Koa: Beautiful Looking, Beautiful Sounding Tonewood by Norman L. Beberman, GuitarNation.com Staff Writer

Hawaii is a very special place. It has natural resources - beaches, mountains and lush tropical landscape - that visitors and residents call "paradise" and "Heaven on Earth".

Islands are, by nature, isolated, so that the culture of the indiginous population develops without outside interference. Hawaiians developed their own language, and, more importantly for us, their own music and their own instruments. The instrument that we think of when we think of Hawaii is the ukelele. With the abundance of Koa in the islands, Hawaiians were the first to discover the unique tonal characteristics of koa when they used it to build ukuleles. Luthiers soon caught on to this exotic wood and have been using it in guitar construction since at least the 1920's.

Anyone who has ever seena nice piece of koa would be hard-pressed to deny its' stunning good-looks. Highly sought after because of its' beauty and tonal characteristics, koa is very sensitive to the builders choice of top wood. With an Engleman top, a guitar with koa back and sides produces the well-balanced tone that fingerstylists love. The highs really sparkle and the sustain is super, though there is less bass response than one gets from tonewood.

Choosing a koa guitar to buy, or selecting koa for guitar or ukulele building is more than just finding a beautiful piece of wood. Aesthetically, a koa guitar will sell simply because it stands out from others in a store. The mere fact that koa comes from an exotic locale such as Hawaii has been known to cause a "love at first sight" attraction to guitar buyers. Love at first sight is one thing; as tonewood suppliers, we must also concern ourselves with the interaction of the koa tonal properties used in the back and sides with the topwood chosen by the guitar maker. Ultimately, as guitar players ourselves, we choose our koa so that the guitars using it sound great.

A guitar made of koa can range from a warm sounding Mahogany to a brighter sounding Rosewood. The range in tone is determined by different factors; the major factors being density and weight. When dry, koa ranges in weight from 2.7 pounds per board foot to 3.5 pounds per board foot. Typically, a back and side set of a lower density koa produces a warmer sound, whereas a more dense set will be brighter in sound and more projecting. A Western Red Cedar top, or an Engleman Spruce top on a lower density koa makes for a very nice full sounding instrument, while a Sitka or Adirondack Spruce on a denser piece of koa can make for a very crisp and clean sound. "I personally to this day have yet to hear any koa with a Sitka top that has not been exceptional," comments koa supplier Josh Harris, one of the proprietors of Big Island Acoustic Koa. (URL:http://www.bigislandkoa.com).

Typically, koa is graded for curl (flame) and its beauty because most builders are looking for this. "While this is important, and how we (Big Island Acoustic Koa) grade, it doesn't necessarily mean your best sets for guitar building are always AAAA," Josh explains. "We grade on curl and cut. Some of our lower grade wood with not as much figure would probably make a more resonant sounding guitar than guitars made of our highly figured wood." That is the precise reason that Josh and the crew at Big Island Acoustic Koa strongly suggest trying as many koa guitars as possible, in order to get a guitar that looks and sounds great.

No doubt, aesthetic beauty is important. A stunning piece of wood calls the potential customer over to your guitar, inviting him or her to play it. Guitars made entirely of koa are hard to keep on the shelf at music stores for this reason.

Big Island Acoustic Koa carefully chooses its' soundboards primarily for tonal properties, and, with quality of the quarter saw and curl coming in a very close second. A really good koa soundboard has an extremely low density, and these low-density pieces are extremely rare to find. "We come across wood applicable for tops maybe once a year or every other year," comments Bobby Gay , a partner in Big Island Acoustic Koa, along with Josh Harris and his wife, Karen. "These guitars can sound great. They have a warm sound and are not the loudest guitar. However with onboard amplification the sound is superior to any Spruce top. So depending on who the guitar is being built for and how they will use it, a koa top, back and side set could be what you are after."

Keep in mind that the woods used in guitar construction are only as good as the luthier making the guitar. Josh summarizes his thoughts by saying "One thing that I can guarantee you as a koa supplier is that a good luthier + a nice set of koa + an appropriate topwood = a guitar that will bring you a lifetime of playing pleasure."


About this article

GuitarNation.com wishes to thank Josh Harris, Karen Harris and Bobby Gay, the owners of Big Island Acoustic Koa for graciously allowing us to interview them for this article.

Josh Harris, a Roberto-Venn trained luthier and set-up technician for Goodall Guitars, Bobby Gay, the wood guy for Goodall Guitars. and Josh's wife Karen, started Big Island Acoustic Koa to take advantage of their location in Hawaii to provide luthiers with high quality koa at reasonable prices. They understand the needs of luthiers and will go to the ends of the earth to help.

Contact Info: Big Island Acoustic Koa; URL http://www.BigIslandKoa.com. Tel. (808) 326-9825. E-mail: karen@bigislandkoa.com.

Author may be reached at nlb@GuitarNation.com