Ultimate Guitar Guide: Tone Woods

A guitar's wood is one of the last steps to creating that ideal tone you've been looking for. Different woods give off different sounds, which add to your guitar's ambience, tone, durability, and ability to age with time. Guitar Woods - what is available, how much do they way, and what tones do they make?

Ultimate Guitar Guide: Tone Woods
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A guitar's wood is one of the last steps to creating that ideal tone you've been looking for. Different woods give off different sounds, which add to your guitar's ambience, tone, durability, and ability to age with time. Along with that, it also adds an incredible amount of sale value to that $4,000 guitar you see in the window. The type, and quality, of the wood in your guitar is perhaps the most important factor in deciding the price of the guitar.

Understanding Wood

First of all, to understand woods, the first rule is "quality first". You can have your guitar made out of mahogany if you want, but if the mahogany wood came from an area with a bad growth pattern, or diseases, you're not getting what you pay for, no matter what you are being charged. It is safe to say that most companies spend a great deal of time finding high quality wood, otherwise Paul Reed Smith wouldn't charge $3,00 for a Custom 24 model. But when you are buying into the lesser known brands that cost less, but supposedly sound as great as high end guitars, you should be weary of what you're getting. Always give guitars a good play in the store, to make sure that you're not getting a dud. Knock lightly on different parts of the guitar to ensure that the wood is solid, and there aren't any major dead parts. Some dead parts are merely part of wood. If you hear one part of a guitar giving off a slightly less clear tone, don't be alarmed. If there were no dead parts in your guitar's wood, that would mean it is classified as "10-top", meaning the wood is perfect. Paul Reed Smith is one company that offers 10-top quality wood in their guitars as an option - for a very real price increase. When knocking lightly on the guitar, look for even tone quality. If you hear a muddy, dead sound, put the guitar back. If you hear a nice, solid crisp knock all over, you've got some nice wood in your hands. If the guitar's wood has an overall good quality, you should classify it as a keeper. Definitely try this practise out when you have an option of picking between two or more "identical" guitars.

Different Tones

Wood tones are not the most important factor in deciding tone, but they do play a large role. The same two high quality pickups in the same guitar shape would sound entirely different if one guitar were made out of plywood and the other out of maple. So, in the end, don't limit yourself to thinking that a plywood guitar will sound the same as a mahogany guitar, but don't think you need a 10-top mahogany guitar to sound great. Don't make compromises on quality, but don't spend all your money to get the right wood. Neck material and fretboard material also help create their part in tones. Maple is a common wood for necks, as it is stiff, and creates a bright tone. Rosewood and maple are used for fretboards. Rosewood creates a warm tone, but ebony, a slightly less common wood, is very heavy and creates a bright, hard attack. Mahogany is also sometimes used in necks, as well as bodies, for its classic warm feel. Be wary, though, sometimes getting that great mahogany tone creates a lot of weight in the guitar. Always check out the weight of the guitar standing up and sitting down when playing it in the store - sometimes you don't want to dragged down by your guitar when playing a long gig.

Woods

  • Alder
    Alder is used commonly because of its light weight, most commonly in Stratocasters. Has an excellent clean tone. It is commonly a tan colour without many distinctive grain lines. Not a good choice for clear finishes.
  • Ash
    Ash is available in two types: Northern (hard) or Southern (soft). Hard Ash is popular because of its hardness, with bright tone and long sustaining qualities. Soft Ash (aka Swamp Ash) is much softer. Many '50s era Fender guitars were built with this wood. It has a much warmer feel than Hard Ash. Both variations have an open grain, meaning that a lot of lacquer is required to seal the wood. Excellent for clear finishes.
  • Maple
    Maple is a very popular wood for necks and fretboards. Easily identifiable because of its bright tone, characteristic grain patterns and moderate weight. It's tonal characteristics include good sustain with plenty of bite. It is about as dense as hard ash, but is much easier to finish. Very durable.
  • Mahogany
    Mahogany's weight and density are similar to maple, however mahogany carries are more mellow, soft and warm tone to it. Great sustain, but not well suited to clear finishes. Les Paul guitars are made with Honduran mahogany.
  • Rosewood
    Rosewood is one of the heaviest woods available. Strat bodies made out of rosewood will weigh in at over 6 pounds, and remember that Stratocasters are quite small guitars. The sound is very warm, although the high end sounds are dampened. Finishes can be a little difficult to apply. Usually reserved for fretboards only.
  • Walnut
    Walnut's tone is slightly warmer than maple, although it still has good sustain. Walnut can look excellent with oil finishes, and is moderately heavy, but still lighter than maple.
  • Basswood
    Basswood is a very light wood - even lighter than alder. It is very soft, and should not be subjected to much abuse. Clear finishes are not very desirable. However, basswood has a nice warm, soft tone.
  • Ebony
    Ebony is commonly used in fingerboards. It is quite heavy, but has a very bright attack, good sustain, and excellent durability compared to rosewood.

    In Conclusion

    In conclusion, choosing your guitar wood should be based on playing guitars in store. Try playing two similar guitars made out of different materials on the same amplifier. With some experience, you should be able to hear the difference in the tones. Remember that on necks, different finishes can affect how fast you can move your hand along the neck, so don't be put off from a certain type of wood because of one guitar. Remember that quality is a very important element in wood, so if you play one mahogany guitar that sounds bad, don't think all guitars may be like that. Also, body shapes can affect tone - an arched top guitar will sound different than a flat top guitar. Variety is the key to finding out, first hand, the subtle nuances between wood tones. Thanks for reading my article, and I hope anything you've learned will serve you well. Peace Out, - Backup Guitar
  • 58 comments sorted by best / new / date

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      thebashers
      http://www.hufschmidguitars.com/wood_spe... Hey guys, have a read and tell me if you think this is true. It's about guitar wood and everything the industry told us is just basically isn't true. I've never heard of anything like this but it makes so much sense. Thinking about it makes me sick to my stomach. Hufscmidth by the way is a very respected luthier.
      Towllie
      i love the way ebony looks, and im going to VOTE 1 star so ur 5 is gonna get kicked down...woo hoo im evil!
      moonraker
      that was great! it helped a lot. i think eventually i wanna build my own guitar, so this helped a lot.
      devcon1
      awsome dude.... im getting a custom guitar soon and i havnt made a final decistion on the neck wood.. now i know
      deftones17
      sweet article, kudos, 5 damn stars. oh by the way, how do u get the square around your words like be-back did? look at his post, how did he do that?
      Jerry_page
      thanks for the article. it helped me buy a mahogany guitar with ebony fretboard and i love it.
      TNfootballfan62
      great article man!!! i particularly liked this part
      If you hear a nice, solid crisp knock all over, you've got some nice wood in your hands.
      Muppet
      Great article, but how about some info on combining woods? Like when you have a mahogany back and a maple top.
      Culaki
      Wow! Extremely nice article, I love the way you compared woods so easily. I have an Ibanez SZ-320 that can have either a beautifully warm tone or a hard attack for metal/shredding. 5 * from me m8.
      Slaptop
      That was informative about the many different types of wood used in Guitars BUT it doesn't mention how to pick out the tone wood from the rest of the pile that isn't god for instruments, unless you want them to go thud clunk. Like Ken Parker noted on the Parker Guitar web site that only 15% of the wood they buy is fit for an instrument, the rest goes off to the furniture factory. I keep looking for something that will tell me how to tell the difference in each piece of wood, how to identify the good tone wood from the firewood, so I can build my own bodies and necks.
      SamwellMcRockin
      hey thanks man this article helped a lot. i think you need to add some info on tops like quilted maple and such, and the benifits and drawbacks of them
      CMJ Gibson
      Nice, thanks for the info. Living in Oregon alder isn't hard to find, so I'll be making some acoustics and ukuleles in shop class!
      Peter Bouchard
      you should add Spruce, Appalachian, German Spruce, Engelman Spruce, Sitka Spruce, and Cedar. Im a starting Luthier.
      sithian476
      The only thing about bridges that you could write about are like the differences between brands and types... types as in locking vs. non-locking. At least thats all I can think of.
      guitarplayer401
      That was a good article it taught me alot about the different sounds u could get I didn't realize that different wood made so many different sounds.
      Geldof the Grey
      3rd. Very nice, but I see you didn't find a decent ebony picture. No worries, a nice column. What's left of these guides now, or is it finished? Oh, and zappp, whre the hells the guide to going live!?!
      (sic) Breed
      This article is sweet, I know I should take woods into account but I know little about them,thanks to you I know what to look for.
      Leadvox1988
      5th tee hee, wood, you said holding the wood. haha I slay me. Sorry. Nice article, but is their any of these left? I enjoy them alot but, well i guess there could be alot more.
      zappp
      Geldof the Grey: Oh, and zappp, whre the hells the guide to going live!?!
      Will go live with next update.
      Backup Guitar
      So far, these are about the only ideas I have for the guide to articles, but if you have any suggestions, you can say so in the UG columns. There's an idea of acoustic tone woods going around, may get to that. But I also have a few other articles to write (History of Yorkville and a guide to going live article among them). Thanks for the responses, everyone!
      crzywhiteboy
      good atricle really helpful thanx but didnt anyone notice this " Paul Reed Smith wouldn't charge $3,00 for a Custom 24 model. " MY ass 300 lol.
      Backup Guitar
      klown: I think what you're talking about bridges, or saddles... no, they really aren't that important to write a whole article about. Even then, I'm not really sure what aspect of bridges you'd want to know about. Maybe one day I could do a comparison of bridges... but I can't quite see that happening right now.