Is Blackwood A Good Guitar Tonewood? Electric, Acoustic & Bass


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 blackwood is used in the construction of guitars and basses, it’s worth investigating whether it’s a good tonewood or not.

Is blackwood a good guitar tonewood? African blackwood is a superb fretboard material and can be a heavy yet balanced tonewood for acoustic guitar backs/sides. Australian blackwood is great for electric guitar laminate bodies and acoustic guitar back/sides thanks to its balanced tone. Neither is popular for necks or acoustic tops.

In this article, we’ll discuss if and how blackwood 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 blackwood 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


A Tale Of Two Blackwoods

Before we get into this article, it’s critical to clarify the confusion between the two tonewoods we call “blackwood,” namely African blackwood and Australian blackwood.

African blackwood is from the species Dalbergia melanoxylon (family Fabaceae). It is native to the dry savanna regions of central and southern Africa. Other names for African blackwood include grenadilla and mpingo.

Australian blackwood is from the species Acacia melanoxylon (also from the “pea” family Fabaceae). It is native to eastern Australia and Tasmania. Other names for Australian blackwood include hickory, mudgerabah, Tasmanian blackwood and blackwood acacia.

Though both backwoods are from the same family, they are vastly different tonewoods. African blackwood is nearly twice as dense and three times as hard as its Australian counterpart. These differences in physical makeup give the two tonewoods different roles in guitar manufacturing.

Fortunately, luthiers and manufacturers will typically differentiate between the two blackwood tonewoods in the specifications and description of their guitar and bass materials. In this article, we’ll talk about both types of blackwood and how each is used in the craft of guitar-making.

Note that occasionally we’ll come across what is known as “Blackwood Tek.” This is not a true wood. Rather’s it’s a technologically modified “wood” that aims to produce the properties and appearance of African Ebony or Indian Rosewood.


Characteristics Of African Blackwood Tonewood

African blackwood is a tonewood from the species Dalbergia melanoxylon. Its heartwood is typically completely black, though lighter pieces may exhibit a dark brown or purplish hue. Its texture is fine and even, and its grain is straight, though often indiscernible.

African blackwood is difficult to work and has a rather extreme blunting effect on tools. It’s among the densest, hardest tonewoods out there and is certainly the hardest amongst the notable guitar tonewoods. It’s challenging to bend and is a relatively brittle wood overall. It’s a stable wood and finished nicely.

African blackwood is listed on CITES Appendix II as part of the genus-wide restriction on Dalbergia. It’s reported by the IUCN as being near threatened, though it’s not currently on the Red List.

As a tonewood, African blackwood offers a remarkably balanced sound. It has good volume, clarity and note separation with superb low-mid sustain and rich overtones.

Here are a few notable African blackwood specs:

  • Type: African blackwood
  • Hardwood/Softwood: Hardwood
  • Colour: black, sometimes with slightly lighter dark brown or purplish hue
  • Grain: usually straight
  • Texture: fine, even
  • Pores: diffuse-porous
  • Density: 1,270 kg/m3 / 79.28 lb/ft3
  • Janka Hardness (Typical): 16,320 N / 3669 lbf
  • Elastic Modulus: 17.95 GPa / 2,603,000 psi
  • Tone (Warm/Bright Scale): balanced
  • Price: very expensive

Sources: wikipedia.org and wood-database.com

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 African Blackwood 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, the signal chain and the 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.

African blackwood is very expensive, so we won’t see it on many commercially-viable electric guitars. However, it is one of the best tonewoods for fretboards. When it comes to bodies and necks, African blackwood is far too heavy and difficult to work for practical use.

Is African Blackwood A Good Electric Guitar Body Tonewood?

African blackwood is perhaps the hardest and most dense hardwood that is considered for electric guitars. It is far too heavy for use in practical electric guitar solidbody designs and even hollowbody designs. Furthermore, its poor bendability and brittleness don’t rank it high for solidbody construction, especially given its high price point.

Ergonomics are important in electric guitar design, and African blackwood is simply too heavy.

Is African Blackwood A Good Electric Guitar Neck Tonewood?

A solid African blackwood neck would throw off the centre of gravity of the electric guitar unless the body were impractical heavy as well. Though African blackwood could be a viable laminate material in guitar necks, it’s largely ignored for lighter, less brittle options (maple, mahogany, walnut, wenge).

Is African Blackwood A Good Electric Guitar Fretboard Tonewood?

African blackwood is a superb fretboard material for electric guitars. It’s dense, hard, sounds great, and looks awesome. Its sustaining yet super clean sound can greatly benefit the overall tone of an electric guitar.

That being said, the price and availability of African blackwood make it a rarity in electric guitars across the board, from small shops to major brands.

Fender offers African backwood as a fretboard material option in its custom shop.

Fender is featured in the following My New Microphone articles:
Top 13 Best Bass Guitar Brands In The World
Top 11 Best Bass Guitar Amplifier Brands In The World
Top 13 Best Electric Guitar Brands In The World
Top 11 Best Guitar/Bass Effects Pedal Brands To Know & Use
Top 11 Best Guitar Amplifier Brands In The World
Top 11 Best Guitar/Bass Patch Cable Brands In The World
Top 11 Best Acoustic Guitar String Brands On The Market
Top 11 Best Bass Guitar String Brands On The Market
Top 10 Best Classical Guitar String Brands On The Market
Top 11 Best Electric Guitar String Brands On The Market
Top 8 Best Acoustic Guitar Pickup Brands On The Market
Top 8 Best Bass Guitar Pickup Brands On The Market

Examples of electric guitars with African blackwood fretboards:


Is African Blackwood A Good Acoustic Guitar Tonewood?

As mentioned previously, the high price tag of African blackwood makes it rare in mass-produced instruments, including acoustic and classical guitars. That being said, it can be a superb fretboard tonewood.

Its poor bendability makes it a difficult choice for backs and sides, though it sounds superb when done correctly. Its weight and difficult workability keep it from top and neck designs. Like with electric guitars, it’s far too heavy for practical use.

Is African Blackwood A Good Acoustic Guitar Body Back/Side Tonewood?

African blackwood is rarely used as a back and sides material, yet it sounds incredible when it is. African blackwood’s sonic richness, clarity, and sustain will surely add beautiful complexity to an acoustic guitar’s sound.

That being said, it can be difficult to bend, and its price and restrictions keep its popularity low. Furthermore, it makes for a heavy guitar.

Is African Blackwood A Good Acoustic Guitar Body Top Tonewood?

African blackwood is rarely experimented with as a top material for acoustic or classical guitars. Its weight, brittleness and price far outweigh its balanced yet average projection.

The low weight and relatively high stiffness of the popular softwoods (spruce and cedar) make for the best, most popular top woods. African blackwood is about as far opposite of that as we can get.

Is African Blackwood A Good Acoustic Guitar Neck Tonewood?

Like with electric guitars, a solid African blackwood neck would likely be too heavy for an acoustic or classical guitar.

Is African Blackwood A Good Acoustic Guitar Fretboard Tonewood?

African blackwood isn’t overly popular. However, it makes for an excellent fretboard material for acoustic guitars. It’s dense, hard, sounds great, and looks outstanding. Its superb clarity and notable sustain make it a great choice for acoustic and classical guitar fretboards, albeit pricey.


Is African Blackwood A Good Bass Guitar Tonewood?

As mentioned in the acoustic and electric guitars sections, we’re unlikely to see African blackwood in anything but fretboards (and perhaps nuts, bridges, and other small portions of the guitar). The same is true of bass guitars, which can certainly benefit from the hardness and balanced tone of an African blackwood fretboard.


Characteristics Of Australian Blackwood Tonewood

Australian blackwood is a tonewood from the species Acacia melanoxylon. Its heartwood has a golden or reddish-brown colour, often accented by ribbon-like streaks of contrasting colours. Its texture is fine-to-medium and even. Its grain is typically straight, though wavy grain is also common and often sought after for aesthetic purposes.

Australian blackwood is much easier to work than its African counterpart and takes well to hand tools and machines thanks, in large part, to its relative softness. Piece with nice figure and interlocked grain are liable to tear-out, while straight-grain pieces are much less so. It’s stable and has great bending capabilities. It glues, stains, and finishes well.

Australian blackwood is not listed on CITES Appendices nor the IUCN Red List.

As a tonewood, Australian blackwood offers a warm tone with beautiful clarity in the mid and upper-frequency range. Its midrange is well-defined with notable separation of voices, making it a superb all-rounder tonewood.

It is often compared to koa, though more resonant; mahogany, though brighter and more sustaining; and rosewood, though brighter and more articulate.

Here are a few notable Australian blackwood specs:

  • Type: Australian blackwood
  • Hardwood/Softwood: Hardwood
  • Colour: medium golden or reddish brown
  • Grain: usually straight to slightly interlocked
  • Texture: uniform, fine to medium
  • Pores: diffuse-porous
  • Density: 640 kg/m3 / 39.95 lb/ft3
  • Janka Hardness (Typical): 5,180 N / 1,165 lbf
  • Elastic Modulus: 14.82 GPa / 2,149,000 psi
  • Tone (Warm/Bright Scale): balanced
  • Price: high

Is Australian Blackwood A Good Electric Guitar Tonewood?

Australian blackwood is a lesser-used tonewood for electric guitars but can sound great when used in bodies and necks. Though it’s not often incorporated into many commercially-available designs, Australian blackwood is generally chosen as part of a laminate piece.

Is Australian Blackwood A Good Electric Guitar Body Tonewood?

The sound of Australian blackwood offers a balanced tone with great sustain and clear top-end, though it can be a bit heavy for electric guitar bodies.

For this reason, we typically see it as part of a laminate design. That being said, it can be a fantastic solidbody slab, too, and is only slightly heavier than mahogany.

Examples of electric guitars with Tasmanian blackwood bodies or tops:

Is Australian Blackwood A Good Electric Guitar Neck Tonewood?

Though Australian blackwood would make for a great electric guitar neck material, it’s rarely ever considered. There are cheaper options on the market that have easier grain and more character (maple, mahogany, walnut, wenge).

Is Australian Blackwood A Good Electric Guitar Fretboard Tonewood?

Australian blackwood is a bit too soft and too prone to tear-out for practical use as a fretboard material.


Is Australian Blackwood A Good Acoustic Guitar Tonewood?

Australian blackwood can be a fantastic acoustic and classical guitar tonewood, though rare in commercially-available models. When discussed by luthiers, it’s generally spoken of as back and sides material.

Is Australian Blackwood A Good Acoustic Guitar Body Back/Side Tonewood?

Australian blackwood is a nice, stable wood for use as acoustic guitar back and sides. It helps deliver an articulate bottom end with balanced mid and crips high ends. Its overall volume and projection can benefit cedar and spruce tops alike.

Taylor is a notable manufacturer that uses Australian blackwood as the back/sides on some of its acoustic guitars.

Taylor is featured in My New Microphone’s Top 13 Best Acoustic Guitar Brands In The World.

Examples of acoustic guitars with Tasmanian blackwood backs and sides:

Is Australian Blackwood A Good Acoustic Guitar Body Top Tonewood?

Australian blackwood is unpopular as an acoustic top material, though it does yield unique results. It sounds clear and balanced with a certain high-end shimmer and a gluing compression with relatively low headroom (compared to the more popular options like spruce and cedar.

Is Australian Blackwood A Good Acoustic Guitar Neck Tonewood?

Australian blackwood is a decent tonewood choice for acoustic guitar necks but is rarely used due to its price-to-benefit ratio. Once again, there are more affordable options on the market that have easier grain and that offer more sonic character.

Is Australian Blackwood A Good Acoustic Guitar Fretboard Tonewood?

Australian blackwood is a bit too soft and too prone to tear-out for practical use as a fretboard material.


Is Australian Blackwood A Good Bass Guitar Tonewood?

As we could imagine from reading the previous sections of electric and acoustic guitars, Australian blackwood is generally reserved for bass guitar bodies. It’s typically used in laminate solidbody designs or as backs and sides in hollowbody/acoustic bass designs when it’s used at all.

Examples of bass guitars with Tasmanian blackwood tonewood:


Other Tonewoods

Of course, there are plenty of other tonewoods besides blackwood. Here is a list of other tonewoods with links to check out more in-depth articles on each:


This article has been approved in accordance with the My New Microphone Editorial Policy.

Arthur

Arthur is the owner of Fox Media Tech and author of My New Microphone. He's an audio engineer by trade and works on contract in his home country of Canada. When not blogging on MNM, he's likely hiking outdoors and blogging at Hikers' Movement (hikersmovement.com) or composing music for media. Check out his Pond5 and AudioJungle accounts.

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