As guitarists, we tend to focus mostly on the most obvious contributors to the tone of our instrument. Our choice of pickups, strings, amplifier, and indeed effects pedals are all considered before wood types.
In reality, though, choosing a guitar with the best tonewood combinations will impact your sound and playing just as much as the aforementioned factors. In this article, I’ll go through the best woods for the body and neck of an electric guitar.
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Why Does Wood Type Matter?
It seems pretty obvious that different types of wood have varying textures. Indeed, this is true, but the different qualities of tonewoods aren’t just limited to the feel. Specific wood types are chosen not only for their tactile qualities but also for the tones that they evoke from the guitar.
The first thing to establish is that wood, being an organic material, changes as it ages and grows. These changes affect the physical shape of the wood, alongside the patterns and depth of its grains.
It’s fair to say that after a relatively short period, wood has transformed into a completely different material than its original form. This constant state of change has to be accounted for when constructing the body and neck of an electric guitar.
All tonewoods have different-sized gaps in between their grains. These gaps cause acoustic responses which ultimately give the guitar its overall tone. The denser the tonewood, the brighter the tone, and for less dense materials, the tone will be darker and more resonant.
The Best Body & Neck Woods for Electric Guitar
A popular wood used for both the construction of acoustic and electric guitars is mahogany. Technically speaking, mahogany is an umbrella term that includes a wide range of hardwoods that originate all over the world.
Genuine mahogany is only found in South America, though. The main reason that this wood type is such a popular choice for electric guitar bodies, is its exceptional resilience and resistance to damage.
Mahogany is a fairly cheap material for manufacturers to source. It’s also plentiful and hasn’t been over-harvested like some of the other popular tonewoods, which we will get onto later.
Electric guitar bodies that are made from Mahogany are generally quite heavy, and therefore they are commonly used for solid-body models. Gibson used Mahogany as its chosen tonewood for many decades, which is a pretty good indicator of its quality.
So what sort of tonal qualities does mahogany offer when used on the body of an electric guitar? Here’s a breakdown:
- Warm, mellow tone
- Clear and powerful low-end
- Expressive low-mids
- Subdued, smooth treble
Mahogany is well suited to heavier styles of rock music, due to the punchy attack and crisp low end it produces. It also offers impressive sustain, which is great for rung-out chords or flashy guitar solos.
Maple is another popular tonewood, used for the body, neck, and fingerboards of an electric guitar. There are two main types of maple – “sugar” and “eastern”. The majority of hard maple that is used for the construction of electric guitars comes from the US or Canada.
Maple has a very light color compared to other tonewoods, which gives a guitar an interesting aesthetic when it is used. The most common use for hard maple is an electric guitar’s neck. It is sometimes used for the body, but its substantial weight can be a problem.
With that being said, it is common for manufacturers to use maple as a laminate material covering another tonewood. It’s well suited to this role because it enhances the brightness of other, perhaps duller materials.
Maple’s natural tone is heavily focused on the high and upper-mid frequencies. It is less adept at producing bass tones, but when paired with a capable pickup, this issue can be resolved.
When used for the neck of an electric guitar, maple provides unrivaled smoothness and responsiveness. It combats fatigue in the fretting hand and allows a guitarist to transition rapidly through the frets without causing unnecessary friction.
Similar to maple, there are two main types of Ash used for the construction of electric guitars. These are Northern Hard Ash and Swamp Ash. The latter tonewood is extracted from trees that have their roots below the water level, which makes it softer.
Ash is commonly used for the body of electric guitars. The softer version is known for its highly resonant tone, which is well balanced across the frequency range of the instrument.
Swamp ash also produces a pronounced treble end, which results in a bright, expressive overall tone. It’s commonly used on guitars that have single-coil pickups installed and creates a nice sounding clean tone.
The harder type of ash is much denser. In terms of appearance, the two varieties are hard to differentiate between, but there are stark variations when it comes to tone and feel.
Hard ash produces a good amount of sustain, with an overall brighter tone. For this reason, it is commonly used on the bodies of electric guitars that are designed for distorted sounds, like a metal guitar for example.
Occasionally, hard ash is also used as the laminate material for the body of electric guitars. This process involves placing ash on top of another tonewood to alter aesthetics and tone.
Basswood is another popular choice for the body of an electric guitar. This tonewood is relatively lightweight, and soft in comparison to the other popularly used materials. It’s easily sourced, and affordable.
For this reason, basswood is commonly used for the body of budget, entry-level electric guitars. It’s less resistant than more expensive materials, but it does function fairly well when used on the body.
Basswood is rarely used for the neck of an electric guitar, simply because it is too lightweight and soft. It has an opaque appearance that many guitarists like due to its neutral color scheme and lack of visible grains.
Tonally, this wood evokes a warm and bright sound from an electric guitar. It is well balanced across the frequency range, with a slight scoop in the low-mids, which results in more definition in the high-mids.
Alder tonewood is mainly sourced from Eastern Europe and Africa. It is a fairly popular choice for the body of an electric guitar and is sometimes also used for the neck. It is regarded as the most balanced of all the most common tonewoods.
This balanced sound makes it a reliable choice for guitars that are designed equally for rhythm and lead parts. There are no weak spots in its frequency range, due largely to its densely-packed grain.
As an example of the suitability of Alder for electric guitars, Fender has used it for the body of many of its models since the 50s. It isn’t particularly expensive and is most commonly used for the construction of solid-body instruments. Alder doesn’t have the required robustness or strength to be used for guitar necks, though.
Choosing the best-suited tonewood for your desired sound is imperative if you want to be intentional with your tone. It’s always a good idea to try out different guitars that use varying combinations or researching the woods that your favorite guitarists used to gauge the sound that they produce.