View Full Version : The Wood Thing

Feb-05-2004, 8:41pm
I’ve always found it interesting that opinions differ so widely about wood selection in building instruments. Experts often disagree about tonal characteristics…sometimes going in opposite directions. For example:

Stephen Owsley Smith:
It’s my opinion, based on my observation and experience of its characteristics, that rosewood (Indian or Brazilian) is an inappropriate wood for carved backs, tending to result in a tone that is closed, overly tight, hard-edged, brittle and poorly balanced.

Stefan Sobell:
My Citterns and Octave Mandolins are built with carved and x-braced arch-tops and curved backs. On my larger instruments, from the biggest guitars down to octave mandolins and citterns, I prefer to build the back and sides of either Indian or Brazilian rosewood. Rosewood gives an instrument such a rich and sonorous sound that I'm reluctant to use other woods, such as mahogany or maple. Mahogany gives a drier sound than I like, and though I love maple mandolins and mandolas, maple takes some of the richness from the lower notes of guitars and bouzoukis.

What’s your opinion?

Feb-06-2004, 11:12pm
I have three or four Brazilian Rosewood instruments - all are remarkable, all are too delicate to play in public (from 1902 to 1920 or so). Brazilian Rosewood - to me - the Grail of fretted instruments. I've been trying to swindle my brother out of two Gianini's he picked up in Brazil in the early sixties but no - will he listen to reason, or even begging?

I also have numerous Maple instruments which are to say the least, loud. But, at this time - I am totally transfixed with Tasmanian Blackwood. This stuff is light in weight, strong, almost psychodelic in it's three dimensional grain texture and most importantly - Resonant. The three instruments i've played which were made from it felt - ah - alive. Neither the Rosewoods or the Maples have that curious sensation. So - another variable is brought into the fray.

Ron - I just reread the quotes from both Smith and Sobell - there is one other variable, Smith was talking about a carved back - Sobell seems to be referring to an induced arch back. Perhaps both are right in their assesments. My Blackbood back and sides Mandola has an induced arch ... I've only heard of one Blackwood which was carved. This makes a big difference in sound output and texture.

Feb-07-2004, 2:57am
Yes, what Dolamon said. Steve carves the tops & backs, Stefan uses an induced arch back so it's really sort of apples & oranges. Recently, Stefan has been making maple-backed mandolins too though.

Steve tends to use Hawaiian Acacia Koa for backs & sides. It's a spectacular-looking wood, much more figure than even the most wavy maple, and produces a wonderful tone. Well, at least the overall effect is amazing, I haven't heard one made from maple to compare against, but you get the idea.

Again, my usual impulse in this area is only express a preference to a builder when offered the choice for cosmetic reasons etc- I feel that a builder should be in charge of picking the top & back woods based on the sound the custmer wants.. the builer will know much better what effects they can get from various materials, and it's best to trust them in that area.

Feb-08-2004, 7:38am
If I understand you guys correctly a particular tonewood could react completely differently on flat back, carved back, and induced arched back instruments. By extension, I'd think the entire design (shape, bracing, etc.) interacts wtih the woods too. So we cannot rely on general description of tonewood properties without understanding how the guitar is built.

This is very interesting. Many luthiers such as those cited above discuss the tonal properties of wood on their websites as if the wood itself had those properties (e.g., rosewood is warm, maply is bright) but its really a function of both the wood and the build characteristics of the luthier. This make sense, although the luthiers' websites don't make this point clearly. Could be my simplistic reading of it...

I guess I'm with you on this. Forget the generic descriptions of the tonal properties of woods and rely on the luthier to build what you want.

Feb-10-2004, 11:16am
Hey danb

Do you have any comments on what an induced arch back does for the sound of any instrument?

Chris in Canada

Feb-10-2004, 1:05pm
Well hmm, I've only had one so I could describe that instrument to you.. It was a 10-string Sobell "large bodied mandola" which means it's a bouzouki soundbox on a 21" scale. Spruce top, stained red, and an indian rosewood back. Tonewise.. it was quite warm & bassy (soundbox size perhaps) with a very warm complex tone.

Contrasted to my SOS (carved koa back, carved Cedar top, longer scale) it had a more complex sustain and a less-defined attack.

But really.. it's like comparing a bus to a submarine.. very different things, not a very controlled comparison!

I think Phil Crump uses an induced arch in his backs.. Dervish's Michael Holmes plays a Crump (actually 3 of them, last I counted!)


Feb-10-2004, 1:56pm
Having owned and played lots of Sobells (spruce and cedar tops, EI rosewood, mahogany and maple back/sides) and SOSs (Koa, Maple, Cuban Mahoangy and Claro Walnut back/sides - Cedar, Engelmann Spruce and Italian Spruce topes) over the last 22 years, I'd have to say that the builder and the design makes much more of a difference than the wood they choose, and individual instruments of the same design by the same builder with the same woods tend to vary to the point that the builder wants them to. Sobell's perhaps less so, but SOS's vary a great deal depending on for whom they are built.