Courtesy of Jesse Sterling Harrison
We tend to focus on makes, models and color, but what about the different types of wood used for guitars and their role in tone...
The type of wood used to build a guitar has a lot more to do with it's sound than you might think. In the end, the guitars sound and tone is going to be a combination of all the elements of the guitar’s construction – including its; body style, attention to quality and its pickups.
There are many types of woods used in guitar construction, so let’s break down a few of the most common. Our apologies in advance if some of this information is pretty "dry"… haha, get it?
Alder was especially in popular in the ’50s and ’60s and is the body wood of choice for Fender.
Alder bodies tend to produce warm, even-sounding mids and lows, although the highs can be relatively subdued. Alder sustains well without weighing a ton, so it's very efficient for a stage guitar. Basically, its tough to go wrong with a guitar made from alder.
The other main wood favored by Fender is Ash. Guitars with an ash body will have less bite in the mid range, but will have a nice twang and good sustain.
Early Fenders used swamp ash, a softer wood, that produced a much warmer tone, but northern ash is also used and has a bright, singing, high sound.
Gibson’s wood of choice for the Les Paul, Les Paul Jr., and SG has always been well sourced and well cured mahogany. But, there are also several custom-shop Strats and other Strat-style guitar types produced by hundreds of elite guitar builders globally that are also made from this dense heavy wood.
Mahogany produces a rather nice overall balanced tone – nothing is missing from the highs, mids, or lows, but the spin-off is that nothing stands out either.
It's a wood that’s often chosen for single-cut guitars, i.e. guitars that are constructed out of a single slab of wood, (neck through body, i.e., Gibson Les Paul's). Mahogany is both neutral and powerful. Many mahogany guitars have a maple top, or may even use a maple fret-board, which will bring out the best tonal characteristics of both of these hard-woods.
Maple is most often used for fret-boards and as laminate on steel-string acoustic guitar tops. This wood is often applied in conjunction with other types of wood bodies, as it is heavy.
Sonically, maple is on the bright side of the spectrum, but with great sustain and stability, it remains the wood most often used for Fender-style guitar necks.
Another incredibly popular fret-board wood, rosewood is on the darker end of the tone spectrum, which can add a nice balance to any guitar.
Rosewood necks offer fat lows and warm mids and have been a staple of guitar necks since the very beginning of rock 'n' roll.
Needless to say, this isn't a comprehensive list of all the woods that are available, (and many guitar manufacturers use woods that aren't on this list for varying reasons – be it tone, visual appearance, or a combination of both).
Gibson even launched a line of guitars essentially made of a kind fiber-board manufactured with sawdust and wax solvents in the late ’60s! That line was discontinued two years later.
That said, these woods listed above are the most common woods associated with electric guitars. With a firm understanding of these woods, you’ll have a solid foundation upon which to gauge any type of wood for your next guitar and how it can shape the tone of the guitar.
Acoustics are made with all these wood types and more, but the aforementioned woods are some of the most resonant and, thus, most widely used in all guitar construction.
Elyadeen Anbar is a guitarist, writer, and educator residing in Los Angeles, CA. He has had the pleasure of contributing music and production to some of his favorite artists, and graced stages the world over.