Luthiers construct instruments out of many different tonewoods, each of which has its characteristics that make them look and sound unique to one another and sometimes even be more expensive than others.
While the wood that a guitar’s body is made from can be quite diverse, the guitar fretboard wood types can be narrowed to just three main ones with some subtypes.
Each of these fretboard woods will be discussed in this article to help you learn about how they sound, as well as able to identify them by sight. This will help you make an informed decision when buying a guitar.
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What Are The Primary Types of Fretboard Woods?
A guitar’s fretboard is usually made from or based on one of these three types of woods:
Sometimes there is a bit of confusion with beginners regarding neck and fretboard. The most common mistake is calling the guitar’s fretboard the neck – essentially lumping them together. In reality, they are two separate pieces of this puzzle.
A guitar’s neck is typically made from either maple or mahogany. Maple is more common than mahogany, though, because maple tends to be regarded as a bit more reliable. For example, because mahogany is softer and more porous, it can be negatively affected by the climate. A guitar humidifier is extremely helpful for all guitars, but instruments with mahogany necks might benefit from them the most.
The fretboard can either be glued into place onto the neck, or it can be a one-piece. You’ll most commonly see rosewood and ebony fretboards glued on, but one-piece maples are also widespread.
This information might not be as relevant when buying a guitar for a beginner or for yourself for the first time, but it might come in handy when you start looking for a second or third guitar after you’ve become more experienced and started to figure out what you really like. These guitar fretboard wood types do make a difference in how they play and sound and should be considered when making a purchase.
What’s The Best Guitar Fretboard Wood To Pick?
Whether one type of fingerboard wood is better than another is entirely subjective – each has certain qualities that may be more pleasing than others. I personally think all of them are special and think they all deserve a place in a collection. However, if you’re on a budget, you should get acquainted with them. In this section, I will discuss the characteristics of the primary guitar fretboard woods I have learned over the years.
You can find rosewood in just about every type of guitar – electrics, steel-string, and classical, you name it. It is popular because it has a quality that can be described as warm, rich, and balanced (deep lows and bright highs). Some may even describe it as relatively mellow. It also looks great and goes well with just about any paint job or finish.
It is also a heavy and sturdy wood, which makes it a popular choice among guitar manufacturers, much like ebony, which you will learn about later. Nowadays, the most frequently used type of rosewood is Indian Rosewood, which is readily available.
This contrasts with Brazilian rosewood, which is rarely used now because of exploitation. It had been used for furniture exports, and overlogging has led to conservation efforts.
It is hard to find a guitar with Brazilian rosewood, and if you do, it’ll probably cost you big bucks. Regardless, Indian rosewood has been a great substitute for decades now. I’ve owned many guitars with rosewood fretboards, and my beloved Ibanez Prestige has one, so despite Brazilian rosewood being banned, Indian rosewood is still used on high-quality instruments from Ibanez and other guitar manufacturers.
While I love the feel and sound of them, I also appreciate the aesthetic of maple fretboards! They complement so many different colors and shapes. If you are familiar with Fender guitars, I believe most use a maple fretboard, with rosewood coming in at a close second. Either way, they’re pretty iconic.
Guitars can use both hard and soft maple, but for necks and fretboards, it’s almost always hard maple, which is dense. The best way I can describe the sound of this type of fretboard wood is that it sounds like it has a lot of “bite” and “snap.” It is very bright, which is probably why they were so often used for twangier tones.
However, if you’re looking for a metal guitar, don’t let this discourage you – maple fretboards have been used by great guitarists in this genre for years. It just sounds different than rosewood. Two guitarists I can think of right now that used maple fretboards to great effect are Dave Murray from Iron Maiden and Yngwie Malmsteen.
In fact, the guitar with the greatest feeling neck and fretboard that I’ve played was on a Charvel So-Cal, which is a lot like a Fender Stratocaster, but beefier. The maple fretboard on these felt so smooth and enjoyable to play with.
Out of all of the three main guitar fretboard wood options, ebony is not nearly as available as rosewood or maple. However, it is still not exactly rare. What gives?
Well, first of all, it’s one of the most expensive woods out there because there is a great demand for ebony’s benefits, but the exportation of this wood is controlled, just like certain species of rosewood.
Because it’s naturally oily and finely textured, ebony fretboards have a smoother and slicker feeling to the fretboard while also being one of the toughest and densest woods. Ebony’s tonality sounds closer to the maple fretboards – bright and snappy while still having the dark aesthetic similar to rosewood, albeit noticeably darker and less grainy. Aside from the appearance, these are all things that people like about ebony fingerboards.
Because of this, some guitarists may mention that it’s kind of like a hybrid between the two. An ebony wood guitar fretboard will require the same care as a rosewood one, that’s for sure.
Is The Fretboard Tonewood More Important Than Other Parts?
While the fretboard does make a difference in sound, the various kinds of wood that are used in the body will make a more substantial impact on your tone. I would argue that the wood that your guitar’s fingerboard uses is more important for feel and aesthetics. There is also a lot of variability between the woods that are used to construct a guitar’s body. Here are some of them:
- Maple (can be soft, flamed, quilted, birdseye, etc.)
- Swamp ash
As you can see from this list, there is a variety of choices, and that’s not even all of them. I’m sure I’m missing a few. Each of them has attributes that I will more than likely discuss in a future guide. A couple of them are even the same woods that are used for fretboards!
If you are a beginner or an intermediate player, I recommend checking out some different guitars and making a note of what you like the most. It can be difficult and almost impossible to tell what a guitar is constructed from with an untrained eye and ear, but luckily a guitar’s fingerboard wood is a lot easier to identify.
Find some guitars that you think feel and sound great, and try to find what they are made of. Compare it with other ones. As mentioned before, much of this is subjective, and there is no best guitar wood. Yes, some are rarer and more expensive than others, but it doesn’t always translate to a better sound. It’s all about figuring out what you like!
Summary & Conclusion
Buying a guitar can be hectic sometimes if you don’t know what you’re looking for.
Wood is something that isn’t always considered if you are going to pick up your first guitar, which is understandable, but if you ever plan on getting another one in the future, it is useful to know a little bit about what separates guitars apart, other than brand, shape, color, etc.
Although there are only three, the types of fretboard woods are one way that guitars can be different from one another. They are rosewood, maple, and ebony, and here’s a quick refresher on some of the characteristics of these woods:
- Rosewood: heavy and sturdy; warm, rich, balanced tone
- Maple: a dense wood; bright, twangy, “snappy” sound
- Ebony: one of the hardest and densest woods; bright and snappy tone like maple, while looking more similar to rosewood, but still darker.
All of these woods are wonderful in their own right and should be given an equal chance when buying a guitar.
Like I mentioned in the previous section, be on the lookout and check out some guitars and find some that really catch your eyes and ears. Be mindful and find out what materials they are constructed from. You’ll probably always have a favorite, but always remember that you never have to settle on just one type of wood. Between body and fretboard woods, there’s a lot to pick from.