Using Wenge as a Guitar Wood

November 30, 2012

Brazilian rosewood, that traditional “Holy Grail” of fine guitar making woods is getting scarce, expensive, and — with legislation such as the Lacey Act coming to the fore in recent years — illegal to have unless one has the legal paperwork to show its age, provenance, and legality to be allowed to cross borders. Therefore, in view of severe restrictions in supply and use of traditional guitar making woods, suppliers to the guitar making industry are offering new, supposedly more sustainable guitar making woods that no one had heard of ten years ago, that come from countries that half of us cannot find on the map. All of these woods, of course, are marketed as being desirable and adequate substitutes (availability, good grain, figure, color, dimensional stability, price, etc.) for the traditional materials.

In my view, some are and some aren’t. As a guitar maker, my own preferences are for woods that are “live” rather than not, regardless of their grain, figure or color. What that means is that one can elicit a live and musical tone from a particular slice or chunk when one taps on it. Some woods can make sound on the order of thummmmmmmm or thimmmmmmmm (ginnnnnnnng, gonnnnnng, pinnnnnnng or ponnnnnnnng also work; I think you get the idea), with bell-like sustain; others go “thwick” or “thud”***. I mean, the reason some woods are called tonewoods is because they literally produce a musical note. And this quality, when used to make a guitar soundbox, will make a better and more acoustically active guitar than would be the case if the woods used made some kind of thud or thunk when sounded. Such woods are fine for making furniture. If they’re to be used in guitar making, though, then a perfectly reasonable course of action is to focus on the visuals instead of the acoustics. There are “live” woods that look rather plain, and there are “dead” woods that look like Raquel Welch in 3-D. The flash and beauty of the latter have an obvious appeal and many guitars get made because their looking gorgeous will be a strong selling point. As much to the point, when considerations of tone and appearance vie for customers, heated discussions about the good points of this or that combination of materials will occur and a variety of woods will be brought out as being “as good as”, “acoustically responsive”, “high quality”, “surprisingly good”, “improved by patented methods of treatment”, “a comparable alternative”, “now used by the so-and-so factory in their higher end guitars”, and so on.

My own searches have brought me to wenge (pronounced WHEN-gay). It’s a dark, purplish-brown colored African hardwood that has long been used by bowl turners and cabinet/furniture makers. For some reason, no one seems to have thought about using it for guitars yet — so it’s relatively cheap. (Once something catches the attention of the buying public its price goes up; with guitar making woods this rise can be quite dramatic.) The thing that appeals to me about wenge is that it is very live. That is, when you hold a piece of it up and tap on it — i.e., if you’re holding it in such a way that you’re not damping any of its vibrational modes — it’ll ring like a piece of glass, plate of steel, or a crystal brandy snifter. This quality is known as “vitreousness”, which literally means “glasslike-ness”. And wenge will make such a sound.

Wenge’s vitreousness is a function of the wood’s being brittle on the level of its cellular structure. In fact, it’s that very brittleness that makes the vibrational action, and the sound that this produces, possible. The brittleness that is a plus for sound has a mechanical downside, of sorts, in that the wood cracks easily if it’s mishandled (just as glass does), and it gives one splinters if one is careless with it. It can also take more patience to bend, because brittle woods resist bending easily. I repeat, however, that it is this very potential for cracking that puts wenge in the same category as that most prized of traditional guitar making woods, Brazilian rosewood. Lovely, alluring, and live though this “holy grail” wood is, it has also earned a reputation for being subject to cracking. Sound vs. fragility: it’s a tradeoff for which there are few solutions so long as one wishes to use that material — and the solutions involve (1) overbuilding so as to minimize fragility (which comes at the expense of tonal response), or (2) mindful treatment and care in the making, in the handling, and in the using. The former gives you structural stability and less sound; the latter gives you structural fragility and much more sound.

While the acoustic properties of a given wood might make it a joy for a guitar maker to work with, marketing a new wood can be tricky. No one will have heard of it, much less had experience with it; the buying public will be suspicious of, and resistant to, accepting it. It’s a bit of an uphill slog until it “catches on”. This has certainly been my experience. I’ve made five of these guitars by now and am working on my sixth. As I said: it’s wonderfully live; but most of my customers still want Brazilian rosewood. That’s fine; but wenge is a really good alternative for anyone who is willing to be open minded. And it makes the guitars less expensive.

Finally, I have to add that making guitars that sound good, using wenge for the back and sides, should not be much of an impediment to younger guitar makers who are still establishing their reputations and their styles. As I said, it’s a good wood, needing only a good advertising campaign behind it. It is the more established guitar makers such as myself who, already having reputations for using this wood or that wood, or having a certain by-now-familiar style or feature associated with their work, who meet the greatest resistance to anything new. In my case, everybody wants me to make the same things for them that I’ve been making for my other clients; the traditional woods and designs, after all, have their good track records. An example of this factor would be that I’d expect to have a hard time selling a guitar (that I made) that looked like Grit Laskin’s work, well executed though it might be; why would anyone buy a Laskin knock-off from me when they can get an original from him? And I’d expect Mr. Laskin to have an equally hard time selling a guitar that looked like my work; why would anyone buy a Somogyi knock-off when they can get an original from me? Just so with woods and other departures from our norms.


*** These sounds are onomatopoeic. Onomatopoeia is when a word replicates something of the very sound that it’s identifying. Onomatopoeia is useful, in spite of the fact that if one overuses it one sounds like a six-year old. But in fact, many “sound” words such as boom, crack, boing, thud, tap, ding-dong, smack, roar, clink, thump, clang, whap, bam, zip, hum, buzz, gong, snap, gurgle, ka-chunk, ka-ching, scratch, whoosh, zing, pow, ting, bark, meow, hiss, pop, twang, shriek, puff, clank, beep, snip, clip, chop, thunk, boinnnng, flap, squawk, screech, puff, tick-tock, bop, creak, glug-glug, ring, whack, moo, ruffle, oink, spank, swish, growl, tinkle, rip, rumble, squash, cock-a-doodle-doo, crash, squish, ack-ack, clunk, zap, whizz, whirr, bang, murmur, cough, drip, splash, shpritz, zoom, flush, clap, slap, slam, ah-choo, snort, chortle, giggle, gulp, gasp, shuffle, bip, ring, and thud are onomatopoeic. Try reading this list out loud: it’ll remind you of someone falling down a long flight of stairs and hitting some pets along the way. As far as having a discussion about something like music goes, the nouns and onomatopoeics are fairly straightforward; it’s the adjectives for sound (smooth, liquid, smoky, complex, transparent, rough, golden, dark, even, cloying, colorful, dull, transient, fruity, present, sweet, sharp, mellow, full-bodied, dry, light, airy, impressive, etc.), that get us into the most trouble.