What solid wood means and why you need it (and when you don't)

Author: Ian-Bush  Date Posted:21 October 2011 

A lot of people are confused about what the different acoustic guitar woods are, and what they do.

When I first started working in guitars (It doesn’t seem that long ago but it’s close to 20 years now) I had no idea what the different woods were for acoustic guitars and what the differences actually did. I’m going to distill some of the information I have learnt over the years for you today.

What is the difference between, PLY, Laminated, Solid Top and Solid wood?
Ply wood and laminated wood is exactly the same thing, in this type of wood there are 2 or more pieces of wood glued together. It's a cheaper way to make a guitar. Solid Top Guitars using a solid piece of wood for the top piece only (it’s usually split into 2 pieces and glued together, but it’s solid all the way through). And Solid Wood guitars use solid woods in all tone sections of the guitar

so does that mean a cheap guitar is more likely to break because it uses cheaper woods?
Actually the reverse of this is true (strange isn't it). A laminate wood guitar is super strong and hard to break, this strength stops the guitar from resonating well. A Solid top guitar is a little weaker and more brittle, but the sound is so much better.  Solid wood guitars are generally the most resonant and the weakest.

If you want a practical example, try breaking a piece of solid wood, and then try breaking anything made of ply wood - you will find it really hard to break the plywood!

Can I tell by looking if a guitar has a solid top?
If the guitar has a clear finish you can actually look at the grain on the sound hole, if it goes all the way through you have a solid top guitar

Can I tell just by looking if a guitar is a solid wood guitar
This one is a little more tricky, but the key way to tell is too look for braces on the sides. Ply wood back and side guitars generally don't need bracing on the sides, where as solid wood guitars generally do (there are some exceptions to this though)

Why does a solid wood guitar get better with age?
Wood has a lot of natural oils in them, when we dry our woods to make our guitars it takes most of this oil out, but some is still left behind. When the wood matures all of this latent oil is lost and the wood becomes more brittle (and sounds great). The wood also benefits from being played as the fibres in the wood changes.

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