Guitars are made from a wide variety of different woods. Rosewood, maple, mahogany, and basswood are just some of the most popular woods used to make guitar bodies and necks.
But with regulations like CITES that limit or even ban the use of certain woods, many guitar companies have had to look for alternatives. Paulownia is one such alternative that is quickly gaining popularity.
But what is paulownia and how does it compare to other woods? That is what I want to talk about today and shed some light on this wonderful wood.
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What is Paulownia?
Paulownia is a hardwood that originates from Asia. Mostly grown in China, Laos, and Vietnam, it is also quite common in Japan and Korea. It is also sometimes called the “Princess Tree”.
It has a fairly light grayish-brown color with a straight grain and coarse texture. Paulownia has been used in traditional Asian instruments like the guqin, koto, and gayageum for centuries before making the jump over to guitars.
Paulownia is quite comparable to basswood and alder.
Sustainable and Easy to Work With
Even though paulownia is classified as a hardwood, it is fairly soft. This makes it great to work with because it is easy to cut and shape.
It also takes paint, stain, and glue really well. This means that a wide variety of finishes can easily be applied to a paulownia body, making it ideal for customizing with colors and finishes.
Because of its widespread abundance, paulownia is not on the CITES list of protected woods. This means that paulownia trees can be harvested in larger numbers which helps to make it a fairly inexpensive wood.
Paulownia also grows quicker than many other trees. They take less than ten years to reach maturity. This also makes them quite sustainable.
The Sound of Paulownia
As I mentioned, paulownia is comparable to basswood and alder. You could almost call it a mix between the two.
This mix results in a mellower tone overall. Paulownia’s attack isn’t as sharp as alder’s, but it isn’t as soft as basswood. It also isn’t quite as bright
Basswood and alder have a bit more weight in the bottom end, while paulownia isn’t as bottom-heavy. Paulownia is actually much more balanced across the whole frequency spectrum.
The resonance of paulownia is also about the same as both basswood and alder. All of this actually makes paulownia a bit more versatile than its two more popular cousins.
Paulownia isn’t as responsive as basswood, and especially alder. While you can certainly play fast melodies and solos on a paulownia guitar, chords are really where it stands out more.
Its mellower tone makes it great for genres like jazz, blues, and country. While you can play heavier music like rock with a paulownia guitar, it is better suited to softer genres.
Its reduced attack and responsiveness also mean that it works much better as a rhythm guitar rather than a lead. Fast solos don’t pop quite as much, but chords and slower melody lines have a lot of color and character.
Paulownia’s Feel and Playability
Paulownia is a very lightweight hardwood. This makes it the ideal guitar wood for anyone who plays for extended periods. Cover band guitarists who regularly play shows that consist of multiple long sets will surely appreciate paulownia’s weight.
Because of paulownia’s coarseness, it might also cause some irritation while playing. I would highly recommend getting a paulownia guitar that already has at least a finish applied or applying a finish yourself.
The softness of the wood is also a bit of a concern. While it doesn’t feel too fragile, many people have claimed that paulownia guitars tend to scratch and dent much easier than other woods. A strong finish might help to protect the wood, but I would certainly exercise caution.
As an alternative to basswood and alder, paulownia is more than capable. It is no wonder that companies like Suhr are investing heavily in paulownia for their guitars.
I expect woods like paulownia to only become more popular as more and more people try them out. And I am honestly excited to see what other woods start popping up in guitar bodies and necks.