The debate on the impact of fretboard wood on tone has been the cause of many heated discussions. If you disregard all personal opinions and focus on facts alone – the answer would be yes, Laurel Fretboards are good enough.
But, to really get into it, it is important to understand the science behind it. Don’t be alarmed though, I won’t be making this neither too long nor overly complex.
In short, Indian Laurel and Rosewood fretboards sound surprisingly similar. Their colors differ slightly, with Laurel being medium brown in contrast to the darker, deeper brown hue of Rosewood. Both offer excellent playability and balanced tones, with Rosewood’s tone being slightly warmer.
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The Fretboard Fandango
For well over a century, guitarists and bass players have discussed, disagreed, argued and philosophized on the importance of the wood used to construct the instrument.
The truth is that the material used greatly influences tone quality, but guitar body wood plays a bigger part in shaping up the tonal characteristics compared to fretboard tonewood.
Maple, Ebony and Rosewood used to be the most common choices for guitar and bass manufacturers. Today however, there is an endless list of materials available to manufacturers, whether wood or synthetic, all of which affects the feel, the look, and to a minute degree, the sound of the instrument.
Fretboard wood faces significant physical challenges – it must be extremely durable to withstand the compression caused by the tension of the strings, and it must be hard enough to survive the friction and scratching of the actual strings pushed down onto it during play.
A Quick Overview of Both the Woods
Rosewood is a group of tropical trees from around the world, the use of which has mostly been banned after several of the species became endangered.
It is a durable hardwearing wood that stands up admirably to the strain of performance. Even frequent use will not easily damage or wear it.
The Indian Laurel is an Asian species of tree, also known as India Walnut or India wood.
It is a moderately hard wood and can handle the strain of frequent performance without batting an eyelid. Not much difference in this department.
They both have a very similar look when used for fretboards too. Quite often, it is difficult to tell the two woods apart. This is especially true if the laurel is finished to resemble rosewood.
Indian Laurel Wood is a medium brown wood with occasional dark brown streaks and a straight grain that takes a nice high gloss finish. It’s ever so slightly more evenly colored than Rosewood throughout the fretboard.
Rosewood has a deep brown, sometimes purplish-brown color with resinous streaks of black. Even the grains of these wood types resemble one another, and both have lighter streaking.
Personally, I find the more consistent appearance of Indian Laurel more pleasing to the eye, owing to marginally less streaking and a more even color.
The feel of the fretboard is likely the most important factor to consider here. In this aspect, Indian Laurel and Rosewood are quite similar.
Both woods are soft to the touch with a very smooth playing feel, allowing your fingers to glide effortlessly across the fretboard.
Laurel can feel a tiny bit drier at first, but I got used to it pretty soon. It was pretty smooth though, even smoother than some of the Rosewood guitars that I’ve played.
If you’re a particular fan of the appearance and feel of rosewood, and want a rosewood fingerboard in a budget, you have two main options – Epiphone and Yamaha.
Squier currently doesn’t produce any Rosewood-equipped guitars, and right now the cheapest Fender costs $999.
Tone & Sonic Qualities
There are plenty of debates as to whether fretboard tonewoods matter at all when it comes to tone, especially in case of electric guitar. If you belong to the half that says they can perceive the tonal differences owing to different fretboard materials, read on.
Indian Laurel and Rosewood fretboards share many qualities when it comes to sound.
Indian Laurel fretboards tend to produce balanced tones across the entire frequency range. Rosewood also offers exceptional balance, but with a slightly warmer sound than the Laurel.
I’d say Indian Laurel is as close to Rosewood as possible tonally, without being Rosewood itself. The difference is simply not there, unlike in case of rosewood vs maple, or rosewood vs ebony.
In electric guitars, components like pickups, bridges and strings play a far more important role when it comes to tone. To re-emphasize, you shouldn’t shell out more for a guitar with a rosewood fingerboard for tone alone.
Indian Laurel is not inferior (or superior) to the Rosewood in any way. In fact, it is very much on par and makes for an excellent substitute that does not significantly impact the feel and tone of your beloved instrument.
I will not go into the details of CITES and the ban of Rosewood in 2017 here, but since the relaxation of the regulations in 2019, manufacturers have started using Rosewood again.
It is however very clear, and sensible as well, that many manufacturers will be simply sticking to Laurel going forward for both cost and environmental concerns.
In the end, which tonewood is more suitable for you comes down to a simple point – personal preference. Some guitarists will gladly bet their lives that there is a significant difference between the two. Then of course there are just as many who deny any obvious change to tone.
Musicians often prefer to stick to what has been tried and tested over several decades, or even centuries. But like the manufacturers of our instruments, we have to move forward and keep up, or risk being left behind.