Electric guitar tonewood shapes the sound your instrument produces, as well as how it holds up to wear and tear over the years. Tonewoods can be soft and porous, hard and dense, and anything in between.
I’m not sure how important tonewood is for guitar making. The differences are subtle, and I always presumed pickups and amp EQ had the most impact on tonal changes.
As with any other guitar component, people are all over the map on tonewood, opinion-barfing on forums. If it sounds good to you, use it. Hopefully this guide will provide some clarity.
Combining the best choices for the various parts of a guitar is an important step in guitar construction. This results in electric guitars just right for the sound that a way of playing, a genre, or simply individual preference require.
As organic materials, all kinds of guitar body wood have characteristic textures and imperfections like wood knots and small holes, making electric guitar bodies singular in their tonal properties, even compared to those made from the same wood.
How the body woods have been treated also makes a difference – some manufacturers often use cheap wood that has not dried well and thus has a significantly lower quality than other instruments made from the same wood.
Density, which refers to the space between the grains in the wood, is the main factor in which the sounds of woods differ. Dense woods impact a guitar’s tone with greater brightness and clarity, but other woods that are less dense add resonance and produce a warmer tone with better sustain.
Usually, different woods are used for the guitar body, neck, and fingerboard when building guitars. This allows a player to combine desired qualities. The process of gluing different parts together is also said to make a guitar last longer and add resonance to its tone.
The choice between tonewood in solid body electric guitars depends on many factors, personal preference for a certain look or feel, as well as the requirements of a certain genre.
This guide introduces the best tone wood for electric guitar production and outlines the qualities that create these characteristic sounds.
Wood Commonly Used for the Guitar Body
Like basswood, a soft, budget-friendly option that people either hate or have no opinion on. More resistant to dings than basswood. Easier to machine than alder or mahogany when building a cheaper guitar, which keeps costs under control.
Many varieties of agathis are growing in the wilds of east Asia. The body wood can be heavy, but it’s difficult to predict. You will need to heft the guitar.
Many electric guitars are currently manufactured in Indonesia, so agathis being a local wood drives-down freight costs.
Agathis is a conifer, so similar to pine, but it looks like mahogany. I know this is confusing; try to see the forest for the trees.
Quiz: alder is part of which family? No, not the Manson family. The answer is birch.
Alder is harvested in California, Alaska, Europe, Russia, and Northwest Africa. It is a light to medium-weight wood that offers a balanced and full-bodied tone in all frequencies.
Due to its density, alder body tone is especially pronounced in the upper and midrange, but it has an overall snappy tone that makes it very adaptable to a variety of genres, making bodies made of alder extremely popular electric guitar tonewoods.
The swirling, fine grain patterns of the wood with large rings and waves adds an interesting complexity to the warm tone.
Alder is almost solely used for bodies since it is not strong enough for the neck or the fingerboard. It was used by Fender in the late 50s and early 60s.
This wood is harvested in the United States, usually in the Northern Great Lake states. It is affordable and some consider it a cheap solution for guitar bodies, but others laud its warm, balanced, tone.
Basswood is a soft, less dense wood, which is why it is never used in necks or fingerboards and has tight grain patterns and a fine texture.
Basswood has a tendency to dampen and soften a sharp bright tone, and it is a bit weak in the lower end, making it best for midrange tones.
My cheap guitar mod projects often involve some basswood. I like it! The only issue is that the soft wood is easy to ding. Some super glue mixed with wood dust usually takes care of it.
Also known as Eastern maple or sugar maple, this dense wood is harvested in the Northeast United States as well as in Canada.
Solid maple is so hard that it is also commonly used for butcher’s blocks and bowling pins, making it an excellent choice for neck woods and fingerboards, too.
A guitar body made of hard maple tends to be very heavy, so it’s usually combined with other guitar tonewoods.
Being so hard it can nevertheless vibrate freely, thanks to the tight grains of this wood. Unlike your uncle after a brewery tour, a maple guitar body has a bright, clear, and articulate tone.
Check out this koa! Stunning.
How much is this worth?
Koa is a hardwood from the big island of Hawaii. It is light and rigid, making it easy to work with during the build process.
Considered one of the most beautiful guitar tonewoods, koa is found in multiple colors with wide grain. The effect on a finished instrument can be stunning.
Tonally, koa is warm and clear sounding, with great projection. With superior note separation, the best characteristics of mahogany and rosewood combine to make this a much sought-after tonewood.
Koa has been over-harvested, and supplies are dwindling, so I guess it’s not the new basswood.
You won’t see koa used much anymore outside of expensive boutique instruments. Koa grows quickly, but apparently not quickly enough to keep up with the beaver-like appetite of wood-hungry guitarists.
This wood from Southern Mexico and the upper Amazonian regions is also quite heavy. It produces warm, fatter guitar tones that are especially effective in the lower frequencies.
Mahogany ages well, it is very stable and does not warp, and mahogany guitars tend to sound even better as they age.
Due to its interesting colors that range from yellow to pink and red, mahogany is an aesthetically pleasing type of wood that is often used with a translucent finish.
Poplar is quite soft for hardwood and grows wildly and rapidly in North America, Eurasia, and Northern Africa.
Due to its abundance, it is quite affordable. This wood offers a balanced tone, but it does not add darker resonance or character to the sound. Poplar has a greenish color that is mostly covered with an opaque finish.
Hopefully this old growth forest will one day reside in a Guitar Center.
Also known as Southern Soft Ash, this wood is harvested in the Southern United States. These trees have roots that grow below water level, which results in a wood that is porous and lightweight.
Therefore, swamp ash tonewood sound is highly resonant, but slightly more pronounced in the upper ranges. Fender used it primarily in the 50s.
Ash wood is creamy in color with an attractive grain pattern and lends itself to a translucent finish.
For those that like denser woods, hard ash is better for bright tone and harsher sounds.
Popular Woods for Fingerboards and Necks
With its dark, almost black, color, an ebony fretboard is often chosen for aesthetic reasons. The African variety of ebony is uniformly dark, but the Asian variety has chocolate brown stripes.
Going for ebony is not a purely superficial choice, of course. This very hard wood holds up very well over the years.
Being a heavy wood, ebony’s density leads to great overtones, but thanks to its porosity it is also excellent for the lower ranges, making it an all-rounder.
Another all-rounder, maple wood is popular for all parts of a guitar.
As opposed to other common fingerboard woods maple necks wear down visibly, and become blotchy over time. Tonally, maple adds clarity and a brighter tone.
The roasted maple guitar neck is a hot component. It looks great. I don’t know if it has tonal advantages over a regular maple fretboard, and I don’t care as long as I look cool.
This popular fingerboard wood comes from India and Brazil. Rosewood is very stable and does not stain or warp, and it can even out strong upper midrange tones for a more balanced sound.
Since rosewood is naturally oily it does not need a finish, so that its variety of rich brown and even purple colors can be enjoyed undiluted. It feels soft and natural under the fingers.
Restrictions were placed on the importation of rosewood several years ago, which led to some headaches for guitar makers. Luckily an exemption for instruments was approved in 2019, since furniture manufacture was the true cause of the over-harvesting.
Wenge is an exotic African wood. Its coarse texture with open grain produces a strong midrange and warm lows, making it a popular hardwood choice for bass guitars.
Chocolate color with black grain makes this tonewood a striking choice.
There you have it, tonewood. One of the more ambiguous ingredients of great guitar tone.
I am unlikely to put much thought into tonewood unless I’m purchasing uber-expensive electric guitars. A luxury guitar should be made from an irresponsibly-harvested endangered type of wood, like brownheart.
If you’re feeling too sane, head over to some gear forums and start a tonewood flame war. Let me know how it goes.