If you’re looking for a darker wood on your acoustic guitar then mahogany and koa are two of the most popular options for the back, sides and top of the instrument. But which sounds the best? What are the differences between these two woods? In this article, I’ll directly compare koa and mahogany so you can decide which wood is the best for your next acoustic guitar.
The Quick Answer
Mahogany acoustic guitars sound warmer and fuller compared to koa acoustic guitars which sound brighter and clearer. Koa acoustic guitars are usually rarer and more expensive, and they have a more unique grain. Both woods are dark although there are some variations in the shades between guitars.
|Mahogany Acoustic Guitars||Koa Acoustic Guitars|
|Warm and full||Bright and articulate|
|Dark wood with a subtle grain||Dark wood with a prominent grain|
|Inexpensive and widely available||Fairly expensive and rare|
|Well suited for rhythm playing||Excel at fingerpicking|
Mahogany on an Acoustic Guitar
Mahogany is a very popular wood for acoustic guitars. It is usually used on the back and sides of the body, and the neck, however it is sometimes used on the top of the body as well. It has a dark appearance, although it can look a caramel-color depending on which type of mahogany is being used. On most guitars, the grain is visible but not particularly striking.
Mahogany acoustic guitars have a warm and full tone. They have a slightly boosted mid-range to give the tone plenty of depth and the EQ curve is fairly flat. This means that the tone isn’t very bright and articulate compared to other woods.
Mahogany acoustic guitars are popular with rhythm players due to their warm and full tones and lack of brightness which could otherwise interfere with the rest of the mix. However, it isn’t the best suited to players who are looking for that bright and crisp tone for fingerstyle playing. It also isn’t very loud although strummers can always increase the volume and brighten up the tone slightly by using their nails instead of the thumb pad.
It’s also worth noting that mahogany guitars can be paired with other woods on the top of the body to make up for the lack of brightness it provides.
Tonal Characteristics: warm and full. The EQ is fairly flat with a slight mid-range hump.
|Pros of Mahogany Guitars||Cons of Mahogany Guitars|
|Inexpensive and widely available||Lack of clarity and note separation|
|Warm and full tone is good for rhythm||Not the most unique looking wood|
|Pairs well with most top woods||Not very loud|
Koa on an Acoustic Guitar
Koa is a very dense and fairly expensive wood. Often, acoustic guitars which use koa will feature it all over the body (back, sides and top), rather than use two woods (one for the back and sides and another for the top). Koa is often used on limited-edition guitars and is has a prominent and unique grain which makes is very popular for aesthetic reasons as well as its tone.
Koa guitars sound very bright due to their treble emphasis. When you get a koa acoustic guitar out of the box, it will be incredibly bright and crisp and can almost sound a bit harsh. However, it warms up the more you play it and tends to sound better after it has been “broken in”. Although, a lot of the brightness is still retained.
Koa acoustic guitars are popular with fingerstyle players because it offers very good clarity and note separation. It can be used for strumming but does risk sounding a bit bright if the nails are used and typically suits players who use their thumb pad to strum instead.
Tonal Characteristics: bright and articulate. The focus is on the treble-frequencies rather than the bass-frequencies. Koa has a fairly strong mid-range response to provide it with some fullness and depth.
|Pros of Koa Guitars||Cons of Koa Guitars|
|Bright sounding with good note separation||Needs warming up by playing|
|Suits delicate fingerstyle playing||Not as well suited to strummers|
|Unique appearance||Fairly expensive tone wood|
Mahogany acoustic guitars sound much warmer and fuller than koa acoustic guitars which sound brighter and more articulate. Mahogany acoustic guitars have quite a flat EQ with a slight mid-range hump, whereas koa guitars have a weaker bass and mid-range response but more emphasis on the treble frequencies.
It is possible to use both koa and mahogany guitars for strumming and fingerpicking, although it really depends on what kind of tone you’re looking for.
Rhythm players may prefer the more subtle warmer tone of a mahogany acoustic, whilst lead players may benefit from the brightness that koa provides. Players who like to dig into the guitar a bit more may feel more at home with a mahogany guitar, whereas players with a lighter touch will probably get the best out of a koa guitar.
It’s worth noting that koa guitars sound very bright when they are brand new. Their tone warms up as they are played more, but they will still always sound brighter than mahogany.
Check out this YouTube video comparing a mahogany and koa Taylor GS Mini acoustic guitar to hear the differences in action. The mahogany guitar has a Sapele back and sides, whilst the koa guitar features this wood on the top, back and sides.
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