Guitar fretboards (or fingerboards!) are more often that not made from 3 main types of wood – ebony, rosewood and maple.
But what are the differences between the 3 in terms of tone, feel and visual appeal? In this article we’ll compare all of the qualities of these woods to find out which is the best fit for you!
The 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.
Table Of Contents
- Does Fretboard Wood Affect Tone?
- What Woods Are Fretboards Make Of?
- What Is The Best Fretboard Wood?
- Maple Fretboards
- Rosewood Fretboards
- Ebony Fretboards
Does Fretboard Wood Affect Tone?
The guitar fretboard may not play as large a role as the body wood in defining your sound, but it certainly will have a perceptible 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.
In terms of tone, a guitar with a one-piece maple neck might have a bright sound with a strong attack. If you were to pair it with a rosewood fretboard, the sound would be rounded out with a warmer tone to the top-end. Whereas if you were to add an ebony fingerboard, the sound would likely become even brighter!
So it’s important to select the choice that’s appropriate for you.
If you understand the basic tonal colors and feel and appearance of each wood, you will much more easily be able to narrow down the selection of guitars you are considering for your particular situation.
What Woods Are Fretboards Made Of?
Although there is a huge variety of woods (and other materials!) used in guitar fretboards, you are most likely going to find one of three main species on the majority of guitars: Maple, Rosewood, and Ebony.
What Is The Best Wood For A Guitar Fretboard?
Ebony, maple, and rosewood fretboards all exhibit unique tonal and visual characteristics, as well as a distinctive feel when playing. So the best fretboard wood choice will vary depending on the sound, aesthetic, or feel that you are looking for.
Sometimes you might want the qualities of two or three different woods, so may need to weigh up which of these three factors are most important to you.
Let’s take a look at the characteristics of each one, to help you decide which is the best choice for you.
Maple: Tone, Feel and Appearance
Maple is tonally similar to ebony in that it produces a well-defined, crisp and bright sound with good sustain. It is a very dense and strong wood, with smaller pores and tighter grain, and is very commonly found on Fender guitars.
However, unlike ebony and rosewood, maple does require a finish to protect it from the effects of humidity (unless you opt for roasted maple, see below!). So you are in effect playing the coasting that covers the fretboard, rather than the wood itself! This means that any maple fingerboard which has received a glossy finish can feel a little too sticky or unnatural for some players – however satin finishes are also available.
On the plus side, thanks to the finish you do not need to regularly condition maple fretboards. This is unlike rosewood and ebony boards, which do need to be treated on occasion.
Maple can range from an almost white color to a more yellowish shade with a golden hue.
Do Maple Fretboards Get Dirty?
Due to its lighter color, maple does tend to take on a dirty appearance thanks to finger oils and grime working their way into the wood. However, this will only happen in areas where the finish has worn away after years of playing!
This is arguably a pretty cool look however, and in recent years, ‘relic‘ guitars which emulate the dirt and dings from an older instrument have become very popular as players seek to emulate this worn-in aesthetic.
Why Choose A Maple Fingerboard?
Maple fretboards are generally favored by players who wish for a well-defined top end with good resonance, or for use in giving a warm sounding guitar a brighter tone.
Maple Tonewood Characteristics Summary
- Tone : Bright, snappy, good sustain
- Color : From almost white to cream/yellow
- Finish : Required, unless roasted
- Conditioning : Not Required, unless roasted
- Durability : Hard-wearing, but more likely to stain over time
Types of Maple Used In Guitars
There are two main variations of maple used in guitar building – Western Maple (also known as soft maple, or big leaf maple), and Eastern Hard Rock Maple. They each have a subtle difference in tonal color.
Eastern Hard Rock Maple carries a very bright, crisp sound, with brilliant resonance and sustain. It is more commonly used in necks and fingerboards due to its strength.
Whereas the slightly less dense Western Maple is not quite as bright sounding, and is more commonly used for guitar bodies and tops.
Hard rock maple is more durable and expensive than the more plentiful Western maple.
Types of Figured Maple
Maple is also available in a wide variety of exotic looking grains and deep figuring patterns. Although the different variations of figured maple won’t really affect tone, they will certainly affect the look of your guitar.
It’s generally uncommon to see these used for fretboards on anything other than higher end guitars. This is because the grain patterns found on these more exotic maples are very difficult to work with, making them an unpopular option for mass produced guitars where machines are more likely to do the work.
Here are four of the most common types you’ll find used for fingerboards.
Bird’s-eye maple is a type of figured maple which features distinctive patterns or swirls that look like little eyes. Although there are many theories, it is not conclusively known what causes this unique style of figuring in the wood.
Flame maple features almost three-dimensional patterns of visual waves and stripes, which can range from tight and narrow, to wide and undulating. The figuring is not a result of the grain of the wood, but rather, it is caused by a phenomenon called chatoyancy.
It is also known as tiger stripe maple, curly maple, or fiddleback maple.
In quilted maple, the figuring resembles a quilt, or rippling water pattern, especially when the wood is stained. It is the result of undulations in the growth rings of the tree.
Spalted maple is wood from either a dead tree, or sometimes a highly stressed living tree, that has been invaded by a fungus. As a result, it quite often has unusual colorings, and sports interesting patterns of black lines.
Roasted Maple Fretboards
In addition to the various different figuring patterns we’ve looked at above, there is also another new option – Roasted Maple fretboards!
What Is Roasted Maple?
Roasted maple, also known as caramelized, baked, or torrefied maple, has been roasted until the wood reaches its optimum dryness level. The end result is a wood that is much more resistant to humidity or temperature changes when compared to regular maple.
This additional stability makes roasted maple ideal if you travel frequently, or experience large fluctuations in humidity and temperature where you live.
Find out more about the disastrous effects humidity can have on your guitar (and how to prevent them!) in my massive guitar humidity guide.
Since the wood is now completely dried out, it doesn’t require a finish, so the feel will be much closer to that of rosewood or ebony.
It also has the added benefit of enhancing the color and figuring of the wood, with typical examples being a much darker, richer caramel hue.
Here’s an excellent video from Warmoth that compares the sound of a regular maple neck versus a roasted maple neck on the same guitar. Yes, it’s a video comparing necks, but if you opt for a roasted maple fretboard it’s almost definitely going to be paired with the same neck wood!
Do I Need To Oil A Roasted Maple Fretboard?
Yes. Since a roasted maple fretboard is not sealed, you will occasionally need to apply a conditioning oil to help protect it from the effects of humidity and temperature. Twice a year should be sufficient with a guitar specific product such as lemon oil or Wonder Wipes.
Rosewood: Tone, Feel and Appearance
While ebony and maple are famed for their brighter, crisper tones, rosewood is known for its rich, warm tones with less high-end harshness.
Rosewood 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 (in fact, it doesn’t take a finish well at all!), which many players prefer due to the naturally slick feel. Some guitarists will actually refer to it as ‘crackwood‘, because once you try an unfinished fingerboard, nothing else feels as good.
One slight downside to rosewood fretboards being unfinished is that they will occasionally need to be conditioned. Most players will use a product such as guitar-specific lemon-oil to keep their fingerboards in good condition. This only takes a couple of minutes however, and it is recommended to do it once every 6 months or so. For ease, I like to use Ernie Ball Wonder Wipes.
Interesting Fact – it’s called rosewood because the freshly cut wood carries an aroma similar to roses!
As far as aesthetics are concerned, rosewood is not quite as dark as ebony, usually taking on a rich, dark chocolate shade. However, lighter shades of brown are also common.
Why Choose A Rosewood Fingerboard?
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. Another reason to choose rosewood is for the smooth playing experience thanks to it not needing a sticky feeling finish.
Rosewood Tonewood Characteristics Summary
- Tone : Warm, rich, less harsh
- Color : Rich browns with hints of red/purple
- Finish : Not-Required
- Conditioning : Required Every 6 Months
- Durability : Very hard-wearing
Types of Rosewood Used In Guitars
Rosewood forms the sizeable Dalbergia family of trees, which includes over 300 subspecies. I’ve listed below a number of the most common variations used as guitar fretboard woods.
- African Blackwood is from East Africa and ranges from purpleish to almost black in color, sometimes with dark or yellowy stripes. It is very dense and fairly difficult for luthiers to work with.
- African Rosewood is also known as Bubinga, and is a strong wood which exihibits a brighter, balanced tone. Commonly used on Rickenbacker fingerboards.
- Bolivian Rosewood, also known as Pau Ferro or Santos Rosewood, is an oily wood which technically is not a true rosewood. It offers a tone and feel somewhere in between ebony and rosewood.
- Brazilian Rosewood is one of the most prized woods in guitar making thanks to its excellent resonance and rich tonality. Visually, it is a dark brown color with darker streaks. Be aware that due to its endangered status, you will require certain certificates when travelling abroad with, or shipping a guitar that contains Brazilian rosewood (see below).
- Cocobolo is a Central American rosewood which provides a warm and resonant tone. It is very oily, to the point of occasionally causing skin staining or allergic reactions. Some cocobolo is so dense that it will actually sink, instead of float, in water!
- East Indian Rosewood, also known as Sonokeling, is a more readily available type of rosewood. It has a straight grain pattern which can include hints of purple, grey, and red highlights. It has similar characteristics to the now endangered Brazilian rosewood, and as a result is now a common substitute.
- Madagascar Rosewood is also very similar in tonal color to Brazilian rosewood. The wood ranges from a light, to dark purplish color, and can also display yellow and dark stripes.
Rosewood CITES Regulations
Rosewood is a slightly more complicated topic due to recent laws and restrictions introduced to protect the species. Read more about this here.
To cut a long story short, back in 2017 heavy restrictions were placed on goods containing any form of rosewood. This resulted in many guitar brands scrambling to find suitable rosewood alternatives due to the additional headaches associated with using the wood.
However, as of November 2019 all musical instruments are now exempt from these regulations, apart from those containing the more endangered Brazilian rosewood variety. These instruments will now require special certificates when travelling, or being shipped internationally, to prove that they are compliant with the regulations.
While some brands have continued the use of their rosewood substitutes after the rules were eased, many have reverted to using it in their guitar designs.
Ebony: Tone, Feel and Appearance
Ebony is known for its clear, crisp attack which is often even brighter than maple. It is commonly described as combining the best characteristics of both maple and rosewood.
Like maple, it is an extremely dense wood with a bright tone, but similar to rosewood, is darker and has oilier pores.
Due to the very tight grains and natural oils in the wood, ebony does not require a finish, and this gives the fingerboard a very slick, fast playing quality which many players favor.
As it is usually unfinished, an ebony fretboard, like rosewood, will require conditioning once every 6 months or so. Be careful not to oversaturate the wood with oil as this can actually damage it!
If you are nervous about oversaturating, an easy solution is to get your guitar regularly setup. Your tech or luthier will ensure that your fretboard is optimally conditioned and hydrated. Find out more about this service by reading my guitar setup guide.
It is also known for being fairly heavy and a very tough wood, which results in it generally being harder wearing and longer lasting than maple or rosewood.
In terms of aesthetics, ebony fretboards can range in color from a lighter brown with dark streaks, to deeply black, oftentimes with yellowish, brown or reddish streaks.
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! Rosewood can also be dyed to give a darker finish, but it is easy to spot the difference between the two woods due to the size of the grain, which is much larger on rosewood.
Why Choose An Ebony Fingerboard?
Ebony fretboards are generally favored by guitarists who prefer a very bright, razor sharp top end, or a very tight, well-defined low end. It is also a great choice if you’d like the crisper sound of a maple board, but without the sticky finish.
Ebony Tonewood Characteristics Summary
- Tone : Bright, snappy, good sustain
- Color : Light brown to deep black
- Finish : Not-Required
- Conditioning : Required Every 6 Months
- Durability : Ultra hard-wearing
Types of Ebony Used In Guitars
- Gaboon Ebony (also known as African ebony), is so called because it used to be mainly exported from the nation of Gabon. Due to it’s now endangered status, it is only commercially available from Cameroon (see next section for info). It is known for its rich character, with ringing overtones.
- Macassar Ebony is exported from Southeast Asia. It has a high density, a dramatic striped appearance, and produces a clear and loud tone with a good dynamic range.
Is Ebony Wood Endangered?
Ebony has now been so badly overharvested that the only remaining country that still supplies it commercially is Cameroon. Its status on the IUCN Red List is “endangered” after a reduction in population of over 50% in the last three generations.
For years, guitar makers would only use the more desirable pure black ebony. But unfortunately, on average 10 trees would need to be felled before finding a single black tree! The non-black trees would be left behind as no one wanted the streaked variety – an unbelievable waste of wood!
But thankfully this practice no longer occurs, and the streaked ebony mentioned above is also now very commonly used in guitar building. This is thanks to Taylor Guitars, who now supply the majority of the world’s ebony used in guitar making.
If you can spare 10 minutes, please watch the video below to discover how Bob Taylor managed to make such a huge, positive impact on the supply and protection of ebony. It’s a heart-warming watch to see how much Taylor cares for the environment.
To summarise, I’ve put together the following infographic which gives you a (simplified!) view of all of the characteristics of each fretboard wood.
When all is said and done, the tonal contribution of the fretboard wood might be so small as to be imperceptible to you. So your choice may very well come down to which looks better, or more importantly, which feels better.
Besides, as they say, most of your tone comes from the fingers, right?
Did you know that scale length also affects the tone of your guitar? Find out more in my in-depth scale length guide.
If you would like to delve deeper, and discover even more about the different elements that affect guitar tone, I can highly recommend the following book. Just my opinion, but I believe every guitar nerd should own this.
The Ultimate Guitar Tone Handbook by Bobby Owsinksi.
Design Your Own Guitar
If you’d like to see what each type of fretboard wood (pun intended!) look like on your dream guitar, check out how to mock-up a custom guitar in 5 minutes.