Using Western Red Cedar as a Top Wood

Tonewoods Cover

Posted by Richard Johnston

Western red cedar (Thuja plicata) is a widespread conifer from the Pacific Northwest, ranging from southern Alaska to Northern California and as far east as western Montana. The trees rival Sitka spruce in size. Despite the name, it’s not a true cedar at all, but instead falls within the cypress family. It has been a favorite top wood for classical guitars for many decades, but in recent years has also been used for steel-string guitars. Northern Ireland’s George Lowden was one of the first builders to rely heavily on cedar tops in developing his signature sound in the 1970s, and this in turn helped popularize its use by other guitar manufacturers.“I decided by feel that I should leave it reasonably thick and not too light and with hindsight that has turned out to be exactly right,” Lowden says. This observation points out one of the critical difficulties when comparing top woods, namely that their different levels of stiffness often require significantly different thicknesses in order to get optimum tone for a given guitar shape and/or gauge of strings. Although cedar can usually be recognized by its warm brown color, as opposed to the lighter and more yellow color of spruce, some cedar tops are such a light brown that they are almost indistinguishable from darker versions of Sitka spruce. Cedar is softer and more fragile than the spruces used for guitar building, so it needs more careful handling, both by the luthier and the player.

Excerpted from Acoustic Guitar Guide to Tonewoods

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