Apr
05
An 1862 Antonio De Torres with a Spruce top

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.

1. Appearance

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.

2. 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.

3. 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.

4. Maturation

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.

5. Tone

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.

What do you guys think? Do you prefer cedar over spruce? Why? Leave us a reply in the comments!

 

 

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8 Responses to “The Advantages of Spruce Over Cedar”

 
  1. tom says:

    Good to see this blog addressing the really important issues! If it’s a Fleta, I don’t care whether it’s spruce or cedar although I think spruce may have the investment advantage. ;-)
    Seriously (although the above does has a point), I own guitars with spruce, cedar and Sitka spruce tops. Exceptional Sitka spruce guitars are very hard to beat because they have a blend of the spruce and cedar characteristics, but they are very hard to find, not least because good Sitka tone-wood is hard to find. At least, that’s what I’ve heard.
    Every now and again, with the right weather conditions, a cedar top can sound amazing in a way that spruce can’t, if you can wait that long. And talking of waiting, who wants to wait 15 years for a new spruce guitar to reach its best? If it doesn’t sound great when it’s new, best to look elsewhere.
    Finally, some makers make better guitars with one or other of the available tone woods. More interesting is the percentage of a traditionally-built guitar’s sound that is due to the particular player and that makes this subject almost an irrelevance other than to tyros.

    • Peter says:

      Reply to Tom. I think classical guitars with excellent master grade sitka tops may be scare or hard to find because guitar makers may prefer European spruce or cedar. Sitka spruce in master grade is readily available as sitka spruce to very old age(500 yrs+) and size. Adirondack or red spruce preferred for steel string guitars is much more scarce as the trees were over harvested, and naturally grow smaller and only 200 yrs or less at maturity.

  2. Martin Martin says:

    I would like to know whether Cedar is actually easier to play and have a faster response? What is the main factor that guarantees swift response and even notes throughout the registers?

  3. Cheech says:

    Good read. I currently own and play guitars with spruce tops, one with rosewood back and sides and the other with maple. Both sound great and become more mellow when played a lot in which they are. However I’ve owned and played cedar as well. In truth I can’t really favor one over the other. There are several prominent artist who only play cedar, Barrueco and David Russell. I think it depends on the guitar. One more point, Jose Ramirez III would seriously disagree with this article.

  4. SUSIE CROTEAU says:

    i loved this and so true about the aging i bought my simplicio replica from u about 7 years ago and the change in herfor the better is amazing the tone has matured and deepened yes we are growing older together !!

  5. Iain says:

    Interesting how some luthiers seem also to have been ambivalent about spruce vs cedar, and to have gone through a ‘cedar phase’. Many of Gerundino’s guitars from the 70s are cedar top, yet before and after that he seems to have favoured spruce. I own, and have owned a number of spruce top guitars, but in terms of sound, my Gerundino cedar top is my favourite guitar by a royal mile. Generally though I’d agree that spruce tends to give a more focused, nuanced and better projected sound.

    • tom says:

      A master luthier can emphasize or suppress frequencies at will to produce a balanced result. The sound projects well either because it emphasizes the higher frequencies (bad) or because it is clear, that is to say the frequency response of the instrument is well balanced (good). The rest (and it’s a lot) is in the hands of the player.
      I strongly doubt that any of these old saws that you repeat would stand up to blind testing for one moment.

  6. Rudy says:

    As Central Europeans my partner and I have a preferance for luthiers from Granada or Germans who were their apprentices. After another night of checking out old models of 25 years of age ( Ramirez, Bellido ) and new ones from 2013-15 ( European spruce, 15-30ys old, D.Wurth etc.) and , of course, cedar models , we came to the simple conclusion that EVERY single guitar has its very special advantage and there are compositions or even eras that make one guitar superior to all the others. It makes a difference, if you play polyphonic music by Bach or a classical menuett by Sor or , Villa-Lobos’ more expressionistic pieces. And there are often moments/ parts within a piece that make one guitar really outstanding.
    I know this is a very “rural” philosophy. But even L. Bernstein was surprised when the 1st horn player of his Vienna orchestra explained to him that he used different instruments for every act in Wagner’s opera and even demonstrated that.
    Reducing the spruce-cedar issue to this material/physical aspect only or worse, to famos names and prices is the wrong way, I believe.

 

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