How do different woods really make a difference?
Though it’s easy to take for granted, all the different woods that make up your guitar have been partnered together for specific reasons. The fretboard wood, for example, can certainly make a difference to the of tone of an instrument, and some woods can suit certain players and styles more than others. Although as somewhat of a disclaimer, the same guitar can sound very different in the hands of two different guitarists. This aside, there are certain tonal qualities that all guitarists can agree on.
Not only do these fretboards have a tonal differences, but the wood also makes a difference in terms of playability and feel. Each wood has its own properties and responds to touch and years of use in different ways, which is why some guitarists prefer one over another.
Whether basing your decision on these differences or simply on which you find more aesthetically pleasing, the choices of fretboard wood predominantly come down to three main options: Rosewood, Maple or Ebony.
In this blog we’re going to look at these three most common types of woods used on fretboards and discuss their key properties, allowing you to make a better decision when it comes to choosing your ideal guitar.
If you’ve ever laid eyes on a guitar, regardless of whether you’ve played one or not, you’ve likely seen a rosewood fretboard. If not, Pictured below is the Fender American Elite Strat Shawbucker in olympic white with rosewood fretboard. There is a pretty good chance that your favourite guitarist has a rosewood fretboard on one of their guitars, as they’re they most commonly used fretboard woods around.
This is primarily due to their warm, rich tones and ability to level out the high end harshness. They’re also very durable, important for musicians in it for the long haul. The two kinds of Rosewood you’re likely to hear about are the Indian Rosewood, and the rarer, high end Brazilian Rosewood.
Indian Rosewood has an even grain and is often a rich dark colour similar to chocolate or coffee – it’s also fairly easy to come by and features on most modern guitars.
Brazilian Rosewood however, is extremely rare owing to the fact it is now banned from being exported unless it was harvested before the CITES treaty or fell naturally. Pre 1960s guitars often feature this type of wood adding to the mystique (and value) of guitars of old. If you’ve got a Brazilian rosewood guitar – count yourself lucky. The colour of this rosewood can vary between a very dark caramel brown to lighter tones.
Rosewood is naturally oily so therefore doesn’t require a finish. This natural feel is often the main reason why guitarists choose this wood, as the lacquer used on the likes of maple can sometimes feel ‘unnatural’. Rosewood is also a more porous wood compared to the likes of Ebony and Maple so therefore offers a warmer, softer sound.
You’ll often find that new strings won’t sound as harsh with a rosewood fretboard either – it will settle in nicely. Rosewood fretboards do start to show signs of use and form grooves over time, (but we’re talking tens of years here) however this can sometimes cause the guitar to become more personalised to your playing style and can feel very comfortable.
THE VERDICT: If you want a warmer tone and softer feel, rosewood fretboards are the way to go.
The key difference, aside from the look, between maple and rosewood fretboards is that the whole piece of maple makes up the neck as well as the fretboard, whereas a rosewood fretboard is usually glued on to another piece of wood to make up the neck. You’ll often see a maple neck on a Fender Telecaster or Stratocaster as well as a selection bass guitars.
Maple, as pictured here on the Fender American Elite Telecaster, is a lighter coloured wood with smaller pores and a thinner grain lines, and can often be described as having a “flamed” or “birdseye” appearance. Maple is an extremely dense hardwood that is found in the northern United States and Canada. It can appear almost white depending on the tree it has been harvested from, which aesthetically really helps it stand out when coupled with a darker toned body.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about a maple neck, and something that divides guitarists, is its ability to tarnish over time. A well-played maple neck will eventually show serious signs of wear, wearing down the finish and absorbing dirt into the wood. For some guitarists, this is a desired after effect and cause for some pride, but for others it would just be considered dirty and unclean. So maple shows off more wear and tear than a rosewood or ebony fretboard which is something that needs to be considered when purchasing a guitar. However, again we’re talking about years of play before any signs start to show.
Some guitarists tend to avoid maple necks due to the fact the finish, which is applied to stop it from warping, can feel less natural than the likes of ebony or rosewood fretboards. However, those who want a brighter, zestier tone that offers greater sustain will often choose maple. Out of the three fretboard woods, maple is often described as having a tighter top end. Again, many players will simply just choose a maple neck due to the fact they prefer how it looks, but luthiers and players alike will still say that a maple neck, with its lacquered finish, will offer a different tone with a more reflective sound.
THE VERDICT: If you want a brighter sounding guitar with a ‘zingier’ high end, maple may be for you. It also offers a visually appealing option in the long run as the more you use the guitar, the more it will begin to look like a rock and roll relic.
Finally, we have the ebony fretboard, a common choice for metal or hard rock guitarists who prefer their guitars to look as dark as their music! It can also be found on a wide range of acoustic guitars owing to its porous qualities. The most common types of ebony fretboards are of African or Asian origin. The African ebony wood is predominantly all black, hence the metal guitarist connection, whereas the Asian ebony wood can have brown stripes running through the wood – again it comes down to personal preference, as both types have an almost identical tonal quality. In fact, a lot of guitarists may even say that Ebony and Rosewood fretboards look the same – I can hear fretboard boffins crying out in outrage already!
Ebony, as pictured here in the Ibanez AR620-BK, has similar qualities to that of rosewood owing to the fact it does not need finishing due to its high natural oil content. Players will not feel like the fretboard is “sticky” where they might with a maple fretboard so playing the guitar is a smooth experience. It’s naturally hardier and will last for many years even with every day use, more so than the likes of rosewood or maple fretboards that may eventually need redressing or replacing completely.
It’s often said that ebony fretboards are the best of both worlds. They benefit from the dark appearance and natural oils found in rosewood, so therefore will not need finishing or a lacquer placed over it for protection. Due to the density however, it also shares the bright and zingier tonal qualities of a maple neck.
THE VERDICT: Ebony fretboards offer players a similar tonal quality to maple necks but are commonly known as hardier and longer lasting than rosewood fretboards. For those who want a darker neck with a brighter tone, ebony is for you. In addition, if you want a darker appearance, ebony will likely be the one you gravitate towards.
So which one do I choose?
When it comes to choosing your guitar, the tonal qualities found in the fretboard shouldn’t really be the major factor in making the choice to buy it. Yes, fretboard wood CAN make a difference, but it’s mainly the tonewoods in the body and neck that dictate the tonal qualities, so it’s best to choose the guitar that feels right in your hands. Tone is mostly in the fingers – a guitar played by Eric Clapton would sound extremely different in the hands of Jim Root from Slipknot.
My advice would always be to choose the guitar that feels great in your hands, because how you connect with the instrument is the all-important factor.
Appearance plays a factor too. You wouldn’t feel comfortable wearing a t-shirt or pair of jeans that you don’t really like, so therefore you won’t feel amazing on stage with a guitar you think is ugly guitar. Often the way a guitar looks will be the reason you want to play it more – tone is one thing, but it really doesn’t matter if you don’t actually pick the guitar up in the first place!
About Lee Glynn
Lee Glynn is a guitarist and multi-instrumentalist who lives in Liverpool, England. After moving to the UK from Perth, Australia, Lee enjoyed a successful career as guitarist in Liverpool based rock band Sound of Guns.
After releasing two albums, a myriad of EP’s/singles and touring extensively around the world for 6 years including stops at Glastonbury, Latitude Festival, as well as the coveted Reading & Leeds Festivals, Lee decided it was a time for a change of scenery.
Utilising his experience in music journalism, Lee now works within the web team at Dawsons Music, where he can still relay his passion for music by producing great content for the Dawsons blog and social media. Lee is still an avid guitar player and writer.
Here are some fun facts:
- Before moving to the UK, Lee used to host a radio show in Australia at the age of 18. Lee presented the unsigned bands segment at Twin Cities FM in Perth, WA.
- Sound Of Guns enjoyed a short but successful career in music with many of their songs being used in television adverts, sports channels and the extremely successful videos Road Bike Party and We are Not Crazy We are Amazing.
- He also can’t play bar chords due to an accident so learned to play power chords by studying Black Sabbath songs and Tony Iommi’s playing style.