Acoustic guitars are mostly made of wood of course and different woods have a wide range of sound. I’ve written about the differences in tone of guitars with bodies of rosewood and mahogany – the two most commonly used woods – and less common woods such as maple, birch and Tasmanian blackwood. Some manufacturers have begun using a hardwood called sapele, which is similar in looks and sound to mahogany and with mahogany becoming much more expensive in recent years, sapele is a very viable and commonly available alternative.
But today I’m going to talk about the most basic difference between expensive acoustics and cheaper ones. Most high-end guitars from American and Canadian makers are made of all solid wood bodies, with solid spruce or solid mahogany tops. Lesser priced models have bodies of composites of those woods. Composite is a nice word for – plywood! A few companies such as Martin and Taylor offer lower end guitars made of “high pressure laminate,” which is a type of composite pressed together under high pressure. The idea there is that HPL is a denser substance, therefore better at transmitting and amplifying the vibration of the strings resulting in a more resonant sound. My experience is that this is mostly true, compared to basic laminate sides and backs. In the case of the X-series Martins and Taylors such as the very popular GS Mini the sound is surprisingly good and the durability of HPL is outstanding.
Higher end guitars made of all solid woods in most cases do sound better than ones made of laminates, but not always. I have played some solid wood (and very expensive!) guitars from famous makers that were dull and lifeless sounding, although that is not usually the case. I have also played some “plywood” guitars that sounded downright amazing. Many years ago I sold a basic Yamaha FG-165 to a student that rivaled any Martin D-18 I’ve played before or since. I wish I knew what happened to her and that guitar – I would buy it back in a heartbeat if I could!
Of great importance is the wood used on the top of an acoustic guitar. There is no question that solid spruce transmits string vibration more efficiently than a composite. This just makes sense – a composite with a layer between two thin veneers has trouble vibrating evenly. A solid top with grain that goes all the way through to the braces allows for a more direct transmition of string vibration and the result is better resonance and sustain. Thankfully, even many lower priced imported guitars are available with solid tops and I strongly recommend buying one of those. There is a whole world of argument among guitar geeks about the relative merit of tight-grained solid tops versus wider grain, but I won’t get into that now!
Getting back to the price issue, making a guitar with all solid woods is just more expensive for the manufacturer and this drives up the price. The wood itself is much more expensive and solid woods are somewhat more difficult to use in construction. More skilled labor is required to correctly assemble a solid wood guitar and to shape and bend it for use. This too drives up the price.
So is it worth dropping a considerable sum on a guitar made from all-solid wood? My opinion is yes – with some qualifiers. An all-solid wood guitar from a respected maker is a “solid” investment (excuse the pun!). These guitars maintain much of their value for many reasons but the expectation that the wood will “open up” and the guitar will sound even better in years to come is a big consideration. Laminate bodied guitars are pretty much a what-you-hear-is-what-you-get proposition. But as I said before, that doesn’t necessarily mean the sound will be bad. It could be quite good in fact!
With most of us it just comes down to money of course. What you have to decide is how much the satisfaction of playing a quality instrument is worth. Don’t reject the idea of a laminate guitar out of hand because you may be surprised. And don’t assume an all-solid wood guitar is going to sound fantastic from moment one. If possible, play as many guitars as you can, take all information offered by musician friends, salesmen at stores, and yes, even rambling guitar teachers into account but with at least a small grain of salt. And remember – no one has made the perfect guitar….yet!
Peace & good music,