Guitar tops can be made from many different tonewoods, but the guitars most associated with bluegrass flatpicking have spruce tops.
Spend enough time among flatpickers, and you’ll soon learn that everyone has an opinion about what type of spruce is best. The two most hotly debated soundboard spruces are Sitka and Adirondack spruce.
Either species makes an excellent tonewood. They are both stiff yet lightweight, making for guitar soundboards that are strong and resonant.
Sitka spruce is by far the most common acoustic guitar top wood, but Adirondack spruce has the bigger reputation because it famously topped the pre-war guitars of the Martin Guitar Company’s golden age in the 1930s and ’40s.
So much of the species was harvested that it became scarce, and Martin had to switch to Sitka spruce for several decades after the Second World War. Adirondack-topped guitars became something of a rarity. Now, however, second-growth Adirondack spruce has matured and is being harvested for lutherie once again.
That leaves you in a tough spot if you’re trying to decide on a guitar. Those two pieces of wood that make up your soundboard are going to be with you a long time.
Read on and I’ll let you know all about the qualities of Sitka vs. Adirondack spruce.
More than 40 species of spruce tree grow in the wild. They vary greatly in appearance and characteristics. What they generally have in common are evergreen needles, a more-or-less conical profile, and cones that grow on their branches.
Sitka and Adirondack spruce are among the largest species of spruce.
Sitka spruce (Picea sithensis) grows abundantly from California to Alaska and is in fact the official state tree of Alaska.
Sitkas can grow over 300 feet. The so-called Carmanah Giant, located in the Carmanah Valley on the west coast of Vancouver Island, measures 314 feet and is believed to be the tallest Sitka in the world. Stand a football field on one end and you get the idea.
As we’ve said, Sitka is the most common tonewood for guitar tops—partly because of its ideal properties but also because of its relative abundance.
Adirondack spruce (Picea rubens) grows in Eastern Canada and the northeast U.S. The name comes from the Adirondack mountains in upstate New York, where it grows abundantly. Guitar players often just call it “Adi,” which is short for Adirondack.
You might also hear it referred to as “Appalachian spruce,” although the Appalachians are technically a separate mountain range further south where the species also grows.
Yet another name for Adirondack spruce is “red spruce,” a name that it takes from the rusty color of its bark.
Whatever you call it, it’s a smaller tree than the Sitka, typically growing between 60 and 130 feet.
Differences between Sitka and Adirondack spruce tops
When it comes to guitar tops, these are the most notable differences between Sitka and Adirondack spruce:
Sitka spruce is known for its tight grain. When you look at the vertical lines running lengthwise along a Sitka guitar top, they are narrow and close together.
You might see this tight grain on a vintage Adirondack-topped guitar as well, but modern Adirondack spruce tops tend to have a wider grain.
Guitarists seldom agree on whether the width of the grain affects the tone of an instrument, but the general consensus is that the tighter grain looks better. Chalk up a point for Sitka.
Time to open up
Solid wood acoustic guitars seldom sound their best when they are young. Guitars sound better with age, because the fibers within the wood take time to develop their flex as the guitar is played and the string vibrations are transferred to the soundboard.
In most cases, Sitka spruce will reach its full potential more quickly than Adirondack spruce, because Adirondack is stiffer.
Many guitarists speak of Adirondack spruce in reverential tones. This can lead to disappointment if you grab a new Adirondack-topped guitar off the wall at the shop and play it. You might think: “What’s the big deal?”
But that new Adirondack top has a long way to go before it sounds its best. Maybe even decades.
Make no mistake, Sitka needs some time to break in as well, but not nearly as long as Adirondack and the improvement over time is seldom as dramatic.
Are you familiar with the concept of “headroom” when it comes to guitars? Usually this refers to amplifiers, and how loud you can crank them before the sound begins to distort. An amp that remains clear even when playing loud is said to have plenty of headroom.
Acoustic guitars have headroom, too. And the soundboard tonewood with the most headroom is Adirondack spruce. Adirondack spruce will give you clear, well-defined, ringing tones no matter how hard you play it.
That’s not always the case with Sitka. Sitka compresses more than Adirondack, so its volume eventually tops out no matter how hard you pick. You reach a point of diminishing returns as you play harder.
A good Sitka top can still get pretty loud before it loses anything, but generally speaking, an Adirondack top will reward aggressive playing more than a Sitka top will.
I think of responsiveness as the speed at which sound gets out of the guitar and into the ears of the audience after the strings are picked. Some players call this velocity of sound.
Adirondack spruce tops produce the greatest velocity of sound. It must be something to do with the extra stiffness.
It takes a pretty sophisticated ear to detect differences in the responsiveness of guitars, but if you need that feedback of hearing what you’re playing as soon as you play it, an Adi top will provide it slightly more instantaneously.
The tonal properties of both Sitka and Adirondack spruce evolve as a guitar ages, but I’ll try to make some generalizations here.
Think of Sitka as warm and fuzzy. Think of Adirondack as clear and ringing.
Fundamental vs. overtones
Sitka spruce tops tend to lay bare the fundamental notes that you’re playing on the strings. What you play is what you get. Strike a G chord and you’ll hear a G, D, B. Not much else.
Adirondack spruce tends to produce more overtones, making for a more complex, nuanced sound. If you strike that same G chord on an Adi guitar and then listen carefully, it’s still a G chord but there seems to be a lot more going on.
A lot of online videos use duelling guitars to try to demonstrate this, but I don’t think any of them do it as well as this comparison video from Maury’s Music:
Did you hear the difference?
It might seem as though I’m favoring Adirondack spruce here, but that’s not the intention. In fact, I would give the edge to Sitka if versatility is what you’re after.
Sure, Adirondack is great for bluegrass pickers who want to play hard enough to be heard over mandolins and banjos, but if you intend to take your guitar home after the jam and play a little fingerstyle on the couch, you’ll do better with Sitka. If you play softly, it’s difficult to get the most out of Adirondack.
Sitka is also suitable for more styles of music. It’s a great all-around top wood.
Adirondack spruce costs more. That’s just how it is. A guitar with an Adirondack spruce top will carry a bigger price tag than the same guitar with a Sitka spruce top.
For example, as I write this, the website for Maury’s Music is offering Martin D-18s that are identical except for the Adirondack vs. Sitka spruce tops. The difference in list price is $789, or 31.6 per cent.
Is Adirondack better than Sitka?
Don’t let the big price tag fool you. Adirondack spruce doesn’t cost more than Sitka spruce because it’s better, it costs more because it’s harder to get. Sitka spruce is abundant, and anything that is easily supplied tends to cost less. By no means does that make it an inferior tonewood.
Remember, the beauty of a musical instrument is in the ear of the beholder. Some people prefer the sound of Adirondack tops. Others prefer Sitka tops. I happen to like those big fundamental notes of Sitka, while others prefer the lushness of Adirondack.
My hope is that by reading this piece, you understand a little bit more about what you’re getting into with either tonewood, and that will help you make the choice about what you’re going to like.
Top wood is only one variable
The final thing to keep in mind is that the tonewood used for a guitar’s soundboard is just one small piece of an intricate puzzle that ultimately produces the guitar’s sound.
The guitar’s back and sides are going to be a different tonewood altogether. How will the spruce play with them? Different spruces go better with different backs and sides.
The luthier is certainly more important than the tonewood. Most players would gladly take their second-choice tonewood on a guitar build that nails everything else, ahead of their first-choice tonewood on a guitar that misses the mark in other areas.
Trust me, you can find magical guitars that use either tonewood, and you can also find duds.
The best thing you can do is get out there and start playing guitars. Play Adirondack tops. Play Sitka tops. Get to know a lot of them. It will soon become clear to you which one you prefer.
And one day, you’ll walk into a shop to choose a guitar, and a guitar will end up choosing you instead. That’s how it ought to happen.
Is Adirondack spruce better than Sitka? ›
Adirondack spruce will give you clear, well-defined, ringing tones no matter how hard you play it. That's not always the case with Sitka. Sitka compresses more than Adirondack, so its volume eventually tops out no matter how hard you pick. You reach a point of diminishing returns as you play harder.Is Adirondack spruce good for guitars? ›
Well over 90% of our guitars are built with Adirondack Spruce tops. Red spruce has virtually all of the best qualities of the other species. It offers a strong fundamental, lush complex overtones, and a unique sparkling edge to the tone of an instrument which is quite distinctive.What is the best spruce for guitar top? ›
The wood of Sitka and Engelmann spruce is by far the most commonly used for acoustic guitar tops. What makes Adirondack so special compared to these other spruce species? Compared to Sitka and Engelmann, Adirondack spruce has a long historical reputation. For example, most high-quality pre-war guitars (e.g. by C.F.When did Gibson stop using Adirondack spruce? ›
The availability of really fine grained, slow growth Adirondack came to an end in the late 1940s and of course that's when Martin switched over to the use of Sitka and of course Gibson didn't exist in a vacuum, it was a worldwide condition, so I think we can safely say that we see the phasing out of Adirondack tops of ...When did Martin stop using Adirondack spruce? ›
is there a "generally-accepted" year which is recognized as the post-war "official cut-off" point for Adirondack Spruce tops? 1945, for the most part. Martin started using some Sitka in that year, mainly on style-18's.What is the difference between spruce and Sitka spruce? ›
Sitka edges out red spruce in hardness, so it won't scratch as easily. Modulus of rupture is bending strength- Sitka wins this test. Elastic modulus is the wood stiffness with the fiber- Again Sitka is the stiffer.What is special about Sitka? ›
In 1867, when the United States purchased Alaska from the Russians, the transfer ceremony was held in Sitka, and Sitka became Alaska's first capital city. Accessible only by air or sea, Sitka offers incredible scenery, fishing, hiking, abundant wildlife, and Alaska's most culturally rich history and community.What is the prettiest part of the Adirondacks? ›
Lake Placid is the pride of the Adirondacks. It's gorgeous and serene, making it a suitable haven for vacationers who want to escape the commotion of big cities. Fortunately, there's no inconvenient time to visit Lake Placid as it holds intriguing activities during summer and winter.Do spruce top guitars sound better with age? ›
Spruce ages beautifully, like fine wine. As the top stiffens and dries with age, the sound of a spruce top guitar will slowly evolve and mature.How long does it take to break in Adirondack top? ›
I think the concept of break-in of a red spruce top is real but the degree of any change is often overstated. With that said, I think it takes about 2-3 years for a red spruce top to break-in.
What is Adirondack spruce? ›
FROM BIPLANES TO MARTIN GUITARS: Adirondack, or Red Spruce, is an extremely strong, stiff wood with the highest cross-sectional strength and across-the-grain stiffness of all the spruces. In addition, it consistently rates at the top in strength-to-weight ratio.What are the disadvantages of spruce? ›
All varieties of spruce trees are susceptible to and prone to insect infestations. Spider mites (Oligonychus ununguis) suck sap from the needles, causes yellowing and tree decline. Pine needle scale (Chioaspis pinifoliae) is another insect that migrates to spruce trees, causing discolored foliage and needle drop.Why is Sitka spruce so special? ›
Although all spruces have sharp needles, those of the Sitka Spruce are the sharpest and most rigid of any tree in the northwest. Aboriginal people believed it could protect them from evil thoughts, and the Ditidaht utilized its powers in ceremonies to protect the dancers.Is Sitka spruce good for guitars? ›
Stika Spruce is one of the most important tonal woods for guitar making, thanks to its tonal features. In addition, they offer a good look, like the “bearclaw” pattern that appears in some boards. It's not very resistant to descomposition, but with right treatment and care it can last for decades.What is Gibsons best selling guitar? ›
The legendary Gibson Les Paul was born in the 1950s and has been the brand's best seller ever since.What is the most resonant guitar wood? ›
“Rosewood is dense and heavy compared to other woods—almost so heavy that it sinks in water,” Boak says. “And it produces extremely warm and resonant tones.” In no small part due to its use in classic Martin guitars, Brazilian rosewood has long been considered the Holy Grail.What year did Gibson quality decline? ›
Most people point the decline of Gibson as having started around 2006 and this seems roughly correct to me. What this means is that there are known, endorsed guitarists touring the world right now who have never played guitar in an era where Gibson was good and that just kind of sucks for Gibson.What is the most sought after Martin guitar? ›
1936-1942 Martin D-45
The pre-war Martins are known as some of the most expensive Martin models and can go anywhere between $320k-$400k. The D-45 is the most expensive model and is worth 20x more than the average Martin acoustic. Even so, Eric Clapton's D-45 sold at an auction for $625k!
I know from our FAQ section that Martin made the switch from Red Spruce tops to Sitka in 1946.What Martin did Johnny Cash use? ›
Perhaps Johnny Cash's most favorite Martin guitar (and he played many) was a specially made D-35, his – and Martin's – first guitar with a polished black finish. Perfect for "the man in black," Cash played this guitar on stage for nearly 20 years.
Which spruce is most disease resistant? ›
Norway spruce (P. abies) is highly resistant to this disease. Some Colorado blue spruce cultivars, like 'Hoopsii,' and 'Fat Albert' are reportedly more resistant to the disease.Where is Adirondack spruce from? ›
Despite the laser-like location of its name, Adirondack spruce actually grows in a northeast-heavy corridor from Nova Scotia to North Carolina, embracing, along the way, the mountain range (itself part of the Appalachians) that shares its name.Is Sitka spruce a hardwood or softwood? ›
Softwoods and Hardwoods
Softwoods are obtained from conifers, which typically have needles, bear cones, and are generally evergreen. Examples of common softwoods include spruce, pine and fir.
Sitka Naval Operating Base and U.S. Army Coastal Defenses.What is the warmest Sitka? ›
Many of our hunters said that out of all the Sitka jackets that they tried, the Incinerator was hands down the warmest out of all others. The Incinerator Aerolite Jacket is made with GORE-TEX fabric and it boasts its warm-when-wet performance in the coldest temperatures.Does it get dark in Sitka? ›
The answer is no.
Sitka doesn't experience entire days of darkness or entire days of sunlight like the more Northern towns in Alaska, Russia, and Norway. The days in Sitka increase in length during the summer and decrease in length during the winter with significant variation.
For incredible views of the Adirondacks, particularly the Lake Placid and Saranac Lake regions, head to Whiteface Mountain. With the summit at 4,867 feet, the mountain is the fifth highest in the 46 High Peaks.Are the Adirondacks worth it? ›
Whether you're looking for an adventure or just want to relax in the fresh air, this is the place to go. The Adirondack region is a destination for all seasons and you'll always find something fun to do, whether you're traveling with your family or just enjoying a solo getaway.What's better Catskills or Adirondacks? ›
In terms of mountain elevation, the Adirondacks outshines its southern cousin's ranges.. In terms of small towns that don't feel overly isolated, the Catskills is homey cozy.What is considered the best guitar of all time? ›
- 1 Gibson Les Paul. 1.1 Features of the guitar:
- 2 Fender Stratocaster. 2.1 Features of the guitar:
- 3 Ibanez Jem. 3.1 Features of the guitar:
- 4 Ernie Ball Music Man (Silhouette) 4.1 Features of the guitar:
- 5 Gibson Sg. 5.1 Features of the guitar:
- 6 Fender Telecaster. ...
- 7 Evh (Striped) ...
- 8 Gibson Es-335.
What age is too late for guitar? ›
You are never too old to learn guitar. You can start learning guitar at any age. While younger people tend to learn faster, you are still capable of learning guitar as a beginner whether you are 30, 40, 60, or even 70.What makes an expensive guitar sound better? ›
The answer is yes, expensive guitars will most likely always be of better quality than cheaper guitars. The detail in which the guitars are made, the type of materials used and how well the adjustments are made is what increases the quality of a guitar, therefore the price.What is the easiest mountain to climb in the Adirondacks? ›
Cascade Mountain is considered the easiest High Peak because of the short hike to the 4,098-foot summit of 2.4 miles (one way). However, because the trailhead is easy to find and close to Lake Placid, it does get overcrowded. So it's best to hike this mountain during weekdays when there are fewer people.What is the hardest mountain to climb in the Adirondacks? ›
Mount Haystack: 4,960 feet
Perhaps the most challenging of the High Peaks, Haystack is a rugged, rocky ascent that travels 16 miles (out and back) over a mixture of demanding terrain, including an infamously steep stretch known as the “Devil's Half Mile.”
You can build a house or cabin in the Adirondacks. When you purchase land, you will have to look in the deed to see if there are any restrictions for the piece of land. Some of these restrictions can vary from size of house to different setbacks based on the APA or regional requirements.What makes the Adirondacks special? ›
The Adirondack Park is best known for its expansive pristine forests, lakes, rivers, and outdoor recreation opportunities. Unlike a national park, the Adirondack Park has no entrance and no entry fee, as it not only contains public land, but private lands as well where people live year-round.Are the Adirondacks beautiful? ›
The Adirondacks' beauty stems from the rich contrast between the lakes, mountains, and forests. For example, Saranac Lake is one of the most beautiful places to visit in this region. It is located nine miles northwest of Lake Placid town.Are the Adirondacks pretty? ›
The Adirondack region in Upstate New York is one of the most beautiful and sought-after regions to live in the state.Is red spruce the same as Adirondack? ›
Are red spruce and adirondack one and the same? Adirondack is now often used as an alternate name for red spruce, even if not harvested from the Adirondacks. If in doubt, using the term "red spruce" would always be correct because that is the name of the tree regardless of where it grew.Where does Adirondack spruce come from? ›
Despite the laser-like location of its name, Adirondack spruce actually grows in a northeast-heavy corridor from Nova Scotia to North Carolina, embracing, along the way, the mountain range (itself part of the Appalachians) that shares its name.
What is Sitka spruce good for? ›
Sitka spruce is valued for its wood, which is light, soft, and relatively strong and flexible. It is used for general construction, ship building and plywood. The wood has excellent acoustic properties and is used to make sounding boards in pianos and other musical instruments such as violins and guitars.What wood is best for outdoor Adirondack chairs? ›
The best wood for Adirondack chairs will be teak, cedar, or yellow pine. Adirondack chairs need to use quality lumber that won't rot, split, crack, or become infested with insects.Is Adirondack comfortable? ›
Adirondack chairs add an instantly cozy feel to any outdoor space, whether you're sitting around an open fire pit or enjoying a cup of coffee on the front porch. These deep-seated chairs are unrivaled when it comes to comfort—not to mention durability.What is Sitka spruce top? ›
Sitka Spruce: (picea sitchensis)
It is a very stiff wood, durable and strong. Flamenco guitarists also prefer this top wood, because it can produce less "sustain" (a sharper note) than cedar or other spruce tonewoods.
What does "Adirondack" mean? The word 'Adirondack' originated as a derogatory term given to the Algonquin tribe by neighboring Mohawk, meaning "barkeaters."Do the Adirondacks get a lot of snow? ›
Snow in the Mountains
In northern New York, the Adirondack region has an average seasonal snowfall in excess of 90 inches, but amounts decrease to 60 to 70 inches in the lowlands of the St. Lawrence Valley and to about 60 inches in the vicinity of Lake Champlain.