Guitar tonewood... What's with all the differences?

Author: Siraj Jardine   Date Posted:2 June 2020 

Artist Guitars

To the beginner and experienced guitarist, the topic of guitar wood is a very interesting one. For acoustic guitars, there is a pronounced difference in the tone created by different woods, and this will not be discussed here. There are arguments all over the internet about the importance of tonewoods on your electric guitar. Some say that it makes a big difference to the tone of an electric guitar, while others say that all the tone comes from the strings, pickups, pedals, and amplifier.

An article in the Guitar Player magazine has been summarised below, to describe some of the expected differences generated by tonewoods. This section will be followed by arguments that reduce the importance of tonewoods in electric guitars.

All about Tonewoods

When discussing tonewoods, people are referring to the wood used in the construction of the body, neck, and fretboard. Woods of the same species cut from different trees (or grown in different regions) may also vary in their weights, densities, and so on. So the potential sonic variables exist not only between woods, but in subtler degrees, between different guitars made from the “same” wood. The descriptions below discuss the expected tonal properties of different woods.

Body Woods

Alder

  • Famously used on: 
    • '50s and '60s Fender guitars
  • Key physical properties:
    • Medium weight, although high-quality cuts can be light 
    • Brownish colour, with an attractive but uninteresting grain
  • Current usage:
    • Typically used under opaque finishes or darker translucent finishes
    • Often used on its own as a body wood
  • Tonal properties:
    • Strong, clear, full-bodied sound, with beefy mids and excellent lows
    • Its highs sizzle slightly, but are rarely harsh 
    • Offers a decent amount of sustain. 

Ash

  • Famously used on:
    • Classic ’50s Fender guitars
  • Key physical properties: 
    • Swamp-ash
      • The most desirable form of ash
      • Taken from the lower portions of southern-grown wetland trees that have root systems growing below water level
      • Light and resonant
      • Attractive broad grain 
    • Ash (from the upper portions of the tree) and Northern Ash
      • Harder, denser and heavier than swamp ash
  • Current usage: 
    • Used under translucent/clear finishes
    • Traditionally single-wood slab-bodied guitars
    • Sometimes used in laminate bodies, commonly with a carved maple top, or as the top of a semi-hollow or chambered guitar
  • Tonal properties:
    • Swamp ash
      • Twangy, airy and sweet
      • Firm lows, pleasant highs, slightly scooped midrange
      • Good sustain
    • Ash (from the upper portions of the tree) and Northern Ash
      • Brighter, harder sound
      • Good for cutting distorted tones

Basswood

  • Famously used on: 
    • Mid-level and budget guitars
  • Key physical properties:
    • Lightweight and soft 
    • Light in colour with minimal grain
  • Current usage:
    • Typically used on opaque bodies
    • Sometimes used by high-end makers with excellent results
  • Tonal properties:
    • Fat but well-balanced tone
    • Muscular midrange, with softness and breathiness
    • Well-made basswood guitars yield good dynamics and definition with some grind for oomph

Korina

  • Famously used on: 
    • Gibson Flying V and Explorer
  • Key physical properties:
    • Species is generically known as Iimba (African wood related to Mahogany) but imported as Korina
    • Light hardwood
    • Fine grain that is enhanced during finishing to appear as long thin streaks
    • White Iimba (used by Gibson and Kramer) has a lighter appearance, black Iimba has a more pronounced grain
  • Current usage:
    • Typically used under opaque finishes or darker translucent finishes
    • Often used on its own as a body wood
  • Tonal properties:
    • Warm, resonant and balanced
    • Great clarity, definition and sustain

Mahogany

  • Famously used on: 
    • Gibson Les Paul and SG
  • Key physical properties:
    • Harvested in Africa and Central America
    • Dense, medium-to-heavy wood
  • Current usage:
    • Used in both slab and laminated bodies
    • Common neck wood
  • Tonal properties:
    • Warm but soft and well-balanced
    • Good grind and bite
    • Good depth
    • Full (but not tight) lows and appealing (unpronounced) highs

Maple

  • Famously used on: 
    • Gibson ES-335 (laminate) and Les Paul (top)
  • Key physical properties:
    • Sourced from North America
    • Light colour with a tightly packed grain
    • Can have dramatic figuring (flamed-maple, quilted maple)
    • Dense, hard, heavy wood
  • Current usage:
    • Necks (and sometimes fretboards)
    • Semi-hollow guitars' laminate bodies
    • Figured tops on mahogany-bodied guitars
  • Tonal properties:
    • Extremely bright, precise, clear tone
    • Tight lows
    • As a neck wood:
      • Tightness and cut
      • An edge of sizzle in the highs, and firm lows
      • Its high end is usually not as over-pronounced as people might think, although it is a characteristically bright neck-wood choice
      • Mids tend to have a snappy attack, with a punchy, slightly gnarly edge when the strings are hit hard, but excellent clarity with light to medium picking

Poplar

  • Famously used on: 
    • Early-90s Fender guitar bodies
  • Key physical properties:
    • A "hardwood" by definition but relatively soft
    • No pronounced visual qualities
  • Current usage:
    • Body-wood used in affordable Asian-made electric guitars
    • Also used in some Made-in-Mexico Fender guitars
  • Tonal properties:
    • Well-balanced sonic qualities
    • Not particularly resonant or sustaining
    • Does not enhance any specific frequency range

Rosewood 

  • Famously used on: 
    • Rosewood Telecaster played by George Harrison
  • Key physical properties:
    • Heavy
    • Dark brown in colour
  • Current usage:
    • Fretboards
  • Tonal properties:
    • As a body - can be overly bright
    • As a fretboard paired with mahogany
      • Complex highs, thick and creamy lows
      • An appealing midrange that isn’t honky or excessively punchy
    • As a fretboard paired with maple
      • Warm and sweet, 
      • Sparkle in the highs and thick lows

Ebony

  • Key physical properties:
    • Black
    • Dense, hard, and heavy wood
    • Wears very slowly
  • Current usage:
    • Upmarket guitar fretboards
  • Tonal properties:
    • Fast attack
    • Muscular, controlled bass
    • Snappy, sizzling highs

Tonewood Isn't That Important

There have been many recent investigations into the "mythical" properties of tonewoods. The arguments against the properties of tonewoods stem from the fact that the woods of an electric guitar don't vibrate as much as they do on an acoustic guitar. 

The sound of an electric guitar is produced by the strings moving over the pickups through Faraday's Law and is then altered further by the controls on the guitar, the pedals in the signal chain, the amplifier preamp, EQ, power amp, and speaker. There are simply more external influences on tone when it comes to electric guitar. 

The most common conclusion of all these arguments is that the woods do affect tone by absorbing and accentuating certain frequencies of string vibrations, but these effects are very small compared to the other elements mentioned above (the chain from pickups to amp speaker).

Some of these views can be heard in the videos below:


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