It’s no secret, 99% of electric guitars are made from wood. Sometimes woods chosen for electric guitars are referred to as “tone woods”. This implies that most (or at least some) of the guitars tonal character comes from its wooden components. It is a truth that acoustic instruments, like the violin, cello, wood flute, and the acoustic guitar draw a good deal of tone from the types and quality of woods used. Furthermore, it is safe (I hope) to say the player has much to do with any instruments tone, including the electric guitar.
The main wooden parts of the common electric guitar are pretty simple: The body, the neck (and headstock), and the fingerboard. Tone is said to be a factor in choice of woods when building an electric guitar but other factors are at work as well. Remember that the common electric guitar started out mostly as a simple pickup mounted on an acoustically designed archtop hollow body guitar. The guitar was already steeped in generations of tradition and hundreds of years of evolution by the time the true “electric only” solid body electric guitars became popular.
Why is one wood favored over another? Why does a single model sometimes use one body wood, and sometimes a different one? Why are there sometimes multiple pieces of the same wood, or two mixed woods? With so many variables, how do you know what woods make a good (or maybe better) neck or fingerboard?
We will try to explore common choices, and explain why some woods are “anointed” while others ignored, as well as some misconceptions and new alternatives in a changing world.
The solid body guitar is currently manufactured all over the world today, and no quiet corner of the earth is safe from its onslaught (thankfully). The roots of the electric guitar are grown in American soil (literally, in some cases and figuratively in others). This is one window into the discovery of why some woods “won” and some “lost”.
Commonly used woods for the body need to be strong enough to support the tension of the strings, have durability, the ability to work easily with hand and machine tools, take to sanding, staining, and paint. They also need to be light enough to be comfortable. Take into account the added weight of magnet or battery driven pickups, other electrical components, hardware for the bridge and tailpiece, neck plates, control plates, tuning machines, and more.
Stop to reflect a moment: A 4lbs body blank can end up with a couple pounds of electronics and extras. Add a neck, end pins, tuners, frets, and more. Your 4lb body is now a 10lb guitar. While it may not be the case that every guitar body will double or more in weight before it’s complete, components add up fast.
Some hardwoods are so dense that they are difficult to use. Machine and hand tools are used even on a modern CNC cut guitar body. Some woods may seem perfect in all aspects, but are not available in large enough planks. Some hardwoods may not hold nails or screws well. How do you think such a wood will work with a bolt on neck, or a screwed down pickguard?
Hickory is a great example of a wood that is not commonly used for say…a Tele. –Ok, step back, I’m using technology– Using the average density of hickory, the exact board size required for a finished Tele body (1.836) and a calculator, we have a reasonable answer why. The body alone will weigh about 7lbs but could be as much as 9lbs. Add the neck and hardware, and you have done it. Ta da!-The world’s heaviest Tele.
Weight and ease of use are not nearly the only considerations taken into account. Body woods are finished in clear, translucent and opaque finishes. Natural wood, single color stains as well as multi-layered “sunburst” translucent colors are commonplace, especially in pre-1960 electrics. Opaque sunburst, solid and multicolor, metal flake and custom graphics eventually become more and more common. One famous example of custom paint is Eric Clapton’s 60’s Gibson SG, used in his “Cream” years. This particular guitar has a mahogany body, originally finished in Gibson mainstay, translucent cherry stain. The guitar was painted by the famous Dutch artists, known collectively as “The Fool”. Any trace of visible wood grain was obliterated in favor of the now iconic winged cherub, on its way to a psychedelic smoke shop in Burma.
The Telecaster and Strat woods:
The first Teles (and Strats) to reach the market place had Ash bodies. The Tele has a fairly simple, but effective design. Ash is a very common American hardwood, and very common to the American west, where the Tele was first manufactured. Alder and Ash are common to the region, and common around the USA.
Ash is most certainly chosen for its beauty over Alder for translucent or natural finishes. Early Fenders, like the Butterscotch Teles, and sunburst Strats utilized Ash wood, due to its beautiful curved and wide grain patterns. Later models used opaque sunbursts, and butterscotch finishes on Strat and Teles. When the translucence goes away, so does the Ash wood.
Ash in sizes large enough to manufacture an electric guitar of one piece, or two pieces, is a costly way to go, compared with alder. Weight can vary dramatically with ash, depending on what part of the tree is used to make planks. Many people may note the extremely heavy natural ash Strats and Telecasters of the 1970s. Examples of very, very heavy 1950’s ash body Fenders are out there also. Heavy Fender guitars are more common in the 70s but it is not an exclusive trait of the 70s. Lighter weight examples of ash large enough to make a guitar without laminating 5, 6, or more pieces became a more expensive proposition, as time goes by. Ash quarried from mature trees are likely to produce the desired size and weight for a quality ash body guitar. Outer sections and lower parts of the tree are what produce desired grain and weight in large enough sizes.
On the plus side, ash is breathtaking, when the proper cut and size is used. We will not debate the merits of its tonal characteristics, however, blind side by side comparisons have been conducted where ash and alder do not produce a quantifiable difference in tone. Your mileage may vary, and you should compare and contrast, removing as many variables as possible. Many high end Strats and Teles still use ash as a substitute for more commonly used alder and there is nearly always an upcharge for the ash wood body. One or even two-piece ash bodies are seldom seen on models below the $2,000 range.
The Fender has become an absolute artist at laminating ash, so it appears to be one piece. The best way to tell how many pieces your translucent ash body guitar has laminated together is to look at the rear end, above and below the end pin. Look closely, and count the now much more visible seams. alder is a superb choice for a lighter guitar, with less lamination needed. Most guitar players will prefer a two-piece body of alder than a 14-piece guitar of ash, no matter how nice it looks. Does multi-piece lamination ruin an electric guitars tone? The traditional belief is that it does: In truth, probably not. There is no debate that the fewer pieces used of the same wood, the more desirable the guitars will be- regardless of sonic quality, real or perceived. It is simply a traditional and commonly held belief. For guitar players, tradition is paramount. For Fender, the use of common, locally grown woods turned out to be a big advantage.
Gibson body woods
There are of course exceptions, but mahogany is the primary wood used for making Gibson electric guitar bodies. Like ash and alder, mahogany is in the hardwood family, but it is not grown outside of tropical climates. It has a subdued, but beautiful short grain pattern, in comparison to ash, but more interesting looking than unfinished alder.(this is the part that gets me all the hate mail from alder freaks). Central America, the Caribbean, and parts of Africa grow the world’s supply of Mahogany. 70% of the world’s Mahogany trees have been cut down between the end of WWII and Y2K. Many guitar companies and other environmental groups have supported and repopulated forests, and sustainable Mahogany is plantation grown. Because of the high demand for Mahogany, quality (especially instrument grade) wood has grown scarce and is consequently expensive.
Besides its tone wood status and beauty, mahogany is a great wood to work with. It takes well to tooling, easy sanding and takes well to stain and paint. Exceptions in Gibson’s “solid body” are few. Many Les Paul “Standard” and “Custom” model guitars have employed chambered and weight relieved Mahogany bodies in modern times due to the difficulty in getting light weight mahogany stock of the right size. Some die-hard players will insist on a non-weight relieved guitar, but Gibson did some weight relief on guitar bodies before it was common knowledge, and nobody seemed to notice. You decide what’s right for you, in that aspect. Again, tradition plays a role in this subject.
Most players like a lighter guitar, this is for obvious back and comfort related issues as well as tone.
The wood’s density has little to do with the guitars ability to sustain notes. The strings break angle at the headstock and bridge has much more to do with sustain. A truth of physics is that density and frequency have a direct relationship. High frequencies travel better through dense (heavy) materials. There are many factors, but in generally speaking: the heavier the guitars body is, the brighter it will sound. It is counter intuitive, but true. Ask Bill Nye (The Science Guy).
Alongside mahogany, Gibson uses multiple body woods on one very special model: The Les Paul. It’s one of the few solid body electrics that has such a thick second wood for the top. Most other solid body electric guitars that use a maple top have a thin veneer, for beauty’s sake, compared to early pre-burst Les Paul models had an opaque, gold-colored top. Aside from the relative thickness of the maple top, the solid color seems proof enough that the maple top was first chosen more for tone than beauty. Of course, when the translucent 1958 sunburst Les Paul came to town, a whole new can of “whoop Ash” was opened. (Yes, whoop-ash is a clever play on woods, uh… words). The Maple-topped Les Pauls’ are built to add some snap and brightness to the tone. When a translucent sunburst is used on a figured maple, the results are… legendary.
Neck and fingerboard woods
The neck of a guitar is the definition of its feel and playability, as well as where nearly all the hand contact is done. The neck needs to stay motionless otherwise the tuning will have adverse effects. Again, tradition is strong with the relatively “new” guitar. Mahogany is a popular choice and nearly all Gibson electrics are fitted with a mahogany neck. The popularity of mahogany is due to its strength and straight grain, along with being relatively easy to work on with hand tools. Comfortable neck shapes can be easily shaped as well; Mahogany sands down to a smooth and comfortable surface, and takes well to stain, dye and paint. It is a little soft for holding down frets, and the punishment a fingerboard must be able to endure; consequently, necks are commonly made from mahogany, but a fretboard of a different hardwood will often be laminated to the top of a mahogany neck. Mahogany is traditional in creating necks on guitars, and is in no doubt a factor of its continued use.
Fender is a company that started out making electric instruments, not acoustic. Never bound by tradition (until now, or course) they decided to use a locally harvested hardwood. When cut the right way for maximum strength (quarter sawn) a rock maple neck is a stable and easy to work with choice. Its tight grain pattern gives a slick feel, and repels dirt and grime fairly well, even when unfinished. Violins are commonly made with maple necks: A quarter century of trial and error helped make this commonly available wood a proven commodity. Maple is also hard enough to be used as a fingerboard wood, easily hard enough to hold frets tightly in place, and easy to finish. Lacquer finished maple proved to be problematic with staying “new” looking. Frequent play time caused those super cool black marks up and down a maple fingerboard. Keep in mind you’re seeing the lacquer blacken, not the maple. Vintage examples of this look are treated like a well-worn badge of honor, but in the 1960’s nobody wanted a 10-year-old guitar to look like it had 100 years of play time by the unwashed hands of a coal miner. To prevent this problem going forward, a harder urethane finish was used in the late 60s to prevent the black finger marks.
Before the electric guitar, or even fretted fingerboards, Ebony ruled the roost for hundreds of years on violins, violas, cellos, and double bass. It’s is extremely well suited for fingerboard wood since it’s extremely dense and not prone to warping or play marks even over many years of use.
Ebony holds fret tangs in quite well. Tight grain is excellent for staying clean. Another added perk: less finish means a slicker, more natural feel. However, since Ebony grows extremely slowly, coupled with high demand, it’s become one of the most expensive woods on earth. A single tree of mature size can bring upwards of one million dollars and take 150 years to reach maturity.
Rosewood is also a favorite choice for fingerboards. Not grown domestically, and nearly places of origin have been over quarried. Legendary and hardwood seldom are used in the same sentence, but not the case with Brazilian Rosewood. Used heavily in the 30s through 60s on more iconic instruments than can be counted. Brazilian strains of rosewood have been heavily regulated since 1970. Long loved for many reasons: Extreme beauty: exotic striations, and color. Tight grain, extreme hardness (harder than maple). Rosewood is also easy to maintain, resists warping, and laminates well. Rosewood has it all (it is however, very rich in natural oils, making finish work difficult).
Walnut, is on occasion used for body and neck wood. Once thought to be too expensive, walnut is looking more and more economical, as the price of mahogany soars. Today’s builders use reasonable alternatives, like ovangkol, basswood, and nato instead of mahogany, and Pau Ferro instead of rosewood. The future traditional “woods” may end up being something like the popular Richlite (a type of synthetic ebony, that is very close in all aspects) Carbon fiber (completely synthetic material, already used for Top wood, and bodies).
Surely tone is a consideration in the woods that won history’s approval, but so are strength, pore size, grain, beauty, weight, cost and availability. Today’s breakthrough may be your ancestor’s choice.
Who knows, you may sit in a rocking chair as and old man, defending the music of Black Sabbath, or the Sex Pistols saying, at least we had wood, kid! Now get your Frisbee, and don’t ever walk on my lawn again!