It’s worth acknowledging right at the start that not all bass guitars feature solid bodies. Many basses are hollow bodied with chambers that increase natural resonance while simultaneously decreasing weight. However, regardless of the design, size and shape, the species of wood used to craft the body of a bass guitar does a lot more for the instrument than simply contribute visual aesthetics and weight. The physical properties of different types of wood will all have a bearing on their inherent tonal qualities. Let’s take a look at some of the most commonly used bass guitar tonewoods:
With a tight and hard grain pattern, Alder is very easy to finish and is found lurking under the lacquer finish on hundreds of different bass guitar models. It’s commonly harvested in Europe, Russia and North West Africa and is a popular choice for bass guitars due to its light to medium weight.
The tone of alder is often said to be the most balanced of the regularly used tonewoods. It provides a good balance of low, mid and high frequencies, delivering a full-bodied tone. It has a pronounced upper-midrange due to its dense grain, which makes it a good choice for clarity, and could be described as sitting on the tonal mid-point between dark and bright. For basses in particular, it’s great for that old school honk made famous by the blues and soul bassists of old.
The grain isn’t particularly interesting aesthetically, so it’s usually covered with an opaque finish, although it can look good with a dark transparent finish too. In its natural form, it often has a reddish tint, bordering on pink.
Summary: well-rounded tone with pronounced upper-mids, with a reddish tint and understated grain.
There are two kinds of Ash Tone Wood: Northern Hard Ash and Southern Soft Ash more commonly known as Swamp Ash.
Swamp ash tonewood is taken from trees that have their roots growing below water level, and is a relatively lightweight, porous wood found in the swamps (typically the Louisiana Bijou) in the Southern USA. It is generally creamy in colour, and with a bold open grain pattern that is visually more appealing than alder, it lends itself well to translucent finishes. Swamp ash tonewood is highly resonant across the entire frequency spectrum, but does tend to feature slightly scooped middle frequencies which results in a balanced but bright and sweet sound. It tends to be slightly more pronounced at the top-end when compared to alder, with a quick attack and an articulate dynamic range. Its sound is often described as transparent, which makes it an excellent tonal platform for tweaking – great for session players or those keen to experiment with their sound!
As you might expect, hard ash tonewood is relatively hard, dense and heavy compared to swamp ash. Although it looks very similar, it’s greater density makes it brighter sounding with a little extra sustain. Hard ash tends to be a better choice where brighter and harsher distorted sounds are required. It’s usually used for single wood slab-bodied guitars but is occasionally used for laminate bodied guitars, where another wood is placed on top to give the guitar a different appearance and tone.
Summary: resonant across all tonal frequencies, but with slightly scooped mids, and a bold grain that works beautifully as a natural finish.
Mahogany tone wood is a relatively heavy choice, and you’ll feel the weight of it more than Basswood, Alder and Ash around your shoulder. With a fine grain similar to Ash, but with a more even grain pattern, its reddish-brown colouring tends to make it a good choice for a translucent finish, and it tends to have a reddish sheen when it is polished.
Having been the favoured tone wood of the Gibson family of bass and electric guitars for years, it produces a warm, soft and full tone with bold low frequencies, a tendency to pronounce the lower-mid frequencies, and a smooth but relatively subdued higher end. It’ll produce a punchy growl with a good sustain and tends be most prominent in the hands of those who play rock styles. You’ll commonly find it on basses from Epiphone, Gibson and Ibanez, among others.
Summary: one of the heavier choices available, but produces a warm, smooth tone. Reddish tint with a distinct, fine grain.
Basswood (with bass pronounced like the fish) is a lightweight tonewood that is relatively soft compared to other hard woods listed here, but it is abundant and therefore relatively cheap. It is lightweight, and usually white in colour so it is rarely used without an opaque finish hiding its relatively plain appearance.
Because it is a relatively inexpensive, Basswood is often written off as a cheap bland characterless option, but some claim it to be provide an ideal balanced tone with a subtle tendency towards being more warm than bright. It often features on more budget-friendly models from a number of manufacturers including Fender and Music Man.
Summary: lightweight and pale in colour, with a subtle, transparent tone.
As with ash, there are two broad types of Maple: hard and soft.
In electric guitar construction, hard maple tone wood is more commonly found in neck than solid body construction because of its undesirable weight. However, seeing as bass guitars are generally expected to be heavier instruments anyway, its presence in solid body construction is not so unusual. Because of its density and weight, hard maple tone wood is very bright with a lot of bite and a good sustain. It pronounces the upper-mid and high frequencies most evidently, although the bass frequencies do tend to be clearly articulated.
Because soft maple is – you guessed it – softer, it’s generally lighter than the hard maple variety. Although it often looks much the same, it does tend to have more intense figuring and it can look absolutely stunning. Tonally, it provides a good bright attack and sustain, but does not sound brittle like some harder woods can. The wave pattern in the wood (often referred to as curls) reduces the stiffness, and this in turn means that the wood can vibrate more freely. Soft maple tonewood is still relatively bright compared to other wood types listed here, but not quite as bright as the hard maple variety.
Because of maple’s attractive grain varieties (flamed, quilted, birdseye etc.), it’s often used with transparent finishes or as a separate piece of the top of the body. This sometimes makes for a pretty dazzling aesthetic that makes you double-take every time!
Summary: bright, immediate sound and often with striking figuring and light colouration.
Necks, tops and fretboards
Although this article is centered on bass guitar tonewoods, the materials remain the same regardless of the instrument. If you’re looking for more info on woods that are used for necks, tops and fretboards, you might want to check out the other articles in our tonewood series:
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