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.”