The tone of your guitar is undoubtedly the result of a team effort; pickup types, string gauges, scale lengths and bridge designs are just a handful of things to consider. But arguably one of the biggest contributing factors is the choice of wood for the body, neck and fretboard, not least because they make up 90% of the construction of your guitar! Different combinations can yield different results, and while pickups, hardware and other components can be changed in time, electric guitar tonewoods stay put once assembled.
Different manufacturers tend to favour different wood choices, but in recent years the industry has seen a shift in trends. This is partially due to changes in regulation that restrict the circulation of certain rare woods, most notably affecting rosewood, granadillo and bubinga. These changes were implemented by CITES (short for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) to protect species from drastic reduction in numbers, and it meant that any guitar using these woods required CITES certification to be traded across borders – naturally, building guitars became a lengthier process and increased prices. Restrictions to many of these woods. most notably rosewood , was lifted on 14/12/19.
Nowadays, instrument manufacturers use a wealth of different wood types, with exotic and alternative woods being used more commonly to avoid hefty fees and maintain consistent output; so without further ado, let’s delve deep into the world of tonewoods!
Why do tonewoods sound different from each other?
While it’s common knowledge that some woods sound brighter, darker or fuller than others, not everyone necessarily knows why!
Because wood is an organic material, it changes shape and density as it grows; with age, wood develops deeper grains that change almost immeasurably during its lifespan. Due to the unpredictable and ever-changing nature of this growth, you can almost certainly expect inconsistencies and imperfections at every level of detail, whether it’s an unmistakable fist-sized knot or a microscopic hole. Different types of wood have different types of imperfections and characteristics in their make-up, and it’s this variation that makes them sound different from each other.
Imagine two rooms, one small and one large. If you strum a guitar in the small room, there’s less space for the sound to move around in, so the sound dies down quicker but is clear. In the large room however, you’ll notice the sound echoes around more, meaning the sound lasts longer but loses clarity. Now apply this to the gaps between the grains in different types of wood: if wood is dense, there will be less space among the grain for the sound to move around in, so you can expect quick attack and bright clarity. If the wood is less dense, the sound will have more space in the grain to move around in, so you can expect a darker resonance with increased sustain!
The different types of body wood
This is a selection of some of the most commonly used tonewoods for electric guitar bodies; it’s worth noting that many of these woods are also used for guitar necks as well! In some cases, they’re combined to provide a broader tonal palette to compliment particular styles. Read on…
Alder tonewood is harvested mostly in Europe, Russia and North West Africa and is a popular choice of tonewood due it’s 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.
Alder is known for providing a decent spanky blues/rock tone, but due to its full sound, it makes a great adaptable all-rounder for a guitarist who plays different styles. Leo Fender has used alder as the mainstay of the Fender bodies for years since the mid-50s. It is a relatively cheap choice of wood compared to other popular options, and is most commonly used on its own as a solid body option (it isn’t commonly laminated with a different species of wood). Having said that, it can be used for laminate tops, but it isn’t strong or hard enough to build necks or fingerboards with.
It has a tight grain pattern that makes it easy to finish, although slightly less pronounced than ash. 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. It works really well with single-coil pickups, producing a clean, transparent sound that’s easily tweakable.
Swamp ash was used on Fender guitars until the mid-50s when alder was chosen as its successor. Although swamp ash is harder to come by than alder (and therefore more expensive), it is still possible to buy a new ash-bodied Fender.
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.
Basswood (with bass pronounced like the fish, as opposed to the instrument) is harvested in the USA. Although there are four varieties of the species, with both Northern and Southern varieties, it is mostly the Tilia Americana of the Northern Great Lakes states that is used for guitar construction.
This variety provides the tighter grained and finer textured slabs that make it ideal for machining. Basswood is a lightweight tonewood that is relatively soft compared to other woods listed in this article, but it’s abundant and therefore relatively cheap. Because of its soft and lightweight nature, it’s never used as a laminate material, or on necks or fretboards. Aesthetically, it is usually white in colour, although it can feature unique green mineral streaks from time to time. There isn’t much in the way of visible grain, so basswood often comes with an opaque finish.
Basswood has proven to be a divisive issue among guitarists; some think of it as cheap and lacking in character, while others see it as the ideal balanced tone leaning more towards warmth than brightness. It’s worth noting that it’s been used on signature models for the likes of Guthrie Govan, Joe Satriani and Steve Vai in the past, which suggests that it’s doing something right!
Summary: one of the most affordable options on the market, offering a simple, transparent tone that delivers enough warmth to compliment a good set of humbuckers.
Mahogany is a name that is used to describe a whole range of hardwoods from around the globe, but true mahogany is only found in the Americas, ranging from southern Mexico to the upper Amazonian regions.
It’s highly resilient, with excellent resistance to wood rot, so it’s been used by furniture and boat makers for quite some time. As a result, it’s also proved to be a very popular choice for both acoustic and electric guitar construction. Here, the most commonly used variety is known as Honduras mahogany, a relatively plentiful and cheap wood thanks to extensive plantations intended to maintain stocks. Mahogany tonewood is a relatively heavy choice, and you’ll feel the weight of it more than basswood, alder and ash around your shoulder, though it’s not as dense as some brighter-sounding woods. Its colouring ranges from a yellow hue when fresh, through salmon pink, and on to deep rich red or brown when it’s aged and matured. 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.
Having been the favoured tone wood of the Gibson family of guitars for years, it produces a warm, mellow tone with excellent low frequencies, pronounced lower-mids, and a smooth but subdued higher end. Mahogany is a tonewood that produces a punchy growl with excellent sustain, generally favoured for punchy rock music. Good quality mahogany tonewood will age really well and sound better as it matures. It’s also very stable, and is less likely to warp than most other species of wood.
Summary: warm tone with excellent low-mid and bass emphasis, with a reddish-orange colour and an even grain pattern.
Like ash, there are two types of maple: ‘hard’ and ‘soft’.
Also known as ‘eastern maple’ and ‘sugar maple’, hard maple used in guitar construction is harvested mostly in the northeast USA and Canada. It’s known for being a hard and heavy wood that’s the wood of choice for bowling pins and butchers blocks. Because of this, hard maple tonewood is more commonly found in guitar necks rather than solid-body construction because of its undesirable weight. However, it is often found as the laminate material for multi-wood bodies where it adds brightness to other body woods that may contribute a darker tone.
It is a very light-coloured wood (often appearing almost white) with tight pores and thin grain lines. Because of its density and weight, hard maple tonewood is bright and snappy, with reasonable sustain to boot. It pronounces the upper-mids and high frequencies most evidently, although the bass frequencies do tend to be clearly articulated, and the right pickup will amplify them extremely well. Maple tonewood also provides excellent separation allowing each individual note in a chord to sound clear without blurring together.
Because it is such a strong wood, hard maple can be used for solid bodies, laminate tops, necks and fingerboards. It has also traditionally been the wood of choice for the back sides and neck of violins, violas, cellos and double basses.
Soft maple does not refer to just one variety, but is used to clarify the wood in question as being different to ‘hard maple’. It can refer to a variety of different species such as ‘western maple’, ‘silver maple’ and ‘big leaf maple’. Because of its softness, it’s generally lighter than hard maple. Although it often looks much the same, it does tend to have more intense figuring (it can look stunning) with the grain often resembling waves, stripes and other naturally occurring patterns.
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.
Unlike the hard variety, Soft maple tonewood is not dense or strong enough to be used on guitar necks, but it is often used for laminate tops and occasionally very heavy bodies.
Summary: highly desired for its tonal brightness and luscious aesthetic in equal measure; the many different varieties can be found in the necks, bodies and laminate tops of guitars across the spectrum.
Korina is an alluring term in the guitar world; renowned for being the tonewood choice for the original Gibson Flying-V and Explorer models, it’s undoubtedly left its mark on the industry. Ask a luthier, however, and you may get a different reaction!
Korina has similar tonal and grain qualities to mahogany. It’s resilient and weighty, and delivers a warm, bass-friendly tone, though many argue it’s more desirable for its sweeter, more responsive midrange. Despite this, mahogany remains the more commonly used option for a number of reasons. Firstly, korina is quite hard to come by in large quantities; this is because it’s mostly found outside of the US, and many guitar manufacturers simply don’t want to fork out or go through lengthy import processes.
Secondly, it’s a difficult wood to work with! All tonewoods need to be drained of moisture before they can be used, and korina happens to drain very quickly – this means that the wood is susceptible to splitting during the process. It’s also prone to staining while growing in its natural habitat. Once the wood is dried, any stains are impossible to remove, which is considered unsightly.
Having said all of this, korina is still considered to be a gem in the tonewood world, reminding people of a golden era in guitar making when manufacturers were taking bold steps years ahead of their time. Nowadays, korina is notably used as the choice body wood for Reverend Guitars!
Summary: warm tone similar to mahogany but with a sweeter midrange and a bolder grain.
- Poplar – a similar tone to alder, though some say it has a better upper-midrange. Although normally understated in appearance, you’ll occasionally see a piece of poplar with stunning grain.
- Bubinga – tropical like rosewood with a tighter grain and brighter tone. It has a lighter, richer colour than rosewood.
- Koa – grown in Hawaii, koa is caramel-coloured with bold, contrasting grain that’s extremely eye-catching. Tonally, it’s comparable to mahogany and korina, though with a little extra high-end response.
- Walnut – similarly hard to maple, but oilier, resulting in a smoother tone. It’s got a little more presence and bite to other hardwoods, and boasts a soft brown appearance.
The Different Types Of Fretboard Wood
These are the most common tonewoods used for fretboards. As with the body & neck wood choices, they’re often chosen to complement each other.
Rosewood has arguably been the most common fretboard wood for quite some time, although it took a dip under CITES restrictions – but will no doubt grow in popularity once again. As mentioned earlier, there are two types most commonly used: Indian and Brazilian. Indian rosewood is far more widespread, but the CITES restrictions mean that it’s quite rare to see Brazilian rosewood in use on a production guitars nowadays – if you’ve got one, count yourself lucky!
Having said all of this, a huge percentage of guitars made during the past 60+ years feature rosewood fretboards. They’re favoured for a number of reasons, but primarily it’s their durability that stands out. Rosewood isn’t susceptible to staining or wearing out like some softer tonewoods can be, so it’s perfect for fretboards – the most frequently attacked bit of your guitar!
Tonally, rosewood provides a rich warmth that’ll compliment any instrument, and it’s known for it’s ability to even out harsher, snappy frequencies for a smoother overall sound. The wood is also naturally oily so it doesn’t need its own finish, meaning it feels extremely soft and natural under the fingers. Rosewood fretboards are usually attached to a neck made from a different material, though it’s not unheard of to see a neck made entirely out of rosewood.
Summary: rich, warm tone that smoothens harsher frequencies, rich brown aesthetic and natural smooth feel.
Ebony has also been a staple fretboard wood choice for years, with its instantly recognisable dark appearance being both subtle and striking at the same time. There are two varieties used in fretboard construction; African and Asian. The Asian variety often features brown stripes that many players find ugly or distracting when they are looking for frets, which means that it’s the African alternative with its uniform colour that is more commonly found on guitar fretboards. Ebony is a particularly popular choice amongst metal bands where its blackness is always appreciated, but is commonly found on high-end acoustic models too.
Ebony is a very dense and heavy but smooth tonewood. It differs to Maple in that is has a higher natural oil content, and this means that it can be left unfinished. This is an appealing trait to many players who tend to refer to it as playing ‘fast’ because of its naturally smooth, solid feel. It also wears very well and will hold up to years of playing, even more so than some of the less dense options available like rosewood.
In many respects, Ebony offers a blend of the qualities of Rosewood and Maple. It is dark in appearance with natural oils like Rosewood so it doesn’t need finishing and its porosity means that it favours the fundamental tone. However, the hardwood density trait that it shares with Hard Maple favours overtones, so its tonal properties are a balance of both worlds. Ebony provides a very responsive bright, ‘snappy’ and ‘crisp’ attack coupled with a smooth sustain.
Summary: ebony delivers a bright, consistent tone and an organic, smooth feel with an alluring black appearance.
As we mentioned earlier when looking at body wood choices, maple is a dense, heavy wood that’s known for its bright, biting tonal quality and striking light appearance. The same qualities apply when it’s used for a fretboard, though unlike rosewood, a maple fretboard usually means that the entire neck is made of maple; one piece of wood with two purposes.
It’s favourable for adding crystalline clarity to the tone of your guitar, often nicely complimenting any body wood or hardware choice. Due to its light appearance, it does age organically but noticeably. You’ll see marks appear on the fretboard over time if you don’t carefully maintain it, but some people like the aesthetic character of this effect. It’s why so many vintage guitars have blotchy fretboards!
As well as this, maple has a lot of varieties in its grain, each one having a distinctive character that’s often visually striking; this includes flame maple, quilted maple, birdseye maple and more.
Summary: snappy tone that adds brightness to less dense wood combinations, with a light and sometimes beautifully figured appearance.
Pau Ferro is a sustainable wood species that’s increased in popularity in the wake of the CITES regulation changes.
It’s very similar to rosewood – so much so, that Fender have opted to use it to replace rosewood fretboards in their entire Mexican-made range! There are a few differences that set it apart however. Firstly, the grain is tighter than rosewood, meaning a snappier tone with more immediate attack. It delivers a similar warmth but with extra brightness. It’s also noticeably lighter in colour, often with rich caramel-brown figuring running through it, but it has a similarly smooth feel under the fingers to rosewood and ebony.
Summary: a sustainable alternative to rosewood with a slightly brighter tone.
Richlite is a manmade material that was created as a substitute for wood where harder, more durable materials were required. That already sets a pretty good precedent for its use as a fretboard material!
It was pioneered by Gibson in the mid-90s, who desired a fretboard material that was more hard-wearing, consistent and sustainable than traditional options. Although richlite is actually more expensive to produce, the results are undeniably more consistent and arguably superior to the organic woods that have been used for decades.
It’s scratch, heat and stain-resistant, as well as being non-toxic and non-warping; this means that your guitar neck is less likely to fluctuate in terms of its curve because you don’t have different organic materials interacting with each other. It’s made from resin-infused paper – yes, paper! It can be coloured in numerous ways, but for guitar fretboards, it’s most commonly seen with a black appearance similar to ebony.
Summary: synthetic, durable material with a balanced tone and consistent feel that doesn’t wear out.
Multiple woods vs. single woods
Although you often see guitar bodies and necks made of a single piece of wood, it’s just as common to see them comprised of multiple tonewoods for a number of reasons. So what difference does using multiple tonewoods actually make?
There’s a tendency among the guitar world to prefer the idea of a single-piece body or neck on a guitar; something about the purity of it speaks to guitarists. Having said this, many guitar bodies and necks are made of 2 or more pieces of wood, and there has always been both arguments and evidence that it doesn’t make a huge difference, at least negatively.
Many even believe that due to the tight-bond glueing processes of guitar manufacturing, the guitars are even stronger than if it was just the organic wood, meaning they last longer and possibly even resonate better. Some manufacturers are even said to take a single piece of wood, saw it in half, then glue it back together to reinforce it! This goes for necks too; they require the strength to withstand a lot of tension over long periods of time, so ensuring that they’re reinforced is pretty crucial. Because of this, it’s pretty common practice to find multi-piece necks.
Other common examples of multi-piece concepts include the neck-thru, where the neck piece extends down through the entire body, forming the ‘core’ of the guitar – the body then consists of two or more parts attached either side of this core piece of wood to form the full body. There’s also the hollow-body concept, which is similar to the neck-thru but with top, back and side parts assembled separately, similarly to an acoustic guitar.
A guitar body that consists of a single piece of wood is often more expensive, as the manufacturing process requires close attention to detail and careful treatment of the wood to avoid damaging it. Due to lack of reinforcement, these single pieces are often more susceptible to warping and imperfections; all of this having been, they’re still highly sought after as boutique, carefully crafted instruments!
Want to learn more about tonewoods? Check out our ‘Acoustic Guitar Tonewood‘ guide!
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