Say what you like, but we still get asked the questions…
The tonewood debate is a constantly evolving, shifting discussion. There are so many intricacies involved in the process of cutting, drying and finishing guitar tonewoods that you’ll find opinions often differ radically with some people saying it has no effect and others saying wood is the be all, end all of guitar composition. This conflict likely stems from the fact that wood is organic matter, so no two trees will ever be exactly the same and thus there will always be slight differences between guitars, making consistent results difficult to achieve.
If you’re on the fence regarding the tonewood debate, try plucking a string and resting your chin on top of your guitar, you will feel the vibration through your skull! No one at Dawsons is saying that choice of wood is everything, as we all know pickups are an incredibly important factor in how an electric guitar translates it sounds, however, we are of the opinion that it does have a small effect on the tone of the guitar, and a large effect on how it feels when you strap it on.
So, to help you see the wood through the trees this easy to use guide will assist you in selecting the guitar tonewood of your choice, based on some general tonal qualities. There are a whole host of tonewoods for you to select from and get the guitar that’s the right fit for your desired sound and we’ve also picked out some famous users to make it easier for you to reference your tone.
Alder is a staple of the Fender brand, being predominantly used by the guitar giants since the late 50s. A middleweight tonewood, it’s heavier than Ash but lighter than Mahogany so won’t give your back and shoulders a hard time. It has a twirling grain pattern which makes it a strong wood, although a little plain aesthetically so you’ll usually find these with an opaque finish.
Tonally Alder typically sits in the middle of the spectrum, giving a bright sound and plenty of low-end ‘oomph’ without leaning to either side too much. The strong composition of the wood makes it harmonically complex, giving you a wide scope of tonal possibilities. Commonly used in mid-range to high-level Strats due to its balanced nature, Alder is a good choice if you want a guitar that can do a variety of styles well.
Used by: Joe Satriani, Eric Clapton, Kirk Hammett.
Ash is a lightweight tonewood that’s great for heavy music due to its natural ‘scooped’ mid-range sound. Ergonomically weighted, it’s great for energetic live performances and guitar spins (don’t forget your strap locks) aplenty. With its interesting, porous grain pattern you’ll often find natural finishes on guitars with this tonewood. Ash sits on the brighter end of the tonal spectrum, making it perfect for shredders with an airy tone that’s clear and has an awesome attack.
Commonly used in extended range guitars (i.e. 7, 8 and 9 strings) Ash was originally used by Fender guitars before being succeeded by Alder, however, you can still get Fender guitars comprised of this tonewood. Ash is a perfect choice if you want to downtune and you’ll find it on a lot of guitars aimed at the heavier player such as Ibanez models.
Used by: Guthrie Govan, Jeff Loomis.
N.B. the type of Ash discussed here is ‘Swamp Ash’ cut from below the waterline where the Ash trees grow, which differs in tonal characteristic to ‘Hard Ash’ that’s cut from above the waterline and is heavier with a brighter tone and more sustain.
Pronounced like the fish and one of the most commonly used tonewoods as it’s easy to machine, Basswood covers the entire guitar spectrum from entry-level to highly priced custom models. Another relatively lightweight wood, it has a soft composition, so you won’t find it on necks or fretboards, and it doesn’t have much of a visible grain pattern so won’t often feature on naturally finished guitars.
Tonally Basswood sits in the middle, softening highs and lows to give a pronounced mid-range energy, great for sustain on guitars that feature a floating tremolo. It’s perfect for musicians who want to cut through the mix and was preferred by 80s shredders such as Randy Rhoads and EVH due to its balanced nature.
Basswood gets a bad rep due to poor cuts being used on lower level guitars, but the good quality cuts of it are just as practical as any other tonewood and you’re as likely to find this on £2,000 signature model as you are a £200 entry-level guitar! Basswood is perfect if you want something that is versatile and works well in a live scenario.
Used by: Steve Vai, Misha Mansoor, Tosin Abasi.
Mahogany is well known for being the choice tonewood of industry leviathans Gibson. Weighing nearly as much as said colossal sea monster, you will definitely feel it in your shoulders when you strap on a Mahogany guitar. Its natural colour makes it well suited to translucent finishes with an intense red/brown colouring and you’ll often find this paired with a Maple top, a classic tonewood combination.
On the tonal spectrum, it sits in the low midrange, having excellent bottom end with subtle highs making it popular amongst those who prefer an old school sound, having been used on countless classic records. Well known for its fat, warm tone Mahogany can really growl and has a supreme ability to sustain thanks to its aforementioned heftiness. Mahogany is perfect for the player who’s into rock and blues music, whether modern or classic.
Used by: Slash, Jimmy Page, Billy Gibbons.
Another tonewood with a long history in guitar craftsmanship, Maple was found on some of the classic solid body Stratocasters, however, is more commonly found in the construction of hollow body guitars due to its hardness making it difficult to machine. It has an intense figuring, making it great for stunning looking tops and you’ll often find it used to finish off a guitar as a top due to its tight grain pattern which naturally looks very attractive.
Maple sits at the opposite end of the tonal spectrum to Mahogany, with a bright and snappy characteristic that’s resonant (which is why it’s often used in neck construction) and really lets you hit the midranges and high end. A lot of guitars feature Maple tops with a different tonewood underneath to get the tight and transparent qualities of Maple and to help save on weight. One of the most common combinations is to pair with Mahogany to get the best qualities of both kinds of wood in one guitar.
Used by: BB King, Chet Atkins, George Harrison.
Most popular in entry-level guitars, Poplar is gaining much momentum in Asian markets thanks to its balanced sonic qualities and similarity to Alder. It’s easy to machine and lightweight, with a generally subtle appearance although you will occasionally find pieces with intricate grain patterns.
Poplar doesn’t stand out in any particular frequency range, giving a great balanced tone, if a little less resonant than some of the other woods listed here. It’s got a mellow characteristic, very similar to Alder but a little warmer and less punchy than due to its softer composition. Poplar is another tonewood that is great if you want to do a variety of styles and is used on solid-body and hollow-body guitars.
Used by: Steve Morse, Paul Stanley, Gus G.
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Whilst this is by no means a definitive guide to the plethora of available tonewoods, it’s a great starting point if you’re unsure what to select for your next purchase. For the full range of Electric Guitars available, see our online store.
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Matt is a multi-instrumentalist, music geek and current Content Creator at Dawsons Music. He composes, records and produces out of his home studio in Manchester as well as playing in two bands, China Moon and Sawbones.