Fretboard tonewood choice is an interesting subject among guitar players of all genres.
As with all music-related topics, the choice comes down to personal preference and to what works best for each player. Some players don’t have a preference for a particular tonewood fretboard, while other players are bound to only one firm choice.
If you belong to the first group this article will give you a more detailed insight into which type of tonewood will work best for you. If however you are dedicated to only one choice, it might give you a different perspective on other tonewoods.
How to choose the best tonewood
Choosing the best tonewood is a matter of knowing on which side of the sonic spectrum you stand.
Apart from specific cases, what generally makes guitar players choose one type of wood is a matter of feel or a hunch that becomes a habit over time. As musicians, our early impressions and experiences with instruments dictate a lot of our future choices. The feel comes as a combination of all the elements that make up a guitar.
When considering the tonewood it’s important to consider the guitar that you are using. The “feel” obviously comes from the fingers, meaning it is a combination of the tone you are used to getting out of your hands and the playability that different tonewoods have.
Also, when considering playability, keep in mind that there are a lot of other elements that come into play. Fretboards radius, width, setup, and fretwork are among the most important. When done poorly or cheaply, these elements dictate a lot more than the wood used in the general playability of the guitar.
Below we list the characteristics of the major tonewoods used so that you can discover which one suits you best.
The 3 major tonewoods
One thing that makes guitar fretboards special is that the design and generally the parts used have stayed the same for almost half a millennium. Since the introduction of the classical guitar centuries ago, luthiers have been experimenting with different tonewoods.
Walnut, ebony, and rosewood were used widely in the past. Luthiers also experimented with more exotic mediums like bone, ivory, mother of pearl, and tortoiseshell during the period where guitars were seen as instruments for the noble class.
With some of the materials becoming rarer, trees becoming endangered, and some others very expensive, the big 3: Ebony, Maple, and Rosewood began dominating guitar fingerboards in the modern age of music.
Maple necks became a standard when they were first introduced by Leo Fender in the 50s. To ensure a strong and quality neck at an overall affordable price, Fender started by producing a single-piece Neck which was all maple.
Ever since the Telecaster and Stratocaster became the icon of a major blues and rock n’ roll movement, maple fretboards have been one of the most popular and widespread among electric guitars.
Maple fretboards are on the bright side of things, both in looks and tone. They are characterized by a bright tone, almost crispy with a strong attack and some “twang” in the tone.
Maple fretboards contribute to giving Strats their distinctive “woody” tone you hear in the blues or the snappiness of funky strummed parts. Maple fretboards on a telecaster are part of what creates the country’s twangy, clean tone.
A maple fretboard on a warmer-sounding instrument can balance out the tone and give more clarity to the tone. This helps Fender bass guitars have more articulation even in the lower notes.
One thing to keep in mind when considering fretboard tonewoods is that the neck can be of a different tonewood than the fingerboard. The single-piece maple neck design is still used today, but there is also another way to approach fretboard design.
The neck can be of a different tonewood, for example, mahogany. The maple fretboard is then attached to it. This mixes up the tonal characteristics of different woods and can blur the line between them in terms of tone.
Regarding the feel, the best words to describe how a maple fretboard feels are slick and smooth. For some people, however, maple can feel a bit “hard” compared to rosewood or ebony.
The biggest contender of maple fretboards is rosewood. Rosewood is perceived by many guitar players as the direct opposite of maple in looks, tone, and feel.
While there is no mistaking the look of a rosewood fretboard. The dark look matches perfectly the warmer tone that the tonewood producers compared to maple fretboard. If maple offers a bright look and sound, rosewood boosts the low-mid frequencies, where the sweet tones lie.
The natural warmth of this tonewood makes it a perfect fit for Les Pauls, which is where you usually expect to find that warm tone. Rosewood is also great for most jazz guitars. Think about the legendary Ibanez 335 or Gretsch guitars.
A bright guitar, like a Fender strat, can be balanced out nicely with a rosewood neck. That’s why many Stratocaster players prefer them with a rosewood neck rather than maple.
One thing you should know about rosewood is that 2 kinds are often confused
- Indian rosewood, which is the most used and common type used.
- Brazilian rosewood, considered to be the high-end version of rosewood.
Brazilian rosewood can be told apart from Indian by its wide palette of colors, spanning from very dark to a lighter brown. This tonewood is now extremely rare to find since it has been banned from export and only vintage guitars usually have it.
The emphasized low-end on of rosewood fretboards makes them great also for metal guitars. Ibanez guitar, Schecters, Jacksons, and other models spanning from mid-high end guitars generally use rosewood.
Out of the main 3, Ebony is the less common tonewood used today.
The reasons are the same as for rosewood. Years of overusing the wood have made it illegal to harvest in some countries. Like Maple, Ebody is an extremely dense and strong wood that makes for a great long-lasting fretboard.
The color of Ebony ranges from light brown to deep black, which is also the rarest type of Ebony found today. During the last century, deep black fretboards were so sought out that companies would discard any non-black ebony tree.
Tone-wise, Guitarists consider Ebony fretboards as standing somewhere in the middle between rosewood and maple. This Tonewood usually gives the guitar a strong attack and bright sound, comparable to Maple.
A great way Ebony is used is on metal guitars. While the look is dark as it fits the genre and design of the guitar, the tone is brighter. That makes a perfect choice for players who like tone with a powerful attack but also love darker colors.
Also, as with Rosewood, Ebony doesn’t require finishing to be played.
If you like the tone of Maple fretboards, but want to try out another feel when played, Ebony fretboards might be great for you.
Less commonly used tonewoods
Apart from the major 3 listed above, guitar builders also use less common tonewoods.
Padauk, Indian Laure, and Pau Ferro are tonewoods used generally as a replacement for Rosewood. The 3 of them share the same characteristics as rosewood but also have unique differences in tone and feel.
Ovangkol is an exotic wood that stands in between the brightness of maple and the sweetness of rosewood. You can say that in a way it’s similar to Ebony sharing the characteristics of both the other major 2.
Walnut is also another widely used tonewood historically but was never as popular as the major 3 in the modern age of guitar builders.
Nowadays brands are starting to produce fretboards out of synthetics materials. While this may sound futuristic, in reality, it’s been used for a while now and with great results. Many guitar builders have been using Rocklite, Rocklite, and other materials for years now and they share many characteristics of natural tonewoods.
Considering the shortage of natural wood and the advancement in technology, we will see more and more artificial materials in our favorite guitar fretboards and probably other parts as well.
Finding the best tonewood is a matter of knowing what you are looking for in a guitar’s tone. It’s the overall combination of all the elements that make up your guitar rig and your hands that dictate the tone of the guitar. The fretboard wood is a very important part of it.
There is no definitive line on how much tonewood affects your tone and playing, but there are certain characteristics you should keep in mind to evaluate what works best for you.
Save this article as a guide and if you want to master the fretboard, check out our 20 drills that offer all you need to go from beginner to intermediate and advanced fretboard mastery.