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 koa is used in the construction of guitars and basses, it's worth investigating whether it's a good tonewood or not.
Is Koa a good guitar tonewood? Koa is a rare, lightweight hardwood with tight grain. It offers a balanced tone with a clear bottom end and defined upper range. Koa is typically used as the top in electric guitar/bass laminate designs or the sides/back in acoustic designs, but not in solid bodies, acoustic tops, necks or fretboards.
In this article, we'll discuss if and how koa 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 koa 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 Koa Tonewood
- Is Koa A Good Electric Guitar Tonewood?
- Is Koa A Good Acoustic Guitar Tonewood?
- Is Koa A Good Bass Guitar Tonewood?
- Other Tonewoods
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Characteristics Of Koa Tonewood
Koa is a tonewood from the Acacia koa, a flowering tree native to Hawaii.
Koa is not listed in the CITES Appendices or the IUCN Red List.
The heartwood of koa is a medium golden or reddish-brown colour, often with ribbon-like streaks of colour. The grain is highly variable, from straight to interlocked, wavy, or curly. The texture is medium-to-coarse, and the wood is rather porous.
Koa hardwood is typically easy to work and finishes well, though it becomes more prone to tear out the more interlocked its grain is. The large pores will require filling before finishing.
As a tonewood, koa is warm but balanced with a clear bottom end and defined upper range without being overly bright. Its midrange is nice and open with moderate warmth. It's not overly loud but does have great projection.
Here are a few notable koa specs:
- Hardwood/Softwood: Hardwood
- Colour: medium golden or reddish brown with ribbon-like streaks
- Grain: slightly interlocked, sometimes wavy
- Texture: uniform, medium to coarse
- Density: 610 kg/m3 / 38.1 lb/ft3
- Janka Hardness (Typical): 5,180 N / 1,165 lbf
- Elastic Modulus: 10.37 GPa / 1,504,000 psi
- Tone (Warm/Bright Scale): warm
- Price: high
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 Koa 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.
Koa is notoriously hit-and-miss. The good pieces sound excellent, while the not-so-good pieces make relatively poor tonewoods. Though typically known as an acoustic guitar tonewood (woods affect the overall tone more in acoustics than in electrics), koa can also be incorporated into electric guitars with superb results. This is particularly true as a top/veneer material, though not as much as a neck or fretboard material.
Is Koa A Good Electric Guitar Body Tonewood?
Koa's open tone can really bring out the low and high ends when incorporated into an electric body. Koa is relatively dense and would make for a heavy electric guitar. Rather, it's typically incorporated as the top in laminate designs, where lighter tonewood makes up the body. That way, we can get the nice aesthetic of a figured koa top, a harder front surface (for improved durability), and a nice tone to add clarity to the top and bottom end.
Examples of electric guitars with koa tops:
- Ibanez Premium RG6PKAG: solidbody with koa top (mahogany body)
- Taylor T5 Custom Koa: hollowbody with koa top (sapele body)
- Taylor T5z Classic Koa: hollowbody with koa top (sapele body)
Is Koa A Good Electric Guitar Neck Tonewood?
Koa is an expensive wood and is rarely used as the neck material of electric guitars, though it certainly can be used for good tonal results.
Is Koa A Good Electric Guitar Fretboard Tonewood?
Koa is rarely used as the fretboard material of electric guitars, though it can be. It's generally considered too soft to be a durable choice, which is of utmost importance in fretboards.
Is Koa A Good Acoustic Guitar Tonewood?
Koa is a relatively popular acoustic tonewood and for a good reason. Its open sound, sustain and projection make it a great choice for acoustic body construction. It's a relatively easy wood to work, bend and cut thin. Furthermore, the figured pieces look fantastic, contributing to the overall visual appeal of the acoustic or classical guitar.
Is Koa A Good Acoustic Guitar Body Back/Side Tonewood?
Koa makes a superb back and sides material. Its workability allows it to bend easily, though its pores will need filling before finishing.
It's a stable and solid wood with good sustain and defined top-end and balanced low-end. It sounds great as back and sides material, complimenting whatever top/soundboard wood it's paired with, including more koa!
The more koa is played, the more it opens up, meaning it's a tonewood that keeps on giving.
Examples of acoustic guitars with koa backs and sides:
- Takamine Legacy EF508KC: acoustic with koa back and sides (koa top)
- Taylor 214ce-K: acoustic with koa back and sides (Sitka spruce)
Is Koa A Good Acoustic Guitar Body Top Tonewood?
Koa may not be as loud as spruce or cedar, but it projects very nicely for a relatively dense tonewood. It offers a certain tightness to the tone when used as a soundboard material, adding clarity and articulation to the individual notes of the acoustic or classical guitar.
However, its naturally balanced tone also projects the low end nicely. Overall, it's a beautiful tonewood for tops, though arguably not as good (and therefore not as popular) as spruce, cedar or mahogany.
Furthermore, the figured pieces of koa often selected as top materials are outstanding from a visual standpoint, making for truly beautiful instruments.
Examples of acoustic guitars with koa tops:
- Takamine Legacy EF508KC: acoustic with koa top (koa back and sides)
- Ovation Celebrity Elite Plus CE44P-FKOA Mid-Depth: acoustic with koa top (Lyrachord back and sides)
- Godin ACS Nylon SA Extreme Koa HG: classical with koa top (maple/basswood back and sides)
Is Koa A Good Acoustic Guitar Neck Tonewood?
Koa is rarely used as the neck material of acoustic guitars, though it can be. It's rather expensive for experimentation, and there are plenty of tried and true neck woods that are more popular.
Is Koa A Good Acoustic Guitar Fretboard Tonewood?
Koa is rarely used as the fretboard material of acoustic guitars, though it can be. However, due to its relatively soft hardwood, it'll likely need a good finish, which is liable to wear poorly and feel strange as well.
Is Koa A Good Bass Guitar Tonewood?
Like the 6-strings mentioned above, koa makes a good top wood for acoustic and electric guitars alike. Its gentle high-end boost can bring out the upper harmonics to improve tone, while its articulate bottom end makes for a clean-sounding instrument.
Examples of bass guitars with koa tonewood:
- Lakland USA 44-60: solidbody electric bass with koa body top (alder body)
- Taylor GS Mini-e Koa Bass: acoustic bass with koa back/sides and top
- Traveler Guitar Redlands Concert Acoustic-Electric Bass: acoustic bass with koa top
Of course, there are plenty of other tonewoods besides koa. Here is a list of other tonewoods with links to check out more in-depth articles on each:
- Panga Panga
- Pau Ferro