While the actual ‘first’ solid body electric guitar is hard to pin down, the Fender Esquire is widely regarded to be the first mass produced solid body electric guitar.
The Esquire is made of an entirely swamp ash body, maple neck, and a maple and rosewood fretboard. But this configuration didn’t last long, and Fender eventually went on to use a varying selection of woods for their different models.
Other companies did the same, and the result of this is a massive selection of guitars, all made of different woods. But which one is the best?
Well, as is usually the case with musical instruments, the qualities that differing materials offer are usually valued by musicians looking for certain tones/weights/feel/playability. Basically, it comes down to personal taste.
I’ll explore these different woods further, and explore how they can affect the sounds of the guitars that are built from them.
Ash, specifically swamp ash, was used almost exclusively by Fender as their tone wood of choice. The decision to use swamp ash instead of regular ash is due to the former’s lightweight quality.
Swamp ash isn’t technically a type of wood on its own; it’s just the name for ash trees that grow along the banks of rivers, streams, creeks and bogs. This close proximity to water means that the pores of the wood are much wider, and the roots often reach under the water, making the wood much lighter when cut down and processed.
The obvious benefit of this when applied to instrument making is that the guitars themselves will be much lighter, especially if swamp ash is used as the main tone wood for the body, in a single piece or as two or three pieces fixed together.
Sonically, ash is known for producing a brighter treble and more pronounced sustain, thanks largely to ash’s very hard and dense properties. Swamp ash especially is recognised as giving one of the brightest and ‘freshest’ sounds of all the tone woods.
Ash also provides a clear, yet not overly dominant bass range, and a natural scooped sound on the mids.
Overall, ash is a well rounded, slightly mellower sounding tone wood than alder.
Due to its appearance; long straight grains that are very visually striking, many guitars made of ash/swamp ash will be lacquered with a transparent or semi-transparent finish.
Ash is mainly used for Telecasters, but was employed heavily in the early models of the Stratocaster as well.
Alder was introduced by Fender in 1956, and since then has gone on to be the staple tone wood for many of their classic models. The switch from ash to alder was largely to do with cost and availability at the time, but it was soon discovered that alder had its own range of benefits as a tone wood that could rival even the finest swamp ash.
Fender tends to use red alder specifically, as it is fast growing and more readily available than any other kind. Generally, alder bodies are rarely one piece, and are constructed of three of four pieces of alder glued together.
When it comes to tonality, alder is held in high regard for its resonance and tonal balance, with a slight push on the upper midrange when talking in terms of frequencies.
Great sustain and attack, extra presence and an emphasis on the upper mids give alder body guitars a punchy and robust sound.
Compared to ash, the differences are difficult to discern, but to oversimplify it, one could say ash offers a slightly more rounded tone, and alder offers more gain and clarity.
Alder has a tight, close grain and dense pores, meaning it takes a variety of finishes very well, and is often lacquered with solid colors.
Unlike ash, the grain of alder is much more consistent, and has a very tight if less visible appearance.
Strats, Teles, and More…
Historically, Fender used swamp ash for almost all of its early guitars, for the reasons discussed above. But since early 2020, an invasive non-native pest, the borer beetle, has been decimating Fender’s usual supply of high quality ash.
As a result of this, the small amount they can get their hands on is reserved strictly for vintage models, which are designed and built as exact replicas of the early 1950s guitars in which ash was used almost exclusively.
So, for the most part, any Telecaster or Stratocaster you can buy today will most likely not be made of any kind of ash.
Unless you opt for a classic vintage reissue (which could set you back a fair few thousand dollars), you will end up with an alder body guitar.
This is of course not a bad thing, by any means, as alder is the predominant tone wood for the many reasons I mentioned above. But if you really had your heart set on an ash body, there are some other options available.
The Fender American Vintage series, American Original series, and various musician Custom models all feature ash bodies, and many of these lines include both Stratocaster, Telecasters, Jaguars, Jazzmasters and Mustangs.
If you’re interested, click here to view specifically the most popular guitars of today with Ash bodies.
So, swamp ash vs alder - which guitar wood makes more sense for you?
In reality, the subtle differences between ash and alder are going to be almost imperceptible to the average player, especially once the guitar is amplified and possibly run through a chain of effects pedals.
For those with highly trained ears and a penchant for a certain, highly specific sound, pursuing one or other of these tone woods might be worth your while. For everyone else, as I always say, the best thing you can do is to test out both different types of guitar, and see which tone wood suits your sound best.
And of course, there’s more than just the sonic aspect to consider. Do you prefer a super lightweight guitar, or one with a little more weight?
What about the cosmetics, the look of the guitar?
These are all things to consider in your decision making. Once you actually play both body types, you’ll probably find that what sways your mind one way or the other, is not whether the guitar is built from ash or alder, but how it sounds overall, to you.