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Choosing Guitar Woods

Alder

Alder guitar wood is generally grown in Russia, Europe and in some parts of Africa. The wood is a very popular choice for several reasons, one of which is its lighter weight when compared to some other tone woods.

Alder has a very tight and hard pattern to its grain which gives the benefit of making it a great wood to work with and easy to create a nice finish. The grain itself is certainly not unpleasant but is generally finished with a sunburst or a solid colour as it has no distinct grain lines. There are other tone woods that provide a more attractive grain if this is part of the finish that you require i.e. with a natural or translucent finish to show the grain.

The actual colour of the wood can have a slight red/pink tinge to it. 

Another reason for Alder being so popular is for its tone. It is well known for its balanced frequencies and rich tone and has a good upper midrange to cut through. It is described by many guitar players as being bang in the middle for tone – neither heavy nor bright.

Since the mid 1950’s Alder has been the mainstay of Fender bodies. It is mostly used on its own for solid bodies (without other finishes/laminate tops). Although Alder is by no means a weak wood, it is not strong enough for use in necks or fingerboards.

 

Ash

There are a couple of different kinds of Ash tone wood used for guitars - Northern Hard Ash and Swamp Ash (Southern Soft Ash). Swamp Ash is exactly that – taken from trees whose roots grow below water. The wood is quite lightweight (especially when compared with Hard Ash) and cream in colour. The grain is open and pronounced making it more appealing for natural or translucent finishes than the likes of Alder.

Swamp Ash is very resonant over low, mid and high frequencies and can be described as warm, bright and dynamic. 

Swamp Ash was utilised by Fender up to the mid 1950’s which is when Alder then became the choice of tone wood for Fender. It is a rarer wood than Alder and can therefore cost a little more. 

As per its name Hard Ash tone wood is exactly that. It is denser and heavier when compared to Swamp Ash tone wood. It does look similar to Swamp Ash, however its denser properties make it sound brighter and also gives it a sustain that is a little longer. Hard Ash is often chosen by guitarists where more distorted and harder sounds are required.

Ash is generally used for solid bodied guitars on its own, however has also been used as a laminate to provide a different appearance and add to tonal qualities.

 

Basswood

Basswood really is a lightweight tone wood and has a tight grain with a fine texture. It is quite a soft wood when compared to other tone woods. Due to its light and soft properties it is only used for bodies, not fingerboards, necks or as a laminate.

It is quite white in colour with a barely visible grain and is often given either a solid colour or sunburst finish because of this. 

Many guitar players site Basswood as having a warmer tone (as opposed to bright) with nice mids.

 

Mahogany

Mahogany is actually a name that covers a range of woods from all around the world. It is resistant to rot and has excellent durability which makes it an extremely popular choice for making furniture and even boat parts. Mahogany tone wood is one of the heaviest of woods. When the wood is fresh it is yellowish, turning pink and then reddish brown when matured.

It has a very fine even grain pattern and is often finished in translucent finishes. It has been widely used by Gibson. Its tonal qualities are well known in the guitar world for being warm with full on tone and great sustain. The wood is believed to give greater tonal qualities as it gets more and more mature.

Mahogany tone wood is also used for laminate tops of guitars as well as necks due to its strength and stability.

 

Maple

Similar to Ash there are a couple of types of Maple – Hard Maple (Eastern Maple) and Soft Maple (Sugar Maple).

Hard Maple is hard and considerably heavy and is mostly used in guitar necks as opposed to solid guitar bodies because of this.

Maple has a very light white like colour and has a very thin grain. The wood cannot be dyed, but looks great with a clear finish or a transparent colour. The tone that Maple tone wood produces is very bright and has a good sustain. It is easy to see why this wood is also used for parts of various other stringed instruments including violins and cellos.

Soft Maple is the term used covering several types of Maple that are not Hard Maple. As the wood is not as hard it is also lighter in weight than Hard Maple. The grain in Soft Maple tone wood can be considerably more interesting than its harder counterpart. It is not hard enough to be used for guitar necks but is used as a veneer or a laminate. It can often be found as a top to other tone woods such as basswood where it will add its own tonal qualities.

Spalted Maple is a very unique pattern which is produced when the wood has been part of a decaying tree. The dark lines in some of the grain is due to fungal attack and is a naturally occurring process and cannot be artificially created. This wood is actually the product of a dead or decaying tree. The dark lines are created by fungal attack. It is used as a veneer and is quite expensive compared to other finishes.

Flamed Maple or Tiger Maple is called so due to the striped effect that is sometimes produced by the Maple. These are usually used as a veneer finish.