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Which Guitar Fretboard Wood Is Right For You?

Guitar Fretboard Wood GuideThe various 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 choice 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, Maple and Rosewood Fretboards Fingerboard Guitar

Ebony Fretboards

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 Fretboards

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 brighter tone.

Variations : Flamed Maple, Quilted Maple, Birdseye Maple, Hard Maple

Rosewood Fretboards

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 to you.  Besides, most of your tone comes from the fingers right? 😉

Learn More

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

25 replies
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  1. Coen de Moor says:

    I don’t get it. When your guitar is properly set up, neither your fingers or your strings touch the fretboard. You only touch the frets.Try it out, look real close, and you will see what I mean.
    So if your strings and fingers never touch the wood of the fretboard, how can the type of wood affect your tone or your feel?
    I don’t think it does affect anything. It’s just a matter of looks. That is all.

    Reply
    • Aluchi says:

      @Coen: I utterly agree with you! when some guitarist say ebony is faster and slick, how this is possible when their fingers are not touching the fingerboard? When it comes to tones, I have reviewed some reviews on youtube showing difference between Rosewood, and Ebony. To my ear there was no difference. I have one question here. Which fingerwood is harder and doesn’t wear off ?

      Reply
      • Neal says:

        The tonal differences between each species of wood is subtle – but it IS there. There is just no way you can expect to hear the difference on a YouTube video.

        Reply
      • Matheet says:

        unless you have really tiny princess fingers and you touch your strings excessively gently, the tip of your fingers EVIDENTLY, touch the fretboard! you are crazy if you say that the tip of your fingers don’t touch the fretboard

        Reply
        • Coen de Moor says:

          Your fingers never touch the fingerboard. Try for yourself. Take a small piece of paper, put it between the strings and the fingerboard, make sure it does not touch the fret.
          Now fret the string over the piece of paper. Note that this does not affect your tone at all. Then bend the string. You would expect the paper to move as the string moves, but it doesn’t. the paper does not move, as your fingers do not touch the paper, and neither do the strings. Your strings touch the frets, your fingers toucht the strings.
          Try it.

          Reply
          • Blair Evans says:

            Genuine question: How does a finish on a maple fingerboard wear off if nothing comes into contact with it? What causes that relic effect on an old Strat or Tele? I have tried your suggestion and looked to see if the string really is touching the finger board. You have a point, but more of my finger touches the fingerboard than the string. If you have soft (or chubby) finger tips then you are touching the finger board a lot, so the wood used will make a difference. Maples with their finishes feel distinctly different to me than my preferred rosewood.

    • Scot says:

      When bending notes, playing slide or quickly shifting position (particularly when playing barre chords) your fingers absolutely touch the fretboard. I don’t have a good enough ear to detect differences in tone (and it is hard to do a side by side comparison because it is rare that the only difference between two guitars is fretboard) but I do have one rosewood and one ebony fretboarded guitar and I notice a different feel from each.

      Reply
      • Coen de Moor says:

        Yes, I do play guitar, and I am surprised that people who also play guitar never noticed this.
        It depends on your setup, but with most electric guitars that are set up well, your fingers don’t tought the fretboard although it looks and it feels like they do.
        Why don’t you try it? Take a small piece of paper and attach it to your fetboard under the strings. Make sure the paper doesn’t touch the frets.
        Now fret the string over the paper and play it. Note that you don’t hear a difference in tone. Then bend the string. You would expect the paper to move, but it doesn’t, as your strongs do not touch the paper.
        I was real suprised about this.
        I tried it on all my guitars, I have tree, and on all my guitars, the strings don’t touch the paper.
        It is possible that on other guitars they do, I think it depends on the setup, but on my guitars they don’t..
        I know it sounds weird, but it is true.

        Reply
        • Me says:

          Actually, i think that depends on what kind of frets you have. If you have jumbo frets, your finger doesnt touch the fretboard. But if you have small frets, your finger definitely touches the fretboard.

          Reply
  2. Ashwin says:

    I’m using ebony and one of my friend is using maple , i find maple wood is sweat free and slightly better than ebony . the ebony i use is little sticky and feels like rusted . ( not really rusted but fell like rusted )

    Reply
  3. Roger says:

    I have maple, rosewood and one made of “resinator” (synthetic compound supposed to simulate ebony, by Hagstrom). The “fake” wood of the Hagstrom is by far my favorite to play.

    Reply
  4. James says:

    Usually I never comment on these sort of debates but It seems like there are some misunderstandings here.I base my comments on my many years of experience as a professional luthier,and overall guitar geek.I do believe that too much credit has been placed on the body wood and the neck woods unfortunately to a lesser degree.Try plucking the strings of an unplugged electric guitar and gently touching the headstock to a wall or door.Set neck, glue in, or bolt?Whole other debate there.Generally speaking, the harder the wood the brighter the sound.Of the three.Ebony,rosewood and maple.
    Ebony is the hardest wood,has the brightest sound.Has the longest sustain,crisp attack,wears longest and acts as a black background for inlay work.Also very stiff.Holds frets can be brittle and crack when dry. A good combination over a mahogany neck.Can be overly bright and ice picky over a maple neck.
    Rosewood would be second.Warmer than ebony.Rosewood can be muddy over a mahogany neck.Or dark sounding if you like that sort of tone.Good combination over a maple neck.
    Maple fingerboards work well on maple necks for snappy twangy stuff.Gets warmer over a mahogany neck.Does not hold frets as well as ebony and similar to rosewood maybe to a slightly less degree.Wears the least as it is the softest.
    There is variability between the species and no two trees are exact in color and hardness,density etc.That is why guitars of the same model seem to have some magic that others lack.
    As for fingers touching the fingerboard.Mine do, strings don’t.

    Reply
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