so. Cocobolo has been really, really popular. Some people would call it a Brazilian [rosewood] alternative. It’s heavy, dense wood, and you have to work it accordingly. If you dimension it the same as you would Indian rosewood you’re going to have a real restricted guitar. Also African blackwood, if you make it thinner you can get a similar response to Brazilian and a different look to it. So, we use both Blackwood and Cocobolo.  

“And there are other [alternative] woods that we will use. Oak is one that fascinates me. We’ve used oak as a very cool back and side wood, and there was a real precedent for that; if you look back in some of the old Montgomery Ward or Sears catalogs, they had their guitars ranked as ‘good, better and best,’ and you’d look at the [basic] ones and they’re unmistakably oak. I’m trying to say this without sounding full of myself, but it takes a company like ours with credibility for doing the right thing with wood and paying attention to sound to introduce these so that they’re just not a novelty.” 

One of the more interesting tonewoods Hoover is using—regarding sustainability and alternative status alike—grows virtually in CVGC’s backyard. He’s a big proponent of salvaged redwood, and its reputation as an enticing timber for finely made acoustic and electric guitars has been growing exponentially in recent years. 

“The redwood that I’m cutting right now is sequoia gigantea [or giganteum]. I’m working with redwood that’s reclaimed that could be a thousand years old. The tree certainly was a couple of thousand years old, but the wood could have been down for a thousand years. It’s the big monarchs, the old-growth stuff, that we have no business disturbing in the living tree, and actually on the forest floor we shouldn’t be touching because it’s part of the cycle.  

“But this is stuff that reclaimed from probably 200 years ago in the logging industry, where logs got caught up or sank or stuff like that. And we also use sequoia sempervirens, coastal redwood. You have to be more careful with that and get something that grew in the right conditions at the right rate, otherwise it can be too soft.” 

For the fans of exotic and adventurous reclamation, Hoover offers up one real doozy of a redwood find: 

“I’ll give you one little treat here. I’m cutting up this redwood that’s a reclamation from a dam, the Rock Haven Dam up in the Sierras that was built in 1911, and it’s time to redo. They took these old redwood planks out, and I know people that know people so it ended up in my backyard. 

“And when I cut—they’re so gnarly, if they were lying on the side of the road you’d pass them up as detritus from concrete forms or something, I mean they’re ugly, they’ve got bolt holes in them and stuff—but when you cut them open it’s got these kind of rainbow hues, everything from a buckskin-tan color to dark chocolates and purple that come out, and it’s just like opening up Pandora’s box, angels sing, and all this beauty comes out. So, it’s well worth the trouble, and again, we don’t have to cut a tree to get it.”

Ben Wilborn of Wilborn Guitars

One way that thoughtful makers are embracing alternatives is by considering them for their physical properties, rather than their traditional names. As Ben Wilborn of Reno, Nevada, tells us, this enables a thoughtful luthier to place these timbers within the full spectrum of other ingredients used in building a fine guitar.  

“I think of wood not so much by species, but as a continuum from very soft, open and light, to very hard, resinous and heavy,” Wilborn says. “Frankly, I think the qualities of the singular set of wood you are considering is much more important than its name. If a wood is stable, intact, and meets a few basic criteria, it can be used to build a guitar. Some species tend to exhibit characteristics that we love, and that, along with the momentum of tradition, makes them popular and accepted, but alternatives should not be overlooked, especially as we reach the twilight of many of these species’ sustainability.

“I absolutely love to build with good Brazilian [rosewood]—it’s easy to see why it has been used so extensively to make guitars—but I think the future of lutherie clearly will rely on other ‘alternative’ species. Among some of the others I use, Katalox is heavy, but glassy. And a big surprise is myrtle, which sounds really good, and can have some of the most pronounced figure of any North American wood. Also, Ovankol is a nice rosewood substitute.”

Two of the alternatives he names are among those that have been gaining traction in the acoustic-guitar world in general, and with continued use from high-end makers might soon segue into something close to the “traditional” sector themselves.

“Pau Ferro and Granadillo are really nice,” he says. “They are two of my preferred rosewood substitutes. The fact is that, although steel-string customers are more adventurous than classical guitar customers, rosewood is still seen as the ultimate wood for high-end guitars, so sometimes alternatives are a harder sell. I think these alternative woods are becoming more and more accepted, however, and that’s a good thing.

Clearly, some of our most gifted acoustic luthiers are getting good value and great results out of a number of viable alternative tonewoods. Given what so many of these have to offer, on top of the necessity of preserving the endangered resources they are often standing in for, it’s certainly worth trying out a guitar made with less-familiar tonewoods the next time you step into a high-end dealer. The experience might just reveal how bucking the traditions can still deliver superb tone, looks, and playing feel.

To shop alternative tonewood guitars, be sure to browse both our new and pre-owned guitars!

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