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!
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“I honestly believe that you have to be able to play the guitar hard if you want to be able to get the whole spectrum of tones out of it. Since I normally play so hard, when I start picking a bit softer my tone changes completely, and that's really useful sometimes for creating a more laid-back feel.”
As a young guitarist, I completely rejected any notion that music theory would help me in my journey. At the time, I justified this as a “punk rock/music is freedom” attitude to playing. If I learned my theory, I told myself, I’m just putting myself in a box. “[Insert guitar hero of the week] didn’t need theory, and they were a genius. Why do I?”