Rosewood and ebony were always the standards for fingerboards. But Fender made maple popular decades ago with many Stratocaster and Telecaster fingerboards donning this light-colored wood.
However, due to recent restrictions relating to the use of rosewood, pau ferro has become a very popular choice, most notably replacing Rosewood in Fender’s Player Series guitars.
But what are the key differences between pau ferro and maple fretboards? And more importantly which wood is ideal for you based on your needs?
If you are considering getting a new guitar, especially one (like modern Fenders) that has both pau ferro and maple variants, here’s what you should know to decide which one to pick.
In short, maple is brighter sounding and cuts through the mix easier, while pau ferro sounds warmer and ‘fuller’. Maple has a much lighter color, while pau ferro is darker and looks similar to Rosewood with a reddish vibe.
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When comparing these two tonewoods based on aesthetics alone, the difference is a matter of personal taste.
This wood looks similar to rosewood (I wrote about the key differences in this post) but with a slight reddish hue. These fingerboards either don’t have a finish or come with a thin, matt satin finish. Either way, you are left with a very natural look and feel.
This is a hardwearing wood, but you can treat it with a suitable oil for extra protection if you choose. I’ve seen pau ferro fretboards stained a darker color, but I think its natural color looks great.
Maple is a light-colored wood, and these fretboards come in a variety of finishes. If unfinished, though, you may have to arrange to have it treated. Otherwise, you could be left with a worn, grimy-looking fingerboard after a few years.
A thin satin or light tint gloss finish leaves this tonewood looking as natural as possible. Although any gloss finish will leave a bit of a shine. If a thicker coat of gloss is applied, however, the color of the wood tends to have a yellow tint to it.
You might have seen some maple fretboards that have been roasted or flame-roasted. This process will darken the wood slightly and give it some character.
A crucial aspect of choosing a guitar fingerboard is how it affects the tone of the guitar. Of course, the overall set-up of the guitar will have the lion’s share of impact on the tone, but fretboards can have a little bit of influence as well.
After playing similar Fender Player Series Stratocaster models with maple and pau ferro fretboards, these are my findings:
I found the guitar with pau ferro fretboard delivered a fuller and warmer sound overall. The contrast from note to note was not too severe for my ear, with almost an elastic tone.
This fingerboard sounds robust on the low-end, where some other tonewoods can sound a bit flat.
When playing the maple fretboard-equipped guitar, I found the sound to be brighter and more defined. The Strat I played cut straight through the mix through bass and cymbals.
It’s got a pretty sharp attack, and I found the sharpness to be somewhat excessive for my personal taste. It’ll be ideal for genres where treble frequencies are much more prominent.
One unusual thing I found after trying my hands on the Player Strat was that I found it harder than usual to do bends on both variants of the model. Now, I know this is not a fretboard issue, but I thought of mentioning it nonetheless, in case you’re considering the model.
The feel of the fingerboard is a major deciding factor for me when choosing between two tonewoods.
As soon as you grab hold of a guitar with a pau ferro fretboard, you’ll soon notice the smooth feel of the wood. With or without a finish, this tonewood provides little friction and allows for effortless soloing.
As you know, the frets themselves can play a significant role in the ease of play. But I have found that even with shorter frets, this type of fingerboard is still slick-to-the-touch.
The feel of this fingerboard depends on the finish. To me, an unfinished or light satin-finished maple fretboard feels more polished and comfortable to play.
A glossed finish can feel a bit sticky, though. That is, however, if your frets are shorter and your strings touch the wood when playing. With taller frets, you may not notice the difference.
In my experience, the glossed maple fretboard doesn’t feel good when bending. There’s a bit too much friction for me, which tends to slow my playing down a bit.
In Conclusion – Which is Better for YOU?
It all comes down to your individual taste in the end. Many prefer the look, feel, and tone of the maple fretboard. Personally, I would lean towards choosing pau ferro fretboard over maple.
When faced with the choice of pau ferro vs. maple fretboard, you should ideally play the guitars yourself. Giving each fingerboard a proper test is the best way to decide.
But if you’re confident about your tonal preferences and know how you like fretboards to feel under your fingers, feel free to use my advice as a guide to settle for either of them.