In this video, I wanted to show the difference in sound between two identical harp guitars (the S-12HG) one with African mahogany back and sides, the other with black walnut back and sides. The contrast between them is subtle yet each has their advantages:
- Walnut is a more neutral tonewood (like maple) and does not add as many overtones or as much “color” to the sound, so you get a more pure and bright sounding fundamental tone.
- Mahogany is (usually) a lighter, more porous tonewood and offers a more “airy” warm sound for the instrument. This is basiclaly like having a built in “mid scoop,” so you get a bright high end, and a lot of warm lows.
- Walnut instruments tend to have more sustain because of the harder wood and the woofy low frequencies don’t get in the way of the fundamental tone.
- The mahogany instrument gives the illusion of being slightly louder, with the trade off of not as much sustain as the walnut instrument. However percieved “loudness” can be tricky to measure as the overall sustain seems adds to this as well.
So what is my personal preference you may be wondering? This is a tough question, and not long ago I would not be able to decide. It greatly depends upon the player’s style and their ear. For me, I tend to play a lot of the harp notes with the guitar by grabbing chords that include the harp strings. Sometimes I even play quarter notes on the harp strings for the entire song, so the warmth of the mahogany tends to blend the notes together making them harder to distinguish, making the walnut instrument my preference. Even though it has more sustain than the mahogany, the clarity of the harp strings makes them easier to hear when many notes are strung together.
Here is some feedback we have gotten from this video on the harp guitar forum from reputable builders/players:
Both sound great! But I think the Mahogany has a little more (deeper?) sustain. I like that.
What I can tell from a youtube movie: the mahogany ! It has a deeper, fuller sound. With a lot more character.
The Walnut sounds more like a box with strings, compared with the mahogany.
I can’t tell which is better. They both look and sound beautiful of course. In my builds the focus is on the choice of wood for the top. I have built with koa, maple, walnut, African mahog and Honduran rosewood. The tops are all lutz spruce and the tone seems to vary more from the heaviness of the bracing and the shape of the guitar than the side and back wood. I sense you like the Mahog better.
Scrolling backwards and forwards between the two I’m not hearing a lot of differences – but I bet you hear more in the flesh as it were. To my ears the main strings on the walnut guitar have a little more clarity and separation and a slightly brighter edge to them than the Khaya . They both sound like Tonedevils though.
Tone and Dave,
Cool….thanks for the test.
Of course, the first thing one always has to acknowledge is that there are a lot of things in between us, the listeners, and the instrument and player…microphone, recorder, transmission lines, computer, speakers. One nice thing about digital is that the sound really shouldn’t suffer too much through all the digital parts of that journey; still, there’s the player, the microphone, the speakers and the listener…all flesh and blood or analog.
That being said, it seems pretty clear that most of us are hearing differences, and to a large degree are agreeing on some of those qualities. This kind of renews my faith in humanity!
Those of us that build with those materials, or have instruments of them, probably have our prejudices all ready and waiting….hard to leave those things at the door!
I have used black walnut a lot, and I admit I use it because it’s beautiful and I have a lot available, not because it’s necessarily my favorite tonewood for back and sides. For tonal effect, I generally find I prefer mahogany (which I don’t use much for a variety of reasons), I like the warmth and color it can lend to a tone. Walnut is a more neutral wood, in my experience….even a bit “dead” (for example, most walnut I’ve handled, and that’s quite a bit by now, doesn’t exhibit much of a strong tap-tone…it doesn’t seem like a musical wood, like some woods do i.e. mahogany, Brazilian rosewood, redwood….those are all woods that can have strong musical tap tone just as lumber). It turns out, that this neutrality of tone can actually be a really nice thing, it can allow you to focus your voicing work on the top, without fear that some strong quality or flavor entered by the back will screw it all up. Another aspect of that neutrality of tone is that it can help make things clearer, better balanced. Unlike a wood that adds warmth and bassiness, like mahogany, which can make things a bit cloudy or indefinite.
I would also point out that even in two very, very similar instruments, there will be tonal differences introduced due to many factors in the building process, as well as the other woods (especially, of course, the topwood, which is the most important factor in tone, at least in material choices) used, finish, strings, set-up and so on and so on!
My preference in these two examples? I think I’m hearing a lot of what others are hearing…I hear more “happening” with the mahogany, more life, more juice, more “stuff”…which does, yes, equal a bit of “mushiness”. I’ve always liked mushiness, I guess….I eat mush for breakfast every morning! And the black walnut seems a little lacking in a way, because it is clearer and a bit “drier” sounding. But actually, surprise, surprise, I think the walnut maybe works better for this instrument, which already has a lot of “stuff going on with the subbasses and the bigger, more echoey box.
I guess that doesn’t quite say which I prefer….I like them both, and would use them for different reasons, as a musician.
Thanks again guys…got the ol’ brainwaves cranked up, there!
Having an open mind doesn’t necessarily mean your brain has fallen out.
I think that depends on the species of Walnut, if you can get your hands on some European Walnut (I say European but it’s originally from Persia – Juglans regia) give it a try. It’s softer than the American walnuts (Black and Claro) and has a surprising amount of overtone content along with the string clarity that walnut brings plus it rings like the proverbial bell when you tap it. I think that this is the root-stock used for many of the Walnuts grown in California and is what you get in Bastoigne walnut cut at the root-stock join.
i gotta hand it to ya.
you really have hit the nail right on the proverbial head with your comment. i agree with you 110%, and seem to have the exact same opinions. i recently build a 6 string small bodied guitar with maple B&S and sitka top. i read that maple is very tonally neutral and noticed exactly that. i am very happy with the minimal over tones of the guitar, it is very focused. i believe that walnut is quite similar in its neutrality. i look forward to using more of it in the future. thanks for your comment. it was a treat to read.
…Fred has been one of the greatest inspirations to my continued lutherie.
Anthony J. Powell
Tonedevil Guitars and Harp Guitars
True, I’ve mostly used so-called black walnut for back and sides, maybe one or two instruments with “English” walnut from the eastern US. I’ve used what I believed to be “Claro” black walnut, which is the native California species (sorry I don’t know the Latin name), and I currently have a big supply of what I believe to be black walnut (American but probably not Claro) that came from a walnut orchard being taken down and cut for firewood(!!!). I got a few figured trunks; the English walnut was grafted onto the black rootstock, and the graft on most of the trees was about 3 to 3-1/2 feet above ground, creating just guitar-size black walnut stock in the trunk. It’s really cool to cut this stuff open and see the actual graft…the change in the wood from one tree species to the grafted-on species….nature is amazing!
Anyway, I haven’t used any of this yet, but it seems really similar in all ways to the other “black” walnut I’ve used. I don’t know what species the “English” walnut I used was; it was softer and grayer in color, less figured. It had even less tap-tone than the black walnut. It sounds like what David is calling European (Persian) walnut is something different still, if it has such musical quality. But then, trees can really differ from one to the next, within a species, as we know…
For a little while I was using a walnut relative that the local lumber yard stocked…I think they called it “South American” walnut, something like that. Relatively inexpensive, and absolutely huge pieces, both long and wide; clearly from some really big tropical tree. This wood reminded me more of mahogany, with a color somewhere between black and English walnut. The grain structure was like mahogany, and it was a bit softer than black walnut and more musical. I used it for a few necks…very nice for that. Then, I read an article somewhere about cheap tropical hardwoods ending up in commercial lumberyards, and where they actually came from. The author made a case that often woods like that lovely “walnut” were harvested by essentially forced labor; natives in very remote encampments in the rainforest living in horrible conditions, working for virtually no pay. I stopped using that wood, though I’d like to find a source of it that I could verify was coming from good, sustainable practices…it’s nice wood.
Maple….my experience there is that it actually does contribute more to the tone (in character) than the walnuts I’ve used. It seems to favor clarity and treble; brighter, and rather “dry” sounding, not real warm. Definitely not mushy! And there are big differences in the various maple species, too. I’ve used mostly the west coast Big Leaf maple, softer than the eastern rock maple, and I think a bit warmer in tone. But it can really vary, tree to tree.
Having an open mind doesn’t necessarily mean your brain has fallen out.