TNAG Connoisseur, Tonewoods

Tonewood Tours: Spruce

Connoisseur's Tonewood Tours series explores the most popular woods and worthwhile alternatives used in acoustic guitar making, with behind-the-scenes information provided by some of the finest American and European luthiers working today. This time, we move on to that much-prized top wood: spruce.

Most flat-top acoustic guitarists will be familiar with the look and sound of spruce. Long the most popular wood for the instrument’s top (aka sound board, sounding board, or top plate), spruce’s use in that key position also makes it the single biggest contributor to any acoustic guitar’s overall tone. But it’s not just flat-top guitars that rely heavily on spruce’s contribution: violins, cellos, mandolins, double basses, carved archtop guitars and other instruments have long used spruce for their tops, making high-quality species extremely in-demand throughout the industry. Dave Hunter chats with luthiers Richard Hoover of SCGC, Dion James, Ben Wilborn, and Eric Weigeshoff of Skytop, as well as Stephen Ondich of Commercial Forest Products to get the full scoop!

Varieties and origins 

The spruce genus (Picea) includes 35 to 40 species of evergreens in the conifer family Pinaceae, the most popular of which for use in guitar-making are found in Europe and North America. Given those basic facts, it’s clear that the promotional materials for more affordable acoustics boasting of ‘sold spruce tops’—to indicate the instruments have stepped up from the laminated top woods used in beginner-grade guitars—aren’t telling the whole story. Indeed, as we move toward the high-end market the genus name usually isn’t enough to identify the type of wood you’ve got in your instrument, and that matters because each species potentially brings different tonal shades and nuances to the table.

“Let’s use this analogy, as time-worn as it is,” says Richard Hoover, founder and proprietor of Santa Cruz Guitar Company. “It’s like an artist with a palette of colors, and from that palette of colors you can create imagery that’s pretty much whatever you want. The more colors you have, of course, the more nuance you can use to do that. So, spruces as a top wood are really important. In spruces alone we have this great palette of tonal colors. Domestically, we have Sitka spruce, Englemann, Adirondack, Larch, Blue spruces and stuff like that.”  

Of course, European spruces have a long tradition in orchestral instruments that has carried through to contemporary guitar making. ‘Il Bosco Che Suona’—the musical woods—of the Fiemme Valley, which provided spruce to famed Renaissance luthiers Stradivari, Amati, Guarneri and others, are still carefully and sustainably harvested and used by Italian violin makers working today, and many of their guitar-making brethren covet similar wood from neighboring trees in the Italian Alps. Canadian flat-top maker Dion James, for one, is among them: 

“These days I’m most fond of the Italian spruce I've been getting from Bachmann Tonewood (based in Italy’s southern Tyrol region). It’s just perfect! I always use the best spruce I have available. If a client is looking to spend a little less, I make that possible through a downgrade in the case, an oiled neck, less detailed purfling, and so forth. Or perhaps spruce that isn't as aesthetically pleasing. But I wouldn't want to sacrifice on the soundboard, as it’s the single most important part of the guitar.”  

SCGC OM "Tree of Life" Old-Growth German Spruce & "The Tree" Mahogany

In addition to Italian spruce, German spruce has long been a highly valued top wood. Originally from forests in Germany and Switzerland, it’s more often sourced from the former Yugoslavia these days. And as Richard Hoover puts it, the proximity of these forests, and a certain cross-pollination between the wood dealers that harvest them, often means these country-name identifiers can be a bit misleading.

“It’s funny,” says Hoover, “the European spruces are named depending on where they grow, but where they grow makes a big difference. The wood that we get from our suppliers out of northern Italy could be cut right next to where our German suppliers get their wood. ‘German’, ‘Bosnian’, ‘Italian’ in itself isn’t an indicator, but it’s a start.” (It’s worth noting here that Engelmann spruce, despite its Teutonic-sounding name, grows primarily in North America.) 

Guitarist Laurence Juber, who discusses his acoustic preferences elsewhere in this issue, concurs: “We talk about German and Swiss and Italian spruces, and at one point my GPS went crazy as I was driving from Italy into southern Germany, and sometimes you don’t know what country you’re in!” 

Turnstone TM, Swiss Moon Spruce & Cocobolo

Characteristics 

Leading makers’ usage of so many different spruces tells us that they can vary considerably, although that variation all falls within a range of characteristics that the entire genus has in common. 

“Spruce in general produces a powerful, clear sound with plenty of headroom,” says Ben Wilborn, who builds his unique steel-string acoustics in Reno, Nevada. “An excellent example of any spruce species can produce a great guitar, though I am particularly fond of the sound of red spruce. I just like its open, powerful feel. Good Sitka, which is an unjustly underrated wood, is similar. And Sitka is the prettiest of the species, I think. Red spruce tends towards the plain in appearance.”  

“Engelmann can also be really amazing—I’ve built some really nice Engelmann guitars. My experience with European spruce is more limited, but I have used it successfully on occasion. Here is a corollary: just because a set belongs to a vaunted species, like ‘Adirondack Spruce,’ does not mean it’s good wood. You have to be really picky about your top wood. I won’t build a guitar with top wood that doesn’t knock my socks off, because, in my opinion, it is the single greatest contributor to the final sound of the instrument.” 

In his own praise of spruce in general, Dion James applauds the wood’s ability to be simultaneously very stiff and very light, characteristics that are essential in combination when seeking to build a sturdy guitar that is still resonant and lively. 

“Sonically, spruce, especially the harder types, gives a guitar a real quickness of response and nice headroom,” says James. “Engelmann spruce, which I'm very fond of, tends to be softer and less stiff than Lutz or Italian. It leans towards the warmth of cedar while still having a good amount of that spruce snap to the tone. Lutz spruce is a natural hybrid of white spruce and Sitka spruce, and it’s lighter in color and less pink than sitka, and also lighter weight. I like this spruce for its in-between quality: it’s crisper than Engelmann and warmer than Italian. But Italian spruce is aesthetically and sonically my favorite. It has a clear, articulate tone, a snappy attack, and tons of headroom.” 

Pellerin GA, Salvaged Bearclaw Sitka & Mexican Cocobolo

SCGC’s Richard Hoover agrees with Ben Wilborn’s assessment that every example from a desirable species does not a great guitar make, and it’s the careful selection from within any species—and good connections with your suppliers—that reveal the stellar tonewood. Even so, when you’re dealing consistently with the best supplies from within any species, their sonic personalities provide an excellent means of fine-tuning the overall instrument. 

“Even within Sitka spruce you can find a real variety of densities,” says Hoover, “which determines the velocity at which sound moves through the wood—we talk ‘immediacy’ and things like that. Those are all factors in judging whether one piece of wood is right for the player or not. So, Sitka has been the most popular, traditionally. It has a really broad general appeal, because it is not strident, bright, painfully clear. It has a little bit more warmth, a little bit more rounded tone to it, and that suits the majority of people’s playing styles. 

“Adirondack spruce has a higher strength-to-weight ratio. It’s stronger, but lighter. If we were using a metal analogy, we’d be going from brass to aluminum, which with a really high weight-to-strength ratio is really bright and clear, and brass at the other end of the scale, or lead even, is really dark and thudding and warm and heavy.” 

“The Adirondack we would recommend where somebody’s doing more single-note leads and things like that, and want a more articulate approach to their playing. Among the European spruces, Italian gets its reputation for having a stiffer, brighter response. The German not so much, but more so than Sitka. Kind of like if we were doing a listening test, I don’t know that people could really tell the choice between Adirondack and a nice European top, especially if chosen to be of similar density.” 

Blind B-26s, French Alpine Spruce (L) and Adirondack Spruce (R)

Acquisition and availability 

Good spruce is still widely available, but luthiers might have to work harder to find the rarer or more specialized species, such as Adirondack, German, Italian, or Moon spruce. The latter highly prized variety isn’t even a species as such, but a ‘sub species’ of sorts, which, as Laurence Juber elaborates elsewhere this issue, is “a high-Alpine spruce that’s cut on the waning moon… because the sap is lower and apparently it gives you a dryer log.”  

Whatever the species, though, the acquisition of the finest spruce supplies often relies not only on experience, but on long-established relationships with the commercial suppliers who themselves acquire and stock it in the first place. And if you’ve built up the right contacts, chances are these suppliers know exactly what you’re after before you come knocking on the woodshed door.

“These are personal relationships,” says Hoover, “and this is why I like dealing with people who have been in this business hundreds of years supplying the violin tradition, which lord knows is particular. They have their specialists, and they may be in the second or third generation of people that sort wood. For the violin makers, all this arcane knowledge was stuff that people held to the death, and it’s only recently that we start to talk about it.  

Wood stash at Grit Laskin's workshop (he's partial to Sitka!)

“So, I need to go to the guy—and I say ‘guy’ because there’s only one woman in this part of the trade that does this kind of grading—and let them see what I’m looking for. And you can exchange knowing looks, but if they can pick out the same thing you did consistently, we’ve got a relationship.” 

Although old-growth spruce still exists in the wild, most makers acknowledge the importance of leaving first-growth forests intact, and finding reclaimed and salvaged sources where possible, which can often yield some of the finest timbers regardless. 

“All of the Sitka that I use is from reclaimed trees, mostly blowdown from Alaska,” notes Eric Weigeshoff of Skytop Guitars, based in New York’s Hudson Valley. “There’s so much out there that’s harvestable, it’s a sin to cut down a tree for a guitar. I always like Bearclaw Sitka Spruce. Since my guitars don’t have a traditional soundhole, I am always looking for soundboards with more character, and Bearclaw Sitka fits that perfectly.”  

For some, the commercial suppliers included, the hunt for great wood can itself become something of an obsession. As Stephen Ondich of Commercial Forest Products in Fontana, California, relates: “One summer I talked my family into taking our summer vacation in a rural area none of us had been to before. Lo and behold, a large wood mill happened to be close by! We can't not go, right? The kids played in the woods while I toured the facility.”    


We have many lovely spruce topped guitars available (gestures generally at entire TNAG site) but here are a few select picks to entice you!

Adirondack

Sold out

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Engelmann

Sold out

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European

Sold out

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Sitka

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