Building a highly responsive guitar: Tops – stiffness vs weight

There are two dominant factors that must be considered when building a highly responsive guitar. The weight and stiffness of the soundboard. These two factors determine the volume and tonal properties of the instrument and while bracing is very important, it can only do so much. It won’t make a poor soundboard equal a great one.

The dance between weight and stiffness is a hard one to master. The best soundboards are lightweight and relatively stiff. The problem is that stiffness and weight are inextricably linked. Reducing the weight of a solid soundboard is normally only possible by making it thinner which makes it less stiff. If it isn’t stiff enough, the tone suffers and consistency suffers more. The result is erratic instruments with loud and quiet notes causing problems with consistent performance. A thicker soundboard will be stiffer and thus less erratic, but won’t have the volume required by today’s demanding musicians. This is the base dilemma of building stringed instruments from solid wood.

My experience has shown that a truly responsive guitar (nylon/carbon strung), in terms of volume requires that a soundboard, thicknessed, cut to shape and ready for bracing should weigh no more than 120 grams for spruce. This will differ depending on the body shape, but it’s a good rough number for this article. Depending on the variety (Sitka, Englemann, European etc) this will be very thin.  As mentioned before, thinner means less stiff and less stiff means erratic results.

The answer to this dilemma for me is composite soundboards. I can meet weight targets while increasing stiffness by building soundboards that are mostly air. More often referred to as “double tops”, the construction is two thin sheets of wood encasing an open Aramid® honeycomb core. The vast majority of weight is in the wood sheets, which must be very thin. Spruce and cedar are used for the outer sheets, which can be as thin as .5mm. Care must be taken when building these tops and proper construction can nearly double the time it takes to build the instrument, but it is worth it. In all cases I’ve built, the finished double-top weighs less and is stiffer than solid tops from the same woods.

Of course it is quite easy to build a bad double top as well. The devil is in the details that take considerable experience to master. I have replaced or completely reconfigured many double-tops in the past decade. Each time the resulting instrument vastly outperformed it’s original setup.