Q: Hey Mike, I’m thinking of buying an American Professional Stratocaster. I know I have fretboard options like Maple, Rosewood, and Pau Ferro. What’s the difference? What would you go with?
A: To start, choosing a Fender Strat is a great way to go. Unfortunately, the “Pro” model Strat is not offered with Pau Ferro. But don’t “fret” (sorry, a little guitar humor), you do get to choose Maple or Rosewood, depending on your choice of color.
Some may argue, but the fingerboard wood choice may not make a radical difference in tone. Too many other factors add up to your guitar’s overall sound. I have heard respected luthiers say that the fingerboard of a solid body electric makes up about 5% of the guitar’s tone. My experience has led me to believe this is true, most of the time. Your strings come in contact with the frets, not the fingerboard wood. Frets will affect the tone as much, if not more, than the fingerboard wood.
Okay, down to your available choices on the Fender American Pro Strat.
Most people say Maple boards have a snappy, brighter sound. Rosewood is said to be slightly warmer and has less “ping.”
What do I say? Maple is denser than Rosewood. More density generally equals brighter tone. So you may find that Maple has a brighter tone, in some situations. It also has a less “woody” feel. Also, remember that years down the line, Maple will be more costly to re-fret.
With Rosewood fingerboards, the brightness is not in any way lacking, but you may experience less of a snappy edge. Rosewood fingerboards also often have much less finish applied. This will give a more “woody” feel. Personally, I like Rosewood, more for feel and looks than tone.
If you’re trying to decide which fretboard is right for you, come into a store and ask for two Fender Professional models – one with a Maple fretboard and one with a Rosewood board. Try to find a pair with the same set up and similar overall weight. Then take “The Pepsi Challenge” (close your eyes, no peeking). See if YOU can hear a difference.
Bring a friend, or ask an associate for help. Listen to them play with your back turned. Hearing the difference won’t be as easy as you think. In the end, pick what feels and looks right TO YOU!
Q: Mike, what’s the deal with lemon oil and guitars? Do I really need to put it on my fretboard? Does it improve playability?
A: Lemon oil and oiling fingerboards is often misunderstood and argued about. This has been my experience – lemon oil can be used on some types of fingerboards.
Lemon oil is not so useful on wood with a very dense grain—like Ebony. It is useless on a Maple board (especially with a thick finish).
I find lemon oil is best used on a Rosewood board, when it is very dirty, very dry, or both. Lemon oil will restore the rich color and help prevent the wood from becoming brittle. When a fingerboard is exposed to direct sunlight or is placed close to a spotlight for extended periods of time, the wood’s natural oils can get depleted.
Lemon oil can also be used as a lubricant when polishing frets with 000 bronze wool. It can take the gunk (“gunk” is tech speak for dead skin, sweat, and spilled drinks) off the top and sides of the frets.
But be warned! Too much lemon oil is not a good thing. A drop or two the size of a dime should be more than enough to coat the entire board. Too much lemon oil can make frets pop out, not to mention make your guitar smell like it lives in a janitor’s closet. Wipe off excess oil, no matter how cool it makes the wood look. Also, any lemon oil that gets onto the body of the guitar needs to be wiped off completely, ASAP.
Q: Mike, does the type of paint on the guitar affect the tone? What is the deal with nitrocellulose and thin layers of paint?
A: Yes, the finish can and will affect the tone of a guitar—sometimes more, sometimes less. Acoustic guitars made of solid woods will be affected quite a bit. Even a ply-top acoustic can be adversely affected by a thick finish.
The top wood of an acoustic guitar, aka the sound board, sounds best when it can vibrate (resonate) freely. Lighter bracing helps, and yes, a thin finish will help allow the natural vibrations to ring out.
The same is true of solid body electric guitars, but it’s not quite as much of a factor. A great example of this is the famous story of John Lennon’s Gibson J-160E. The J-160E has a ply top, helping to dampen the vibrations. This does not help the J-160E sound good as a straight-up acoustic guitar, but it does wonders in cutting down on feedback.
Lennon’s J-160E started out as a typical sunburst. Some time in the 1960s, Lennon began to experiment with psychedelic “things.” Apparently one of those things was his J-160E.
John had the guitar painted by a Dutch artist known as “The Fool.” It looked as intended and I bet Lennon was thrilled with the look—but he was not very pleased when he played it. The thick acrylic paint used to transform Lennon’s guitar to artwork also destroyed what little acoustic tone it had. Not many images exist of this guitar as Lennon had the paint stripped off of it quite quickly.
[Left: Lennon’s experiments. The J160E shown in its three presentations- original Gibson factory sunburst, psychedelic “The Fool” paint job, and stripped.]
As far as electric guitars, it’s fair to say that nitrocellulose adds to a great tone. Nitrocellulose or thin-skinned finish is a factor, but well-made solid body electrics will be less affected in terms of tone than an acoustic. It’s also fair to say that a great electric doesn’t need to have such a thin lacquer finish to be a great guitar. Many fine sounding Gibson’s from the 1980s did not use nitro. PRS does not shoot nitro (well, almost never). Fender stopped using nitro long before Jimi Hendrix’s Woodstock Strat was built—he sounded good to me, how about you?
Q: Mike why do you think some guitar cables are more costly than others? Do they have different connectors?
A: Just like everything else, there are varying levels of quality in guitars, guitar straps, pics, and yep, cables. One reason for the difference in price (and hopefully quality) is in your question. Many manufacturers make their better cables with gold plated tips. Gold is an excellent conductor of electricity. But it is not the sole factor in what makes a good, better, or top of the line cable.
Let’s face the “music.” Guitar cables don’t do much for the look of your set up. They are not sexy, like a nice guitar, or basket weave Marshall 4×12, but they are a major factor in your tone. The cable that comes “free” with the $69.99 Walmart exclusive electric guitar is very capable…if you are planning to tie down your trunk with it.
Crackle is not what you want, every time you move an inch. Complete failure is even worse. Some cheap cable will maybe sound okay to you—until it fails. If you’re playing a gig and the cable dies; you’re going to want to die along with it. Stout connections and quality materials will last longer and are well worth the extra money. I was extremely skeptical until I got a pair of high quality cables. When they are not in my bag of goodies, I hear the difference right away.
High-end frequencies can get lost and everything you put in won’t make it out of the speaker. It’s a “weakest link issue.” On the other hand (just for fun), SRV liked cheap, radio shack curly cables. SRV was a serious student of the divine Jimi Hendrix, who was notorious for using cruddy coil type cables, even for speaker wire. Why? Stevie was quoted as saying that monster cables are too efferent. I will not argue with any man who can play like that—or Hendrix for that matter. The high resistance of the cheap cables likely had an impact on the output of his Strat, into the primitive Fuzz Face. Less signal, better sound, in a combination like that.
Sometimes, low-fi is good-fi. I will say this of gold connectors, high quality braided wire, and sturdy construction, if you really want to hear the difference, play the better cables for a week or two, in a band setting, either live or in rehearsal, then switch back to the $9.99 specials and listen again. It made a believer out of this skeptic.