It’s been a long-time favourite for lower-priced guitars, but is poplar a good guitar wood? In this article, we’ll tell you everything you need to know about the wood, including its audio characteristics, durability, and sustainability.
What Is Poplar?
Poplar is the name given to various species from the Populus plant genus. In tonewoods, the term interchangeably refers to two specific species – white poplar (Populus alba) and yellow poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera). As its scientific name suggests, yellow poplar isn’t actually a species of poplar at all but does have similar physical characteristics.
Poplar trees are widely distributed across North America, Europe, and Central Asia. Wood from poplar trees is light in colour, relatively soft, and with a straight and fine grain. Alongside guitars, the wood is regularly used in construction, panelling, cabinetry, and other musical instruments, such as organs.
How Is Poplar Used in Guitars?
Poplar is a common choice for lower-cost electric guitar bodies, where its even tone and stable nature make for a reliable option. The wood isn’t known for its beauty, so most poplar guitars will have solid nitrocellulose paint jobs. However, some manufacturers do employ burled poplar as a top wood, so it’s not impossible to find poplar guitars with attractive and interesting finishes.
Poplar is not a good choice for electric guitar necks and fretboards. With a Janka hardness rating of 410 - 540 (depending on the species used), it isn’t the most robust wood around, and it would struggle to cope with the string tension demands required of a neck. Similarly, a poplar fretboard would quickly take excessive damage from normal playing conditions.
While poplar is an excellent option for electric guitar and bass bodies, it isn’t a common choice for acoustic instruments. Poplar’s balanced but relatively flat tone is fine for pairing with electronics. But in an acoustic instrument, where tonewood plays a much more significant role in sound creation, the wood is a little underwhelming, and better options are widely available.
How Do Poplar Guitars Sound?
Poplar isn’t famous for offering a particularly distinctive sound. Guitars made from poplar don’t possess any characteristic tonal qualities, nor do they have exceptional resonance or sustain. But what poplar guitars DO have, is a well-balanced, even, and stable sound that lets an electric guitar’s hardware do its thing. While other woods might have strong lows or bright highs that can affect your final tone, with poplar, you can be confident that the electronics in your instrument will produce the sound they should.
Is Poplar Sustainable?
While sustainability concerns are prevalent with several fashionable tonewoods, poplar isn’t one of them. Poplar is one of the world’s fastest-growing trees, is widely distributed, and has a sizeable current population. Neither white nor yellow poplar appears on the IUCN Red List, nor are they listed in the CITES appendices.
Is Poplar Durable?
Although poplar is technically a hardwood, its physical properties have more in common with softwoods. Its relatively low hardness rating means that the wood is nicer to work with but will likely dent and tear more easily than harder guitar woods, such as ash, walnut, or even mahogany. While not exactly fragile, you should take care to avoid dishing out too much damage to your poplar guitar, keeping it in a protective guitar bag when not in use.
Are Poplar Guitars Easy to Maintain?
Poplar guitars don’t require any special care beyond how you usually look after your instrument. Be sure to keep your guitar at a stable temperature and humidity (between 40 – 60% where possible), avoid abrasive cloths and polishes, and correctly store it when unused. Other than that, you don’t need to worry too much about how to care for your poplar axe.
Is Poplar Expensive?
Poplar is a frequent choice for lower-budget guitars, which is an affordable but good quality wood that perhaps outperforms its price point. But poplar certainly isn’t exclusive to budget guitars. Some guitar manufacturers have used the wood in more premium models. However, such guitars typically have higher prices due to their upgraded hardware and electrical components.
What Are the Pros and Cons of Poplar?
Although poplar might not be the most exciting of tonewoods, there is still plenty to love about it:
Good note clarity
Nice “blank canvas” for guitar hardware and amps to craft tones
Easy to work with
But, as with any guitar wood, consider if any of the following cons are enough to put you off picking up a poplar guitar:
Unremarkable tonal qualities
Not the best resonance
It can be easy to dent
Is Poplar a Good Guitar Wood?
Poplar has managed to get itself the reputation of being cheap, perhaps even inferior, wood, but, in reality, it’s excellent at what it does. It doesn’t have an exciting tonal profile like rosewood. It isn’t a very durable or particularly attractive wood. But it does provide your guitar with a reliable and even base which you can perfectly craft your desired tone with either pickups, your preferred amp, or a combination of the two. And while it may often be a budget option, it doesn’t mean the wood is “cheap”. A good quality poplar instrument will perform admirably and, when cared for properly, will serve you well for years to come.
The most obvious alternative to poplar is trusty alder, which also offers a well-balanced sound with a little more brightness and better resonance. If you’re in the market for something with a bit more character, consider a mahogany guitar for extra warmth and mid-range performance. Or, for a tight low-end option that won’t break the bank, take a look at basswood.
Find Your Poplar Guitar
If poplar sounds like the tonewood for you, then it’s time to go guitar shopping! Head over to our Finder tool, select your relevant search filters, such as price, materials, and body shape, and get searching for your next axe.