Last Updated on December 16, 2023 by AG
Many consider the type of wood used for the guitar top as a crucial factor in determining the sound quality. Spruce is the most popular tonewood for guitar tops, especially for bluegrass flatpicking. However, Adirondack vs Sitka spruce has always been a topic of debate.
Both Sitka and Adirondack spruce make excellent tonewoods for guitar tops. Adirondack spruce has a powerful sound, with clear and deep tones and greater responsiveness and headroom than Sitka. Sitka spruce on the other hand has a softer, more balanced, and responsive tone, often described as warm and fuzzy.
Sitka spruce is more commonly used for guitar tops than Adirondack spruce. In contrast, Adirondack spruce has a more significant reputation, as it was the preferred tonewood for the Martin Guitar Company’s pre-war guitars in the 1930s and 1940s.
The demand for Adirondack spruce outstripped supply, leading to scarcity and causing Martin to switch to Sitka spruce for several decades after World War II. However, with the maturation of second-growth Adirondack spruce, it is now being harvested again for lutherie, and Adirondack-topped guitars are becoming more popular again.
Choosing between Sitka and Adirondack spruce for your guitar top can be a daunting task since the soundboard will be with you for a long time. Understanding the qualities of each tonewood will help you make an informed decision.
Adirondack vs Sitka – the Background
Spruce trees are widespread in the wild, with over 40 different species known to exist. These species display significant differences in their appearance and characteristics. However, they share characteristics, including evergreen needles, conical shapes, and cones growing on their branches.
Sitka and Adirondack are highly valued for their strength and lightweight characteristics, making them popular tonewoods for acoustic guitar tops.
Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis) is a type of spruce tree that grows extensively from California to Alaska and is officially recognized as the state tree of Alaska.
These spruce trees can grow to be over 300 feet tall, with some towering examples like the “Carmanah Giant” in Vancouver Island’s Carmanah Valley measuring 314 feet, making it the world’s tallest Sitka. To put it into perspective, the tree is equivalent to the length of a football field.
Due to its exceptional tonal qualities and relatively abundant supply, Sitka spruce has become the most common tonewood used for guitar tops.
Adirondack spruce, also known as red spruce (Picea rubens), after the rusty color of its bark, is a tonewood commonly used in guitar making. Adirondack is primarily found in the northeast region of the United States and Eastern Canada and is named after the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York where it grows abundantly. It is often referred to as “Adi” among guitar players in short.
It is also referred to as “Appalachian spruce,” after another mountain range where it can be found often.
Adirondack spruce is smaller in size compared to Sitka spruce, typically reaching heights of 60 to 130 feet. However, its stiffness and lightness make it an excellent choice for guitar tops, with a reputation for a strong and resonant soundboard. The scarcity of Adirondack spruce in the mid-twentieth century led to the rise of Sitka spruce, which is now the most commonly used tonewood for guitar tops. However, the maturation of second-growth Adirondack spruce in recent years has contributed to its comeback in popularity among guitar builders.
Adirondack spruce is a tonewood that is highly valued for its bright and powerful sound, with clear and deep tones. Its exceptional sound quality and higher “headroom” make it an ideal choice for hard-hitting guitar players, as the tones take longer to lose their balance and sound muddled or distorted.
When playing guitars made from Adirondack spruce, the notes can feel as though they jump off the instrument with the slightest touch. While only a small portion of the Adirondack spruce harvested ends up in musical instruments, it is a treasured tonewood among luthiers and guitar players alike.
Where does the name „Adirondack“come from?
The origin of the name “Adirondack” can be traced back to the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York, where the Adirondack spruce tree grows abundantly. The Mohawk Native Americans, who lived in the area, had a nickname for themselves, “Ha-dee-ron-dah,” which translates to “tree-eaters” in their language. During harsh winters, when they had nothing else to eat, they would consume tree bark to survive. In time, the area came to be known as the Adirondack Mountains and became an essential source of wood for building in the United States.
The Revival of Adirondack Spruce
Adirondack spruce, also known as “red spruce,” was a popular tonewood for guitar builders like Martin and Gibson before World War II. The wood’s unique properties and beautiful appearance made it the standard choice for many guitar makers. However, due to high demand and slow growth rates, the supply of Adirondack spruce dwindled in the 60s and 70s.
In the meantime, Sitka spruce emerged as a suitable alternative. Though Sitka has a slightly softer sound than Adirondack, it gained popularity among guitar enthusiasts in the last decades.
Fortunately, new Adirondack spruce trees were planted, and after many years, they became suitable for guitar construction. As a result, Adirondack spruce is now experiencing a comeback. Boutique guitar builders, like Bourgeois and Santa Cruz, have offered Adirondack as an option for years, and even larger manufacturers like Martin and Gibson now offer acoustic guitars with Adirondack tops. The wood has also found its way into more affordable models from companies like Eastman.
This is an important factor to consider when choosing the wood for a guitar top. Sitka spruce is renowned for its tight and narrow grain, which is visible as vertical lines running lengthwise along the guitar top. While you might also see this tight grain on a vintage Adirondack-topped guitar, modern Adirondack spruce tops tend to have a wider grain.
There is a debate among guitarists as to whether the width of the grain affects the tone of the instrument. So the tighter grain of Sitka spruce may in some opinions look better but does it have a positive impact on the guitar’s tone? Therefore, some prefer Sitka spruce over Adirondack spruce for its tighter grain and better appearance, but some prefer the look and sound of Adirondack. I think it is like always, tastes do differ, so decide for yourself which look and tone you prefer.
Breaking In Your Guitar
For solid wood acoustic guitars time is important, their best sound is seldom achieved when they are brand new. This is because the fibers in the wood need time to develop their flexibility as the guitar is played, and the string vibrations are transferred to the soundboard.
In general, Sitka spruce tops tend to reach their full potential more quickly than Adirondack spruce tops, which are stiffer.
Adirondack spruce is often talked about in almost reverential tones by guitarists, which can lead to disappointment when playing a new Adirondack-topped guitar off the wall at the store. It might not sound as impressive as expected, but this is because a new Adirondack top has a long way to go before it reaches its full potential. It could take decades for it to sound its best.
While Sitka spruce also needs some time to break in, it typically does not take nearly as long as Adirondack. Additionally, the improvement over time with Sitka spruce is seldom as dramatic as with Adirondack. Therefore, it is important to be patient with your guitar as it ages and develops its unique sound over time.
Headroom of Volume
Exploring the concept of “headroom” in acoustic guitars The term “headroom” is often used in the context of guitar amplifiers to describe the maximum volume level before distortion sets in. However, this concept also applies to acoustic guitars, and it is influenced by the type of wood used for the soundboard.
Adirondack spruce, for instance, is renowned for having the most headroom of any tonewood. This means that the sound remains clear, articulate, and ringing even when played with great force.
In contrast, Sitka spruce has a lower headroom than Adirondack and can compress more when played hard, resulting in a plateau of its volume output. While Sitka tops can still produce impressive volume levels before losing clarity, Adirondack tops are generally considered better for aggressive playing styles that require sustained volume output.
Talking about guitar responsiveness refers to the speed at which sound travels from the guitar to the listener’s ears after the strings are played. This is also known as the velocity of sound. Adirondack spruce tops are known to produce the highest velocity of sound, which can be attributed to their extra stiffness. While it may be difficult for the average player to perceive differences in responsiveness between guitars, those who seek immediate feedback may benefit slightly from an Adirondack top.
In terms of guitar tops, there are notable differences between Sitka and Adirondack spruce.
Adirondack is known for its loud, clear, and lively voice, with a deep layer and longer sustain. It has more “headroom,” which means that it takes longer for the tones to lose their balance and sound distorted. Adirondack is suitable for various playing styles, from subtle fingerstyle to bluegrass.
Sitka spruce on the other hand has a softer sound but is friendlier to play. It has a more balanced and responsive tone, making it a popular choice for many guitarists. It is often described as warm and fuzzy, while Adirondack is known for its clear and ringing sound.
This difference can be attributed to the stiffness of Adirondack, which allows for greater responsiveness and headroom. So which of the tonewoods is „better“, comes ultimately down to personal preference and playing style.
Fundamental vs. Overtones
Sitka and Adirondack spruce tops differ in the way they produce sound. Sitka spruce tops tend to emphasize the fundamental notes that you play on the strings, resulting in a clear-sounding and straightforward tone.
Adirondack spruce tops tend to produce more overtones, creating a more complex and nuanced sound. The sound will be enriched with additional tones that give it a fuller, richer quality. You can find many comparison videos that try to illustrate this difference.
When it comes to versatility, Sitka spruce is the top choice. It is more adaptable to a range of playing styles than Adirondack. Sitka is a well-rounded tonewood that can be used in many different genres of music, making it a great all-around choice. It is an ideal choice for fingerstyle guitarists, as it responds well to soft playing.
On the other hand, Adirondack spruce is less suited for soft playing, and its versatility is somewhat limited. So, if you’re looking for a guitar that can handle different styles of playing, Sitka spruce may be the way to go. While Adirondack spruce is excellent for bluegrass musicians who play hard and need to be heard over other instruments.
When it comes to price, Adirondack spruce tops are more expensive compared to Sitka. This is because Adirondack spruce is rarer and harder to come by, which makes it more valuable. As a result, a guitar with an Adirondack top will typically be more expensive than the same guitar with a Sitka top.
For instance, if you go to the Martin custom shop and compare two Martin D-28s that are identical except for the type of spruce top. The Adirondack version costs $728 more than the Sitka one. So, if you’re on a tight budget, a Sitka spruce top might be a better option for you.
Adirondack vs Sitka Spruce, What´s better?
When it comes to the age-old debate of Adirondack vs. Sitka spruce, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. Both tonewoods have unique characteristics and qualities that can suit different playing styles and preferences. Let’s dive into some of the nuances.
Adirondack spruce can offer more clarity, volume, and a very clear voice, making it an excellent choice for players who like to dig in. However, some may find it too pronounced or a bit too harsh for their ears. Additionally, Adirondack takes more time to develop and has a higher price point. A torrefied or baked Adirondack can be a nice variation, with accelerated aging that produces spectacular results.
Sitka spruce, on the other hand, is cheaper and offers a more balanced, warm sound. It is often a more versatile choice, suitable for various styles of music. It takes less time to develop and is almost immediately a reliable companion.
Ultimately, the tonewood you choose will depend on your personal preferences and playing style. It’s always best to try out both options and compare them to see which one suits you best.
It’s worth noting that the bigger price tag on Adirondack spruce is because it’s harder to obtain, not because it’s necessarily better. Don’t let the price tag fool you; Sitka is by no means an inferior tonewood.
The beauty of a musical instrument is always in the ear of the listener, so choose the one that speaks to you.
In the End – Top Wood Is Only One Variable
Keep in mind that the top wood used for a guitar’s soundboard is just one of many factors that contribute to the instrument’s overall sound. The tonewood used for the back and sides will have a significant impact as well, and it’s important to consider how the top wood will interact with them. Different spruces will complement different backs and sides, so it’s worth experimenting with different combinations.
And while the choice of tonewood is important, the luthier’s skill is even more crucial to the final product. A guitar that is well-constructed and well-set-up will sound great, even if it doesn’t have the most expensive or sought-after tonewoods.
Ultimately, the best way to find the right guitar for you is to play as many as possible. You may find a guitar that sounds amazing despite using a tonewood that you didn’t expect. So don’t be afraid to try out lots of guitars and trust your instincts when it comes to finding the perfect instrument for you.