Electric Guitar Tonewoods

Published on 07 March 2023

Do woods matter, when it comes to electric guitars?

It’s a question that offers a wide range of responses, ranging from ‘yes, obviously!’, to ‘don’t be daft’! Some people reason that every part of an instrument contributes to its eventual tone, from the woods to the hardware, the construction to the build. Others argue that there are so many more factors involved, and most of them play a bigger overall role: fingers, pickups, strings, then cables, pedals, amplifiers and ultimately things like volume and room size. In this argument, the type of wood involved is a minor concern at best. 

So, who is right? Should we care about which woods our guitars are made from?

Well, that’s a complex question, and of course there are ecological decisions to be made, as well as straight up visual preferences. But in terms of the two most directly interactive elements we involve ourselves with as musicians - sound and feel - can different timbers and tonewood choices offer us experiences that differ in meaningful ways?


Our Guide to Tonewoods

We reckon so. To us, every element is of course important, and what is there from the beginning, at the source, is fundamental to what comes afterwards. Wood choices affect lots of things attached to ‘tone’ that go beyond the primary-coloured opinions of how ‘fat’ or ‘skinny’ a guitar sounds, though those are broadly the most significant elements. No, we mean things like sustain, depth, how the low end compares with the high end, and that sort of thing. How the mids are, without having to boost or cut via a pedal or amp.

We’re talking about things like how the weight may affect the guitar. Also, different wood combinations come into play: for example, does a Les Paul with a rosewood fingerboard sound different to one with an Ebony fingerboard? If so, why? We think so, and we’ll talk about why soon.

So, this is our (probably somewhat subjective) guide to the major tonewoods out there, for both bodies and fingerboards, bringing together a little on what they are, how they are and what they mean to us in guitar playing terms.

Please do note, though, that in this entire conversation, we are talking about pretty small increments. The differences between a Strat with a maple fingerboard and a rosewood one are there, we say, but they are hardly life-changingly different. If you like what we say about the rosewood version, maybe keep it in mind for the future, but it doesn’t mean that you’ve got the ‘wrong’ guitar if yours is maple! There are so many ways to change the sound of an electric guitar, so work with what you have as you go about considering your next guitar purchase! Today’s info can hopefully help zero in your choices for what you need next, based on what you already have, and how you want to sound.



Alder is heavily associated with Fender guitars, since that’s what they used from the late 50s onwards to craft most (but certainly not all) of their bodies. As a result - and being that Fender are the biggest and arguably most influential guitar maker in the world - many other brands have adopted alder, too.

Alder is described as mid-weight and has a good tonal balance. The high end is not too harsh, so it suits single coil pickups, and it’s a relatively plain looking, bland wood in terms of colour and grain. This makes it excellent for solid colour finishing.



Ash is also famous in the Fender camp, particularly the type known as swamp ash. Ash is a slightly heavier timber than alder, and has a particularly open pore, so more work is required with sealers and so on in order to make it useful in guitar building. Generally speaking, two types of ash are used for guitar bodies: Northern ash, which is harder and brighter sounding (therefore great for guitars that are intended to sound big, fast and brutal) and Southern Ash, of which swamp ash is a part. 

Swamp ash isn’t just a cool name, it refers to the logging of ash trees that grow in southern swamps. The lowest parts of the tree, which live underneath the waterline and are rich in extra nutrients, are the prized parts for guitar builders. These are often dried out in kilns and are favoured for their pronounced resonance. Ash is already known as a resonant wood, so these extra tonal properties are highly valued, particularly by fans of blues rock lead guitar playing, where you hear all of that additional character. Scooped mids are another characteristic of this timber.

Ash is considered to be pretty rare these days, and even though it’s not (yet) on the CITES list for endangered wood species, companies like Fender have heavily reduced their use of the timber, keeping it for sparing use on certain high-end models that particularly require it.



You’ll find basswood used as bodies on lots of rock and shred guitars, and there are a couple of reasons for this. Firstly, it’s a timber that’s in plentiful supply, so it’s economically a sound choice, plus it is very easy to work with: cutting, shaping and finishing are all nice and easy with basswood. Another reason is that the tonal profile is nicely balanced - slightly warmer than alder with more mids - and tends to round off the top end of the tonal spectrum. Knife edge tremolo systems such as the Floyd Rose tend to rob a fair amount of low end from a guitar whilst emphasising thinner treble frequencies. Using basswood on these types of guitars addresses that shrillness, and still provides enough low end for crunchy riffs.




Koa is rare, despite the fact that you see it a lot in guitar building. Native only to the Hawaiian islands, Koa is generally used in acoustic guitar building, since the relative cost of a solid Koa body would be prohibitive. Still, since it is a prevalent wood in guitar circles, it’s worth knowing about and recognising. Koa has similar tonal properties to mahogany (rich and strong in the mids, as you’ll read soon!) but has a much more ornate and flamboyant grain pattern. Koa is pretty gorgeous to look at, and for that reason, it is often used in thin slices for the tops of prestigious guitars, often paired with a mahogany body.



Korina - or white limba or any of a number of different names - is a pretty special tonewood. Found mostly in Western Africa, Korina is another tonewood that shares similar properties to mahogany, but with perhaps a little more ash-like resonance too. Significantly, it’s very often lighter as well, so it’s a good shout for larger guitar designs (hence why Gibson like it for their Explorers and Vs) to keep the overall weight manageable.

One other thing that Korina has over mahogany is subtly striking good looks! Korina is not as decorative as the likes of Koa, but certain examples of Black Limba (the only difference between Black and White Limba is the look: they can both come from the exact same tree) have wonderful dark threads of black and dark grey weaving through the grain. It’s a quietly spectacular wood, and much loved by the guitar building community.



Mahogany is one of the most widely used tonewoods in the guitar world. Most guitar fans will instantly associate mahogany with Gibson guitars, and the thick, highly sustaining notes that they are renowned for. Indeed, mahogany is a large part of that sound, with the dense, heavy timber supplying equally heavy and dense tonal qualities. Smooth-grained and relatively nondescript in visual terms, mahogany is a mellow powerhouse whose deep, rich character is essential for all ‘big’ sounding guitars. It’s also in plentiful supply, which of course encourages its use.

Mahogany is often used on its own for guitar bodies, or in combination with attractively figured tops like flamed maple and so on, as on Les Paul Standards and PRS Custom 24 models. Mahogany is also the second most popular wood for necks alongside Maple, since it’s a tough but easy-to-shape timber with lots of sustain.



Pine is one of those historic choices that is somewhat less prevalent in today’s workshops. It’s a soft wood and reasonably difficult to work with compared to the likes of Alder, but it is also the wood with which Fender created their earliest Telecasters. Known for being warm sounding yet allowing for pretty articulate high frequency response, Pine does have a sound that’s worth having an aural opinion on in relation to other major tonewoods. If you are out shopping for a quality T-style, pine may well provide the difference in tone you’ve been looking for and struggling to find!



Poplar, though considered a ‘budget’ choice, is still a useful and notable timber. The balanced but not overtly resonant properties it holds can in fact be seen as something of a blank slate to be built upon. Choose the correct pickups, for example, and you’ll find Poplar to be an absolutely dependable base to work from. Poplar is bountiful and so is used heavily on more inexpensive instruments.



Walnut, though not a rare wood per se, is not one we see being used too readily for guitar building. That initially struck us as odd, since it’s effectively a very good looking version of mahogany, with a brighter, tighter sound. Is that not perfect for guitar building? The midrange density is there, the top end is sweet and the grain is hugely striking. 

So what’s the downside? Why doesn’t everyone just use walnut all the time? Well, it’s heavy. In fact, it’s prohibitively heavy in terms of being used as a solid body, so you’ll most often see it on semi-hollow guitars or as decorative tops on top of other timbers. As a material for acoustic guitar bodies and tops? Magnificent? On electrics? Only selectively.


Fingerboard Woods: Do They Matter?

That’s most of the top - or should we say most often used - wood species for electric guitar bodies. Let’s now address our earlier concerns and questions about the importance of timber and zero in on fingerboards. So, how can such a small part of the guitar contribute to the tone in any significant way? 

Well, if the final tone is being shaped by vibrations and hence frequencies, then any resonant frequency vibration that happens onboard - in that chain if you like - will contribute to the whole. It has to, otherwise electric guitars would all sound much more similar. (Oh, you think they all do anyway? Maybe this article is not for you…) But before we go crazy, let’s appreciate the fact that it’s not a huge difference we’re talking about here! More significant by far is the feel of the wood under your fingers, and the differences the particular woods can bring to this aspect. The feel directly affects how you play, so of course it’s significant! But sonically, fingerboards affect the sound in only a very small way. 

Earlier, we mentioned the comparative difference between a Les Paul with a rosewood board to one with ebony. This was a little unfair, since we were indirectly talking about the difference in sound between a Les Paul Standard and a Les Paul Custom, which actually have numerous differences. The ebony board will play a small part in this tonal difference, but the thicker body, longer neck tenon, different pickups and other changes will all play their part, too. Still, as we’ve encountered today, all elements are important, so let’s have a quick look at the main fingerboard woods out there today.



Maple is the obvious first choice, since it’s often either part of the same piece of wood as the neck (i.e. a one-piece neck and fingerboard), or it’s maple on maple (a maple fingerboard fitted to a maple neck). 

Maple is a very dense, heavy wood and that means it’s strong and durable. It also means that it is bright sounding, encouraging descriptive words like ‘spank’ and ‘snap’ which may or may not be helpful to you, depending on how you talk about sounds! It’s bright ,focused and tight, basically.

Maple is, like Walnut, normally too heavy for bodies (though some nutters have tried in the past), but it’s a great choice for both necks and fingerboards. The norm is for maple fingerboards to only appear on maple-necked guitars, and hardly ever on necks made of darker timbers unless the maple is baked first. We don’t think we’ve ever seen a rosewood neck with a maple fingerboard, but we want to!



Rosewood is the famous alternative to maple, and most people consider these two options when they are eyeing up a Fender of some description, since that’s their popular choice. Rosewood has appeared on probably more electric guitar fingerboards than any other wood, to the point that it’s often now protected by CITES due to world stocks running low.

So, people like having rosewood because the porous feel is good under the fingers and the slightly warmer sound helps take a little of that bright snap down a shade or two if a maple neck is being used. Rosewood has a specifically different feel to the tight, hard sheen of maple, and it’s a matter of preference as to which is better.

Super gorgeous examples of rosewood from Brazil are now pretty much illegal to even look at, and East Indian rosewood is now the species at the top of the food chain. Up until a decade or so ago, rosewood was the common neck material found on all budgets of electric guitar, but nowadays a plethora of other woods have taken up the mantle for the affordable and beginner end of the market. Modern variants include laurel, bubinga, grenadilla, ziricote and pau ferro, though let’s look a little at that last one…


Pau Ferro 

Pau ferro is an interesting one. Fender have swapped this out as their fingerboard choice on many Mexican-made guitars (such as the Player and Vintera series guitars, which are hardly ‘cheap’), with rosewood being saved for more expensive instruments. Pau Ferro, up until this point, was better known as a luxury timber that boutique builders up-charged for. It was used on the Stevie Ray Vaughan signature Strat, and was generally seen as a step up from humble rosewood. 

Pau ferro is almost like a mix between rosewood and ebony: it’s harder and denser than rosewood, with a tighter grain. It adds a touch of clarity and definition to notes, as well as a perceived increase in sustain.

Whilst it can be somewhat inconsistent in terms of colour and grain strength, it’s certainly a notable fingerboard tonewood.



Ebony is a hard, dense wood (found mainly in Africa and Central America) which is also often very dark in colour. Another tonewood often seen as a luxury, ebony is in fact an excellent playing surface, with a tight grain, hard feel and smooth surface. Sonically, it is similar to maple (despite being the opposite colour) and can add a tight brightness to mahogany guitars that otherwise sound flabby and unfocused. Ebony is a brittle wood, and so is not easy for machines to use in jobs such as fretting and so on. This may contribute to its reputation as a high-end timber choice, since a human touch is generally required to get the best from it.

Until recently, timber merchants threw away any examples of ebony that weren’t black-looking enough for their guitars, which of course is madly wasteful. Such practices were challenged by brands like Taylor, who instead have made a feature out of ‘streaky ebony’ for the sake of ecology and plain old common sense. Nowadays, ebony is therefore not automatically a black-coloured wood, but you’ll still see it that way on a great number of instruments.


How Much Wood Would a Woodchuck Chuck?

So, that concludes our skip through the woodshop, picking up and staring at as many timbers as we could before being chased out. What do you think about it all? Does a rosewood-boarded Strat sound different to a maple one, or is it all suggestion and confirmation bias? 

Our take, to clarify for all, is that each element, from your fingertips to the air that is pushed from your amp’s speaker, plays a part in what you hear. Plectrums make a difference, string gauge makes a difference, and the woods that constitute the instrument you are playing make a difference. That difference may not be as large as which amp you’re plugging into, for example, or which effect pedal you have switched on, but the difference is there and it both befits and benefits you as a musician to know the differences and have opinions on those differences.

We hope this blog has helped align some of those thoughts for you, so that you are armed with knowledge next time you embark on a tone quest or shopping spree!

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I'm a musician and artist originally from the South West coast of Scotland. I studied Visual Arts and Film Studies at...

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