|It used to be that only a few, traditional tonewoods were used for electric guitars: mahogany, rosewood, maple, ebony, ash and alder. However, with some of these traditional tonewoods becoming rarer or more expensive, manufacturers have been introducing alternate species of tonewoods. While many of these newer woods were chosen because of their similarity in sound and performance to the traditional choices, there are often enough differences to complicate the understanding of how an instrument made with these woods will sound.|
The influence of the wood on the tone of an electric guitar is often underappreciated. The sound comes from the strings and pickups. Right? Well... yes, but that's only a small part of the story. The pickups sense the string's vibration, true - but that vibration is influenced by almost every other part of the guitar. The different parts of the guitar all resonate, strengthening some frequencies and filtering out others. The pickups also manage to sense some of the acoustic tone from the body and add that into the equation. The body's influence adds character to all aspects of the tone, but is strongest and most obviously heard in the sustained part of the sound and the decay (as the sound fades away). The attack (the first part of the sound) is more from the fingerboard wood, and the neck has the biggest influence on the length of sustain (rather than the character) as well as having some influence on the attack.
Bear in mind that every piece of wood is unique - even two pieces of wood of the same species will differ from each other. Also, every listener has a different idea of what sounds good. So any description of tonewoods must be general and relatively subjective.
Electric Guitar body woods
To hear the tonal influence that the body is giving to a guitar, turn the guitar around while playing and listen to the back of the body - you will hear a higher percentage of the body tone with less string, fingerboard and neck influence.
Basswood is a soft wood with tight grains. Its relatively inexpensive of all the usual guitar woods, and it’s easy on router bits in the factory, easy to sand, and easy to seal and finish. The softness of basswood means that sharp highs are dampened and smoothened. That helps offset the tinny sound associated with knife edged tremolo contacts. The softness also fosters a weaker low end. It’s light in weight, but not because of large pores. Rather it’s low in mass overall. Deep, breathy sub-lows aren’t resonated in Basswood. The reduction in these outer frequencies leaves the mids pronounced in a hypothetical response curve. Its very suitable for the typical guitar range, and very suitable for lead guitar, because of its pronounced “out front” sound. Complex overtones are muted along with the highs leaving a strong fundamental tone.
Production notes: Japanese factories like Ibanez seem to get a tan colored, more uniform Basswood while other Asian factories get a more flawed yellowish basswood. And there seems to be a big difference in tone. A clearer, darker Basswood should produce more sound, while the yellowish lower grade seems to have more of the undesirable tonal qualities of Poplar. A hardtail emphasizes the reduced dynamics of the outer frequencies.
Alder is light in weight with soft tight pores like Basswood. But there is a large swirling grain pattern to it with harder rings and sections. So imagine a Basswood type texture but with harder rings peppered throughout. That adds to the stiffness, and the complexity of the tones. It retains more of the highs that Basswood softens, but also gives some room to the lows. You have a broader spectrum of tones, which leads to the perception of a little less mids than Basswood.
Production notes: Not much difference between factories, production.
Not to be confused with Northern “Hard Ash” Swamp Ash has huge, open pores with hard and soft layers within each ring of the tree. So you basically have a very rigid skeleton with open and softer pores throughout. It is very resonant across the whole frequency spectrum. It has clear bell-like highs, pronounced mids, and strong lows. It has some random combing away of mid frequencies, which will vary the sound per guitar more than Alder or Basswood. Two Ash bodies are more likely to sound more different from one another, whereas Basswood and Alder are more consistent. A heavier piece, or a piece from higher up on the tree will be more dead and lifeless. More dull sounding, because the wood is harder and more uniformly dense. So the sweetness of the soft open pores is gone, and left is the compressed sound of a rigid, non-responsive wood, without all the brightness and sustain of a harder wood or the openness of a softer wood.
Production notes: An Asian mass produced factory guitar should be checked for weight, and openness of grain if the finish allows. Ash used at the big factories has a higher ratio of poor pieces than with smaller boutique builders, or other US builders, probably because it is a US wood.
Open grained with large pores, Mahogany has a more uniform grain pattern and density than Swamp Ash. Its density is constant within the ring and from one ring to the next. So it’s rigidity is inherent in its composition, not in a “skeleton” with soft sections in between. It’s constant density compresses the mids a little, and this can be considered a thick sound, because it does still produce good lows and low mids. Without the mids popping out, being responsive to dynamics, its more of a “wall of sound” Its not that it isn’t midrangey, because it resonates those guitar frequencies well, but its not as responsive to them as an Alder or Ash. It also combs away more upper midrange frequencies for a more nasal sound. It has a good balance of fundamental and overtones for higher register soloing. High notes are richer and thicker than Alder or Ash.
Production notes: There are many different kinds of Mahogany, and unless it has a sparkle to it like some of the Japanese and US guitars it will have a similar sound from one piece to the next. A nicer piece of mahogany has an iridescence to it usually combined with what looks like wide stripes, almost as if it’s been pieced together by multiple 1” strips. Catalog photos often reveal that the endorser gets a better piece than the production line.
A darker wood with Ash-like grains, but like mahogany, the density is uniform. It is harder and denser than Mahogany so the tone is brighter, but the open grains make for a complex midrange that seems to be compressed in some frequencies, but dynamic in others. There’s a nasal response to rhythms, while solo notes jump out. It has a lot of advantageous features of the other main guitar woods. It has a snappy attack and solid lows like Ash, but with smooth highs like Mahogany, and textured mids like Alder. The drawbacks are that it’s heavier, and more stubborn in its sound. It doesn’t respond to random pickup changes. The pickups have to be well suited to the guitar. A Walnut body will dictate the tonal signature of the guitar more than the other main woods. A heavy piece will dampen the mids to produce an overly nasal and lifeless sound, so it needs to be light and open grained enough to resonate the main guitar frequencies.
Production notes: Again watch for heavy pieces. The extra weight adds nothing good to the sound except perhaps more sustain. But sustain is abundant in Walnut already.
Oilier than Mahogany or Walnut, its denser than Mahogany but not as bright as Walnut, due to its actual makeup. It’s an oilier wood like Rosewood, and that dampens some highs in the attack. But then its density makes up for it a little. Think of the highs as present, but compressed. They don’t jump out like glass breaking. They are more omnipresent. And they are more in the upper midrange than the highs. That’s either a very musical sound for someone interested in fundamental, or a less expressive sound for someone into playing hard picking blues.
Production notes: Koa is rare, and it’s expensive with dramatic price fluctuations. It’s often a high cost upgrade. Figured Koa is very expensive, more rare, and cut for tops.
Somewhat of a “super-mahogany” or “mahogany deluxe” its grains are similar and so is its sound. It’s said to have a sweeter midrange, and be more responsive. Although the grains look similar the material itself is slightly less dense. So if it weighed more than a same-sized mahogany piece it would more likely be due to higher moisture content than higher density.
Production notes: Rarely used, it is more expensive and rare than garden variety Mahoganies. The price of a Korina guitar usually reflects this, plus a little extra markup.
Used extensively in Korea, it’s not as hard as hard maple. But it’s a little heavy, bright in the upper midrange, and dull sounding in the lows. The extreme snappy highs aren’t there either because the pores are so tight that the highs get compressed. Some redeeming qualities can be brought from it with the right pickups, if you like a brassy, searing upper midrange sound for the bridge or a dry, combed rhythm sound.
Production notes: Korean factories love it, for some reason it’s abundant and cheap for them. It’s harder on router bits than basswood, but they seem to be less concerned with clean, sharp cuts over there, indicating that they do not compensate with more frequent bit sharpening and replacement.
This wood “shouts”. It is loud with a strong upper midrange, bright highs, and tapered off but very tight lows. A pickup that produces good lows will find them in a Hard Maple body, but they will be tight and will not interact with a loud half stack.
Production notes: Very heavy and hard on tools, its rarely used in factories. It makes a good slim bodied guitar.
Very soft to the touch, it is extremely stiff for it’s overall density. Like Alder, it’s another wood with a hard skeleton and soft meat. So in a solid body, it will produce tremendous resonant, open midrange, while retaining high frequency attack, and having good low end breath. Because of the low density overall the sound wouldn’t be perceived as having less midrange than Basswood. The mids will be just as powerful and dynamic amidst the addition of clear highs and lows. Probably the most full frequency body material accepted.
Production notes: Rarely used because its softness requires a heavy finish, or a composite “shell” like the Parkers. The Parker isn’t the best representation of the sound of a Spruce body since there are many other unique construction methods and synthetics used in the Parker. Would work well with veneer caps or a top, and would offset some of the compressed sound you get with neck through construction.
Lacewood is a true multi-density wood. The rum colored skeleton is hard like Koa or Walnut, and the fleshy, grayish tan interior portions like Alder. The dual densities will augment different tones, while combing others out. It’s brighter than Alder, and richer than solid maple.
Production notes: It can be difficult to finish, because the sections absorb finish differently. Oil finishes and heavy poly finishes work better than a softer nitrocellulose or acrylic lacquer. The lacquer finishes will sink over time telegraphing the grain.
Extended Range notes: Another wood well suited for extended lows. Its dual density provides a good skeleton for keeping the lows tight. There’s less of a tradeoff to the higher strings because of the warmth of the softer sections.
Tops seem to create a situation where the attack of the notes will be more like the top wood, while the resonance and decay more like the bottom wood. The thickness and carve of a top dictates the degree of its effect on the sound. The glued unit will be more rigid than a single piece, so generally sustain increases.
Maple top on Basswood:
The clean attack and even highs of Maple will make up for Basswood’s inherent reduction of those frequencies. The lows will still taper off, but the overall result is more frequencies covered than with either piece alone. Dynamics aren’t reduced, except for in the upper register, where they were less present in Basswood alone. So the improvement in high response is a little more compressed, and not as crisp and responsive in the attack as Swamp Ash for example.
Maple top on Mahogany:
The staple of vintage construction, the Maple adds crispness to the mahogany, but the lows and low mids of mahogany are still as apparent. The Maple combs out some of the upper mids, not because Maple lacks in these areas, but because it is vastly different from mahogany in its handling of the upper midrange. There is fighting going on in that range between the two pieces that results in a canceling out of some of those upper midrange frequencies. That’s part of the “smoothness” associated with the Les Paul & PRS types.
Maple top on Alder:
Takes Alder to a tone closer to solid Swamp Ash, but without the dynamics. The open resonance of the Alder comes through with the sharper attack and brightness of the Maple on the top end. The effect on the Alder is similar to the effect on Basswood. The upper mids of Maple come through, as Alder does not suppress upper mids.
Maple top on Swamp Ash:
A good addition to Swamp Ash but reduces the open, airy dynamics of solid Ash. It mutes the expanded midrange, but doesn’t really comb out any sections. They work well together. It adds a little more rock and country compressed “scream” to the sound at the expense of Ash’s complex lows and low mids.
Rosewood tops will add some sustain, by virtue of the density, but also the lamination itself. Its oiliness will dampen the attack and the higher treble frequencies. So Rosewood over Mahogany will really be smooth, while Rosewood over Ash will retain some open midrange resonance. Rosewood over Alder or Basswood will be a sustain boost with little affect on the tone besides the high mid combing from the lamination, since the high dampening from Rosewood is redundant.
Figured or plain Koa tops will sound similar to Maple tops with the exception being that it wouldn’t fight Mahogany backs so much in the upper midrange. Although Maple resonates more upper mids, a Koa top on Mahogany would have less combing and compressing of those frequencies.
Like Koa, the tops would have just a little less high frequency than Maple, but have less compression and combing with Mahogany backs.
Lacewood has a hard “swiss cheese” type skeleton, with soft bits inside the “holes.” Because of its combination of soft and hard sections, it’s more likely to take on the tone of the back wood. Only when thicker will it start to apply its own tonal signature to the body. It’s like drilling ½” holes in Koa and filling them with Alder plugs. It has good top end and sustain from the harder skeleton, and a heavily combed midrange and low end from the smaller, softer sections throughout.
The most common electric guitar neck wood, Maple has a uniform grain, it’s strong and stable, and it has less reaction from environmental changes than other hardwoods. Its tone is highly reflective, and focuses more energy onto the body wood. All things being equal, bolt-on Maple necks are less of a factor on the guitar’s tone and emphasize the body wood.
The even density makes stable necks, and the open pores make the neck a little more responsive than a maple neck. The Mahogany will absorb a little more of the string vibration than Maple will, and compresses the attack and the highs a little.
The tone is somewhere between Mahogany and Maple with a little sweeter top end.
Heavy, oily wood, a Rosewood neck will produce excellent sustain while also smoothening out the highs. Generally with greater sustain comes a brighter top end. This is not true of Rosewood. It mutes the high frequency overtones, producing a strong fundamental that still has the complexities of mid and low mid overtones.
Stiff, strong, and stable, Wenge trims some high overtones like Rosewood does, while resonating more fundamental mids and low mids due to it’s multi-density “stripes” combing away a little more of the mid and low mid overtones.
Perhaps more significant than neck wood, the fretboard is the place your string launches from. It is the “bridge” on the other side. Fretboard differences are as dramatic as those between a hardtail and a tremolo.
Very bright and dense, Maple is highly reflective. When used on a fretboard, Maple encourages tremendous amounts of higher overtones and its tight, almost filtered away bass favors harmonics and variations in pick attack.
The most common fretboard, Rosewood is naturally oily, and works well for any surface that sees frequent human contact. The sound is richer in fundamental than Maple because the stray overtones are absorbed into the oily pores
Ebony has a snappy, crisp attack with the density of Maple, but with more brittle grains, oilier pores, and a stronger fundamental tone than Maple. It has a tremendous amount of percussive overtones in the pick attack, that mute out shortly thereafter to foster great, long, sustain.
Quite simply, Pao Ferro is a wood that falls between Rosewood and Ebony, and the tone follows suit. It has a snappier attack than rosewood, with good sustain, and its warmer sounding than Ebony. Some consider Pao Ferro to represent their favorite aspects of the two.
Basswood is not stiff enough for a tight, well-defined low end, especially with a shorter scale. Low notes will have good harmonics, and a good fundamental, but a midrangey tone overall.
Alder has a tighter low end than Basswood, with slightly deeper lows.
Swamp Ash is stiff enough for a crisp low end without becoming muddy. The open pores help resonate low tones. Higher overtones become more apparent in lower registers, for good harmonic content and a sharper attack.
Mahogany’s warm lows and a thick sound overall make extended lows very full and can produce muddiness in the signal. The low notes are very strong and sometimes overbearing for a pickup. A bright, crisp active pickup that thins out the low end could be a good combination.
Walnut’s tight low end and combed midrange dynamics make it well suited for extended range. It won’t get muddy unless it’s a poor specimen with softer yellowish orange areas.
Like Walnut, Koa is a good Mahogany alternative. It will have a tighter low end with less muddiness. The slightly dampened higher overtones will produce a stronger fundamental than Walnut at the expense of a sharper attack.
Korina should respond to extended lows in the same manner as Mahogany. Soft Maple’s dull lows also mean no muddiness in the extended range. It can be a good alternative to Basswood if that’s your main concern. The pickups will have to compensate for the bright upper mids.
Hard Maple will have the tightest lows for the extended range. Low notes will have a sharp attack, plenty of harmonics, and excellent sustain.
Spruce, while capable of reproducing extended lows, is too soft not to get mushy. A neck through, a laminated top, or both would provide the needed rigidity while still highlighting the good points of Spruce. Anylaminated top 1/8” or thicker will improve the tightness of the low end. The existence of the lamination will tighten any body’s muddiness. The same qualities hold true in the laminate top descriptions.
The neck through construction method produces excellent sustain. The neck wood strongly influences the tone of the guitar, because it occupies perhaps the most important part of the body: the center. There is a nasal, thinner quality to the sound, often augmented with a figured wood top. Your side woods make up far less of the tone than on a bolt on or set neck guitar. You first have to estimate what that neck wood’s tone is like as a body wood, and then accentuate or counteract that with your side woods. So a Hard Maple neck through will be very bright and cutting. If you want to warm it up you’d use Basswood or Spruce sides. But if you like that quality, you might use Ash or Soft Maple sides. The effect is very different than the laminated top sound. A maple top on Basswood is nothing like a Maple neck through with Basswood wings, which sounds more like a Maple body. Generally, the softer woods excel as sides because they add back some low end resonance missing in the construction method, while dampening the highs.