In the guitar world, tone is king… with so many different materials and designs that impact tone it can be hard for beginners to know what the right fit for them and their playstyle is.
Rosewood and mahogany are both popular tonewoods that have been used in the making and manufacturing of guitars worldwide, but which one is better?
The short answer is: neither.
Both materials are capable of producing beautiful tones and it ultimately comes down to personal preference and style of play.
Mahogany has long been the chosen tonewood for chord strummers and ballad singers alike thanks to its fuller, more subtle sound.
Rosewood has remained a popular choice for fingerstyle and lead guitarists because of its wide tonal range and a sound that cuts through the mix.
But, before making a decision, let’s better understand these tonewoods and the things that make them different.
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What is Tonewood?
If it’s your first time coming across this word, don’t worry. Tonewood simply refers to specific types of wood that have properties that allow them to create great-sounding tones for instruments like acoustic guitars.
Not all woods make great tonewoods, which is why you tend to find guitars are made from a select few materials like walnut, spruce, rosewood, and mahogany… so understanding the sonic properties of your tonewood can really help to understand the strengths and weaknesses of your guitar.
Rosewood – Overview
Rosewood is a dark and heavy tonewood, usually grown in South America and the Indian subcontinent, that has been popular for many years due to its durability and bright tone.
Because it’s comparatively denser than other tonewoods, it tends to be used sparingly, usually on the neck, back, and sides of an acoustic guitar to keep the weight down.
Rosewood also has a distinct look to it, with a dark coloring and strong grain lines that cut across the body giving the wood a more ‘premium’ appearance.
But what really sets Rosewood apart from other tonewoods is its sound. It has a rich and bright sound that cuts through the mix and begs to be heard thanks to its greater coverage of overtones and scooped-out mid-range.
Compared to mahogany, rosewood offers clarity and distinction between each individual note with a full-bodied bass and brilliant treble.
Take the Martin D-28, an iconic rosewood acoustic that has been a staple for guitarists since its release in 1931. Favored for its high-quality tone and booming projection, the “tone cannon” embodies the best of rosewood in a timeless dreadnought design.
Mahogany – Overview
Mahogany is a lighter tonewood both in color and weight, having remained a popular choice for a number of years now thanks to its warmer tones, fuller sound, and the widespread availability of the wood.
With a red-brown coloring, mahogany benefits from a beautifully unique appearance. It has a less prominent grain than its rosewood counterpart and weighs less too, with manufacturers loving it due to it being an easy tonewood to work with.
However, what’s really made mahogany a popular choice for acoustic guitarists everywhere is its one-of-a-kind tone. Warm and punchy, mahogany is usually described as having a woody, natural sound with great sustain and an overall smooth tone. Compared to rosewood, it has a more defined mid-range with more subtlety in the overall sound.
If you’re after a full-bodied mahogany acoustic the Martin 000-15M is a solid choice. Warm-sounding and well-priced, this parlor/ dreadnought hybrid has everything you’d want from a mahogany acoustic.
Choosing the Right Guitar for the Job
When choosing between rosewood and mahogany, it’s important to first identify the type of guitarist you are.
Because of rosewood’s focus on overtones and clarity, it has become the tonewood of choice for fingerstyle and lead guitarists looking for a sound that will cut through the mix and stand out.
On the other hand, many guitarists prefer to avoid rosewood when it comes to strumming because that same clarity that helps to highlight individual notes can sometimes turn into a heavy, noise-filled mess when chords are involved.
Meanwhile, Mahogany has remained the preferred tonewood for rhythm guitarists for years now thanks to its fuller but subtle tonal range. A popular choice for singer/ songwriters, mahogany lets your lyrics shine, lifting the message rather than trying to compete with it.
Beatles producer, George Martin, famously loved mahogany guitars in the studio because of its forgiving sound and smooth tone that didn’t interfere with the vocals or lead guitar.
But it’s worth remembering: all this isn’t to say that rosewood can’t make a solid rhythm guitar, or that mahogany isn’t clear enough to be used on a lead guitar.
Both tonewoods are more than capable of producing beautiful sounds at either end of the spectrum and you should try before you buy, to really get a feel for the guitar.
Cost can be an important factor when deciding between rosewood or mahogany for your acoustic guitar. Mahogany guitars tend to be cheaper than their rosewood counterparts due to issues of availability.
Rosewood suffers from a set of strict import restrictions because of its status as an endangered tree species. This has made it a lot harder for manufacturers and luthiers to get a hold of the material to make new guitars with. Mahogany on the other hand doesn’t suffer from these restrictions and is, therefore, more widely available and affordable.
Gibson’s Hummingbird series of acoustic guitars are as visually iconic as they are beautiful sounding. While the majority of their bodies are made from mahogany, like the Hummingbird Standard, they do offer a rosewood version, the Hummingbird Deluxe, at a considerable price increase.
As a lead guitarist myself, I remember doing my research into tonewoods and deciding on a rosewood-bodied Martin D-35 as I wanted something that would stand out when I next jammed with my bandmates. That was until I got my hands on a Gibson Acoustic J-45 Standard and I was forever changed into a mahogany-loving, blues-playing lead guitarist.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s important to understand the type of tonewoods used to build your guitar as this does have an impact on the sound and playability. But every good guitarist knows that tone comes from the fingers, and in the right hands it doesn’t matter if you’ve got a rosewood body or mahogany back and sides, you’re gonna make it work.