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 merbau is used in the construction of guitars and basses, it’s worth investigating whether it’s a good tonewood or not.
Is merbau a good guitar tonewood? Merbau is a rare but versatile tonewood. It’s remarkably stable once its pores are filled properly. Merbau’s tone offers a strong bass response with notable sustain and well-articulated highs. It works well as back and sides materials and as a neck and fretboard wood.
In this article, we’ll discuss if and how merbau 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 merbau 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 Merbau Tonewood
- Is Merbau A Good Electric Guitar Tonewood?
- Is Merbau A Good Acoustic Guitar Tonewood?
- Is Merbau A Good Bass Guitar Tonewood?
- Other Tonewoods
Characteristics Of Merbau Tonewood
Merbau tonewood is from two species of Intsia trees, notably I. bijuga and I. palembanica (from the legume family Fabaceae). These trees grow from East Africa to Southeast Asia and Australia. Other common names for merbau include kwila and ipil. Lesser-known alternate names include Borneo teak, Malacca teak, Johnstone River teak, Pacific teak, Moluccan ironwood, scrub mahogany and vesi.
Merbau’s colour gets darker with age, going from an orange-brown to a dark red-brown. The wood has characteristic yellow mineral deposits throughout. It’s a diffuse-porous wood with large pores and a coarse texture. The grain ranges from straight to interlocked.
Merbau isn’t listed in the CITES Appendices, but it is listed on the IUCN Red List as “vulnerable due to a population reduction of over 20% in the past three generations, caused by a decline in its natural range, and exploitation.”
In terms of workability, merbau’s large pores and water-soluble mineral deposits can make smoothing, filling and finishing a lengthy task. It’s relatively hard, though it’s the gum that is most likely to dull cutting tools. That being said, the wood glues and finishes nicely.
As a tonewood, merbau offers a strong bass response with notable sustain, though its high-end is the remarkable part of its tone. It’s nice and bright with excellent articulation. The midrange frequencies are rich with overtones, too, making this tonewood balanced overall.
Here are a few notable merbau specs:
- Hardwood/Softwood: Hardwood
- Colour: orange-brown to dark reddish brown
- Grain: straight or interlocked
- Texture: coarse
- Pores: diffuse-porous
- Density: 815 kg/m3 / 50.88 lb/ft3
- Janka Hardness (Typical): 7,620 N / 1,713 lbf
- Elastic Modulus: 15.93 GPa / 2,310,000 psi
- Tone (Warm/Bright Scale): balanced
- Price: 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 Merbau 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.
Merbau can be an excellent tonewood for electric guitar laminate tops and fretboards, though it’s virtually never used in commercial designs.
Is Merbau A Good Electric Guitar Body Tonewood?
Merbau has a wide-ranging harmonic profile with complex tonal characteristics and a beautiful aesthetic. These characteristics make it a superb wood for guitar bodies on paper. However, its density makes it heavy for use as a solidbody slab wood.
Merbau is best-suited as a top/veneer wood for electric guitars, helping to improve the tone and look of the main body wood.
Is Merbau A Good Electric Guitar Neck Tonewood?
Merbau sounds great as a neck tonewood, especially thanks to its brightness and high-end articulation, which helps to bring out the individual notes of the guitar with clarity.
Note that the density and hardness of merbau are similar to that of wenge, which is a popular neck tonewood. However, merbau has larger pores which require proper filling to be stable and smooth enough as a neck wood.
Is Merbau A Good Electric Guitar Fretboard Tonewood?
Merbau is hard and dense enough to be considered a fretboard wood. However, the need to fill its pores can make it less attractive, both tonally and visibly, than the more standard fretboard tonewoods. Of course, the tone is nothing to look down upon; it’s just that filling the pores will alter the tone, especially in thinly-cut pieces like fretboards.
Is Merbau A Good Acoustic Guitar Tonewood?
Merbau is rarely considered for acoustic guitar construction, even though its properties as a tonewood can make it viable as a back and sides, neck and fretboard material.
Is Merbau A Good Acoustic Guitar Body Back/Side Tonewood?
Merbau is a bit tough to bend and finish due in large part to its porous makeup. However, with patience and perseverance, its usage can bring forth excellent volume, rich tone and remarkable clarity.
Merbau is practically only seen in custom builds. It’s a great option for both steel-string acoustics and nylon string classical guitars.
Is Merbau A Good Acoustic Guitar Body Top Tonewood?
Merbau is heavy, and even less discussion surrounds its use as a soundboard wood. However, it can be used to provide a deep, rich soundboard for the instrument.
Spruce, cedar and mahogany are standard thanks to their relatively low density and high stiffness. Though merbau is stiff, it is much denser and thus less projecting.
That being said, merbau has the potential to sound nice as a top wood and will certainly look great.
Is Merbau A Good Acoustic Guitar Neck Tonewood?
Beyond the need to fill its pores, merbau is a relatively stable and balanced-sounding neck material. However, with so many popular options, merbau is most often left out of the conversation and, ultimately, acoustic and classical guitar builds.
Is Merbau A Good Acoustic Guitar Fretboard Tonewood?
As mentioned, merbau can be a good guitar fretboard material so long as it’s filled and worked correctly.
D’Angelico uses merbau in a few of its acoustic guitars.
Examples of acoustic guitars with merbau fretboards:
- D’Angelico Premier Bowery LS: acoustic with merbau fretboard
Is Merbau A Good Bass Guitar Tonewood?
Merbau is a viable option for bass guitar necks and fretboards, though uncommon. The strong bass response of the tonewood is excellent for bringing out the fundamentals of the bass notes. Furthermore, the richness of the overtones gives a nice colour to the overall tone of a bass guitar.
Of course, there are plenty of other tonewoods besides merbau. 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.