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 sassafras is used in the construction of guitars and basses, it’s worth investigating whether it’s a good tonewood or not. Confusingly enough, there are two entirely different tonewoods that are called sassafras that we must address.
Is Tasmanian/blackheart sassafras a good guitar tonewood? Tasmanian “blackheart” sassafras (Atherosperma moschatum) is a beautiful colourful softwood tonewood from Tasmania that offers an open sound and balanced tone with pronounced high-end. It’s a great choice for acoustic and electric guitar tops, though it’s too soft for use in necks or fretboards.
Is sassafras a good guitar tonewood? Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) is a hardwood tonewood from Eastern North America that offers a bright, punchy tone with defined low-midrange. Its tone and look are similar to that of swamp ash, for which sassafras is becoming a replacement for in guitar bodies (but not necks or fretboards).
In this article, we’ll discuss the confusion between the different tonewoods known as “sassafras” and how they are 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 sassafras 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 Sassafrasses
- Characteristics Of White Sassafras Tonewood
- Is White Sassafras A Good Electric Guitar Tonewood?
- Is White Sassafras A Good Acoustic Guitar Tonewood?
- Is White Sassafras A Good Bass Guitar Tonewood?
- Characteristics Of Tasmanian Sassafras Tonewood
- Is Tasmanian Sassafras A Good Electric Guitar Tonewood?
- Is Tasmanian Sassafras A Good Acoustic Guitar Tonewood?
- Is Tasmanian Sassafras A Good Bass Guitar Tonewood?
- Other Tonewoods
A Tale Of Two Sassafrasses
Before we get into this article, it’s critical to clarify the confusion between the two tonewoods we call “sassafras” (why can’t things be simple?).
To distinguish between the two, I’ll be referring to one tonewood as “white sassafras” and the other as “Tasmanian sassafras.”
What I call “white sassafras” are woods from the species Sassafras albidum, which is a hardwood native to Eastern North America (Canada and the United States). This is not to be confused with the species Atherosperma moschatum, which is better known as Tasmanian sassafras, southern sassafras, golden sassafras or blackheart sassafras.
White sassafras is actually part of the genus Sassafras, making its name much more technically correct. It is also known as red sassafras, silky sassafras, or simply as “sassafras.” It is not listed in the CITES Appendices or the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
White sassafras is becoming more popular as a substitute for swamp ash, which is dwindling in its availability.
What I call “Tasmanian sassafras” are softwoods from the family Atherospermataceae. More specifically, the sassafras tonewood is Atherosperma moschatum, which, as the name suggests, is native to Tasmania (Australia). This is not to be confused with the genus sassafras, which makes up three species of trees in the family Lauraceae.
Tasmanian sassafras (Atherosperma moschatum) is also known as golden sassafras or, when infected by staining fungus, as blackheart sassafras. Another name is southern sassafras. It is not listed in the CITES Appendices or the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
Tasmanian sassafras isn’t overly common in mass-produced guitar models. It makes for a superb top wood for acoustic guitars and hollowbody electric guitars. Note that, for the most part, it’s the blackheart variety of Tasmanian sassafras that is sought after and used in acoustic guitar making.
So, in this article, we’ll talk about both types of sassafras to help clear up the confusion and understand how each is used in the craft of guitar-making.
Characteristics Of White Sassafras Tonewood
White sassafras is typically marketed or listed in specifications simply as “sassafras.” However, since sassafras may refer to other species of wood entirely, and one such species is also a notable tonewood, we’ll specify the species Sassafras albidum as “white sassafras.”
White sassafras has a light to medium brown colour, sometimes with an orange or olive-green hue. It has a similar look to ash, which is a much more popular tonewood.
The grain of white sassafras is straight with a coarse, uneven texture. The wood is porous, though soft enough to make it easy to work. It takes well to hand tools and machines and glues, stains and finishes well. When being worked, white sassafras has a distinct scent bordering on spicy.
The Sassafras albidum trees grow too small to be commercially viable on a large scale. However, it is becoming more popular as a replacement for ash as ash becomes less available.
As a tonewood, white sassafras offers a relatively balanced tone with a tight yet sustained sound, strong midrange, and defined low-end.
Here are a few notable white sassafras specs:
- Hardwood/Softwood: Hardwood
- Colour: medium to light brown with orange or olive hue
- Grain: straight
- Texture: coarse, uneven
- Pores: ring-porous
- Density: 495 kg/m3 / 30.90 lb/ft3
- Janka Hardness (Typical): 2,800 N / 630 lbf
- Elastic Modulus: 7.72 GPa / 1,120,000 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 White Sassafras 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.
White sassafras is a great choice for electric guitar bodies due to its light weight, relatively high strength, easy workability and balanced tone. However, its softness and porous nature make it impractical for necks and fretboards.
Is White Sassafras A Good Electric Guitar Body Tonewood?
White sassafras is a superb choice for solidbody slabs in electric guitar designs. It is used in custom shops and large-scale manufacturing spaces alike.
With a typical density of 495 kg/m3, this tonewood is light for a hardwood. Weight is definitely a considerable factor when designing an ergonomic electric guitar, often being played standing up with a strap over the guitarist’s shoulder.
This wood is very easy to work, as well. Making necessary adjustments is easy during the design and shaping process, and the wood is relatively affordable, too.
Examples of electric guitars with sassafras bodies/tops:
- Fender Stories Collection Eric Johnson 1954 “Virginia” Stratocaster: solidbody with sassafras body
- G&L Tribute Legacy: solidbody with sassafras body
- Strandberg Boden Prog NX 6: solidbody with sassafras body (maple top)
Is White Sassafras A Good Electric Guitar Neck Tonewood?
White sassafras is generally considered not dense or strong enough to use as an electric guitar neck tonewood.
Is White Sassafras A Good Electric Guitar Fretboard Tonewood?
White sassafras is generally considered not hard or strong enough to use as an electric guitar fretboard tonewood.
Is White Sassafras A Good Acoustic Guitar Tonewood?
White sassafras is a popular solid body wood for electric guitars, but it’s rarely seen in acoustic guitars. We’ve discussed how it’s too soft and weak for necks and fretboards, which also applies to acoustic guitars. This softness also plays a role in making white sassafras a relatively poor choice for acoustic bodies, which are thin and require significant bending.
Is White Sassafras A Good Acoustic Guitar Body Back/Side Tonewood?
White sassafras is pliable and suitable for steam bending but not nearly enough for use as acoustic backs and sides, especially considering its softness (2,800 N / 630 lbf Janka). Compared to the common back/sides tonewoods (mahogany, sapele, rosewood), white sassafras’ specs are lacklustre.
Is White Sassafras A Good Acoustic Guitar Body Top Tonewood?
White sassafras actually has similar density and hardness to spruce, which is by far the most common acoustic top wood. However, spruce is significantly stiffer, which allows it to be thinner and project more. Though white sassafras could be used as an acoustic top, there are plenty of superior options out there.
Is White Sassafras A Good Acoustic Guitar Neck Tonewood?
White sassafras is generally considered not dense or strong enough to use as an acoustic guitar neck tonewood.
Is White Sassafras A Good Acoustic Guitar Fretboard Tonewood?
White sassafras is generally considered not hard or strong enough to use as an acoustic guitar fretboard tonewood.
Is White Sassafras A Good Bass Guitar Tonewood?
Like electric guitars, solid bass guitar bodies can be successfully made of white sassafras tonewood.
However, white sassafras is not nearly as common in basses as it is in guitars. There are currently no major manufacturers that mass-produce bass guitars with white sassafras bodies, though it certainly is used in custom designs and smaller shops.
To further our comparison with ash, white sassafras offers more sustain in the low-end while largely maintaining the punchiness, which can be a huge benefit in solidbody bass guitars.
Characteristics Of Tasmanian Sassafras Tonewood
Tasmanian sassafras is typically marketed or listed in specifications as “blackheart sassafras.” All blackheart sassafras is Tasmanian sassafras (Atherosperma moschatum), but not all Tasmanian sassafras is specifically blackheart.
Tasmanian sassafras has dynamic and variable colours. The base colour ranges from gray to golden brown and often includes streaks of rich browns, blacks and even greens. This range of colour, particularly in the streaks, is caused by a fungus that, fortunately for us, doesn’t significantly impact the properties of the wood.
The grain of Tasmanian sassafras tonewood is straight with a fine-to-medium uniform texture. The knots provide a beautiful figure in the wood, making it a superb aesthetic choice for guitars.
It’s lightweight and relatively strong, given its density. It is easy to work with both hand tools and machines. It bends nicely and finishes excellently.
As a tonewood, Tasmanian sassafras offers an open sound and relatively balanced tone. Separation between notes is easily heard, and the tonewood produces a beautiful pronounced high-end. Tasmanian sassafras can be considered a bit on the bright side, though its low-end and mid-range and clean and present as well.
Here are a few notable Tasmanian sassafras specs:
- Hardwood/Softwood: Softwood
- Colour: gray to golden brown (blackheart includes browns, blacks and/or green streaks)
- Grain: straight
- Texture: uniform fine to medium
- Pores: diffuse-porous
- Density: 620 kg/m3 / 38.71 lb/ft3
- Janka Hardness (Typical): 4,860 N / 1,093 lbf
- Elastic Modulus: 12.60 GPa / 1,827,000 psi
- Tone (Warm/Bright Scale): balanced
- Price: moderate to high
Is Tasmanian Sassafras A Good Electric Guitar Tonewood?
Tasmanian sassafras is rarely used in electric guitars, except for in the bodies of hollowbody electrics, where it can be incorporated as backs, sides and/or tops. The wood looks beautiful and delivers a superb tone, but it is largely ignored in electric guitar designs.
Is Tasmanian Sassafras A Good Electric Guitar Body Tonewood?
Tasmanian sassafras has a density (620 kg/m3 / 38.71 lb/ft3) and hardness (4,860 N / 1,093 lbf) comparable to the denser solidbody tonewoods like mahogany and maple. However, maple and mahogany are considered the heavier options, and Tasmanian sassafras has yet to catch on.
That being said, Tasmanian sassafras is beginning to become popular with hollowbody electric guitar bodies, which are similar in build to acoustics.
Examples of electric guitars with sassafras bodies/tops:
- Taylor T5z Classic Sassafras: hollowbody with sassafras top (sapele body)
Is Tasmanian Sassafras A Good Electric Guitar Neck Tonewood?
Softwoods aren’t typically used in guitar necks. Although Tasmanian sassafras is harder than most other softwood, it is still generally ignored for use as an electric guitar neck tonewood. That being said, the wood could be used; it just never is.
Is Tasmanian Sassafras A Good Electric Guitar Fretboard Tonewood?
Tasmanian sassafras, like other softwood, is generally considered too soft and weak for use as an electric guitar fretboard tonewood.
Is Tasmanian Sassafras A Good Acoustic Guitar Tonewood?
When we hear about blackheart sassafras (Tasmanian sassafras), it’s typically related to acoustic guitars. Though it’s not yet popular, the aesthetics and tone of Tasmanian sassafras play well into the body designs of acoustic guitars.
Is Tasmanian Sassafras A Good Acoustic Guitar Body Back/Side Tonewood?
Tasmanian sassafras (particularly blackheart sassafras) is a great yet lesser-known acoustic back and sides material.
Taylor is one of the only big-name manufacturers to use blackheart sassafras in their designs, describing its tone as a blend of the dry, woody response of walnut or mahogany; clarity and focus of maple or myrtlewood, and the high-end of rosewood.
Taylor is featured in My New Microphone’s Top 13 Best Acoustic Guitar Brands In The World.
Examples of acoustic guitars with sassafras backs and sides:
- Taylor Limited-edition GAce-LTD: acoustic with blackheart sassafras back and sides (torrefied Sitka spruce top)
Is Tasmanian Sassafras A Good Acoustic Guitar Body Top Tonewood?
Tasmanian sassafras can be a great acoustic guitar top, even though it’s quite a bit denser than the typical top woods (spruce, cedar). Its gray to golden brown colour and dark streaks are beautiful to look at, but its projection is not as great as the standard options.
Is Tasmanian Sassafras A Good Acoustic Guitar Neck Tonewood?
Like with electric guitar necks, Tasmanian sassafras isn’t used for acoustic necks due to its relatively low density and hardness, even though it’s hard for softwood.
Is Tasmanian Sassafras A Good Acoustic Guitar Fretboard Tonewood?
Tasmanian sassafras, like other softwood, is generally considered too soft and weak for use as an acoustic guitar neck tonewood.
Is Tasmanian Sassafras A Good Bass Guitar Tonewood?
Like electric and acoustic guitars, bass guitar bodies can be successfully made of Tasmanian sassafras tonewood. This is true of the tops/veneers and acoustic back and side construction.
However, Tasmanian sassafras is not nearly as common in basses as it is in guitars. There are currently no major manufacturers that mass-produce bass guitars with Tasmanian sassafras bodies, though it certainly is used in custom designs and smaller shops.
The only concern with Tasmanian sassafras as a bass guitar tonewood is that it’s not as resonant in the low-end as some of the more popular body woods (alder, ash, maple, poplar, mahogany).
Of course, there are plenty of other tonewoods besides sassafras. 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.