Mahogany vs. Rosewood Guitars

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Mahogany vs. Rosewood Guitars
James Blunt with a mahogany-topped Gibson acoustic. (Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images)

The wood used to construct the top part of a guitar body is called the tonewood. This is because it strongly influences the tone and resonance of the guitar. Typically, the tonewood is the material referred to when describing the guitar. For example, "the Taylor 500 is a mahogany guitar." Two popular woods are mahogany and rosewood. While both woods are typically associated with high-quality guitars, they have multiple, important differences.

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Tone

Mahogany is typically denser than rosewood, with the exception of Bolivian rosewood, which is denser than most mahoganies. This lends mahogany a darker, heavier tone. Rosewood guitars, such as the Martin C.F., have a brighter, lighter tone. Mahogany guitars have more pronounced midrange frequencies, while rosewood guitars have a broader frequency range with pronounced lows and highs, and a slightly more subtle midrange.

Sustain and Resonance

Tone is concerned with the frequency range and sonic character produced by the wood, while sustain and resonance deal with the volume and projection the wood produces. Due to its greater density of mahogany, it produces a rich tone, but the compactness of the wood produces a lighter resonance. Rosewood is more brittle and there is more air in the wood, so it typically has a greater propensity for resonance. Sustain, while partially determined by the wood, is also determined by the construction of the guitar. For example, the type of bracing and choice of back and side woods influence the sustain as much -- if not more than -- the tone wood; however, with all things being equal, rosewood typically has a longer sustain.

Colour

Rosewood is much darker than mahogany, but this difference may be disguised in the manufacturing process by wood staining. It's never advisable to choose a guitar based entirely on its colour, as build quality, price and sound are more important.

Reliability

Mahoganies can be quite variable from sample to sample. This means you can't rely on every mahogany guitar to have exactly the same tonal qualities. Rosewood is a much more reliable wood, with less variance between samples. It's important to treat the varieties of rosewood as different woods. While Brazilian rosewood and Indian rosewood have many tonal and aesthetic similarities, they are distinct woods with their own defining characteristics.

Strength

Mahogany and rosewood are used in guitar construction for their acoustic properties, not their load-bearing properties. Neither wood is renowned for its strength, but rosewood is the more brittle of the two woods. The luthier Ervin Somogyi claims that rosewood is typically brittle in proportion to the brightness of its tone.

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