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

Is cedar a good guitar tonewood? Cedar is a softwood with a variety of grain types, from tight to wide. It offers a balanced tone with pronounced lows and rich overtones with good projection. Cedar is the most popular classical guitar top tonewood but doesn’t see much use in electrics or guitar/bass fretboards or necks.

In this article, we’ll discuss if and how cedar 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 cedar 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 Cedar Tonewood

Cedar comprises many different tonewoods, typically from the family Cupressaceae. Technically, cedar is part of the genus Cedrus. However, as we’ll see, none of the “cedar” tonewoods are actually true cedar (from the genus Cedrus). Among the most used cedar tonewoods are western red, Port Orford, Spanish and Alaskan yellow cedar. Let’s discuss each in a bit more detail.

Western red cedar (Thuja plicata from the family Cupressaceae) is also known as Pacific red cedar, giant arborvitae, western arborvitae, giant cedar, and shinglewood. It is native to western North America (the United States and Canada).

Western red cedar heartwood has a reddish/pinkish brown colour with streaks and bands of dark red/brown. Its texture is coarse, and its grain is straight. This tonewood is easy to work and finishes well. Because it’s so soft, care must be taken not to dent and/or scratch it. Furthermore, it’s sensitive to moisture and iron, which may cause staining.

Port Orford cedar (Chamaecyparis lawsoniana from the family Cupressaceae) is also known as Lawson cypress. It is native to the Pacific Northwest United States (Oregon and California).

Port Orford cedar heartwood has a light yellowish-brown colour with a straight grain and medium-to-fine texture. This tonewood is easy to work and finishes well.

Spanish cedar (Cedrela odorata from the family Meliaceae) is also known as Cuban cedar. It is native to Central and South America and the Caribbean.

Spanish cedar heartwood has a light pink to red-brown colour. It has a medium texture and a straight grain or sometimes interlocked grain. The wood ranges from ring-porous to diffuse-porous and is likely to have pockets of gum and natural oils. This tonewood is relatively easy to work and finishes well. Because it’s so soft, extra sanding may be required to smooth it out. Be aware of the potential for gum and oil, which can cause issues with tools and the final product.

Note that African and Honduran mahogany are also from the Meliaceae family.

Alaskan yellow cedar (Cupressus nootkatensis from the family Cupressaceae) is also known as Nootka cypress, yellow cypress, Alaska cypress, Nootka cedar, yellow cedar and Alaska cedar. It is native to the northwest coast of North America.

Alaskan yellow cedar heartwood has a light yellow colour with a medium-to-fine texture and a straight-to-wavy grain. This tonewood is relatively easy to work and finishes well. Watch for tear out if the specific wood has a wavy grain.

CITES lists Spanish cedar in Appendix III but does not list the other three types mentioned above. Port Orford and Spanish cedar are on the IUCN Red List as “vulnerable due to a population reduction of over 20% in the past three generations.” In contrast, red western and Alaskan yellow cedar are listed as species of least concern.

As a tonewood, cedar produces a relatively warm tone with strong overtones and plenty of character. It’s slightly less projecting than spruce but is still considered a top tonewood for volume.

Here are a few notable specs of the various types of cedar tonewoods discussed above:

  • Type: Western Red Cedar
  • Hardwood/Softwood: Softwood
  • Colour: reddish to pinkish brown
  • Grain: straight
  • Texture: coarse
  • Pores: ring-porous to diffuse-porous
  • Density: 370 kg/m3 / 23.1 lb/ft3
  • Janka Hardness (Typical): 1,560 N / 350 lbf
  • Elastic Modulus: 7.66 GPa / 1,111,000 psi
  • Tone (Warm/Bright Scale): warm
  • Price: moderate
  • Type: Port Orford Cedar
  • Hardwood/Softwood: Softwood
  • Colour: light yellowish brown
  • Grain: straight
  • Texture: uniform, medium to fine
  • Pores: ring-porous to diffuse-porous
  • Density: 465 kg/m3 / 29.0 lb/ft3
  • Janka Hardness (Typical): 2,620 N / 560 lbf
  • Elastic Modulus: 11.35 GPa / 1,646,000 psi
  • Tone (Warm/Bright Scale): warm
  • Price: high
  • Type: Spanish Cedar
  • Hardwood/Softwood: Softwood
  • Colour: light pinkish to reddish brown
  • Grain: straight or shallowly interlocked
  • Texture: medium
  • Pores: ring-porous to diffuse-porous
  • Density: 470 kg/m3 / 29.3 lb/ft3
  • Janka Hardness (Typical): 2,670 N / 600 lbf
  • Elastic Modulus: 9.12 GPa / 1,323,000 psi
  • Tone (Warm/Bright Scale): warm
  • Price: low to moderate
  • Type: Alaskan Yellow Cedar
  • Hardwood/Softwood: Softwood
  • Colour: light yellow
  • Grain: usually straight, sometimes wavy
  • Texture: uniform, medium to fine
  • Pores: ring-porous to diffuse-porous
  • Density: 495 kg/m3 / 30.9 lb/ft3
  • Janka Hardness (Typical): 2,580 N / 580 lbf
  • Elastic Modulus: 9.79 GPa / 1,420,000 psi
  • Tone (Warm/Bright Scale): warm
  • Price: high

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 Cedar 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.

Cedar isn’t an overly common tonewood in electric guitar construction. It’s much too soft for practical use as a fretboard material and even as a neck material. However, it’s so popular in acoustic guitars that some hollowbody designs have incorporated cedar into their designs for the smooth, warm tone it can impose within the instrument.

Is Cedar A Good Electric Guitar Body Tonewood?

Though rare, cedar can be used in electric guitar bodies to decent effect. It’s lightweight like swamp ash, basswood, poplar and alder (all common solidbody materials) but isn’t nearly as popular. Softwoods like cedar are usually incorporated into acoustic tops that require their projection characteristics. Still, even though Alaskan Yellow, Port Orford and Spanish cedar are almost as hard as alder, they’re largely ignored, particularly in commercially-available electric guitars.

That being said, the warm tone of cedar can sound awesome by itself and can be made even better with a harder top/veneer tonewood in solidbody electrics. Though it’ll make for a relatively soft guitar and may not finish as well as hardwood, a solidbody cedar can sound great and be rather ergonomic thanks to its light weight.

When cedar is incorporated into electric guitars, they’re likely to be hollowbody designs, whereby the cedar is used as the top of the back/sides.

Examples of electric guitars with cedar necks:

Is Cedar A Good Electric Guitar Neck Tonewood?

Cedar is often considered to be a poor choice for electric guitar necks due to its soft nature. However, the harder cedar options such as Spanish (2,670 N / 600 lbf) and Port Orford (2,620 N / 560 lbf) could certainly be used with good results. Compared to the popular hardwood options (maple, mahogany, walnut, wenge), the tone will be warm and perhaps a bit subdued.

Is Cedar A Good Electric Guitar Fretboard Tonewood?

Cedar is deemed too soft and knotty for electric guitar fretboards.


Is Cedar A Good Acoustic Guitar Tonewood?

Cedar is the most popular top tonewood for classical guitars and is an excellent choice for steel-string acoustics as well. A variety of cedars can be seen in acoustic guitar tops and necks, though it’s uncommon to see it used as a back and sides material and certainly as a fretboard material.

Is Cedar A Good Acoustic Guitar Body Back/Side Tonewood?

Acoustic and classical guitars typically require a harder wood for their backs and sides. Cedar is liable to dent due to its relative softness and may not yield the resonance and volume required from the back and sides (though it’s a superb soundboard material).

However, cedar can be, and is, used in custom designs and smaller guitar shops as the back and sides tonewood with good results. It mellows the sound of the guitar and makes for a rather lightweight instrument.

Is Cedar A Good Acoustic Guitar Body Top Tonewood?

Cedar is a fantastic choice for an acoustic guitar top and is the most popular option for classical guitars.

Port Orford cedar, in particular, has a superb stiffness-to-weight ratio, making it a fantastic top wood choice.

It offers excellent projection, though warmer and more gentle than spruce. Its tone is lush, warm and gentle, yet the wood sings beautifully, giving clarity to individual string voices.

Cedar as a whole is very split-resistant, making it a superior choice for working and finishing in acoustic tops.

Examples of acoustic guitars with cedar tops:

Is Cedar A Good Acoustic Guitar Neck Tonewood?

The harder cedars are great choices as neck woods for classical guitars and warm the sound even further while keeping the guitar lightweight. Though not nearly as common as mahogany, cedar can make for a great neck.

Cedar is rarely used in acoustic guitar necks.

Cordoba uses Spanish cedar on some of its classical guitars.

Examples of acoustic guitars with cedar necks:

Is Cedar A Good Acoustic Guitar Fretboard Tonewood?

Cedar is deemed too soft and knotty for acoustic or classical guitar fretboards. It would wear out quickly and dent too easily, rendering the instrument less-than-ideal for playing.


Is Cedar A Good Bass Guitar Tonewood?

Cedar is a relatively unpopular tonewood for bass guitars, particularly electric bass guitars. While acoustic basses are common, they’re typically steel-string, and cedar is a tonewood best suited for nylon strings.

That’s not to say cedar’s a bad bass guitar tonewood. Rather, its characteristics are better utilized by classical guitars than electric or acoustic bass guitars.


Other Tonewoods

Of course, there are plenty of other tonewoods besides cedar. 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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