Alternative Tonewoods

Tuesday, April 1, 2008| by Will Chen

We are a consumption-based society which historically has used resources without a plan to renew those them for the next generation. Generally, musicians as a group tend to be more sensitive to the struggles of the world often championing political and social causes for the greater good of society. Never has an issue threatened to alter the world of guitarists more than the recent studies showing the increasing scarcity of traditional tone woods. These woods are used for a multitude of other applications such as furniture construction. However, the general scarcity will eventually push the price of these woods into the stratosphere, which only the very wealthy will be able to afford. As such, manufacturers are looking to alternatives, some of which are much more hearty and renewable.


Paulownia is wood native to Southeast Asia and Japan and has been used for the construction of traditional Asian string instruments for centuries. It is a lightweight wood weighing in at four to five pounds for a guitar body with whitish color and straight grain. The wood is extremely rot resistant, allowing wood to be reclaimed naturally for commercial production. Additionally the wood is extremely hearty and fast growing, making it sustainable choice for reforestation of stressed land. A tree can be cut down almost to the root and can regenerate to a harvestable size in as little as five years. Paulownia is considered a good Mahogagony substitute.


Agathis, a species of evergreen tree, is native to the Southern Hemisphere common in Southeast Asia and the West Pacific. As a species, they’re one of the largest trees in the world with pale, relatively knot free, straight grain pattern. The regenerative pattern of Agathis is unique in that it thrives after major disturbances (such as fire or deforestation). Agathis is an Alder substitute. In new New Zealand, it's referred to as kauri or exotic swamp kauri (reclaimed 10,000 year old+ wood preserved within peat swamps).


Cherry is fairly plentiful however is primarily harvested for furniture production. It grows in North America, Europe and Asia. It is extremely resistant to warping after being dried and is considered comparable in density to Maple but with the tonal characteristics of Mahogany. Cherry has been used in Acoustic guitar and Harp construction for quite some time.


Poplar grows throughout the Northern Hemisphere and is also known as Aspen and Cottonwood. It has long been looked down upon by guitarists perhaps due to its greenish color leaving little room for transparent finishes. However Ibanez, Campbell, and Schecter have begun using stained spalted and birdseye varieties. It's comparable in density to Alder.


Granadillo is a dark, dense hardwood found throughout Central America. Also known as Kira, it's similar in appearance to Rosewood or Ebony but with a hardness closer to Ebony. It's been a standard in Clarinet construction for years and has also been used in Violin construction.

To read Bruce Bennet's of opinion of my knowledge of, or lack thereof, tone woods, please click here.

For another opinion on alternative tonewoods, check out The Heretic's Guide to Alternative Lutherie Woods, by John Calkin

More controversy over at the Home Recording BBS!

Couple more good links:
New Woods on the Block: Exploring Alternative Tonewoods

Filed Under: Editorial & Misc