Guitars are made of numerous different parts, many of which are made of wood. The choice of wood in the guitar body (the solid body and laminate in electric guitars and the sides, back and top of acoustic guitars), neck and fretboard all contribute to the overall playability, feel and, of course, tone of the instrument. Since birch is used in the construction of guitars and basses, it's worth investigating whether it's a good tonewood or not.
Is birch a good guitar tonewood? Birch is not the popular “tonewood” it once was. Its bland tone and relatively high weight have been replaced by maple and other light and sonically interesting tonewoods. Birch is stiff, stable, and durable and is a superb construction wood for guitar, though its tone is no longer a selling point.
In this article, we'll discuss if and how birch tonewood is used in electric, acoustic, classical and bass guitar construction with a keen focus on its tone.
Note: in my research for this article, I used Sweetwater's extensive guitar database to find examples of guitars with birch in their construction. The links to the guitars in this article will send readers to Sweetwater's site for more information. Sweetwater is featured in My New Microphone's Top 10 Best Online Audio Gear/Equipment Retailers.
Table Of Contents
- Characteristics Of Birch Tonewood
- Is Birch A Good Electric Guitar Tonewood?
- Is Birch A Good Acoustic Guitar Tonewood?
- Is Birch A Good Bass Guitar Tonewood?
- Other Tonewoods
Characteristics Of Birch Tonewood
Birch makes up a variety of species within the genus Betula (Betulaceae family). In terms of tonewood, birch is typically from the species Betula alleghaniensis, commonly known as yellow birch, golden birch or swamp birch. This species is native to northeastern North America (Canada and the United States). As a piece of trivia, yellow birch is the provincial tree of Quebec.
Yellow birch generally has a light reddish-brown colour. Its grain tends to be straight or slightly wavy, though figured pieces are available. Overall, the difference in colour between growth rings is subtle, giving yellow birch a relatively uniform look. The wood is diffuse-porous, and its texture is fine and even.
Yellow birch is not listed in the CITES Appendices or the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
Yellow birch is easy to work with both hand and machine tools. Its glues, bends and finishes well. Note that the greater the interlocking of the grain, the more apt the wood is to tear out during sanding and planing.
The natural tone of yellow birch has a notable dip/scoop in the midrange with brilliant highs, strong upper-mids and resonant lows. It's relatively bright with sharp overtones and fast decay, allowing for good note separation and overall clarity.
Here are a few notable yellow birch specs:
- Type: Yellow birch
- Hardwood/Softwood: Hardwood
- Colour: light reddish brown
- Grain: usually straight, sometimes slightly wavy
- Texture: fine, even
- Pores: diffuse-porous
- Density: 690 kg/m3 / 43.08 lb/ft3
- Janka Hardness (Typical): 5,610 N / 1,261 lbf
- Elastic Modulus: 13.86 GPa / 2,010,000 psi
- Tone (Warm/Bright Scale): balanced
- Price: low to moderate
Here are links to the official website of the IUCN and Cites:
• IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature)
• CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora)
Is Birch A Good Electric Guitar Tonewood?
Before we begin, I should mention that tonewoods don't have nearly as much of an effect on the overall sound of an electric guitar as they do on an acoustic guitar. The guitar pickups, strings, signal chain and amplifier all play a huge role in the overall tone of an electric guitar. It's not all about the wood, though it is a factor.
Birch can be a great electric tonewood, though it's widely considered “cheap.” It's virtually untouched by large-scale manufacturers, though it can certainly be a budget-friendly alternative in some cases.
Is Birch A Good Electric Guitar Body Tonewood?
Birch is relatively dense compared to many of the standard electric guitar body woods (basswood, alder, swamp ash, maple, etc.) and will make for a rather heavy solidbody piece.
However, it's not unusable and can actually make a good-sounding instrument. The midrange dip and pronounced bass and treble are often suitable to harder playing styles.
That being said, birch is unpopular as an electric guitar body wood, particularly among the big name brands.
Is Birch A Good Electric Guitar Neck Tonewood?
Birch is relatively strong and stiff and is certainly dense and hard enough for guitar neck construction. Its stability is superb, too. Among those interested in birch guitars, there is a nearly unanimous agreement that birch and maple are nearly the same when compared structurally, though maple offers a better tone.
Soft maple varieties are popular for building necks, and most birch options are a bit heavier.
It's surprising that birch isn't more widely accepted as a neck wood (like it used to be) since birch lumber is, on average, cheaper than maple lumber.
Is Birch A Good Electric Guitar Fretboard Tonewood?
Birch is softer than hard maple, which is considered about as soft as viable fretboards ought to be. Though birch can feel great under fingers, it's too liable to wear over time and is, therefore, considered a poor fretboard material.
Is Birch A Good Acoustic Guitar Tonewood?
Birch was once a well-respected and popular tonewood for acoustic instruments. Though maple stole the show, birch can still be considered a good acoustic guitar tonewood.
Is Birch A Good Acoustic Guitar Body Back/Side Tonewood?
Birch is relatively easy to bend, and its structural stability is excellent. It's not overly heavy either. It's not overly resonant by itself, but it can certainly ring loudly across the frequency spectrum to enhance the soundboard it's paired with.
Birch naturally has sharp overtones and fast sustain, allowing for good note separation and overall clarity. This helps bring out the individual notes and strings at the expense of volume.
Is Birch A Good Acoustic Guitar Body Top Tonewood?
Birch as a guitar top doesn't allow for massive projection like the most common spruce and cedar woods. Furthermore, its tone is rather bland and doesn't add as much colouration to the sound as many other tonewoods.
That's not to say birch is a bad top wood; it's been used plenty before. However, it's not nearly as good a seller on today's market as it once was.
Is Birch A Good Acoustic Guitar Neck Tonewood?
As discussed in the electric guitar section, birch is a strong, stable and decent-sounding neck material (though perhaps it doesn't sound as good as maple).
Martin uses laminate birch for some of its acoustic guitar necks.
Martin is featured in top brand articles at My New Microphone. Check out these articles here!
Examples of acoustic guitars with birch necks:
- Martin 0-X1E: acoustic with rust birch laminate neck
Is Birch A Good Acoustic Guitar Fretboard Tonewood?
Like with electric guitars, birch is largely considered to be too soft for practical use in acoustic/classical guitar fretboards.
Is Birch A Good Bass Guitar Tonewood?
Birch was once more popular in bass guitar construction. Today, it's rare to find birch in any part of a bass, though if you were, it would likely be as a part of a laminate neck.
Of course, there are plenty of other tonewoods besides birch. Here is a list of other tonewoods with links to check out more in-depth articles on each:
- Panga Panga
- Pau Ferro
This article has been approved in accordance with the My New Microphone Editorial Policy.