Know Your Tonewoods: Spotlight on Hawaiian Koa

May 24, 2018


When it comes to discussions of acoustic guitar tonewoods, mahogany, maple and rosewood usually dominate.

And with good reason.

They’re great to work with, provide rounded, three-dimensional tones, and look stunning to boot. It’s why they’re so widely used in acoustic guitar manufacturing today.

Hawaiian Koa, by contrast, does not have the same, widespread recognition in the tonewood world. Indeed, Koa instruments are rarely mass-marketed and typically produced as limited editions or special models. Koa guitars are a niche product. But, those in the know will attest to their greatness. Some of the nicest acoustic guitars in the world today are made of Koa and the wood offers incredible tonal possibilities.

Today, we’re offering an overview of Koa guitars; their history, what makes them so unique, and why, in spite of their tonal majesty, they don’t have the market hold of their rosewood or mahogany counterparts.

The History:

Early use of Hawaiian Koa dates back to the 18th century, and is far removed from the world of stringed instruments.

In Hawaiian, the word “Koa” literally translates to “warrior,” and the name comes from the wood’s association with the warriors of Kamehameha the Great. Lightweight and buoyant, Koa was the perfect wood for Kamehameha’s warriors to make canoes, as well as hand-to-hand combat weapons like the “lei-o-mano"(made from a combination of Koa, shark’s teeth and marlin bills). Indeed, Koa was instrumental in Kamehameha’s campaign to unite all the Hawaiian islands under his rule in the late 1700s.

During Kamehameha’s reign, Koa was so highly regarded that anyone other than the royal class was prohibited from owning it. But, after the king’s death, this restriction was lifted and Koa became a widely used resource in Hawaiians’ day-to-day lives.

Used in everything from bowls to surfboards, it wasn’t until the 1800s that Koa became associated with musical instruments. This pairing was the result of an influx of “malihini” (western) settlers in the late 19th century. Specifically it was Portuguese settlers, mainly from Madeira and the Azores, who introduced a small stringed instrument known as the machete to Hawaii. The natives took the machete, adapted it, and the “ukulele” was born. Its subsequent popularization kicked off the famous ukulele trend of the 1910s and 1920s, achieving global popularity for the instrument as a result. It was thanks to the ukulele’s boom in popularity that guitar manufacturers began to recognize the tonal possibilities of Koa. Following the Second World War, luthiers across the world began using it to make six string instruments.

The Sound:

Lightweight, rigid, yet bendable, Koa is a great material for guitar manufacturers to work with. When paired with the right soundboard, it also has a wonderful tonal quality. If you can’t decide between maple and rosewood, Koa offers the best of both worlds: the crisp, clarity of the former and warmth and thick tone of the latter.

Koa guitars might sound bright and tight off the shelf, and benefit from a good amount of ‘playing in.’ The more they’re played, the more the sound opens up. Tones become richer, sweeter and more resonant, with a rich low end and well-rounded sparkle overall.

If you’re a hard and heavy pick player, Koa might not be your bag – it’ll get very bright very fast. But, if you’re using a lighter plectrum with a defter touch, or you’re a fingerstyle player using the pads of your fingers, it offers tonal rewards in abundance.

The Scarcity:

With a wide color spectrum and a swirling grain, Koa is breathtakingly beautiful. It’s a joy for luthiers to work with and, in the right hands, it’s pure tonal heaven. So why aren’t there more guitars made of Koa on the market?

Well, it all comes down to availability, or a lack thereof. Koa is indigenous to Hawaii and, unfortunately, Koa forests have depleted drastically over the years. As a result, the price of Koa wood has soared to upwards of $500 a set, meaning that, for, the most part it simply isn’t viable for mass-market production. That’s why Koa instruments are usually limited editions.

One company makes an exception to this rule, however, and that’s Taylor Guitars. Taylor offers a wide range of Koa instruments in production at various price points. And, indeed, their K24CE model, which was made famous by Taylor Swift, has seen Koa’s popularity skyrocket in recent times.  In fact, this Koa guitar held by Taylor on the cover of Rolling Stone Magazine would later become the seed of an idea that would lead to the invention of the Thalia Capo.

Taylor doesn’t just make Koa guitars though. They’re also working to improve Koa sustainability.

They recently joined forces with Pacific Rim Tonewoods and Paniolo Tonewoods projects in Hawaii with the aim of establishing sustainable Koa sources on the islands.  Thalia Capos also sources all of our woods from sustainably harvested sources including our Hawaiian Koa. 

Do you play a Koa guitar? Have you ever thought about buying one? Share your stories in the comments.