Wood, it’s a complex subject. And for guitar makers can often become much more complex because of the claimed tonal properties of different woods, a subject I will return to later.
But what is the wood you are buying for your guitar, and where does it come from, and does it really matter that much?
Over the last month I have been working on two commission guitars for customers here in the Fakenham workshop. One is a solid body violin bass, a kind of hybrid between the old EB-1, and a Les Paul bass. The other is a ‘Les Tele’ – it looks like a telecaster but it’s built like a Les Paul with a figured maple top, glued in neck and two humbuckers.
Here’s a picture of three offcuts from the timbers I used across the two jobs.
All three were supplied to me as being ‘Mahogany’. But clearly they aren’t the same. So which one is the real Mahogany, and what are the imposters’ real identities?
I’ll give you a few seconds to take an educated guess……..have you made your choice yet. If so, read on:
Starting on the left, the first sample is ‘Sapele’. Many supplier simply supply this as ‘Mahogany’, but although its is from the same family, the Meliaceae family of tree, it is from the Entandrophragma genus, which is not that similar to what we know as real mahogany. For a start, it is much more dense, making it a heavy wood for bodies. Also it’s grain structure is more interwoven and complex, making it harder to plane and sand. However, it is very good for necks and looks amazingly red even without staining. I have used it for the body on the Violin bass, and it looks simply stunning.
The middle sample was also sold to me as Mahogany. And it is, in a way. It’s African Mahogany, from the Khaya genus of trees. Although the grain structure looks similar, for me this wood is not really mahogany. However, when looking for fairly good lengths for bass necks, this is often the only real choice offered by luthier supplies companies. It’s light so it won’t make the guitar neck heavy, and that’s it’s main advantage. It also takes a stain well. But it’s a pig to work with a lot of the time. Supply is very hit and miss for quality, and I have thrown a piece away recently because it was just rubbish, cracking along the grain and tearing out everywhere, even with freshly sharpened tools (and my tools are very sharp, I assure you!).
The one on the right, is what most people would call ‘Mahhogany’. Almost certainly from the Swietenia genus of trees, and harvested in the only continent in the world where real mahogany grows – the Americas. I have just built a telecaster body from this, and I can honestly say it’s one of the nicest pieces of wood I have ever worked with.
But here’s the catch. It was probably a pretty old tree when it was cut down, over 100 years ago! It was reclaimed from the bar at the Fox and Hounds, Heacham, and probably dates back to the beginning of the last century.
So when you buy an off the shelf guitar and they tell you it’s a mahogany back and neck, and the guitar was made in the far east – which of these species do you think you got?
More importantly, could you tell the difference?
That’s a subject I’ll come back to another day……