Guitars are fairly simple instruments, that’s a large part of their lasting appeal and popularity. From basic models all the way up to high-end custom special editions, guitars can vary widely in the way they are made.
Different materials and manufacturing techniques are used on different models to achieve different sounds, to suit different playing styles, and for purely cosmetic reasons.
One aspect of a guitar’s makeup is the fingerboard, or fretboard: the thin strip of wood that covers the front of the neck. Fretboards can be made of different types of wood, with the most common being ebony, rosewood, and maple.
In recent years, some manufacturers have been producing guitars using a composite material for the fretboard – Richlite. This has led to some discussion about which is better.
Ebony has the weight of tradition behind it – guitars have been made with real natural woods for their components for hundreds of years, and a lot of guitarists don’t want to see that change. With little discernible difference in tone between them and the environmental impact of cutting down trees to produce ebony fretboards, Richlite is looking like the clear choice for many guitar companies for durability, sustainability, and cost.
Table of Contents
- Ebony Fretboards – An Overview
- Richlite Fretboards – An Overview
- Ebony vs. Richlite – A Comparison
Ebony Fretboards – An Overview
Out of the three main wood varinats used for fretboards (maple, rosewood, and ebony), ebony is the least common but the most desirable.
Known for its density and hardness, it is often found on high-end guitars. Here are some of their main features:
Ebony is a natural tonewood harvested from ebony trees in subtropical regions around the world. Working with natural woods presents its own set of challenges for guitar manufacturers.
Ebony can bend and warp in warm conditions, and when used in conjunction with other woods, such as maple (commonly used for guitar necks), this can cause problems due to differing rates of expansion/contraction that can sometimes lead to cracking.
Brightest Sounding Tonewood
Ebony is purported to have the brightest sound of all the tonewoods. Its hardness and close pore structure make for a firm fretboard that allows reverberations to really shimmer.
At least, that is supposed to be the case. Through the course of my research, I found a number of guitarists who actually feel the opposite is true! While this is probably due to opinion and preference, ebony is known for its bright sound and is used on high-end acoustic guitars for this very reason.
Ebony is a dark wood with a natural shine and a stylish appearance. This has made it a sought-after material for fretboards for many guitarists. After all, sound isn’t everything when it comes to guitars – looks are important too.
As mentioned earlier, ebony has a dense structure of small pores. Being a natural wood, occasionally, it can have a somewhat oily feel to its surface. This may sound like a bad thing, but it is not a problem with the wood. It is simply the natural feel of it and a lot of guitarists like it for that very reason.
A slick fretboard can allow your fingers to dance over strings and frets with ease, making playing not only easier but more comfortable.
The Cost and Environmental Impact
In order to get your hands on a guitar with an ebony fretboard, ebony wood must be harvested from ebony trees. Of course, that means chopping them down, treating the wood, and shipping it halfway around the world to the factory.
This has a huge impact on the environment, as well as the price of a guitar with an ebony fretboard.
As well as the sourcing issue, ebony can be delicate and must be cut and fitted by hand to the neck – no automated machines can be used. This, again, can drive up the cost and is another reason why ebony is generally reserved for high-end guitars only.
Richlite Fretboards – An Overview
Richlite is a composite material first manufactured in 1943 and quickly found widespread use in industrial applications. Only recently has it been used in the guitar manufacturing process.
It is made from wood fiber and recycled paper using heat and pressure, and phenolic resin. It is extremely durable and is even used to make chopping boards for commercial kitchens.
Strong and Durable
As I mentioned before, Richlite has been used to make chopping boards, so you know it’s strong if it can withstand knives being slammed against it all day long! It does not warp, twist, bend, or react to changes in temperature or humidity.
For a musical instrument, this is perfect, as any change in the form of any part of the guitar can affect the sound and tone and even put it out of tune.
Richlite is made from recycled paper and wood pulp. Not only does that mean it contains reused materials that would have gone to waste, but it means that every time a fretboard is made from Richlite, one less ebony tree is chopped down and sent across the world for an expensive guitar!
Gibson’s Bold Choice
One notable example of companies making this switch is Gibson, a giant of the guitar world, famous for their Les Paul, SG, and Flying V models. Gibson decided in 2012 that the impact of procuring ebony wood just wasn’t feasible anymore.
Their bold stance on using Richlite was admired by many, who valued the environmental benefits, and a disgrace to others who believe only real wood should be used on high-end guitars.
Whatever your feelings on the issue, Gibson made a decision that couldn’t have been easy, for a greater cause, and with few negative effects, in their eyes.
Looks and Feels Like Wood
One of the biggest pros for Richlite is that when it is fitted to the neck and the guitar is assembled, it looks just like ebony! It can be dyed any color and is often colored dark to resemble real tonewoods.
Those who have played a guitar with a Richlite fretboard can attest to its quality, stating that it feels much like real wood.
The main problem with a Richlite fretboard is simply that it isn’t wood! A lot of guitarists feel that to put a Richlite fretboard on a high-end classic guitar is to ruin that guitar.
This may be a snobby way of looking at it, but it does make sense to think if you’re paying all that money for a quality guitar, wouldn’t you want real, quality wood instead of a paper pulp resin?
Ebony vs. Richlite – A Comparison
So now we know a bit about these two fretboard materials, how do they compare with each other in the areas where it matters?
Many people tout ebony as the greatest-sounding wood for fretboards. They attribute this to its hardness and durability, although over time, it can degrade and warp, especially in high temperatures and high humidity.
This is one of the major downsides of manufacturing using natural materials.
Despite this and the varying opinions I mentioned earlier, ebony is still placed on a pedestal for its tonal qualities, which some say Richlite lacks.
Brightness, sustain, and depth are all compromised when Richlite is used in place of real ebony, and this is one of the main problems people have with the composite material.
As we now know, ebony is a very hard wood. It has a fine grain, small, close pores, and a firm, slick feel to its surface. For guitarists, this makes it ideal for playability.
The fine grain and natural oils in the wood make for a smooth fretboard on which strings can easily be bent, and fingers can easily maneuver across for fast passages or solos.
Richlite has many of the same qualities and is celebrated by a lot of guitarists for its similarity to ebony when it comes to actually playing the guitar. As it is a composite of recycled paper and resin, the grain, porosity, and surface feel of the material don’t really pose an issue.
It can be sanded and planed to a perfect smoothness that resembles real wood so closely that only real experts can tell the difference just by touch.
So when it comes to playability, there’s not much between the two.
Ebony is a dark wood, appearing jet black or very close to when used for fretboards. This is highly sought after by musicians wanting a statement-piece guitar. It looks cool! It is sleek, smooth, dark, and classy.
Plus, if people see your black fretboard, they will assume it’s ebony and probably guess that your guitar is high-end and valuable.
Richlite can be dyed and painted to achieve different colors. If left unfinished, it has a gray color that many find unattractive and would look out of place on any guitar, be it high-end or otherwise. Also, if not probably treated, it can be rough to the touch and look ‘scruffy.’
However, when these important steps are observed, as they often are when Richlite is used by reputable companies like Gibson and Martin, it appears almost identical to ebony, yet again!
So for appearance’s sake, there’s not one product that stands out as a clear superior to the other if they are applied correctly.
This is a touchy subject with a lot of guitar aficionados, and for good reason. The prospect of tradition being thrown out the window in favor of an environmentally friendly stand-in made of scrap paper and wood pulp might not seem all that appealing to an ebony purist.
But times change, and sustainability is an important factor to consider in all aspects of life these days.
If you’re not sure whether to go for ebony or Richlite, my advice would be to visit your local music shop and try them both out.
You might find that you can’t tell the difference at all, and you would have paid more for an ebony fretboard that you really didn’t need!