Soundboard Selection

cedar soundboard made by student in class

Soundboard selection can be difficult if you are new to guitar building. Learning to select good soundboards for your guitar is also difficult. Can someone really teach you to choose the right wood for your guitars and the way you build? I think not. It’s complicated. I just love these guys that devote entire videos to teaching you how to pick out wood or voicing tops for your guitars. Before listening to anyone ask yourself this, how can someone teach you to choose the right wood or voice your top if they can’t make a decent guitar themselves?

Picking out wood that will result in a good musical instrument is always to some degree a bit of a risk. If you have been paying attention to the characteristics in the wood you have been using and drawing some parallel to the sound you are getting you may with time arrive at a list of properties that will work for you. But its not that simple. There are a lot of variables to this equation.

Characteristics that Must be there by Default

There are some characteristics necessary for a good soundboard. They are medullary ray ( as close to perfectly quarter-sawn as possible) little run out, stiffness and good sustain. If these things are not present in the top move on and select something else. Some of these things are comparative so some experience will be necessary so get your hands on as many tops as possible and inspect these things. Learn about wood characteristics and the cuts of wood optimal for guitar building.

soundboard medullary rays

The blistery look signifies the presence of medullary rays

Take a Logical Approach

For success a logical approach is a must. Don’t just go about it willy-nilly. Its a waste of time and will not produce usable results in a timely fashion. Think about what the goal is and try to come up with a method that makes sense and will produce some results. This method should eliminate or control as many variables as possible while you are experimenting. Soundboard selection depends on developing a solid criteria for finding the type of wood that works best.

It Depends on the Guitar Design

The best characteristics for the wood used depends somewhat on the design of your guitars. If you are stiffening your top significantly with bracing you may be able to get good results from lighter tops. The opposite is true if you are bracing more lightly. Think about what you have, what you need and what will do to get you where you want to go. It must make sense and you must be able to explain it to understand it thoroughly.

Don’t Make Changes to the Design

When learning how to select the best wood for your guitar do not change the guitar design in any way during this period. This will make it impossible arrive at the optimal set of characteristics for your particular guitar. How will you know if it was the wood or the design change. Establish some criteria that will indicate you are on the right path. And to do that build from a single design.

Exaggerate your Criteria for Soundboard Selection

measuring soundboard thicknessIt should not be necessary to build many guitars to get the idea of what kind of wood works best, it can be done with just a few. How? Say you believe that a lighter top (less dense) will improve the trebles or whatever, Use a top that is considerably lighter and change nothing else. Leave the thickness, the design and wood selection for the rest of the guitar the same. (i.e. same back and sides, same bracing wood, same neck wood). Use a top that is between 10 and 20% lighter and see what happens

The stiffness will be different as well as a few other things but its a judgement call. So these things have to be into account. If you end up with a guitar that has really nice trebles but the basses are now lacking, back off on the weight change a little and see if that will make the basses better while still maintaining good trebles. There will be some back and forth but it won’t take many guitars for you to arrive at what works best and what doesn’t. Read more about soundboards.

Buy Wood for Tops in Bundles From the Same Tree

One of the fastest ways to learn about soundboard selection is if you are comparing wood from the same tree. Only this way will most of the characteristics of the wood be the same, thereby eliminating the properties you are not changing. It may be difficult to buy soundboards in quantities of 5 – 10 from the same tree. But it can be done. You won’t be able to get wood like this at places like LMI, which is not your best choice for guitar wood in the first place. You will have to look outside the US or get your wood directly from whoever is milling it. There are some wood suppliers in the Pacific Northwest, Rocky Mountains, and Idaho that I know of. There are also some in Canada.

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