Which Guitar Fretboard Wood Is Right For You?

Neal Beedie February 9, 2011 20

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, 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! :P 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 much 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 under your fingers.  Besides, most of your tone comes from the fingers right? ;)

Hope this little fingerboard woods primer helped you out a little!

20 Comments »

  1. Al McK February 9, 2011 at 5:30 pm - Reply

    Glossy maple finished fingerboards are the bees knees

    • Neal February 10, 2011 at 10:31 am - Reply

      I'm a big fan too, there's something about maple fingerboards that just exudes class :)

  2. wayne February 9, 2011 at 11:27 pm - Reply

    Ebony is fantastic for slides and bends Ebony is the speed demon for me.

    • Neal February 10, 2011 at 10:34 am - Reply

      I like the look of maple, the feel of ebony and the sound of rosewood – who wants to invent mabonywood :p

  3. Neodymium February 13, 2011 at 11:56 am - Reply

    Compared to Rosewood and Maple, an Ebony fretboard adds the most overall strength to the neck. That's because the specific gravity of Ebony is higher.

    • Neal February 13, 2011 at 12:02 pm - Reply

      Thanks for the interesting comment Neodymium, I have indeed heard stories of ebony fingerboards preventing a neck from snapping in half! Very intriguing website you have there, sounds like a cool product :)

  4. Jackson Lewis April 17, 2013 at 6:57 pm - Reply

    what about obeche?

    • Dave November 12, 2013 at 11:57 am - Reply

      Obeche is far too soft and lacks structural strength.OK on model aeroplanes.

  5. Jack November 1, 2013 at 9:57 pm - Reply

    Maple does not require what I would really call a finish. Lots of players use maple necks w/ nothing but a tiny bit of tung oil on it (sure we can call that a finish but it is nothing like the glossy sticky crap all over a lot of fenders). They play every bit as fast as ebony necks !

  6. Coen de Moor December 19, 2013 at 12:01 pm - Reply

    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.

    • Aluchi January 19, 2014 at 12:05 am - Reply

      @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 ?

      • Neal January 19, 2014 at 2:00 pm - Reply

        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.

      • Matheet April 2, 2014 at 7:13 pm - Reply

        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

        • Coen de Moor August 7, 2014 at 4:05 pm - Reply

          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.

    • Scot March 16, 2014 at 12:48 am - Reply

      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.

    • Matheet April 2, 2014 at 7:17 pm - Reply

      your comment is weird, do you play guitar man?

      • Coen de Moor August 7, 2014 at 4:35 pm - Reply

        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.

  7. Sven December 27, 2013 at 9:33 pm - Reply

    Nice explanation! Thanks!

  8. Ashwin March 31, 2014 at 4:12 am - Reply

    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 )

Leave A Response »