When Wood Isn’t Really Wood; Decyphering Low-End Guitar Terms

When is Mahogany not really mahogany?  When it’s a laminate!  Most low-end guitars have historically been build with laminate woods (and even some high-end ones, by intent,) but the low end guitar manufacturers are loathe to say so directly. So they fib a bit.   They call it by the name of the source, without bothering to mention or specify “veneer” or “laminate” or “layered.”  Bottom line? If they’re talking about top, back or sides and don’t say SOLID ____ then it’s layered.  So an Alvarez AF30 is made of mahogany and a solid sitka top.  Translation: Laminate back and sides, solid top.

What’s the difference?  Laminates are actually a bit stronger, a bit less succeptible to damage from heat and humidity and even bumps and drops.  That’s because there is resin/glue between each of those three layers, rendering it more durable.  Some brands take advantage of the glued layers to shape the back, giving it a slight curve that improves structural strength enough that they don’t even need back bracing.  (Guild has been doing that for decades, and the Taylor guitars made in Tecate, Mexico are similarly constructed.)  Even Yairi made stage guitars of laminate woods by intention.  He and a few others took the time to match the inside and outside layers’ grains so well that it became hard to determine by comparing the grain patterns whether ir was solid or not.  Those made with laminates by intention, to improve functionality, are often good guitars, laminated or not.

Why does it matter?  The down-side is that laminates pretty much don’t “open up” or improve over time as they’re played.  The solid top may do so, but the back ad sides are locked in their new state by the resins and provide relatively little sonic characteristics, compared to solid wood back and sides. But in some cases, especially stage/tour work, the trade off is worth it.

But that’s only for specific purposes, which is why we value and prefer all solid wood guitars.  The improvements in sound are significant over both the short and long term, and the tonal qualities are richer.

So when you’re reading the specs of a guitar, unless the company specifically says “ALL solid wood,” it’s not solid.  If it was, they’d be bragging about it.

There are some decent beginner and intermediate guitars made of laminates, but if you’re a regular player, you’ll want to make it a short-to-medium term goal to get a solid wood guitar as your promary.  Play a few minutes and you’ll know why.