Tonewoods

There are a small number of timbers that will produce a pleasant tone when struck with your knuckles. Some of those can be carved into particular shapes and used in a percussion instrument like the Marimba.  Such materials can, and are, used in guitars,  but they are not what is generally regarded as a “tonewood” in guitar making.

The word “tonewood” simply means any timber that is used in making musical instruments. It is not the case that some woods can produce musical sounds, while other timbers do not. Certainly, each timber may sound “different” and different players will have their own preference, but every timber ever discovered could be, and probably has been, used in a musical instrument of some sort, at some time.  As the supply of certain timbers becomes more restricted, other timbers have become more acceptable and appreciated.  That has always been the case. So what governs the choice of woods that are commonly used?

First, it is a question of supply ~ what is available in the right sizes? Then the question of workability arises, is the wood strong and stable enough, can it be bent, shaped, glued and polished? The  music of the local area sets a basic design using those materials, then that design evolves, details change, construction methods improve until a particular timber becomes associated with a particular instrument and certain tones. If the violin had evolved in Brazil, its materials, shape and music might have been very different.

We only need to look at the Sitar, Ukulele and Banjo to see all these things at work ~ materials, technology and culture conspire to create an instrument unique to a local environment and its music. The Lute is a wonderful example of what then happens when international trade becomes part of the equation, they have been made from just about everything, materials from all over the world, including Sycamore, Ebony, Pear, Ash, Rosewood, Ivory and even copper. Each one has been a valid, working, musical instrument, each with its individual character and tone. 

Tone is not a “quantity” in the sense of “more tone” or “less tone”. It is more like a recipe, a list of all the different ingredients, the partials, overtones or harmonics that make up the whole sound. Volume is the quantity of sound, tone is the quality, most of that quality comes from the design of the instrument, and a large part comes from the materials used.

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