In the simplest of terms an electric guitar is a piece of wood, sculpted and refined to produce sound. Pickups, pedals, amps, playing style – they all converge to produce and shape guitar tone. And so does the wood with which your guitar is made.
The impact of tonewoods on electric guitar tone remains a hotly debated topic, to the extent that many guitarists will deny its ability to alter sound. This is due to the fact that an electric guitar, unlike an acoustic make, produces sound as the vibration of strings travels through the magnetic field created by its pickups and so the connection between wood and sound are much less obvious. Yet despite the lesser role played by the wood itself, the strum of a string on a electric still results in sonic energy being transported through the bridge and nut, directly into the body and neck.
It’s this process that alters the resonance generated by a heavier wood in mahogany and that of a lighter wood in basswood, the subtle differences of which are well worth noting for any tone obsessed guitarist.
Used for both bodies and necks, maple is a dense, solid and robust wood, its heaviness enabling it to absorb high tension and wear and tear. As the most commonly used neckwood in solid body guitars – Fender are a great proponent of its stability and rigidity – it provides tightness and sharpness to a guitar, with an extra dose of heat in the highs, complemented by firm lows.
Eric Johnson Stratocaster, Maple
Sourced predominantly from the Northeast and Northwest of the US and Canada, maple is renowned for its brightness - particularly in comparison to its major counterpart in mahogany. With a distinct ability to carry sound waves, it is used to construct the bodies of violins, violas, cellos and double basses. However it’s weightiness means that it is often a component in a multi-wood guitar body, or accompanied with the likes of a rosewood fingerboard when used for the neck, which results in a greater clarity in tone.
Mahogany is utilised in slab and multi-wood bodies, as well as in the construction of necks. The medium-heavy profile is lighter than that of maple wood, and allows it to be used in single-wood bodies, examples of which include the Gibson Les Paul Jr., Les Paul Special and SG.
Gibson SG Naked, Mahogany Body & Neck
The benefits of an all-mahogany guitar are felt in the warmth and fullness of tone. It brings to the fore greater balance and distinguished depth, without particularly tight lows, or exceptionally cutting highs. In a nutshell it’s sustain more than spring, solid sounding more so than bounce and bite.
When a solid mahogany back is paired with a solid maple top we get the best of both worlds – the balance and booming resonance of mahogany, matched by the clarity and articulated highs of a dense maple top.
Alder bodies are intrinsically linked with Fender, the guitar manufacturer having utilised the wood’s medium-weight and full-sounding properties since the 1950s. As an alternative to mahogany, Alder promotes a balanced tone, but with the added benefit of tighter lows, and some pop in the highs, while its mids are thick and sturdy. Together these tonal characteristics make for a pronounced three-prong attack, which is perfect for a single-wood body.
Fender Classic Series '72 Telecaster Deluxe, Alder Body
Here we have another wood made prominent by the manufacturing of Fender guitars – in this case the construction of classic ‘50s Teles and Strats. Like other woods used for the purpose of constructing electric guitars, ash ticks all the boxes as far as density, toughness and robustness are concerned. However, its lightness – often described as an elastic property – means that it is predominantly used for single-wood, slab-bodied guitars.
Fender American Standard Telecaster, Ash Body
In comparison to the darker tones found in alder bodies, ash offers sweeter and smoother tones, characterised by mellow highs, firm lows, a faintly scooped midrange and solid sustain.
Basswood is native to eastern North America and sourced in abundance due its significant growth rate. As such it is used regularly in the construction of budget and mid-level guitars, its lightness, sturdiness and resonance all appealing to manufacturers of solid body electrics.
Peavey AT-200 Auto-Tune Solic Basswood Electric Guitar
The softness of the wood provides an airiness and brightness, underpinned by a burly midrange and some tonal girth. At its best a basswood body matches nice articulation with some penetrating grit and grind.
As a heavy-duty, distinctly durable tonewood, rosewood is often the number one choice for flat-top acoustic guitars. Yet its pronounced weightiness and subsequent tonal brightness makes it ill-fitting for the construction of solid body electrics, which is why we see it used so regularly in multi-wood necks.
Fender Squier Bullet, Rosewood Fretboard
Combined with a maple neck, a rosewood fretboard offers sweeter, twinkling highs and slightly looser lows, while the mids also tend to be a little less tighter and radiate with greater warmth as a result. With the firmness of the maple lows, and snap of the maple highs, the rosewood rounds out the rough edges and relaxes the tightness. With a mahogany neck, a rosewood fretboard enlivens the highs, adds richness to the lows and provides a solid midrange.