Many different woods are used in building electric guitars. We discuss what you need to know here.

When you’re studying the specs of an electric guitar or bass, you will almost certainly see the kind of body wood, neck wood, and fingerboard wood used. With some very notable exceptions, just a few mainstay woods have been used for fashioning electric instruments: for bodies, primarily alder and ash in the Fender world, and mahogany and maple in the Gibson world; for necks, primarily maple necks with maple or rosewood fingerboards (in the Fender world), and mahogany necks with rosewood fingerboards in the Gibson world. We will discuss these woods in depth.

ALDER

Alder wood is used in more guitar bodies than any other species.

Alder is a common name for genus Alnus, which is part of the birch family Betulaceae family. Alder is a fast growing hardwood. It grows throughout the northern hemisphere in the temperate zone. There are many varieties. For our purposes, Alnus rubra, or red alder, is the variety of interest. Red alder grows on the US west coast and is the dominant species used for electric guitar bodies.

Like ash, alder is often used on its own as a body wood (that is, it is not usually topped/capped with another wood as often happens with mahogany). Guitar bodies made from alder typically consist of two to four pieces glued together (though there are single piece alder bodies – at Alloy Guitars we offer them!). Alder is easy to work with and it glues well.

Alder takes finishes well. It has a light brown color and a tight grain that is not terribly prominent, making it ideal for solid colors rather than the transparent finishes that look so good on some ash bodies. Alder’s grain might not be particularly interesting, but it is generally straight and clean looking. It is typically used under opaque finishes, but some examples can look good under darker translucent finishes. Alder is a medium weight, closed pore wood. Weight does vary, however, and some alder used for guitar bodies may weigh less than denser cuts of ash.

Due to its widespread popularity it produces a familiar tone. Alder bodies are resonant, and have a strong, clear, full-bodied sound, with beefy mid-range sounds and excellent lows. These bodies are very full in the low midrange yet produce clear and articulate higher frequencies. Alder bodies offer a fair amount of sustain.

As with ash, it’s impossible to discuss the use of alder in guitars without talking about Fender. Fender has used alder since the 1950s. This wood was readily available and less expensive than ash (particularly the swamp ash that produces the best instruments). It is now the body wood for many of Fender guitars and bases.

SWAMP ASH

Like alder, swamp ash is a classic solid body guitar wood.

There are many kinds of ash trees. For use in electric guitar bodies, the American ash species – Fraxinus Americana – is the one in prominent use. American Ash is a native North American hardwood found on the eastern half of the continent. The wood is strong, dense, straight-grained and light in color. In addition to guitar bodies, ash is used for flooring, furniture, baseball bats, and many other items.

For guitar bodies, two sub species are used: northern ash and southern or “swamp” ash.

Northern ash is harder and heavier. As a guitar body, it produces more treble and sustain, with less warmth than other guitar woods. In some cases it makes for bodies that are quite heavy! These bodies have a brighter sound that might be more useful when sharper tones are desired.

Swamp ash is lighter in weight. Typically, the wood is taken from the lower portions of wetland trees that have root systems below water level. The wood has beautiful grain that is perfect for transparent or lightly colored finishes that let the wood grain show through. The wood is light in color, highlighted by brown grain patterns. This wood looks awesome with natural finishes and transparent colors.

Swamp ash wood has large open pores, making it resonant and sweet sounding, with great highs, solid well-defined midrange, and a strong low end. Swamp ash sound is articulate, with a great balance between brightness and warmth. In contrast to alder’s even and consistent tonal properties due to its tight, consistent grain, the open grain and varied grain structure of swamp ash means that two swamp ash bodies may differ from one another tonally.

Swamp ash is often used for guitar bodies for its sonic characteristics and for its light weight. For these reasons, it is more commonly used than any other ash species. Often, two or three pieces are glued together to make an instrument body, although there are single-piece bodies (we offer them at Alloy Guitars!).

BASSWOOD

Basswood is affordable and abundant. It has become particularly associated with mid- or budget-level guitars. Basswood was particularly popular in the 1980s. Basswood is a good tonewood and many guitar makers have had excellent results using it. It is a very light and soft wood, and it is light in color. It has minimal grain. Solid basswood bodies have a fat, well-balanced tone. There’s a muscular midrange. On a well-made guitar, basswood can yield good tone and dynamics, with good definition. It may be less expensive than its big brothers (alder and ash), but that doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t see more use!

MAHOGANY

Mahogany is a wood that became popular primarily in the electric guitar world due to being used on Gibson guitars since the 1950s. (It is also used heavily in acoustic instruments.)

There are many species of tree that are called “mahogany” (some accurately, some not so much). Typically, in guitar construction, mahogany means Central American Honduran mahogany or African mahogany.

Mahogany is a dense, medium weight wood that yields a wide range of guitar body weights, depending upon the source of the wood. Medium brown in color with a red or orange hue, this mid weight wood has a mild grain pattern that looks great with many transparent finishes.

Mahogany’s tone is warm and a bit soft, but overall is well balanced. There is usually good depth to the sound, with full but not especially tight lows, and appealing if unpronounced highs. Its tone is thick and concentrated with a forceful midrange.

Mahogany is a classic ingredient in slab, carved top, and laminated bodies. It is also a common neck wood (see below). Mahogany is used in single-wood bodies, too. Gibson Les Paul Jr., Les Paul Special, and SG were made of solid mahogany, and guitar builders have used the wood in many solid and semi-solid designs over the years.

Mahogany with Maple. This is the most popular laminated or carved-top body type. Adding a maple top to a solid mahogany back yields a guitar body that exhibits many of the best tonal properties of both woods. The mahogany and maple body is rich, warm, and resonant with mahogany’s lows and good sustain, augmented by the maple top’s clarity and definition.

LESS COMMON WOODS

PINE

Pine, particularly knotty pine, can make for dramatic looking guitars. Fender has made knotty pine Telecasters on occasion and they are striking.

OAK, MAPLE

These heavier woods have been successfully used in some guitars. They make for interesting looking instruments. Generally, these woods are not used alone in a guitar body due to the weight of the resulting body. Some interesting instruments include those made from oak barrels.

SPRUCE, CEDAR, REDWOOD

These woods can make for some very beautiful bodies! These are not used regularly, however.

EXOTICS

A large variety of exotic woods are used either alone or in combination to produce striking results. Koa, Tigerwood, Zebrawood, Teak, Purpleheart, Limba and many other woods are used as accent or top material on many custom or designer guitars.

NECK AND FINGERBOARD WOODS

Necks are usually composed of two parts – the neck proper and the fingerboard – that may be the same or different woods. In many cases, the neck and fingerboard will be different pieces of wood, even if they are the same species. However, a single piece of wood is used for both the neck and fretboard – these are called “one piece”. Many different woods are used for both parts. We will detail just a few of the common combinations here: maple and mahogany necks, with maple, ebony and rosewood fingerboards.

Maple. Maple is often used in Fender and many other manufacturers instruments. In some cases, a solid, one-piece neck with integral fretboard of maple is used. In other cases, the maple neck is topped with a fretboard of a second type of wood (often rosewood). Maple necks add tightness and cutting tones to a guitar. It is a characteristically bright neck wood choice.
Mahogany. Mahogany necks are often coupled with a mahogany or mahogany/maple body, such as on Gibson’s instruments. Mahogany is more porous and open than maple, and does not have maple’s hardness, strength, or stability. Mahogany is not suitable as a fretboard material, so it is generally topped with Ebony or Rosewood.
Ebony. A popular neck upgrade option, the ebony fretboard provides more tightness, clarity, and definition, as compared to rosewood fingerboards. It is a very dense, hard wood, providing for a fast attack from the instrument. It offers a muscular, controlled bass, and snappy, sizzling highs. With a mahogany back contributing some warmth and openness to the brew, this can be a very appealing pairing. Ebony wears well. It doesn’t wear away after years of finger and string contact nearly as easily as rosewood does.
Rosewood. Along with maple, rosewood is the one of the most common fingerboard woods.When paired with a mahogany neck, which has a warm, mellow tone, the rosewood fingerboard contributes to complex highs, thick and creamy lows, and an appealing midrange.

When paired with maple necks, rosewood fretboards change the maple neck’s bright characteristic tonal properties to become a little warmer and sweeter. The maple provides sparkle in the highs with the rosewood mellowing the tone and thickening the lows. In addition to the tonal characteristics that the fingerboard imparts, it also changes the feel of the neck. A player’s choice of a maple fingerboard or rosewood fingerboard may be as much about feel or appearance as it is about tone.