A beginner of the classical guitar spends many a carefree hour learning a new skill till the time comes to upgrade the instrument. They quickly learn that a new guitar having a solid wood top is a great choice. A new guitar having a solid wood top plus solid wood back and sides is even a greater choice. And a new guitar having anything to do with ‘laminate’ instead of solid wood is an inferior choice.
It’s not a beginner’s issue alone. Intermediate guitarists looking for their next level guitar are sometimes puzzled to see higher end guitars – including factory made ones and some luthier made ones – featuring laminated sides and back. And they wonder, how come? Aren’t laminates ‘bad’? Why am I seeing them at all in this price range?
Let’s try and settle this solid wood vs laminates issue once and for all.
In an essentially wooden instrument like the classical guitar, the most important element is, duh, the wood. A solid wood guitar means that the top wood (containing the soundhole) is made of a single piece of wood, however thin or thick. An all solid wood guitar means that the sides and back are also made from single pieces of wood. (We’ll leave the neck and fingerboard out of our discussion even though there is wood there, because they are outside of the ‘soundbox’ and have next to no effect on the sound.)
The sound from the top comes from the transfer of string vibration via the saddle and bridge. A solid wood top vibrates or dances freely to this stimulus.
A laminate is something in which thin sheets of wood are layered on top of each other and gummed. If used as the top wood of the guitar, which is acoustically the most important part, the result is inferior to a solid wood top.
That’s the way it is. It’s not an opinion. With factory standard thickness and stiffness of laminates, string energy will not sufficiently drive a stiff, high mass laminate top very efficiently – leading to diminished volume, projection and sound quality. A laminate simply does not dance as well as a single piece of wood.
This much is clear. A solid top guitar is any day better than a laminate top guitar for sound quality. The disadvantage of laminates as noted is that they do not vibrate as freely as high-density solid woods and tend to produce a uniformly flat sound. Laminates are only used as guitar tops in low-end, inexpensive guitars.
The sound of a solid top guitar also improves as it is played because the wood ‘learns’ to vibrate correctly over time. A laminate guitar will not improve with age.
What if a guitar has a solid top and also solid sides and back? Is that always better than a solid top with laminate sides and back? This is where we get to hem and haw, stare into the distance and thoughtfully say, it depends.
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Cheaper guitars tend to use laminates because they are so much cheaper than solid pieces of wood. Some beginner guitars use laminates that are basically a thin layer of more expensive wood placed over several layers of cheaper woods for cutting costs. Factory guitars that are built with laminates are much cheaper than all solids.
By and large, you can expect a guitar over $500 to have a top, back and sides made of solid wood. A guitar at about $300 should have a solid top with the back and sides made of laminate. A guitar under $300 will be all laminates including the top.
Whereas a guitar made completely from laminates will not have a good sound, a reasonably good sounding guitar can be made from a solid top with laminate sides and back. It has to do with the quality and intent behind using laminates.
If a laminate is used for cutting costs, low quality plywood is chosen. This is sheet wood that gets its strength from plies with their grain orientation running in different directions all pasted together. A thin wood veneer is applied to make it look nice and appealing.
In low-end guitars, plywoods tend to be cheaper woods like pear or birch (although the outer, customer-facing wood will be something prettier like spruce.)
You can find laminates not just in low-end guitars but also sometimes in luthier made guitars costing $20,000 or more. The Ramirez 1A model has laminated sides. So do Greg Smallman guitars that John Williams plays with.
Laminate use is definitely not for the guitar top. It is for the sides mostly and back sometimes. Laminate sides are stiffer, and less prone to cracking than solid wood. It strengthens the sides and so used with a specific intent.
As lamination technology improves, laminated sound boxes may become the norm even for very good instruments. Guitars such as the popular Yamaha CG192 show that if one can make a light enough soundbox from laminates, the tone quality can compete with solid guitars.
There are lots of nice guitars from famous brands with laminated sides and back. A great proportion of Japanese guitars have laminated sides and back.
Some luthier guitars too have laminated backs and sides. Usually the term ‘lined’ is more appropriate because they differ from factory laminates that are 3-ply or more. Bottom line: Side lamination shouldn’t really be considered detrimental in guitars of this caliber.
Top luthier Marcus Dominelli has written, “On luthier made guitars, laminated sides are MORE work, because the luthier is usually cutting, sanding, thickening, and laminating the veneers himself. Laminated sides are stiffer, and less prone to cracking, and often result in better projection of sound.”
Stiffening the back and sides helps maximize the sound produced by the top. A guitar with a well constructed top and high grade laminated back and sides can be better than an all solid one. There is a vast difference between high grade laminates and cheap plywood.
In these high-end guitars, laminates tend to be thinner slices of two solid tonewoods (like cypress inside and rosewood outside). Basically, between cheaper guitars and the more expensive ones, the laminate use represents two separate methods of guitar construction, with two very different qualities of wood, and should not be confused as being the same.
It is difficult to make generalisations of sound quality beyond a point. For instance, I have listened extensively to a friend playing his Kenny Hill (student version) with a solid top and laminate back and sides. It sounds beautiful.
He also has a Kenny Hill Player, which is all solid wood costing almost double the price. I can hear a difference in its sound, but is it twice as better? Certainly not! Sure, it has better sustain and a nicer sound but the difference is not dramatic to my ears.
The point is this: You will have to, as always, actually play on the instrument to get a feel for it. Just saying ‘all solid’ or ‘laminate sides’ is no guarantee of anything.
How can you tell if a guitar is made from solid wood or laminate?
Generally, it is easier to identify if the top wood is solid or laminate. Looking at the edge of the sound-hole can be revealing. The grain pattern of a solid top will continue through the thickness of the wood. If the grain runs vertically right through the wood’s cross section then it is solid. If it looks like thin, horizontal layers then it is a laminate.
It is more difficult to tell whether the back or sides are laminate. You can look at the wood on the outside of the guitar and see if there are any distinguishing patterns in the wood grain and then look inside the guitar to see if the same pattern is present inside. If it is then the wood is probably solid. If the grain pattern is clearly different, then it is laminate.
The best way of finding out is to look at the company’s website and check the model specs. All of the major companies have websites with the specs of their guitars. While a store or salesman may or may not tell you the full details, major companies on publicly accessible websites are bound to.
Be alert about reading the information, though. For instance, if it says ‘spruce top’ in the description or specs table with no more explanation, it is NOT a solid spruce top. it is indeed a laminate with a thin spruce layer on top. Look for the word ‘solid’. If solid spruce or cedar is used, trust me, no manufacturer is going to underplay it, so you will see ‘solid spruce’ listed proudly, not just ‘spruce’.
Spruce or Cedar?
We may as well quickly talk about which solid top wood is better: Cedar or Spruce? The correct answer is neither.
Spruce and cedar are common tops for classical guitars. There is no real difference in quality, so the choice is one of personal preference. Spruce tends to sound brighter and clearer with a ‘Germanic sound’. Cedar is warmer with a traditional ‘Spanish sound’.
Both types of wood will improve over time but a cedar will sound closer to what it will eventually be, while the spruce will show a more dramatic improvement over time. I prefer the cedar sound myself but this is purely a matter of taste.
At the lower price range, when the top may not be a solid wood top at all, this is not an issue you have to worry about. You will have to first sort out if your top should be solid or not.
A solid top against a laminate top is a no-brainer. The solid top wins hands down. So if you are a beginner leaving behind your first guitar, this is a good next step to take.
Assuming it’s a solid wood top, how important is it you should look for a classical guitar with solid back and sides? Or, going one step further, how important is it that you should look for an all solid wood guitar? Is the extra cost worth it?
It’s probably true that advanced classical guitarists, not just concert-giving pros, play on solid wood instruments. By and large, if you can afford it, solid back and sides are better than a solid top alone. Tone quality wise, the all-solid guitar will sound better. Today’s leading factory-made guitars like the Cordobas, Alhambras and Yamahas have options that will all be perfectly fine. You can expect a fuller sound when playing the all solid wood instrument.
Yet, as long as you investigate the details closely, a well made classical guitar at the higher end (factory-made or luthier made) with laminate sides and back can be a work of quality. High quality laminating, as we’ve seen, does make the guitar more durable by stiffening and strengthening. It also makes the guitar less sensitive to humidity and temperature changes. A guitar made from one solid piece, on the other hand, is very sensitive to humidity and climate changes.
Go and draw up a shortlist of guitars, some all solids, and others solid tops. Get to play them if you can. If you fall in love with a guitar’s sound and playability, that’s the one. It often turns out as simple as that.
You can check out my article on Takamine Guitars where I review some interesting options including cutaways. And also my article on Yamaha Guitars reviewing all the popular models at various price points. Some adults prefer a smaller scale length guitar because they have small hands that cannot stretch much. I have an article on Small Scale Classical Guitars for Adults that gives you more information and choices. And if your leanings are Canadian, you should seriously check out some excellent guitars from La Patrie (known as Godin these days.) Read my review of the La Patrie range for more information.