What are the differences between Ash and Alder? What about Mahogany? How about Maple necks? Here is our quick guide to tone wood nirvana!
It's important to remember that all wood is different dependent on the conditions it has grown in and experienced but here is a rule of thumb guide to the tonal characteristics of different wood species.
Inexpensive tone wood, which is easy to work with in the factory, easy to cut, sand and finish. Basswood is a soft wood with tight grains, and will tend to dampen sharp highs and soften them . Helping level out the thin tinny sound associated with knife edged tremolo contacts. The softness of Basswood also stimulates 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.
Similar to Basswood, alder is lightweight with soft tight pores. It also has a large swirling grain pattern to it. These larger rings and sections add to its strength, and the complexity of the tones. Unlike Basswood, which tends to soften any highs, Alder retains many more, but also gives room for the lows. You have a wider scope of tones, which leads to the perception of a little less mids than Basswood.
Ash is available in two types: Northern (hard) or Southern (soft). Hard Ash is popular because of it's bright tone and long sustaining qualities. Many 50's era Fender guitars were built with Soft Ash (aka Swamp Ash) As it has a much warmer feel than hard ash. Both variations have an open grain, meaning a good amount of prep has to be done at the factory to ensure the grain is filled, either with lacquer or coloured fillers, to ensure a smooth surface for clearing.
Mahogany, mainly used in the acoustic world, for back and sides. It is the most commonly used hardwood because it's relatively economical, durable, attractive, easy to work with and resonant. Mahogany became popular in guitars because it is attractive and cheaper to get than rosewood. Whereas the high-end Martin D-28 would have rosewood back and sides, the lower-end D-18 used mahogany. Mahogany lends more of a parlor kind of tone to the guitar. i.e. it's twangier but not as brilliant. It's not as big sounding either, but contains a distinct character. This character was present on most of the acoustic guitar sounds on early Beatles recordings since they used Gibsons of mahogany construction.
Walnut's tone is slightly warmer than maple, although it still has good sustain. Walnut looks great with oil finishes, and is comparatively heavy, but still lighter than maple.
Koa comes from Hawaii, which automatically means that it is in short supply. It comes in a variety of rich golden colors, from light to dark, and often with very strong grain markings, which look stunning. Koa makes a very balanced sounding guitar. Much of the warmth of rosewood and much of the brightness of Mahogany. The highs don't jump out like glass breaking. They are more omnipresent. And they are more in the upper midrange than the highs.
Hugely popular wood for necks and fretboards. Easily identifiable because of its bright tone, characteristic grain patterns and moderate weight. It's tonal characteristics include good sustain with plenty of bite. It is about as dense as hard ash, but is much easier to finish due to it's tight grain, very durable. Hard Maple is tough on factory tools so it's generally used for slimmer guitars. It really shouts with bright highs and strong upper midrange.
This wood has a beautiful rich variety of brown and purple colours. It makes a warm rich sounding guitar with great resonance and volume. However, Brazilian rosewood is no longer available in commercial quality or quantity. As a result it now sells for sizeable prices. To most, Brazilian has better clarity in the bottom and a almost bell like tone in the trebles. Indian rosewood has become the general substitute for Brazilian rosewood. Generally speaking, this wood is not as attractive as Brazilian and It has a noticeably purple color and the grain markings are coarser. Making a solid guitar out of Rosewood would be too heavy and/or cost prohibitive in most cases. This is because the wood is rare and expensive. Plus its porous nature requires a good deal of "pore fill" (and subsequent labour) before lacquer can be applied. Although, Rosewood is a very hard wood (harder than Maple) it's porous nature gives it a warmer tone in general.
Bright attack, great sustain, and excellent durability compared to rosewood. Ebony has a crisp attack with the density of Maple, but with more brittle grains, oilier pores, and a stronger fundamental tone than Maple. Most machine made guitars such as PRS don't use Ebony boards. Care must be taken when fretting Ebony due to it's brittle grain, so they need to be hand laid.. It has a tremendous amount of percussive overtones in the pick attack, that mute out shortly thereafter to foster great, long, sustain. Ebony sounds great on a guitar with a long neck, it's more percussive, as long as you don't have a real hard wood body like solid Maple or solid Bubinga it makes for a great tonal combination, however it does cost roughly 10 times more than rosewood.
Maple is an extremely popular wood for necks and fretboards. Recognizable because of its bright tone, grain patterns and moderate weight. It's tonal characteristics include good sustain with plenty of bite. It is about as dense as hard ash, but is much easier to finish. Very durable. When used on a fretboard, Maple produces tremendous amounts of higher overtones and its tight, almost filtered away bass favors harmonics and variations in pick attack.
The most common fretboard. The sound is richer than Maple because the stray overtones are absorbed into the oily pores (rosewood is a naturally oily wood). Rosewood is one of the heaviest woods currently employed in guitar making. Strat bodies made out of rosewood will weigh in at over 6 pounds. The sound is very warm, however the high end sounds are dampened. Brazilian Rosewood is a very hard and dense wood with great clarity and articulation in tone. Very smooth feeling. Colour varies a great deal from piece to piece, all being very attractive.
A black hard wood, stiff and very strong with chocolate brown stripes. Very hard, coarser textured wood with open grain. This wood makes awesome bass necks with strong midrange tones and warm lows. Combine it with an ebony fretboard for more brightness. Used primarily as Neck shafts but can also be used as a coarse fretboard. This wood is usually played raw. No Finish required. 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.
This is the traditional Fender neck wood. Dense, hard and strong, offering great sustain and stability. The tone is bright. 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.
Tone is somewhere between Mahogany and Maple with a little sweeter top end. Sounds especially good when combined with an Ebony fingerboard.
A Rosewood neck will give great sustain while also smoothening out the highs. A lot of the time with greater sustain comes a brighter top end. Rosewood however, mutes the high frequency overtones, producing a strong fundamental that still has the complexities of mid and low mid overtones.
Mahogany makes for a very stable neck due to it's even density reducing the risk of warping. The open pores make the neck a little more responsive than a maple neck, nor is it as dense as Maple. Mahogany will generally absorb a little more of the string vibration than Maple will, compressing the attack and the highs slightly. Commonly called Honduran Mahogany. This is the wood most associated with Gibson guitars. Good for warmer, fatter guitar tones. An open grain wood requiring more work in finishing to fill the open pores.
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