An easy dead giveaway of a luxurious, expensive, high-end guitar is its beautiful figured top. Flamed maple, burl, you name it – there are some incredibly beautiful options for those of us who want a little eye candy on our instruments.

Wood Choices in Guitar Design

First, let’s talk about guitar construction…

Here’s the thing: guitar companies are businesses, and as such, they want to keep costs down. In order to do that, guitars are quite often made from woods that, although they produce a great sound, they’re not very nice to look at. They’re typically rather plain and boring to look at.

These woods are generally used for instruments that don’t have any kind of clear finish, and even a few that do. If you see a guitar that’s been painted all one color, it’s likely made of a more “plain” wood to reduce cost.

“Good looking” woods are figured with amazing designs, and are therefore more expensive, making it rather wasteful to use them liberally on just any old guitar build. However, guitar makers found a nice middle ground between building an entire guitar from expensive (but gorgeous) woods and using the ugly stuff: use the figured wood for the top of the guitar only.

This combines the best of both worlds – cheaper plain wood for the majority of the guitar, but nicer figured wood on top. Great aesthetics at an affordable price!

Tops vs. Veneers

If you’ve spent any time looking at guitars like this you’ve likely come across two distinct terms for this design approach: “top” and “veneer.”

What’s the difference? Is it visual, tonal, both?


In short, a veneer is yet another way for manufacturers to keep their costs down. Veneers are very thin layers of wood that are only 1 or 2mm thick. They’re paper thin and are strictly for aesthetic purposes.

A top, on the other hand, is much thicker. This will have an impact on the sound of the guitar because a significant portion of the instrument is going to be made from whatever the top wood ends up being.

The thicker the top is the more it adds to the overall sound of the instrument.

There is one more category… “photo figuring”. This is when the figuring is a literal image of a higher end instrument applied to the top of a cheap instrument before the final clear coats are applied. You will only see this on extremely cheap Asian copies.

Let’s move on, I’m getting the chills…

The tonal impact might be completely irrelevant to you, but that’s not the only factor at play here.

A veneer doesn’t give you a lot of room to work with should you want to make any modifications to the finish. If you choose to refinish a guitar made with a veneer you must take extra caution to ensure you don’t sand through the razor-thin veneer entirely, leaving spots without any figuring.

What To Watch For

Keep in mind that these phrases tend to be thrown around a lot by manufacturers and specs like “flamed maple top” may still turn out to be a veneer. It’s not technically a lie, as the top of the guitar is flamed maple, they just didn’t specify how much of the top…

Generally speaking, you need not be concerned. If you’re buying a cheaper guitar you will likely be buying a veneer, but if you’re okay with that and don’t have plans to refinish then no worries.

If you’re buying a more expensive guitar, then you’d likely be in a price bracket where getting a veneer is highly unlikely, especially if you’re dealing with a reputable distributor (like Wired Guitarist!)

The biggest reason you’ll want to remember the difference is when buying on the used market. If someone can convince you that their veneer is a real top, that gives them the ability to raise the price.

If you’re buying new from a respected dealer you’ll have full transparency about the guitar construction. If you’re buying used do your research before making a purchase, and if that difference matters to you then don’t be an uninformed buyer, or you’ll quickly be an unfortunately informed sucker.

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