The varying woods which come together to assemble your guitar all have an impact on the overall tone produced. Players will often concentrate on the woods used in the body, and to a lesser extent the neck when trying to define the sound produced by their guitar. But just as important as the body and neck composition is the wood used for the fingerboard…
The fingerboard may not play as large a role as the body wood in defining your sound, but it certainly will have an effect on it. And not just in terms of tone produced – the fingerboard will also affect the feel of your guitar whilst playing as well as changing its aesthetics, so it’s important to select the wood that’s appropriate for you.
Although there are masses of varying types of woods used as guitar fretboards you are most likely going to find one of three main species on the majority of guitars: Ebony, Maple and Rosewood. Let’s take a look at the characteristics of each one to help you decide which is the best for you…
Ebony is known for its clear, crisp attack which is often even brighter than maple. It has a similar density to maple, but has oilier pores and more brittle grains. Due to the very tight grains in the wood, ebony does not require a finish and this gives the fingerboard a very slick, fast playing quality which many players favor.
Although many variations exist, ebony is generally the darkest fretboard wood you will find on most guitars, making it very popular on guitars designed for heavier music where everything must be black! Although rosewood can also be dyed to give a darker finish it is easy to spot the difference between the two woods due to the size of the grain which is much larger on the rosewood.
Ebony fretboards are generally favoured by guitarists who prefer a very bright, razor sharp top end or a very tight, well-defined low end.
Variations : Gaboon Ebony, Macassar Ebony
Maple is similar to ebony in that it produces a well-defined, crisp and bright sound. It is a very dense, strong wood which is more often than not found on Fender guitars.
However unlike ebony and rosewood, maple does require a finish. This means that any maple fingerboard which has received a glossy finish can feel a little too sticky for some players – however satin finishes are also available. A further problem with maple is that due its light color it does tend to take on a dirty appearance after years of finger oils and grime working their way into the wood.
Maple fretboards are generally favored by players who wish for a well-defined top end, or for use in giving a warm sounding guitar a much brighter tone.
Variations : Flamed Maple, Quilted Maple, Birdseye Maple, Hard Maple
Rosewood is the most common fretboard wood that you are likely to find on a guitar. It is a naturally oily wood which results in a richer fundamental tone than maple due to the unwanted overtones being absorbed into the oily pores. The oily nature of rosewood also means that it does not require a finish which many players prefer due to the naturally slick feel.
While ebony and maple are famed for their brighter, crisper tones, rosewood is known for its rich, warm tones with less high end attack.
Rosewood fretboards are generally favored by players who are looking for a warm sound, or by those who wish to tame the harsh highs on a bright sounding guitar.
Variations : Indian Rosewood, Brazilian Rosewood
I Can’t Tell The Difference!
If the tonal difference is unapparent to your ears then go with whichever you find either the most aesthetically pleasing or which feels the best under your fingers. Besides, most of your tone comes from the fingers right?
If you want to find out more about the different woods used in guitar construction and how they affect tone, I can highly recommend the following book. Just my opinion, but I believe every guitar nerd should own this.
Guitar Tone: Pursuing the Ultimate Guitar Sound by Mitch Gallagher