Guitar tops: anything else than spruce or cedar?

Discussions relating to the classical guitar which don't fit elsewhere.
Alan Carruth
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Re: Guitar tops: anything else than spruce or cedar?

Post by Alan Carruth » Thu Dec 07, 2017 6:28 pm

Coast Redwood and Sequoia are different species. Since I don't have the botanical names handy I can't be sure, but I believe they are in the same genus, or are, at least, related.

I've heard hardwood topped steel string guitars that sounded very nice, but they tend to lack power and treble, as you'd expect. I've never heard a Classical with a hardwood top. I often wonder if using some very low density cedro would work well; it might well be in the same class as a softwood. Besides, it would smell about as good as cypress!

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Re: Guitar tops: anything else than spruce or cedar?

Post by Michael.N. » Thu Dec 07, 2017 7:45 pm

I think it was Aguado who mentioned maple soundboard guitars. Can't remember if he said they were his preference. There's a Juan Moreno maple soundboard guitar in the Romanillos Torres book - although that is obviously a romantic guitar.
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Re: Guitar tops: anything else than spruce or cedar?

Post by Andrew Pohlman » Fri Dec 08, 2017 7:29 pm

Alan Carruth wrote:
Thu Dec 07, 2017 6:28 pm
Coast Redwood and Sequoia are different species. Since I don't have the botanical names handy I can't be sure, but I believe they are in the same genus, or are, at least, related.

I've heard hardwood topped steel string guitars that sounded very nice, but they tend to lack power and treble, as you'd expect. I've never heard a Classical with a hardwood top. I often wonder if using some very low density cedro would work well; it might well be in the same class as a softwood. Besides, it would smell about as good as cypress!
The redwoods used in instruments are Coast Redwoods, or Sequoia sempervirens. Here is a quickie chart for redwood species ::
rewood species.jpg
As you can see - three different genera. If you go to LMI's website, you will find Sequoia sempervirens offered.

On a subjective and anecdotal note, I absolutely love the tone of my Gore Neoclassical with sinker redwood top. In fact, if you go to Trevor's website, it is pictured on the opening page and throughout the gallery. I love other people to play it because I can sit in the audience and marvel at the amazing tone! So those of you who may have reservations about "non traditional top woods", put your minds at ease for redwood.
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Re: Guitar tops: anything else than spruce or cedar?

Post by Gorn » Sat Dec 09, 2017 11:45 am

Some (mostly) low-priced steel string guitars have mahogany tops. I tried one myself, a cheap Fender brand model (around 150 €). It was surprisingly loud and had a nice sound. Didn't miss any frequencies. Regarding the price, it must have been a laminated top. But there are also some expensive steel string guitars with mahogany tops, like the Gibson J-45 Mahogany.
Don't know anything about advantage/disadvantage of mahogany, but for some reason those guitars sell although having a hardwood top.

Why/How can it work and did anybody hear of or tried mahogany for a classical guitar?

Moreover I heard a "show" of a young luthier playing his own guitars with different wood combinations. His favorite guitar was a redwood (sequoia)/cypress combination. It sounded more open and bright than his cedar/cypress guitar. I'd say the redwood sound is somewhere in-between spruce and cedar. Unfortunately, he didn't have a spruce/cypress-combination. His spruce/rosewood model put the others in the shade: loud, transparent, full basses and trebles... Regarding this, redwood could be a good alternative for those guys who cannot decide between spruce and cedar :wink:

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Re: Guitar tops: anything else than spruce or cedar?

Post by Leo » Sat Dec 09, 2017 3:44 pm

I think all guitars that are made from redwood, are the coastal redwood and not the giant sequoia that live in the sierra nevada mountains as Andrew has said. Redwood's scientific name does have the word "sequoia" in it, but for common use, us Californians become confused because redwood is the coast and sequoia is the mountains. I have used both woods in wood making projects (not guitar making) and sequoia wood is much more brittle. From my knowledge of working with these these two woods, redwood would be the only one that would make good tops.

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Re: Guitar tops: anything else than spruce or cedar?

Post by wingarratta » Sat Dec 09, 2017 5:53 pm

There's an interesting article about some guitars made with unusual top material, more of a historical curiosity than anything practical for most of us. It's on a commercial site, but easy to find if you search on: Edmund Blochinger "1492 Granada Pine".
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Re: Guitar tops: anything else than spruce or cedar?

Post by Alan Carruth » Sat Dec 09, 2017 7:09 pm

Gorn asks:
"Why/How can it work and did anybody hear of or tried mahogany for a classical guitar?"

Steel string guitars have a different set of problems from Classical guitars, mostly due to the nature of the strings. If you put steel and nylon strings on some sort of rigid beam with a pickup in the bridge you can record the way they vibrate. If you pluck them both in the same place with the same force the initial signal will be exactly the same; with the same amount of energy in each of the overtones. After a second or so the nylon string will have hardly any energy above about 3000-4000Hz, but the steel string will have quite a bit at the high frequencies.

Nylon strings dissipate energy faster than steel strings, in two ways. One is through internal 'damping'; the material itself tends to change the energy of vibration into heat. The second is through drag in the air: nylon strings are thicker than steel, and have to push more air aside as they move. This doesn't produce sound; it's more in the nature of trying to run in knee-deep water. Both of these sorts of damping tend to kill high frequencies faster than lows.

The big problem for steel string guitar makers is to get enough bass to balance out all of the treble that the strings produce. This is a relatively easy thing to do: you make the guitar bigger. This requires a somewhat 'beefed up' top to retain sufficient stiffness, which adds some weight, but steel strings tend to carry more tension than nylon strings, and the force a string can produce at a given amplitude is proportional to the tension, so they can live with it.

Classical guitars have to make the most of the small amount of treble energy they get. This requires a responsive top that is carefully 'balanced' in some sense. It's not the sort of thing that can be done well in a factory, which is one reason that, unlike steel string players, very few top notch Classical players use factory guitars. Also, having less tension to work with puts a premium on keeping the top light. Since softwoods tend to be lower in density for the same stiffness that makes them a better choice. Most good classical makers are pretty picky about getting low density top wood to stack the odds in their favor, which is why they tend to avoid the species, like Sitka and Red spruce, that are denser on the average. Again, it's not hard to find low density pieces of almost any species of softwood that will also have relatively high stiffness, it's just less common in some species than others.

I'll also make the point that 'loudness' is a subjective judgment, that may have little relationship to the 'power' in the sound. Some guitars that sound loud close up don't 'carry' very well, and some instruments tend to radiate most of their sound in particular directions; usually off the top and out of the hole toward the audience in good ones.

So it's not too surprising when a factory can make a loud and good sounding steel string guitar using a mahogany top. It would be a tall order in a Classical guitar, even for a fairly experienced luthier, I think.

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Re: Guitar tops: anything else than spruce or cedar?

Post by hanredman » Sat Dec 09, 2017 7:43 pm

I have built a number of guitar with redwood tops. I found that one needs to be careful with the beautifully striped expensive sinker redwood, as some the pieces are really heavy, and not suitable for a classical guitar top.
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Re: Guitar tops: anything else than spruce or cedar?

Post by simonm » Sat Dec 09, 2017 7:46 pm

At the lowend of the market there used to be plywood tops. A few with plastic tops have also been made. :-)

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Re: Guitar tops: anything else than spruce or cedar?

Post by Torrescaster » Sun Dec 10, 2017 4:46 pm

I think this has been well answered.

Cedar and spruce are most common woods used. That would include Englemann/European spruce, Sitka (Alaskan) spruce, conventonal (Eastern) Cedar, and Western Red Cedar.

Other top woods used include plywoods (all different kinds) and redwood. High end classical guitars are sometimes built with "double" tops, which are actually comprised of a sandwich of conventional tone-wood with nomex synthetic fiber on the inside to save weight and increase volume.

There are classical guitars made with carbon fiber tops now. Historically, there have been acoustic guitars made with plastic tops. Macaferri, famously, made some. See here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cuB2hprvfdc

Mahogany, Koa, and Maple are used as tops in some acoustic guitars. I've never seen classical guitars with these top woods, but I'm sure there are indivdual examples out there. I'm also sure there are all sorts of one-off instruments built with tops from other varieties of wood.

See here for an acoustic (not classical) guitar made entirely from ONE 2x4 (which is Southern Yellow pine).

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aaZhDHcAN78

It doesn't (IMO) sound that good, but I still give the guy 10/10 marks for doing it, and I bet someone who was an experienced luthier (vs a skilled amateur) could probably build something that sounded much better from the same materials.

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Re: Guitar tops: anything else than spruce or cedar?

Post by StevSmar » Mon Dec 11, 2017 2:13 am

I’d love to play a carbon fibre top guitar to see what it’s like. I recently played a Rainsong steel string which is all carbon fibre and was surprised by its sound.
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Re: Guitar tops: anything else than spruce or cedar?

Post by Pat Dodson » Mon Dec 11, 2017 2:03 pm

As has been said, Koa is used for tops on some acoustics and, of course, in large numbers for ukeleles but is very rarely seen on classical guitars. I have a luthier built classical guitar with a solid Koa top and solid Cocabolo b+s. I bought it simply as a curiosity. It is not a great guitar but has the most beautiful, deep, sonorous basses. It is on the quiet side and lacks bright trebles though they are sweet.

Impossible to judge from a single example and another luthier, with or without different back and sides wood, might have produced quite a different outcome.

Couldn’t recommend Koa based on this single example but I wouldn’t rule it out either.

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Re: Guitar tops: anything else than spruce or cedar?

Post by Andrew Fryer » Mon Dec 11, 2017 2:40 pm

I wanted to say mahogany, as no-one did on page 1, but you got there. Plenty of ukuleles are all solid mahogany and have been since forever. They vary from sadly quiet to surprisingly loud.

Acacia is possible. I think some people believe that koa is a species of acacia, but I'm not so sure about that.
Some think koa is the only authentic material for a uke: others say, "twaddle - they only used it in Hawaii because it was local."

And there's mango.
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Re: Guitar tops: anything else than spruce or cedar?

Post by Alan Carruth » Mon Dec 11, 2017 7:40 pm

The smaller the guitar the less the weight penalty from using a dense wood. Ukes (or, at least, good ones) are basically just little Classical guitars, and cen be built very lightlly indeed, so a koa or mahogany top won't hurt them as much as thheir bigger cousins.

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