Understanding the difference in sound between woods is a key element in picking the right electric guitar. Drummers choose drums based on their shell material (amongst other factors) and guitar players should do the same, but believe it or not, things like colour and shape feature more predominantly on the list of considerations when it comes to choosing an electric guitar.
So, in an attempt to educate…even demystify you, here is a quick guide on wood types:
Alder is one of the most common woods used for electric guitar bodies and famously used for Fender guitars. It is reasonably lightweight and has a very clear sound with lots of body, well represented bass frequencies, and its high frequencies are bright without being harsh. Alder is more commonly used for painted, non-translucent finishes as it has a fine grain and is very plain. That rhymes, but we won’t go on about it.
Most ash body guitars are made with swamp ash, which is light and resonant. It sings a tune of spanky, airy highs, defined lows, and a scooped midrange that gives it a subtle sweetness. As you can tell, I quite like swamp ash. Ash is also a very attractive wood with a deep, broad grain that looks great under translucent finishes or natural finishes.
Although basswood is used for cheaper guitars (along with agathis) due its affordability, it is a fantastic tonewood. Basswood is very light and soft, with a light colour and has little grain (much like alder). Basswood has a very full but well-balanced sound with good definition in better cuts of the wood. Ibanez use basswood for their low-end and high-end guitars.
Mahogany is a fairly soft wood (although it’s classified as hardwood) with a tight grain. It is a darker wood, which is often used with translucent or natural finishes. It has a soft, warm sound with depth and character – like a good red wine. Although its low frequencies are not particularly tight, they are pleasing and work well with its soft high frequency response.
Maple is more commonly used alongside mahogany in laminate bodies or to put an attractive top on a mahogany body, which also gives the guitar a bit more bite and attack. You will have seen the classic Gibson flame top, well that’s a mahogany body with a maple top (or ‘cap’). Maple is not usually used for solid body guitars as it is very heavy and very hard (as I found out quickly when making my own guitar at the age of 14), though it is used very commonly for hollow body guitars. Its sound is very tight, defined, and provides a lot of spank and twang. It is an aggressive sound with lots of attack. Maple is used for bodies, necks, and fingerboards.
Exotic woods, I fear, are used for their aesthetic appeal rather than their sound, with the exception of Koa, which is a fantastic sounding wood. Koa is basically a great tonewood, extended. “More of everything” is how I’d describe Koa. The same arguements could be made for Korina, Rosewood, and walnut, but let’s face it – it’s their looks that get them past the audition – just like everything else in this cruel and fickle world.
Neck & fretboard woods
Mahogany as a neck wood provides the same qualities as it does as a body wood. It gives a soft, warm sound that can work wonders with a snappier sounding fretboard wood such as ebony.
The attack dog of the wood world, all maple knows is attack and bite. Maple is very strong and suffers from far less warping or movement issues than softer woods. When used on the fretboard, you get that spanky, twangy Fender sound.
Rosewood may be used as a body wood or neck wood on some limited edition electrics and more expensive acoustics, but it’s fame comes from its use as a fretboard material. Rosewood has a very rich, warm sound that retains some sparkle in the high-end. Rosewood and maple make an excellent team that cover all bases and make the most common neck and fretboard collaboration.
Ebony is a very hard wood that works great as a fretboard material as it doesn’t dent or pit easily. Ebony provides a great amount of focussed low-end, rich midrange, and a snappy, sparkly high-end. Ebony works very well on a mahogany neck, which provides a little warmth and smoothness to mix.
Whilst we haven’t covered every wood used in guitar manufacturing, we have covered the most commonly used woods. Take my word for it, if you’re focussing on pickups, you’re missing the point. Try those pickups in a guitar with a different body, neck, or fingerboard material and you’ll be surprised by the difference in sound.