An 1862 Antonio De Torres featuring a gorgeous, aged spruce top
Spruce or Cedar? Which is better?
It seems as if every time the topic of classical guitar comes up in conversation, this question seems to spring up as well. We can all agree that both materials have their respective advantages, and furthermore, that some players simply prefer the sound and look of one tonewood over the other. However, there seems to be a lot of myth surrounding this age old question. We decided to create a list of 5 distinct features that distinguishes spruce from cedar.
This is probably the most obvious difference between the two, but it is certainly not something to be discounted. Spruce is typically lighter and blonde in color, sometimes even having a honey or amber tint. Over time, a good cut of spruce will mature and darken, giving it a golden (almost glowing) look. The photo featured above is a fine example of this; an 1862 Antonio De Torres with a wonderfully aged spruce top (taken from our Museum Archive). When paired with a contrasted set of hardwoods for the back and sides, a good cut of spruce is simply delightful to the eyes of both the performer and the audience.
- Historical Usage
Historically speaking, classical guitars have been built using spruce tops for centuries. Torres, Esteso, Bouchet, Hauser, Fleta, Friederich, and virtually every other luthier of historical significance from the 19th and 20th centuries built guitars using spruce for the tops. Actually the widespread use of cedar tonewood for classical guitar tops began fairly recently, having its major “boom” in the mid 1960’s.
- Physical Properties
The main function of a guitar top (regardless of material) is to vibrate. When a player plucks a string on a guitar, the top actually “pumps” in relationship to the frequency of the string, amplifying the sound produced by the natural vibration of the string and creating the characteristic sound of the guitar. Considering this, it is no surprise that hardwoods tend to make poor tops for guitars. Spruce is a highly flexible, yet stiff material, and it is for this reason that it has become such a prized and essential component in the building of classical guitars.
Spruce ages beautifully, like fine wine. As the top stiffens and dries with age, the sound of a spruce top guitar will slowly evolve and mature. While the same can be said of cedar top guitars, there is something especially charming about the way in which a spruce top changes color over time, and how the sound produced by the instrument can be a reflection of its age. It is believed that the sonic changes that will occur over time with a spruce top are more dramatic than those with a cedar top, so this is an attractive feature for any guitarist who wants a guitar whose sound will essentially “grow and mature” with them.
This is perhaps the stickiest subject in this age old debate, and its no surprise considering the vast number of variables that determine the sound a good guitar will produce. Discounting the different techniques luthiers use in bracing the top, or the thickness of the soundboard, it is generally agreed that a spruce top guitar will sound brighter than a cedar top guitar. Spruce top guitars have a wonderful blooming tone, with bell-like trebles and basses that are low and full but tend more toward the mid range. Spruce top guitars also have a tone palette that is sensitive and highly nuanced. A player with a good touch will get an incredible variety of tones and timbres from a spruce top guitar. Spruce also tends to project sound in a way that is more linear, as opposed to cedar which has a tendency to “radiate” sound.
Obviously, there are a plethora of exceptions to consider. A lattice braced spruce top will sound quite different from a fan braced spruce top, and both of these will sound distinctly different from a double-top cedar guitar. Additionally, the sound produced by a cut of European spruce will sound different from a comparable cut of Sitka spruce. There so much variation in the world of classical guitar, and eventually, the onus falls on the player to decide what he or she likes or dislikes about a particular tonewood. Ultimately, it all comes down to the preference of the performer. These are just a few points to help better understand some of the more “generalized” characteristics of spruce tops.