Guitar Tonewoods Guide – Know Your Ash from Your Alder

Your choice of guitar tonewood is a subject of great discussion among guitarists, as different woods affect your sound in different ways.

As well as affecting tone, the choice can also significantly change the look of your guitar (which for many is even more important than tone!)

In this complete guide to guitar woods, we group each type according to whether it’s used in the body, the neck, or the fingerboard (some, such as rosewood, appear in more than one category).

This article should serve as a useful resource in general, whether you’re about to buy a guitar or just like geeking out about this stuff.

Body Woods

guitar back and sides wood

Body wood, or the types of wood used to create the back and sides of a guitar, does more than look pretty.

Tonewoods either eliminate or amplify the frequencies your strings produce, affecting the overall tone of the instrument.

The wood configuration, particularly when it comes to the body of the guitar, isn’t as vital for electric guitars. However, acoustic models gain most of their sound from the wood choice. They also feature more wood on the back and sides than the top.

Various manufacturers typically favor a type of wood, but there are tons of different options available in both exotic and alternative kinds of wood.

Let’s explore each in depth below.

Alder

Like basswood, alder is a lightweight type of body wood with soft and condensed pores.

The grain pattern takes on a swirl, where the larger rings and sections around the outside enhance the strength of the body. The result is a guitar with a complexity of tones.

It’s not too warm or too bright but lies somewhere in the middle range.

However, unlike basswood, alder can retain high notes and provide space for low tones. Basswood tends to soften the high notes, on the other hand.

Compared to basswood, an alder body comes with a wider scope of tones overall as well as fewer mid-notes than basswood.

Ash

Ash is one of the most common tonewoods for electric guitar bodies.

Ash is a tonewood that comes in two main types:

  • hard (northern)
  • soft (southern)

The most popular option is hard ash due to the bright tone and high sustainability. However, soft ash offers a warmer feel.

Soft ash is also commonly called ‘swamp ash’. Fender claims to use swamp ash in many of their guitars in the 1950s.

Swamp ash tonewood comes from trees with roots below the water level in Southern swamps, so the wood is lightweight and porous.

The creamy color and bold grain pattern are more visually appealing than other wood types, like alder.

The scooped middle frequencies are bright and balanced, and the sound has more balance at the top. You can create a clean, transparent sound with single-coil pickups easily.

However, swamp ash is more difficult to find than alder or new ash.

Both types of ash tonewoods offer an open grain, which means the instrument also comes with a fair amount of preparation to make sure the grain is properly filled in the factory.

Colored fillers or lacquer is set inside the grain to create a smooth clearing surface.

Basswood

Basswood is a common body tonewood because it’s inexpensive and ideal for a factory setting. It’s easy to:

  • Cut
  • Sand
  • Finish

The softwood offers tight grains that often dampen and soften sharp hight tones, which can level out thin sounds like a knife-edged tremolo. It also stimulates the weaker end of the instrument.

Basswood is lightweight, but due to a low overall mass rather than large wood pores.

This means you won’t find any deep, breathy sub-low tones.

The lower outer frequencies mean the mid-tones become more pronounced. Similar to alder, basswood is nearly mid-range.

However, it’s a bit more on the warm side.

Mahogany

guitar side

Mainly found in acoustic guitars, mahogany is the most common hardwood for the sides and back of the instrument.

This tonewood is durable, attractive, resonant, easy to work with, and relatively economical. The color is distinctive.

Mahogany first became a popular material for guitars due to the attractive appearance and the fact that it was cheaper than rosewood, according to the World Resources Institute.

Other models at the time, like the high-end Martin D-28, came with rosewood sides and back. Lower-end models, like the D-18, came in mahogany.

Today, according to Thalia, mahogany guitars come in three main varieties of hardwood.

You can find them in both electric and acoustic guitars, and the tonewood is highly resilient against wood rot or warping over time.

In terms of sound, mahogany adds a parlor type of warm tone. Expect your guitar to sound twangier, but not quite as big sounding.

It’s a distinct sound with the character found in many acoustic guitars, like the early Beatles recordings the band created using mahogany Gibson guitars.

Walnut

Walnut is a dense wood with sparkly brightness, like koa.

You can expect the tone to become softer and warmer over time, making walnut the ideal alternative to koa. The midrange is much more similar to rosewood or mahogany though.

Compared to maple, walnut tonewood is slightly warmer. However, maple offers better sustainability. It’s truly a beautiful and highly versatile instrument.

Walnut also appears excellent when you use oil finishes on the wood, providing players with a beautiful instrument. The rich appearance is dark and proven popular among guitarists.

The instrument is still heavy. Although, it’s lighter than maple and the tone is very bright.

Koa

A rare find, koa is a flowering tree related to the pea family that’s native to Hawaii.

It’s commonly used to create ukuleles, but the pricier wood is also found on special and limited-edition guitars. Taylor is one of the few manufacturers to carry koa on many of their models.

The best part about koa is the stunning appearance, which makes it highly sought-after.

Koa is available in a wide range of colors, all of which include light and dark shades of rich gold. The wood offers strong grain markings, making the appearance stunning.

In terms of guitar sound, koa is balanced and warm. The warmth of this tonewood is like rosewood with the brightness mahogany brings.

However, the highs are more omnipresent rather than glass shattering.

They remain more in the mid-range rather than the high side, which results in a musical sound for a beginner guitarist or a less expressive one for guitarists who play hard picking blues music.

Maple

Stratocaster maple fretboard

The most popular wood used in fretboards and necks, maple is an easy-to-identify wood. It offers a bright tone with a moderate weight and highly characteristic grain patterns.

Sound-wise, maple guitars offer ideal sustainability and plenty of bite. The bright highs can really pop, and it has a strong upper midrange.

Like hard ash, maple is dense. However, maple is an easier wood to finish because it has tight and highly durable grains. Hard maple is tough on factory equipment though, which makes it commonly only used for slim guitars.

Rosewood

Rosewood is one of the most popular choices in acoustic guitars.

It offers a rich variety of both purple and brown colors, and the material has been used to create guitars for decades. The guitar sound is warm and rich, with plenty of volume and resonance.

Rosewood is rare and highly expensive, so creating a guitar out of classic rosewood would be nearly impossible due to the price.

There are two main types of rosewood used to make guitars today: Brazilian and East Indian.

  • Brazilian rosewood, however, is no longer available for sale commercially due to restrictions. This means the material is very expensive and quickly becoming less common. However, many people believe Brazilian rosewood offers more clarity in the bottom of the instrument and bell-like tones during the treble. It has a luxurious appearance and a sparkly tone.
  • East Indian rosewood (EIR) is the main type used in guitar construction today, as it’s become the generic substitute for the Brazilian type after restrictions. It’s not as attractive compared to Brazilian rosewood and the grain markings are much coarser, but the noticeable purple color is attractive. Many manufacturers consider EIR cheaper and easier to use.

Both types of rosewood require what’s called “pore fill,” where the pores are filled before the lacquer is applied. The result is time-consuming and labor-intensive.

However, rosewood is a very hard wood that’s much harder than maple, and the porous nature allows the tone to become warmer.

The two varieties also both sound bright and clear, with fairly even frequency response. The resonance is dark and complex, and there are rich overtones you can’t find in other woods.

Korina

Korina is well renowned in the guitar industry as the tonewood of choice for the original Gibson Explorer and Flying-V guitars.

It’s a gem and icon of the golden era in guitar making when manufacturers took bold steps.

The tone and grain qualities are similar to mahogany, but it’s heavier and more resilient. The sound is bass-friendly and warm, ideal for sweet and responsive mid-range tones.

However, mahogany is more common because it’s widely available in large quantities and available inside the United States. Some manufacturers simply can’t afford to import korina.

Luthiers also tend to despise working with korina tonewoods.

The wood drains quickly, making it very susceptible to splitting during the drying process. It also tends to stain easily in the natural growing habitat, so the color of the wood can become unsightly.

Today, expect to see korina as a body wood in Reverend Guitars’ electric models.

Poplar

Like alder, poplar is a type of wood that’s commonly used to manufacture many things. In guitars, poplar comes with a similar tone to alder as well. The sound is better, however, when it comes to the upper mid-range.

Poplar tonewoods are understated and minimalistic in appearance. You may occasionally find a piece of poplar with a stunning grain pattern if you try.

Bubinga

Another rare and expensive option, like rosewood, the sale and circulation of Bubinga was recently restricted to protect the wood from a drastic reduction in numbers.

Many restrictions lifted last year, but this wood may still be pricier and take much longer to produce.

Like rosewood, Bubinga is a tropical wood. In comparison the grain is tighter, producing a much brighter tone. The color is lighter and richer as well.

Fingerboard Woods

guitar fretboard wood

Finally, fingerboard woods are located on the fretboard. They have a great impact on the sound your guitar produces.

Fingerboards come in three common natural wood options: ebony, maple, and rosewood. There are also two synthetic materials to choose from.

Ebony

Ebony boards are rare in machine-made guitars. The boards have a brittle grain that requires the skill of a professional to hand fret the guitar.

Compared to rosewood, ebony fingerboard woods are bright, durable, and sustainable. The percussive overtones during the pick attack are tremendous and can sustain a long time. The attack is crisp and the density is similar to maple.

However, ebony offers oilier pores, more brittle grains, and a stronger fundamental tone. It’s also stronger than maple.

Overall, ebony fingerboards sound excellent on a guitar with a long neck (as long as the hardwood isn’t a hardwood like maple or bubinga). The sound offers more percussion and perfect tonal combination.

The only downside is the steep price. Ebony frets cost around 10 times that of rosewood.

Maple

A popular wood choice for necks and fretboards, maple is highly recognizable due to the grain patterns, moderate weight, and bright tone.

The sound has plenty of bite, brightness, and ideal sustainability. The snappy tone is brighter than other less dense wood types.

Compared to hard ash, maple is just as dense. However, it’s much easier to finish and highly durable.

Appearance-wise, maple is light and typically configured in a beautiful way. A maple fretboard comes with a tremendous amount of high overtones.

The tight, nearly filtered bass is harmonic and you can vary pick attacks.

Rosewood

dark wood guitar fretboard

The most common material used for a guitar fretboard, rosewood sounds rich.

It’s one of the most expensive and heaviest woods in guitar creation today. In fact, strat bodies made of rosewood can easily weigh over six pounds. The sound is warm, with damp high sounds.

Because rosewood is naturally oily, stray overtones are quickly absorbed into the wood’s pores and the sound comes out much richer than maple.

Brazilian rosewood is hard and dense, with ideal articulation in tone, awesome clarity, and a smooth feel.

However, the Brazilian type is expensive. Color and variety alter from piece to piece, but all types of rosewood are highly attractive.

Pau Ferro

A sustainable wood, Pau Perro is increasing in popularity after the regulations restricted the use of some wood types – like rosewood and Bubinga.

It’s so similar to rosewood, in fact, that companies like Fender even started using it as a replacement for rosewood fretboards in their Mexican-made models.

Unlike rosewood, however, Pau Ferro has a tighter grain. The tone is snappier and the attack more immediate as a direct result. There are some warmth and tons of brightness.

However, it’s noticeably lighter in color than rosewood. A rich caramel swirls through the wood, and the fret feels like ebony or rosewood to your fingers.

For a brighter tone and more sustainability than rosewood, Pau Ferro is an excellent alternative.

Richlite

A man-made synthetic material, Richlite is a wood substitute when a more durable, harder wood is required.

It’s created using a resin-infused type of paper. The colors can vary, but in guitar fretboards, you’re most likely to see Richlite in black to appear similar to ebony.

Gibson pioneered fretboards using this hard and consistently sustainable material in the mid-90s. Richlite is more expensive to produce, but the results are much superior than any organic wood.

The material is non-toxic and the guitar neck will never warp. It’s stain, heat, and scratch-resistant.

The neck of a guitar made with Richlite is less likely to fluctuate or curve because the material is synthetic.

Sound-wide, the tone is balanced and consistent as well. It won’t wear out over time.

Neck Woods

guitar neck wood

While guitar necks are traditionally made using maple, there are many types of woods found in this portion of your instrument.

The material in the neck can amplify the body wood and highlight special features in the grain to pair well aesthetically as well.

Wenge

A type of black hardwood, wenge is stiff and strong. It offers chocolate brown stripes and a very hard, coarse texture with open grains.

The wood is perfect for bass necks with warm lows and strong midrange tones. It’s also ideal to combine with an ebony fretboard to add brightness. However, it’s primarily used for neck shafts in guitars or a coarse fretboard.

A wenge fretboard is normally played raw, with no finish. The high overtones are similar to rosewood, but the resonation comes with more fundamental mids and low-mid ranges because of the multi-density stripes.

Maple

The traditional wood used for Fender necks, maple is ideal because it’s strong, hard, and dense. The wood’s qualities make it stable and highly sustainable while offering a bright tone. Today, maple is common in electric guitar necks.

Unlike some other types, maple wood has a uniform grain. This is what produces strong and stable functionality, but it’s less reactive to environmental changes than other hardwoods.

Maple’s tone is highly reflective and bright, with more energy pushing toward the body wood. However, bolt-on maple guitar necks produce less of a factor in the overall tone.

Koa

Koa produces a tone that’s comparable to maple and mahogany. Where it differs is in the sweeter top end. Combine a koa neck with an ebony fingerboard for the best warm sound.

Rosewood

Rosewood guitar necks smooth out high tones and offer ideal sustainability. The top end is often brighter as a result. However, the wood type mutes high-frequency overtones, which can create a strong fundamental sound with the complexities of low-mid and mid-range overtones. It’s very warm.

Mahogany

A mahogany neck is very stable due to the density of the wood, which reduces the risk of warping over time. Commonly known as Honduran mahogany, this type of wood is often associated with Gibson guitars. It’s ideal for warmer, fatter guitar tones.

The open pores are more responsive than maple necks and remain much less dense.

In general, mahogany should absorb a bit of the string vibration as you play – much more than maple or some other neck wood types. The result is a compressed attack and slightly compressed highs.

However, the open grain wood does require more work during production to fill the open pores and finish the guitar.

The price tag could reflect this later.

Laminated vs. Solid Wood?

When it comes to building an acoustic guitar, there are many ways to arrange and utilize wood. Perhaps the most common comparison to consider is between laminated and solid wood.

The wood pieces used to create an acoustic guitar are typically thin enough to manipulate into any design shape. Laminated wood, as the name suggests, is made from multiple thin layers of wood that are meshed together by a luthier using adhesive and pressure.

The resulting wood appears like a sheet rather than a solid piece, and it’s ideal in a cheaper guitar with an attractive-looking natural grain surface.

Solid wood is another popular approach. With a thicker, more expensive piece of wood, you gain superior results.

Some guitar models divide a solid piece of wood into two mirroring sections, which is often used for guitar tops. You can see the divide down the middle of the instrument when it’s in the case.

Using solid wood is more expensive. However, the price is often worth it.

Solid wood comes with bonuses over laminated wood in terms of durability. Laminated wood can warp quickly, depending on the environment around you.

The solid wood also sounds better because it offers a uniform grain, thickness, and a more resonant tone with better vibration. The result is an overall better tone with sustain.

Manufacturers vary based on their approach. Most companies offer both solid and laminated wood tops on their acoustic guitars.

Why Do Tonewoods Sound Different From Each Other?

Many people agree that certain woods come with a brighter or fuller sound than other types, but it’s hard to say exactly why they sound different from each other.

Wood is an organic material, which means the shape and density change as the plant grows.

In time, the wood develops grains that continuously deepen and change. Each plant, and each piece of wood, displays inconsistencies and imperfections in varying shapes and sizes.

Different types of wood may sway toward a particular imperfection as a part of their genetic makeup or characteristics, and this distinguishes the sound each wood type creates from the other.

The process works much the same way as if you played the guitar in a small room, then in a large room. The sound dies faster but sounds more clear in the small room, while the large room creates more echoes. There are spaces between wood grains, where the density of the wood (and amount of space between the grains) varies in different wood types.

The denser the wood, the less room the sound has to move around among the grain. The result is a bright and clear sound. With a less dense wood, the sound offers more sustain and a darker resonance.

Here’s a great video from the guys at Fender talking about different wood combos:

Multiple vs. Single Woods?

You may see guitars made from a single piece of wood sometimes, but they’re often comprised of many tonewoods.

There are many reasons using multiple tonewoods can boost your instrument’s performance. Some guitarists prefer a single piece of wood for both the neck or body of the guitar for purity sake, however.

While some people argue that using two tonewoods won’t make a huge negative difference compared to a single wood, others believe that the gluing process in guitar manufacturing among multiple pieces leads to a stronger, more durable instrument.

They last longer and they come with better resonation. There are even manufacturers who saw a single piece of wood in half and glue it back together for this reason!

Guitar bodies made from a single piece of wood tend to come with a higher price tag. The manufacturing process can take longer, as it requires closer attention to detail and careful handling of the materials.

Single woods are also more likely to warp over time and can show more imperfections in the wood.

Summary

The right choice for your guitar may depend on your budget, preference, and what type of music you play. Some tonewoods are more popular among electric or acoustic models.

Then, you must determine which type of design you enjoy.

Expect to pair multiple kinds of wood for the best results.

However, keep in mind that everyone has a different preference. There are so many ways to personalize your instrument to suit you!

Ged Richardson

Ged is the Founder of Zing and guitarist for London based gypsy jazz band 'Django Mango'. When he's not writing or noodling, he's tinkering with his vintage Campervan.


You May Also Like:

GT logo

Get free Access for 14 days

Hours
Minutes
Seconds

hurry up and grab thIS deal:

  • 11,000+ Lessons
  • 800+ Songs
  • HD Video
shares