When it comes to tonewood, mahogany carries some serious weight in the guitar world, both literally and metaphorically.
A mainstay in both acoustic and electric guitar manufacturing, it’s been used to make some of the most iconic instruments of all time. And, it’s prized in lutherie for both its aesthetic and sonic properties.
Today, we’re getting to grips with mighty mahogany; its varieties, its tonal characteristics and its sustainability.
Mahogany is a lumber prized for its aesthetic qualities, its durability and its distinctive color. As such, it’s a common feature in the manufacture of bespoke furniture and paneling, as well as boats. Oh, and of course, there’s the connection with musical instruments.
While “mahogany” is used to describe a huge range of hardwoods from around the world, so-called “genuine” mahogany is only found in the Americas; from southern Mexico to upper Amazonian regions. The three species of mahogany are:
Honduran (big-leaf) mahogany:With a range from Mexico to Southern Amazonia in Brazil, this is the most widespread mahogany species and the only true mahogany species commercially grown at present.
West Indian/Cuban mahogany: Native to Southern Florida and the Caribbean
Swietenia humilis: Limited to seasonally dry forests in Pacific Central America and of limited commercial utility.
Having long been used in the manufacture of both acoustic and electric guitars, mahogany is a staple tonewood with many applications. Highly resilient, and with an excellent resistance to wood rot, it is very stable and less likely to warp than many other species of wood. As such, it’s a dependable source for luthiers.
It’s not just the reliability that makes it so widely used though; there are also the tonal properties. It’s warm and mellow, providing excellent low frequencies, pronounced lower-mids and unpronounced, yet appealing, high ends. The result is a balanced tone with crisp and strong fundamentals.
In electric guitars, mahogany bodies offer a gnarly growl and legendary sustain. That’s great for in-your-face rock sounds, especially when combined with a couple of humbucker pick-ups. Unsurprisingly, then, it’s the favored tonewood of the Gibson family of electric guitars.
Mahogany features prominently in the majority of their models and classics such as the Les Paul Special, Les Paul Jr. and SG were made of solid mahogany. Many acoustic guitars, meanwhile, feature mahogany in the neck because of the stability it offers.
Good quality mahogany ages very well and sounds better as it matures – it’s part of the reason those mid-‘50s Les Pauls go for so much today!
Aesthetics and weight:
The color of mahogany depends on the variation of the wood. When fresh, it ranges from a yellow-to-salmon-pink appearance. As its aged and matured, though, this darkens to a deep rich red or brown.
Its fine grain is similar to that of ash, but more even. Many mahogany instruments feature a translucent finish to make the most of this, as well as the distinctive reddish-brown color.
One thing to consider with mahogany is that it makes for a heavy instrument – not just in sound, but also in weight! While it’s not as dense as some of the brighter sounding woods out there, you’ll feel it on the shoulder much more than, say, alder or basswood.
Between 1950 and 2003, over 70 percent of the world’s genuine mahogany was cut. As a result, CITIES – the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species – took to protecting mahogany by restricting trade. In response to this regulation, manufacturers have started using more plentiful alternatives to genuine mahogany and supporting sustainable forestry in Central America.
Because of this, you’re likely to find more and more guitars these days made from African Mahogany. Woods from the Khaya genus – native to the Congo Basin and Western Africa – for example, are now as common in guitar making as genuine mahogany. African Mahogany is cheap, abundant, and of a comparable quality to its Central American counterpart.
African mahogany looks, feels and sounds like Central American mahogany. However, the wood grows so quickly that it can meet commercial demand without a detrimental impact on the environment.
Do you play a mahogany guitar? And how do you feel about the weight of mahogany instruments? Share your stories in the comments!
Cal Jam doesn’t get the same love as festivals like Monterey Pop or Woodstock. Maybe it’s because it doesn’t have the late ‘60s countercultural cred, happening a full five years after the summer of love reached its peak. Maybe it’s because it was staged to be filmed for television (as part of ABC’s legendary “In Concert” series). Why do I love California Jam so much? It is because it established the record for the largest concert sound system ever assembled? Was it because it featured the first ever appearance of the Good Year blimp at a music festival?
Guitar lessons eventually followed. But, classical guitar didn’t grab me in the same way that my own freeform compositions had. Firstly, I didn’t know any of the songs I was supposed to be learning. Secondly, it required the kind of co-ordination and finger dexterity that I was – at that time at least – far too impatient to master. “I read somewhere that there are these things you can use to hit the strings so you don’t have to use your fingers. I think they began with a P,” I once told my guitar teacher. “The thing that begins with a P is called practice,” he replied. He was right, of course, but that didn’t mean I wanted to hear it.
This week, to satisfy my yearning for live music, I’ve taken a deep dive into my record collection and rediscovered some live favourites. Given how much joy I’ve got out of these records, I thought I’d share them with you today. Putting together this list, I’ve tried to take the road less travelled. I didn’t want to put together a list of classic live albums that everyone already knows like the back of their hand. Instead, my three picks serve as alternatives to some of those classic albums, offering a new look at some legendary bands.