In today’s article, we’re going to compare the characteristics of Mahogany and Spruce and explain the differences in both of these tonewoods with regard to responsiveness, volume, visual appeal, and acoustic tone.
If you’re in a hurry, I’ve provided a summary below:
Mahogany produces a warmer, fuller sound than Spruce, making it a popular option for fingerstyle guitar. Spruce is livelier with more emphasis on the top end which makes it great for strumming and band scenarios.
If you are looking for a more detailed explanation continue reading.
The Importance of Wood Choice
To the new player who hasn’t had the time to become versed in the nuanced differences between the various types of woods acoustic guitars use, it’s easy to become lost when trying to figure out which tonewood will suit your style best.
While it ultimately comes down to personal preference, the information below provides a comprehensive comparison between two of the most popular wood choices for solid wood acoustic guitars, mahogany, and spruce.
The tonal qualities of mahogany
Mahogany is an ‘easy wood to wrap your head around’ wood because the sound of it as a tonewood is very much in line with how it looks visually. That is to say dark, dense, and warm.
A common tonewood, all-mahogany acoustic guitars (back, sides, neck, and soundboard) are known for offering clarity and balance, accentuating the mid-range, and offering up a mellow, warm tone.
Most commonly used as a top wood with Brazilian rosewood back and sides its density helps to roll off a bit of that top end to create a smoother sound with less trebly, complex overtones. It also does a great job of promoting the bass frequencies which you can think of as creating a ‘rich’ or ‘thick’ sound, or strong fundamental.
It has a very pleasant warm tone that many describe as ‘woody’ or ‘earthy’ because of its full-bodied sound and quite subtle overtones.
Because of this prominent emphasis on the bass and mid-range with a less harsh top end, it can really make things like single notes or fingerpicking sound balanced and full.
Because of that top-end roll-off, it also has a bit less projection when compared to spruce. But that is not to say it’s quiet by any means, from a raw decibel output that additional bass makes it more than capable of holding its own in a live setting.
Tonal qualities of spruce
Spruce is visually a much brighter and livelier-looking wood, and its tonal qualities very much follow suit.
It projects extremely well and has a perceived louder and bolder sound when compared to the more subdued mahogany. There’s more presence and complex overtones in the top end with less emphasis on the bass. People often describe it as having a snappier, more aggressive response.
Spruce tops are often paired with a darker wood for the back and sides such as rosewood or mahogany to help even things out and bring balance to the overall tone.
It’s really versatile and when paired with other woods really adds that pristine and clean sounding top end that most styles of playing benefit from.
Which wood for which kind of player
Let’s get into the meat of things, with our knowledge of the fundamental tonal qualities of each wood we can get an idea of which characteristics might benefit a particular style of playing.
One of the styles mahogany really helps to accent is fingerpicking, because we are primarily using single notes we want them to sound as rich and thick as possible. In particular, when picking bass notes with your thumb the extra low-end really helps widen and project the sound.
Whereas a brighter sounding wood that doesn’t have that pronounced mid-range and bass response may make the single-note playstyle of fingerpicking sound a little thin and reedy sounding.
But it’s also worth mentioning that because of the perceived quieter volume due to the less prominent top-end when compared to spruce. It can make competing with a singer, or god forbid a drummer, challenging if you play unplugged. You might need to consider a pickup system, or some kind of amplification to make yourself known on the stage.
This makes mahogany a less common choice for strummers who are less concerned with the bass response and just need as much cut and projection as possible.
Being a more dense wood it’s also heavier than spruce, but this shouldn’t be something that concerns you as acoustic guitars are seldom heavy enough to cause problems. It’s something that becomes much more noticeable when you use a solid mahogany electric guitar.
Popular models of guitar that use Mahogany:
- Martin D15m
- Taylor 520
- Seagull S6 mahogany
Spruce has a much more in your face, loud and proud tonality to it. This makes it ideal for things like worship guitar or just general band situations where you need those high frequencies to be able to slice through the mix.
However, for some people, the lack of emphasis on the bass and mids can make ‘solo’ playing, particularly fingerpicking, sound a little abrasive and feel like it needs a bit more of the body that mahogany offers.
But that doesn’t make the wood inappropriate for these styles, it’s incredibly common to pair a spruce top with a darker/richer sounding back and sides to help bring balance.
This way you get a little bit of everything, the cut, bite, and volume of the spruce top while the darker back and side woods will still help give you that girth and body you need when you need to play something like a fingerpicked piece.
It’s important to always judge a spruce-topped guitar by taking into account the woods it’s been paired with to get a better idea of the instrument’s overall tonal picture.
Popular models of guitar that use Spruce:
- Taylor Engelmann Spruce
- Martin custom shop
- Takamine 30 series
Different species of wood
Oftentimes guitar manufacturers have a preference for a particular species of wood they are using. As when we talk about mahogany or spruce these actually account for a number of species from that particular genus.
For example, you might see a guitar that specifically states African mahogany, Honduran, or Cuban mahogany.
And likewise, for Spruce you may see terms like Sitka spruce, Engelmann spruce, Adirondack (red) spruce, or German spruce.
While there are subtle differences between these species, by and large, they all share the same base tonal qualities. This compounded with the ‘other factors’ we will cover next really makes worrying about these details less important unless you are a seasoned tone chaser.
So as a buyer, don’t sweat what ‘type’ of mahogany or spruce the guitar is made from, and stick to the broader strokes.
Other factors to consider
While it’s all well and good picking a wood, or set of woods, that on paper match your preferences. It’s important to remember that there are many other factors that play a role in determining your final tone.
These factors can be so impactful that they will actually offset the tonal qualities of the wood, so it’s very important to take these into consideration.
The size of the guitar
While we may talk about spruce being louder or mahogany having a more pronounced bass.
The size of the guitar also will influence these same elements. Here’s a very quick rundown of the most common guitar sizes and their tonal qualities so you can factor these in when judging spruce against mahogany:
- Dreadnought – large body shape, good all-around which a healthy amount of low end. Often described as having a ‘full’ sound.
- Parlor guitar – small body, more emphasis on the mids with less low end.
- Concert guitar (0) – a bright and loud sound, that helps with projection and cutting through the mix
- Grand Concert (00) – louder than the concert guitar, the additional low end can overshadow the treble giving it an implied or relative darker sound.
There are more sizes than this out there and we encourage you to research the particular size of the guitar you’re interested in beforehand to see how this might influence your choice in tonewood.
Laminating the tops of a guitar is a process in which instead of using a single piece of wood (which we call a solid top) they instead use multiple, thinner pieces and seal them together using a mixture of heat, pressure, and glue.
This is a cheaper process and saves the manufacturer on some wood costs. Plus, it’s also a little bit more durable, being less susceptible to things such as climate and humidity changes.
Generally speaking, laminate guitars lack a little bit of that sustain and rich resonance a solid top provides. As solid wood guitars age, their resonance and projection can actually improve, whereas laminated tops tend to stay pretty stable.
Electronics and mixing
It’s common these days to install pickup systems in your guitar, or perhaps they already come from the factory with a pre-amp installed.
If playing plugged in, you have a tremendous amount of control over the frequency balance of your instrument with EQ or adjusting the particular voicing of the pickup you use.
This can really enable you to dial in the tone of your guitar to your preferences, when amplified, allowing you to place a far bigger emphasis on factors such as how much you like the look and feel of a particular kind of wood.
The final verdict
So as a very quick sum-up, mahogany produces a warm, rich tone, which is great for fingerstyle guitar. Whereas spruce is brighter, and livelier with a more pronounced top end making it great for strumming and digging into with a pick.
We hope this has given you a good idea of not only the differences between mahogany and spruce guitars. But also how the context in which they factor into your guitar’s overall sound.
If you like this article and want to read more, be sure to check out our ultimate guide to acoustic guitar tonewoods.