Tonewood Spotlight: Maple, the Overlooked Alternative

Goodall Maple Satin Finish Neck

Goodall Maple Satin Finish Neck (click for higher resolution photos)

Sometimes life hands us a binary choice; I recall how my heart would sink when the middle school lunch-lady would issue her daily demand, “peas or fruit?” (I suppose a tossed salad would be out of the question, then?). Acoustic guitar buyers have, for years, been similarly constrained – mahogany or rosewood? Today, the situation is quite different. Expanding horizons of taste, combined with a tightening of supply for traditional guitar materials, have led to a virtual explosion in back-and-sides wood choices in the acoustic guitar market. Many of these woods are being marketed as close substitutes for one of the “big two,” with similar tonal characteristics and (hopefully) less negative ecological impact. This is a good hedge against the day when mahogany and rosewood become truly scarce, but whither tradition? Must I play a Venezuelan beaverwood OM to save the rainforest?

Never fear, conservation-minded traditionalist. How about a wood that’s nearly as common as grass, but with a history of use in guitar building stretching right back to the beginning? I am speaking of maple, a frequently overlooked choice for the backs and sides of fine acoustic guitars. Often thought of more in the context of archtop backs (or Les Paul tops), maple has been used to great effect on some of the greatest flat-tops in history. Gibson’s J-200 springs to mind, but decades before that they were using maple for Nick Lucas Specials and L-C “Century of Progress” models, among others. Too modern? How about an 1834 Martin with maple back and sides? More than one are known to exist, but even those early American maple guitars seem positively au courant when compared to the maple guitars of Antonio Stradivari. Yes, the same Stradivari known the world over as the violin maker’s violin maker. He was using maple for his 5-course Renaissance guitars in the 1600s, and if that doesn’t qualify maple as a traditional tonewood, then I can’t imagine what would.

Eastman AR880CE-BD John Pisano Signature Archtop with Hand-Carved Maple Back and Sides

Eastman John Pisano Signature Archtop with Maple Back and Sides (the go-to wood for archtop clarity)

As with mahogany, the term maple is used to refer to more than one species commonly encountered in lutherie, but the range is somewhat narrower. Red Maple, Acer rubrum, is one of the most common varieties in guitar building; this is perhaps fitting, as the U.S. Forest Service lists Acer rubrum as the most common tree in America. This is one of the so-called “soft” maples, the others being bigleaf maple (Acer macrophyllum) and silver maple (Acer saccharinum), omitting a couple of species not often seen in guitars. Rock maple or sugar maple, Acer saccharum, stands alone as the only “hard” maple, and is indeed often referred to formally as “hard maple.”

Collings SJ German Spruce/Maple Sunburst Acoustic #25219

Collings SJ German Spruce/Maple Sunburst Acoustic #25219

So, what’s the difference? Let’s talk about the similarities first. All maple is characterized by relatively low-velocity transmission of vibration, with high internal dampening. Where rosewood will tend to propagate and amplify vibration, emphasizing overtones and sustain, maple tends to shut that down fairly quickly. Now, why in the world would you want a guitar back that does that? Well, put another way, a maple back stays out of the way of the guitar’s vibrations, allowing you to hear more of what the top itself is up to. Plus, the dampening effect of maple enhances note separation and clarity. This explains why it is the go-to wood for archtops: with so much going on harmonically in jazz, the wild overtones of a rosewood guitar would produce the effect of holding the damper pedal down on a grand piano – mud. In a good maple flat-top, the effect of maple can be like having an individual volume slider for the treble, middle, and bass register of the guitar. With fewer clashing overtones, it’s easier to lift up your melody over your accompaniment, emphasize some interesting middle movement, or break up your basso ostinato with a dramatic run.

The differences between hard and soft maple are fairly logical. Hard maple is brighter overall than soft maple, owing to its greater stiffness. The dampening effect is therefore somewhat less, taking a hard maple guitar more in the direction of what we’d expect from a mahogany guitar. Soft maple exhibits the most dampening and contributes relatively little tonally (a great thing if you’ve got a world-class top doing its thing a few inches away). Complicating this somewhat is the effect of grain direction on tonal performance. Most maple guitar back-and-side sets are cut on the slab, which shows off any grain figure to best advantage. This reduces overall stiffness as compared to quartersawn wood, to predictable effect. Personally, I would like to see more plain, quartersawn maple used for guitar construction, boring as that may sound.

Goodall Pacific Model

Curly Maple Back on a Goodall “Pacific Model” (click to see full higher resolution image gallery)

An anecdote:  A well-known violin maker in the town of Freiburg, Germany, walked into a small violin shop in the Black Forest, where I used to work, toting a very plain-looking violin. I grabbed a bow and gave it a go – wow! It felt like I had a generator on my shoulder, so great was the liveliness of that back. When I asked him why he built it from timber that looked more like bridge wood, he told me how he found the blank. He was unloading a consignment of firewood from the bed of his pickup, tossing the logs into a pile on the ground. One log hit the pile and rung like a bell, causing him to leap down and snatch it up. He made a quartersawn back-and-sides set from the log, and the result was that cannon of a fiddle. This experience has stayed with me for years, making me yearn for more plain maple instruments.

Still, it’s hard to ignore the appeal of figured maple. Caused by compression of the wood grain during growth, the curly figure reflects light differentially, yielding amazing depth and a true 3D effect. Quilted grain figure, found only in western bigleaf maple, looks like boiling syrup. Birdseye figure occurs primarily in hard maple and looks, well, like little bird eyes, bless their hearts. An extreme version of this is the bubble maple that Gibson once used on archtops to great effect. The more extreme grain figures can definitely have an effect on tone, as the re-sawing process necessarily creates short grain and runout in the blank. But, hey, with looks like that, who cares?

A final note on species differences: take it all with a grain of salt. Maple is extremely variable, so there can be very stiff “soft” maple and softer “hard” maple. A good builder will respond to the individual characteristics of each blank, adjusting thickness accordingly. I myself have carved a hard maple mandolin back that felt like I was carving granite, and another in bigleaf that felt more like rawhide. And don’t get me started on what that lovely, rolling grain does when it meets a carelessly sharpened plane or gouge. Never a dull moment with maple in the shop!

In conclusion, with all of the new and vintage maple guitars in the world, maple still doesn’t get fully acknowledged for the interesting tonal properties it possesses. Try to get past the appearance and appreciate the value of a body that lets the top get where it’s going with minimal interference. Maple: it’s more than just a pretty back!

– Rob Sharer, Sound Pure Luthier

Bourgeois L-DBO/N #7391 with Aged Tone Curly Maple Back

Bourgeois L-DBO/N #7391 with Aged Tone Curly Maple Back

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Tonewood Spotlight: Mahogany

Bourgeois OO Country Boy

The Bourgeois Custom Sunburst OO Country Boy, A Testament to the Humble Power of Mahogany

How do I love thee, mahogany? Let me count the ways: L‑00, D‑18, O‑22, J‑45, Les Paul Junior….

Mahogany is the cornerstone tonewood of the fretted instrument world. What it lacks in dramatic visual appeal and breathless testimonial from wood-sniffers, it more than makes up for in suitability for instrument construction. If aliens landed tomorrow and announced they were taking all the tonewoods back to their home planet, but were willing to leave us one species to carry on building with, what else could we cling to that would be usable for making virtually every part of a guitar? Maple might make a better fingerboard, but mahogany is one of the only hardwoods that makes a decent topwood, in addition to being ideal for necks, blocks, kerfed linings – just about every part of the guitar.

Where it really shines, though, is when it is used for the back and sides of a steel-string acoustic guitar. Less dense than the rosewood species, its medium weight and open grain produce both warmth and punch, de-emphasizing the bass register while accentuating the crucial midrange, which, after all, is the guitar’s home turf in the tonal spectrum. I have always been attracted to the woody, open sound of a mahogany guitar, and, until the recent acquisition of a rosewood McPherson, have largely owned and played only mahogany guitars. For the player who values a dry, crunchy, punchy sound, mahogany gets the nod over rosewood’s rum-jug bass and metallic overtones.

From a builder’s perspective, mahogany is a dream to work with. Sharp chisels glide through with a crispy, satisfying crunch, a harbinger of the clear tones the finished instrument will produce. Hardly any task in lutherie is as satisfying to me as carving a mahogany neck, watching the drawknife go exactly where I send it with nary a bump, the polar opposite of curly maple’s swervy, fickle grain. The long, straight grain of the best mahogany makes a neck that will stay straight for generations; the same qualities make it an absolute joy on the bending iron when destined for a back-and-sides set. But what exactly is meant by the “best mahogany”? Isn’t all mahogany the same?

For such a simple wood, mahogany presents one of the most confusing classification systems in the timber world. On the face of it, would you think there would be a difference between “genuine mahogany” and “true mahogany”? But in those two similar words, genuine and true, lies a world of difference.

Capital “M” Mahogany, the sought-after wood for guitar building, comes only from the three species of the genus Swietenia, tropical trees that, when converted to timber, are collectively referred to as “genuine mahogany.” Honduran Mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla) is the species most often seen in the guitar-building world, with the rare Cuban Mahogany (Swietenia mahagoni) and smaller Pacific Coast Mahogany (Swietenia humilis) rounding out the genus. As Swietenia humilis is generally too small to produce good guitar lumber and Swietenia mahagoni is in extremely short supply, most of the mahogany seen in modern guitar construction is Swietenia macrophylla. It is the genuine mahogany… but is it true?

_2972-2972-Collings_290_DC_S_Vintage_White_Electric_Guitar-132ac8832b3-a

Solid Honduran Mahogany Body Collings 290 DC S Vintage White Electric Guitar

“True Mahogany” is a term used to refer to species that are not, well, true mahogany, if you like consistent word usage. Suspending that for the moment, let’s reserve “genuine” for our three Swietenia species and examine what’s left.

Swietenia is one genus in a family of trees, the chinaberry or Meliaceae family, which grows all over the tropics. Aside from Swietenia there are several genera in the Meliaceae which produce timber suitable for musical instrument construction, among other uses. These are collectively referred to as “True Mahogany.” Species commonly seen in the guitar world include Khaya, Sipo, and Sapele (and I will spare you further latin), all of which can make beautiful, toneful instruments. Still, caveat emptor (oops) – “true” does not mean “genuine.”

As a cautionary note, many other wood species that get called mahogany are nothing of the sort. There are many timbers which bear a superficial resemblance to mahogany but are from unrelated or distantly related species. Many of these travel under the handle “Philippine Mahogany,” a non-specific term for several species of mahogany-like woods that are frequently seen in student-level guitars from overseas. None possesses the sterling qualities of the better species of mahogany, whether true or genuine.

Whew! Out of the weeds at last. To sum up, mahogany is one of the most useful and toneful woods in the luthier’s arsenal. To those who see mahogany as only good enough for lower-level instruments (and I suppose we have Mr. Martin to thank for that), I would send you to your record collection to see how many of the classic tones we have long enjoyed were produced by mahogany instruments. From Robert Johnson’s L-1 and KG-14, to Woody Guthrie’s SJ, Bob Dylan’s 00-17 (mahogany top, no less), John and George’s J-160E pair, Bob Marley’s Les Paul Special, Norman Blake’s D-18… need I go on? Mahogany guitars have long been recognized by the world’s greatest guitarists as making some of the finest sounds around. Time to stop thinking of tonewood as a hierarchy and check out some fantastic mahogany guitars!

-Rob Sharer, Sound Pure Luthier

Call or email us for help if you’re considering a mahogany guitar and want to talk specifics!

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The Buscarino 20th Anniversary Virtuoso

The Buscarino 20th Anniversary Virtuoso

The Buscarino 20th Anniversary Virtuoso

John Buscarino is a luthier’s luthier, a true master craftsman and artist whose guitars are as beautiful as they are playable and pleasing to listen to. He is a rare builder who can create a truly exceptional nylon string, steel-string flat top, or archtop, having apprenticed with both Augustine LoPrinzi and Bob Benedetto on the road to becoming fluent in several guitar-building paradigms. Now, after 20 years as an independent craftsman, it’s time for a celebration!

This Buscarino 20th Anniversary Virtuoso is my idea of a jazz guitar. Retaining many of the Art Deco touchstones of the classic archtop designs of the early 20th century, but with a late 20th-century disdain for plastic, it manages to look current and timeless at the same time. As John’s self-described “crown jewel” in the archtop line, the Virtuoso always features wood choices intended to stun, with European cello woods for the major parts and elegant burl veneer on the peghead. Looking at this 20th Anniversary model, one immediately notices a difference, an understated yet profound “je ne sais quoi.” Wait, what exactly is that fingerboard? Is there such a thing as birdseye brazilian? Quilted cocobolo? Blister bocote? What is that wood?

That wood, friends, is snakewood, one of the rarest, hardest, most expensive, and most beautiful woods on Earth. With a tap tone like a windowpane, there is nothing to prevent the transmission of your every finger-flick to the relevant tone-producing parts of the guitar. If it weren’t so hard to find in guitar component sizes, you would certainly see more of it. Want to see more of it right now? Take a stroll around this Buscarino; the more you look, the more you’ll see. Fingerboard, bridge (housing a Barbera pickup), tailpiece, finger-rest, tuner buttons… is there anywhere else John could have put some snakewood? Incredibly, yes – the pickup cover. John’s Buscarino signature floating pickup is entirely ensconced in snakewood. What a look, and what a sound.

Buscarino20thAnnVirtuoso

A 17″ archtop with a 25″ scale and 1-3/4″ nut, this guitar is a wonderful mix of L-5 orchestra-guitar volume and ES-175 playability. Acoustically, it can chunk out all the Freddie Green you’d care to comp, or translate every Mixolydian flat-13 nuance that a fingerstyle jazzer could imply. Plugged in, the dual-source pickup system lets you shade your amplified tone either way. The slim neck fits the hand like a kidskin driving glove, the fretwork is impeccable, and the action is super consistent up and down the neck. Simply put, there is absolutely nothing standing between you and effortless musical expression.

DSC_0017-2

We all love a pretty guitar, and we’re all looking for “that sound.” How often do both turn up at once? When the builder is John Buscarino, I’d say it’s every singe time he picks up a chisel.

Hats off to you, John. This guitar is a world-beater.

– Rob Sharer, Sound Pure Luthier

(We now have a pre-owned Buscarino 20th Anniversary Virtuoso in excellent shape at our shop… give us a call for details! 919.794.7977)

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Moog Day at Sound Pure!

Next Saturday, April 27th, 2013 get ready for Moog Day!

Presented by Sound Pure and Moog Music we invite you to come join us at our 732 Washington Street location on 4/27 from 1pm-3pm. Come by to get Special Deals on Moog Products and tons of FREE Moog swag! Enter the Raffle for a Moog MinitaurAn otherworldly demo of Moog Music products will be presented by Pro Musicians at 1pm!

We’ll probably head out to some of the local breweries after the event, so come party with us to celebrate Moog Day!!

Check out our Facebook Event Page to RSVP!

Posted in About Soundpure, Effects Pedals, Guitar Accessories, Preamplifiers, Pro Audio Gear, Specials and Deals | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Moog Day at Sound Pure!