When making a guitar, what wood should you use? No matter what you choose, someone will always tell you that you should’ve used something else. If you decide to read up on the topic on the internet, everyone has an opinion. But I wouldn’t trust too many of them. The only people who can really know how a guitar will resonate depending on the wood are the people who are playing a lot of guitars day in and day out. This means luthiers, repairman, set-up technicians at guitar factories.
I make and design guitars and I need to take a lot of things into account. The type of wood is important but other things can trump this. Many people will tell you that “mahogany is the best” or “you have to use “ash” and these are safe answers to this very complex question. Yet, the tone of a guitar can be altered very dramatically by other factors.
When I first started to produce factory-made guitars in Korea, I insisted on using poplar. I owned an old 60′s Mustang that I thought sounded amazing. The guitar had its original finish stripped and I could clearly see the greenish tinge that told me it was poplar (as well as the smell when sanding it). Since I knew that Fender usually used ash or alder and Gibson used mahogany, I went for the poplar thinking this would give my brand its own sonic fingerprint.
This was working fine until the guitars started getting very heavy. I asked the factory to use lighter pieces of poplar but they were still showing up heavier than normal. I decided to try other types of wood in the hopes of getting the weight down. I specified mahogany, ash, alder and basswood as well as poplar. The guitars became much lighter. Since 95% of my guitars have solid color finishes it was not always obvious what types wood were being used until I needed to do some routing for a custom job. I started noticing lots of mahogany and basswood bodies.
But to my surprise I did not notice a shift in tonality. The guitars were still sounding great and we were still getting the same great reviews. Also, at the time I was supplying the band Los Straitjackets with new guitars and they sounded just as good as ever through their old Fender Vibrolux amps.
Now, I’m not saying there is NO difference in the tonal qualities of different woods. There will always be subtle differences in different types of wood. But I also notice differences in tone when trying out two identical guitar made from the same wood, that came off the same assembly line.
I can tell you that I am not a fan of maple, it is very hard and bright, though it can be warmed up with the right pickup. And pine (from the hardware store) is a little too soft and kind of dead sounding. Any wood that is aged will always sound better. I rarely find and old solid body guitar from the sixties that I can’t get a cool sound out of, no matter who made it.
But that brings me to my last point. Along with the right pickup and decent hardware, the setup is key to the sound. If the strings are not set to the perfect height a guitar can feel and sound completely dead and off. I am fanatical about my set-ups. I do 90% of all the set-ups on our DiPinto guitars and the ones I don’t do I check over from head to toe. For this reason, you can find a guitar made by another company but made in the same factory as a DiPinto, and get far inferior sound quality and playability.
So if you are trying to figure out what wood to use on the guitars you plan to make, all I can tell you is that you should use the lightest and/or oldest available mahogany, alder, bass wood, poplar or ash that can be found. And if you ever decide to buy a DiPinto, you can be assured that the tone of your guitars will be killer because of any one of the light weight resonant woods we use, but also because of a great set-up, a well thought out design and great pickups!