Know Your Tonewood: Maple

September 17, 2018


Historically, maple is synonymous with the manufacture of stringed instruments. Violins, violas and cellos have been made of maple for hundreds of years, and the wood was the resource of choice for many a revered luthier in the world of classical music. 

It’s a different story when it comes to acoustic guitars, however. In the six-string realm, maple has typically played second fiddle (pun intended) to the likes of mahogany and rosewood.

But, to overlook maple is to overlook one of the most interesting tonewoods on the market. It makes great sounding, and great looking guitars, and is rightly undergoing something of a resurgence at the moment.

Today, we’re delving into the history of maple, the unique tonal properties it offers, and why issues of sustainability have seen maple acoustics make a comeback in recent times. 

History:

When it comes to acoustic guitars, maple is a wood that lacks the widespread recognition of, say, mahogany or rosewood. As such, it sometimes gets overlooked as a tonewood of choice for a quality instrument. Indeed, it’s much more commonly regarded in the world of electric instruments – Gibson Les Paul maple tops and Fender Strat and Tele necks immediately spring to mind – as well as violins, cellos and double basses.

But, in spite of its marginalized status in the acoustic tonewood pantheon, there’s actually a long history of maple being used in the construction of high-end acoustic guitars.

This tradition goes so far back, in fact, that we’re starting our story in the 1600s with a luthier you may have heard of; Antonio Stradivari. The violinmaker du jour circa 1690, Stradivari also built 5-course Renaissance guitars, and maple was his wood of choice.

Fast forward to 1834, and you’ll find examples of Martin guitars with maple backs and sides. Gibson, too, employed maple in the production of their acoustic instruments during the company’s early history. Their Nick Lucas special model – produced between 1927 and 1938 – featured a maple back and sides, as did their L.C Century of Progress model, available from 1933-1941. And of course, we’d be remiss not to mention the legendary, venerable Gibson J-200, which also makes use of maple back and sides construction. (LINK TO PREVIOUS J-200 ARTICLE HERE).

In recent times, Taylor has embraced maple, launching the revoiced 600 series, which feature maple back and sides. Thanks to the wood’s sustainability (more on that in a moment), the company is committed to making it a tonewood staple, and their 600 series promises to “evoke [the] rich warmth and sustain… of other classic tonewoods like rosewood and mahogany”  thanks to a redesigned bracing position on the guitar back.

Appearance and tonal properties:

Plenty of people out there have bought a maple acoustic guitar on sight alone, and with good reason. It’s a gorgeous looking wood boasting numerous different figuring patterns that look nothing short of stunning. Aesthetically, it’s a wood that is often described as “spellbinding,” and when you look at some of the figuring on higher-end maple guitars, it’s not hard to see why.

Maple is a dense hardwood, and this has a major impact on its tonal qualities. Unlike, say, rosewood, which amplifies vibration and emphasizes overtones and sustain, maple offers a high level of internal dampening. This results in very quick note decay.

To some, a lack of sustain might sound like a disadvantage, but the major plus when it comes to maple is that it enhances note separation and clarity (that clarity is the reason it’s so popular on jazz archtops).

It’s a sonically transparent wood, which works particularly well in live applications. Maple guitars tend to cut through the mix well, with a bright, loud, yet focused tone that isn’t likely to produce much feedback when mic-ed up.

Sustainability:

While maple once fell out of fashion in the acoustic guitar world, it’s making something of a comeback today, in large part due to its sustainability. Unlike exotic tropical tonewoods, it’s abundantly available in several parts of the world. And, for the most part, the forests in which maple grows are well-managed, with an infrastructure in palace to sustain its supply. Bigleaf maple, in particular – which grows quickly and readily in the U.S. Pacific Northwest – is positioned to become an important tonewood source in the coming years.

Do you play a maple guitar? Are you a fan of Taylor’s 600 series? And what other tonewoods do you think get overlooked in the acoustic guitar world? Share your thoughts in the comments!