Is mahogany or meranti better for guitars?

Guitar woods and other materials

by Heinz Rebellius,

Of course, wood still plays first fiddle in the production of electric guitars, although the topic of sustainability is now being discussed intensively for some woods. Here is a list of the types of wood that play a role in electric guitar construction!

Whereby our overview of the guitar woods is quite coarse-pored, if you consider that of most of the wood types mentioned here there are many genera and types that can sometimes differ greatly in their natural and physical properties.


Use: body wood

Origin: Europe, North America

Specification: medium strength and density

Sound character: supports a sound rich in overtones with a restrained tone

Bass range



Use: body wood

Origin: Europe, North America

Specification: very different

Sound character: assertive, lively



Use: body wood

Origin: Lousiana / USA

Specification: medium hard

Sound character: gentle, high-pitched, dynamic



Use: body wood

Origin: Europe, North America

Specification: soft

Sound character: emphasis on the touch, relatively little

Sustain, rather dark sound



Use: body wood

Origin: USA, Asia

Specification: soft

Sound character: rather dark, like linden



Use: body, neck

Origin: Central and South America, Africa, Cuba

Specification: relatively stiff, soft to medium hard

Density (depending on type)

Sound character: soft, balanced, long sustain



Usage: neck, fingerboard, top, rare

for the body, sustain block

Origin: Europe, North America

Specification: relatively hard

Sound character: broadband, center-weighted, defined bass and

Height proportions


+ Rosewood

Usage: fretboard, neck (rare),

Bridge (with archtops)

Origin: East India, South America, Africa

Specification: great strength and density

Sound character: full, round, powerful, airy and harmonious



Use: fingerboard, bridge (for archtops)

Origin: Asia, Africa

Specification: very hard and heavy

Sound character: direct tone, quick response,

even sound progression



Use: fingerboard

Origin: South America

Specification: great strength and density

Sound character: full, round, powerful, quick response



Use: body, neck

Origin: Africa

Specification: medium density and strength

Sound character: good-natured, brittle, balanced, with defined

Bass and treble components



Use: Body (with inexpensive massive as well

Full and semi-resonance guitars)

Origin: depending on the woods used

Specification: high strength

Sound character: neutral



The topic of wood shortages is becoming more and more present these days. A rigorous trade ban in Rio rosewood has existed for many years, but other woods such as z. B. Ebony and South American mahogany are high on the lists of wood protection organizations. It is time for the guitar makers to look around for suitable alternatives - and many have found what they are looking for.

So is z. B. Cedro is a very good substitute for Honduras and South American mahogany, and the African khaya is already established in guitar making, where it is also used instead of mahogany. Right now, the focus of attention is pawlonia, an extremely fast-growing wood that is said to have the tonal properties of alder. Hagstrom was one of the first well-known companies to discover this wood, which is also often used for boats and surfboards, and produces several series with it. In Hagstrom jargon, this wood is called Empress.

In Nordic countries, where flora and fauna are exposed to significantly colder temperatures, there are also some types of wood that are suitable for making guitars. Finnish birch comes e.g. B. used as a substitute for maple as a top material. And: There are also guitar makers who consciously experiment with local woods. See the corresponding column in this issue!


Other materials

Of course there are always manufacturers who build guitars with other materials. However, these have not yet outgrown their niche status, because the majority of guitar-playing musicians continue to rely on wood.

Metal in guitar construction is anything but new. The Dopyera brothers built various metal instruments for their companies National and Dobro in the 1920s. The Italian designer Wandré built many of his unusual guitar creations out of aluminum, and in the 1970s and 80s American manufacturers such as Kramer and Travis Bean tried to achieve success with metal necks. In terms of its acoustic properties and its relatively easy workability, aluminum actually seems to be a suitable material for guitar construction. The fact that metal guitars naturally have to be hollow - if not, they would be way too heavy. The Frenchman James Trussart, for example, builds his guitars out of aluminum. He mostly uses classic designs such as the Gibson Les Paul or Fender Telecaster and thus achieves considerable sales success.

The Berlin guitar maker Nick Page also makes electric guitars from aluminum, in which various vintage elements can be mixed in an innovative way and the special type of surface design turns each instrument into a work of art in its own right.

The world's first electric guitar, Rickenbacker's “The Frying Pan” Lapsteel, was made of Bakelite, a carbon fiber material. Then, in the 1960s, several manufacturers began to work with fiberglass-reinforced synthetic resin. E.g. Valco, who made guitars from so-called Res-o-Glass. The Englishman Dan Armstrong built electric guitars and basses from transparent Plexiglas for the Ampeg company, which were reissued at the end of the 1990s.

Some German manufacturers have also discovered the material acrylic for themselves. FMW, the Berlin company of the physicist Frank-Michael Weber, has dedicated itself entirely to acrylic because, like Frank-M. Weber says that the low internal damping and the high stiffness of acrylic glass must lead to an excellent sustain. Above all, the vibration properties of this material are much more constant and can be determined more precisely in advance than the properties of any tonewood.

In Finland, the Flaxwood company produces innovative guitars from a material whose base is still wood, but this is frayed, mixed with a secret binder and cast in molds for both the neck and the body. When you play these guitars, the thought never arises that they are made of plastic. Aristides from the Netherlands builds guitars from the miraculous material Arium, which essentially consists of various resins mixed with microscopic, hollow glass spheres. This structurally rather fragile mixture is enclosed by a stable outer skin made of vinyl ester, fiberglass and carbon fabric strips.

The company has meanwhile won some famous musicians as customers who are enthusiastic about the tonal possibilities of the Aristides guitars. Of course we mustn't forget the pioneers of this type of guitar making with such a list. Ned Steinberger with his headless instruments made of carbon fiber, but also the Americans Modulus Graphite, Modes Graphite, Status Guitars from England or Miller Guitars from Germany built or build instruments from this carbon fiber composite, which has found its way into guitars in various forms , but has not been able to establish itself as a material for the construction of a complete guitar.

Besides Ned Steinberger, only the American Ken Parker has been able to present himself with alternative materials. Founded in the early 1990s by Ken Parker and electronics expert Larry Fishman (who later started his own successful career with his pickups for acoustic instruments), Parker guitars included several innovations and not only differed in the used ones Materials, but also in design clearly different from traditionally built guitars. The body and neck consisted of a wooden core, mostly light poplar, which was covered with fiberglass-reinforced plastic made of carbon and glass fiber. This construction made it possible to build extremely light guitars with high robustness at the same time.

The first Parker guitar was the Fly Vibrato Deluxe, which was equipped with magnetic and piezoceramic pickups and was able to produce electrical and acoustic sounds for the first time. Ken Parker sold his company to US Music Corp .; today Parker guitars are built side by side with Washburn Custom Shop guitars near Chicago. The program is more diverse, but the original, radical concept has been softened. So there are z. B. Parker models that are made entirely of wood. After selling the company, Ken Parker switched from big business to producing extravagant archtop guitars.


The point of painting is not primarily to beautify the look of a guitar, but to protect the wood from damage and moisture. For this purpose, the first electric guitars were sealed with so-called nitrocellulose lacquers (short: NC or nitro lacquers). Nitro lacquers originally consist of a mixture of gun cotton (collodion, also called nitrocellulose), natural or synthetic resins and a mixture of solvents.

Usually five to eight thin layers are applied. After the application, the solvent evaporates and the solids of the paint (approx. 20 to 30%) remain on the guitar. Nitro lacquer has a natural color and does not have to be colored, but this is entirely possible. However, it is not able to absorb the UV radiation from sunlight. This is why dark or light-colored nitro paints fade over time. NC lacquers can be easily dissolved with nitro thinner; repair is not a problem.

In the meantime, nitro painting of the original type is only used in small businesses, while synthetic-based paints are the most common. Not only are they harder than nitro paint, they are also much easier to work with. These polyurethane paints, or PUR paints for short, have a solids content of at least 50%, which means that only half as many layers have to be applied as with nitro paint.

Why the PUR lacquers are applied in unnecessarily thick thicknesses not so rarely, remains a secret of the manufacturers. PUR lacquers cannot be loosened after hardening, which means that lacquer damage cannot be repaired satisfactorily. In addition to PUR lacquers, DD lacquers are widespread. They consist of a base lacquer (Desmophen) and a hardener (Desmodur), developed by Bayer in Leverkusen. Like the PUR varnishes, the DD varnishes can be processed quickly and offer the instrument good protection, but are also no longer dissolvable.

Polyester paints (UP paints) are also widespread. They consist of a base lacquer, polyester resin dissolved in styrene, and a chemical hardener, organic peroxide. The finish is very hard and can be polished to a high gloss very well. However, it is sensitive to shock and is usually applied much too thickly due to its high solids content of 90%.

Duesenberg has combined the topics of metal and paint in an interesting way. Here, wooden guitar blanks are given a kind of special metal paint that gives the entire guitar a rusty look.

For several years now, Warwick / Framus has been working with an ecologically sustainable UV coating system that it developed itself. In cooperation with paint producers, system manufacturers and Warwick, an innovative and high-quality high-tech coating was created from water-based UV paint, which is only applied in a very thin layer and can cure within seconds (!) With the addition of UV light in a nitrogen environment . This not only saves the high energy consumption of a normally long curing phase, but also makes the paint harder and more transparent. The instruments painted in this way are very scratch-resistant and solvent-resistant. In addition, the proportion of solvents in these high-gloss UV lacquers is less than 10%, which means that there is no longer any diffusion immediately after curing.

Conclusion: For the sound of a guitar it is less important which varnish is used than how thick it is applied. Modern guitars today are often treated with a thin layer of PUR, DD or, as in the case of Warwick / Framus, UV lacquer, all of which protect the instrument better from external influences than a nitro lacquer, and which still breathe it to let.

No paint, but ...

Some marginalized companies, but above all some manufacturers in the 1960s, came onto the market with guitars that were not lacquered but covered with other materials. In Italy, but also in Sweden at Hagstrom, extensive use was made of celluloid, perloid and other colored plastics, which mainly came from accordion construction. In Germany, guitar bodies at Höfner, Klira, Framus and others used to be wrapped in fancy synthetic leather. And a few companies have even dedicated themselves to real leather, such as B. Leather Guitars from Backnang in Swabia.

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