So we are now going to explore the marvelous qualities that make mahogany and rosewood the most revered tonewoods used to create world-class acoustic guitars, in this, our May edition of Maury ‘s Music’s A vs. B.
But don’t be surprised if you get to the end of this blog post and cannot decide which tonewood is better. We certainly can’t.
One reason people can prefer rosewood is because it has a more dramatic appearance, with its deep dark color palette of browns and blacks and grays and even brick red, and varying natural designs that make each back unique from one another. While the uniform pepper-flecked grain of most mahogany, on the other hand, is subtler in its looks, even if it can have attractive banding of alternating hues of shimmery copper or various nut browns from hazel to Brazil. But mostly people want to know what if any difference exists between mahogany and rosewood in terms of tone.
Spoon Phillips demos the Mahogany 000-18
First of all, it is important to remember that the main reasons a specific Martin sounds like it does comes from the size and shape of its body, and the species of spruce used for the soundboard. That is where a guitar’s personality is created. The back and side woods enhance that sound in subtle ways, by adding tonal coloring. When heard coming from an ensemble of musicians, or some hit song on the radio, you are only going to hear an acoustic guitar – unless it is a Martin, when you will be hearing an exquisite acoustic guitar. Almost always, you will not be able to tell if that Martin was made with mahogany or rosewood. The differences show up only when you are intimately involved with the guitar and hearing it in an environment where you can actually discern the subtleties of tone and texture provided by the back and sides.
In broad terms, guitars made from rosewood have a darker, warmer sound that has more bass response, and noticeably more harmonic overtones, for a more complex aural experience. Mahogany has a slightly brighter sound, with greater emphasis on the fundamental notes due to having less overtone content, so each note stands outs, clear and focused and strong, and is often said to sound drier and more immediate, with an “openness” to the overall voice.
But in no way does this mean that mahogany doesn’t provide good, satisfying bass or that the tone of a rosewood Martin is devoid of brightness, or that a Martin made from mahogany has no warmth or no harmonic complexity. Both mahogany and rosewood have some of all such admirable qualities. They just have them to different degrees. Just as both are admired by wood lovers for their natural beauty, each is adored by lovers of acoustic guitar tone for how they make Martin guitars sound even better than they look.
Martin 000-28 with East Indian Rosewood back & sides
Science Never Sounded So Good
While various logs of mahogany can produce wood of density and specific gravity different from other logs, it is all much less dense and much lighter of weight than rosewood. After spending time with a Martin made of rosewood, picking up a similar Martin made from mahogany can feel like it wants to float away. And mahogany’s physical properties make it a highly reflective wood with a high velocity of sound transmission.
In other words, the soundwaves being generated in the sound chamber of an acoustic guitar will impact the mahogany back and sides and ricochet off it very quickly. And any sound waves being given off from the vibrating mahogany itself will likewise come into the sound chamber and out into the room with great immediacy.
Rosewood absorbs soundwaves better than mahogany, which slows down the reflective soundwaves, so they return at a lower velocity then when they come off the spruce. The initial note may be heard immediately, but the reflective tones take a little longer, which allows notes and chords to audibly swell and bloom. Collectively, that ends up making the voice of a rosewood guitar sound with greater complexity. This does not mean that the notes or overtones from mahogany do not swell at all, or that mahogany guitars do not have complexity in their voice. Rosewood just tends to have more of that sort of thing.
Maury often refers to rosewood having slightly more bass and more of a “surround sound” quality compared to mahogany. Both are due partly to the slower velocity to the soundwaves that give a longer lasting impression, creating a more colorful 3D soundscape. And it is also related to the multitude of harmonic overtones heard from rosewood.
The rosewood HD-28 and the mahogany D-18 have the exact same construction specifications, in terms of bracing and sound chamber dimensions and top wood and neck size and neck joint. Other than the looks, the only difference is the tonewood used for the back and sides. While the lowest bass note from an HD-28 is not louder than the same note heard from a D-18, it sounds “bigger.”
The fast reflection from the mahogany has that body resonance basically staying right with the fundamental note, giving the feeling of distinctly defined notes with arid space between them. And the notes and reflecting tone flees out of the sound hole, or decaying throughout a lick or picking pattern, leaving an equally arid space behind them, down inside the sustaining voice of a chord.
Spoon Phillips demos the Rosewood 000-28
But the micro-delay from the rosewood has greater separation between the fundamental and its reflection, filling up that sonic space under and around the notes, and making each note sound larger, rounder, fuller, or fatter. And deeper too, in the case of the lowest bass notes. It isn’t truly deeper on an HD-28 than a D-18, but the slower tonal reflection allows that tonal coloring to hang around longer and keep that depth more obviously apparent. Add in the A string, or all the wound strings, and that effect is multiplied into “greater bass response” and a “warmer, throatier midrange.”
As for the treble strings, they are similar, but rosewood reflection can make them sound more steely, while the simpler mahogany notes can sound more glassy. Another way some people put it is, they both sound woody, but mahogany is a dry wood and rosewood is moist. Every tone and every reflection is generating sympathetic unison notes off of other strings, as well as actual harmonics. But again, rosewood has noticeably more of all such tonal effects that last long enough to register in the ear and the brain.
One guitarist we know had played nothing but mahogany guitars until he acquired the Reimagined 000-28 as part of his 60th birthday festivities. He is blown away by its tone, saying, “I love the ‘extra chords’ that appear out of midair like magic!” He is referring to those rosewood harmonics that swell up during picking patterns or chord progressions and sustain longer than mahogany overtones. They are notes he can hear that he did not play, literally singing in harmony with the notes he did play, creating a soundscape more complex than any of the mahogany guitars he still owns and loves.
So why wouldn’t everyone play a rosewood Martin? Some people actually prefer the mahogany soundscape, with its open, airy space, its sunny brightness. Brightness, by the way, is really more about having less darkness and less woofy warmth, so the focus is more on the tone of the spruce top with a subtler influence from the mahogany, which is still adding warmth and color, but to a lesser degree.
And they love the chime that rings out from mahogany, and its overall clarity. Even though a D-18 still has a deep round bass, the body resonance dissipates faster, the notes and their overtones fire out of the sound hole quicker, and get out of the way of the ones coming right behind them, which is one reason Bluegrass flatpickers often love D-18s, for their articulate top notes that are not upstaged by a lot of overtones.
Some people feel that mahogany guitars are easier to mic when recording or playing live, because the complex harmonics and the thicker fluctuating bass of a rosewood guitar can sound muddy or cause other issues. And some of those mahogany lovers find the rosewood sound is simply too complex for their taste, or feel it is too thick or too throaty or too woofy. But most guitarists can find plenty to love about both tonewoods, which makes such a choice so difficult.
Martin 000-18 with Mahogany back & sides
Martin Quality, Martin Tone
That all being said, we are not talking about enormous amounts of difference here. When it comes down to it, a mahogany Martin and a rosewood Martin of the same basic build each sound more similar than they sound differently. It is only when you focus on the details down inside the voice of the specific instrument do we start to discern those subtle differences that can become more noticeable in certain circumstances, like when you are trying to decide which guitar to buy, for example.
Frankly, even those with ears trained to the incredible subtleties of acoustic guitar tone can listen to a recording artist’s track and not be able to tell if they are hearing a guitar made with mahogany or rosewood. There are differences, but unless you are truly doing an A/B comparison, they both will sound like a Martin.
Our friend Spoon Phillips put this way. “When I listen to the Del McCoury Band, I cannot tell if he is playing his D-18 or his D-28. But then, every so often, he will play a chord, or more likely a lick, as in one of his signature G-runs, and suddenly I say ‘THAT is definitely mahogany.’ I can tell it is mahogany because of how bass notes are so transparent. But it doesn’t happen very often, especially when heard in and around a bunch of other instruments.
It is only obvious when I am playing a mahogany guitar by myself or sitting next to someone who is. And by transparent, I mean is sounds “glassine” as Dick (Boak) puts it. It is like, in my mind, each note was made of colored glass, hand-blown into a delicate sphere. The glass has lovely pigment and inner depth, but remains translucent, so that my ears see right through it, which gives the feeling of space and air to the interiors of each individual bass note.
And when I play a D-18, I hear that translucent coloring in the whole voice, which has a sort of dried out old wooden box sound, to my ear, compared to the chocolate cake richness of rosewood. Rosewood tends to fill up that space, with darker coloring in the bass notes, in the high harmonics, and down in the heart of the voice, that fills the space like smoke in a sunbeam. Mahogany has plenty of depth and breadth, but it is defined by the brightly lit spacious cellar under that top voice. Rosewood fills up that cellar with that colorful smoke, and keeps the lamps darker and warmer.
But while I can detect the difference between Neil Young’s D-45, D-28, and D-18, at very specific moments, in how the bass notes sound when he whomps the strings, or the trebles when he swipes a drawn out strum, most of the time I can’t. Most of the time it is a guitar and the music he is making with it.
When it comes down to it, even when listening to people playing live and unplugged, the subtleties that separate a 000-28 from a 000-18 are heard much more by the player hovering over the guitar, than anyone on the other side of the song circle. They both have that full, round bass, those throaty, beefy lower mids compared to other brands, and the punchy upper mids, and that angelic purity in the trebles that make a Standard Series Martin so wonderful to play and to hear.”
We wish we had Spoon’s ears! And for someone claiming they sound similar, he made mahogany and rosewood sound quite differently, but only in the details.
If you are used to the complex sound of rosewood, mahogany may sound too sparse and seem to be missing something. If you are accustom to mahogany, rosewood can sound like someone stuffed a sweatshirt into the guitar – at least until your ears adjust and you start to hear the all the little details in that thicker sound. And as you go back and forth, they will both have classic Martin tone. And if you are like many guitarists, you come to like both for what they are rather than disliking one for what it is not.
We will not apologize for being on the fence here. Honestly, we feel that if you own a rosewood guitar, you will enjoy having a mahogany guitar to complement it, and vice versa.
If you are looking to buy your first guitar, or your first Martin guitar, we suggest you focus on what you can afford, and what you feel would be most comfortable in terms of body size and neck shape. But we encourage you to watch as many of our demonstration videos as you have time for, and see if you ears start to prefer rosewood guitars over their mahogany counterparts, or if you like mahogany best of the two.
If everyone liked the same thing, Martin would make one model. We are here to help you find the model you will love best of all.