Electric Guitar Neck and Fingerboard WoodsSeptember 28, 2018
The woods of the neck and the fingerboard on an electric guitar comprise more of the instrument’s overall acoustic tonal character than most guitar players realize. This article will explore the neck and fingerboard woods used on Cort’s electric guitars and guide the players to choose a guitar with the wood combination that best suits their playing style and tonal preferences.
The neck and fingerboard woods provide at least half of the electric guitar’s overall acoustic sonic character. From this combination, it can be deduced that the neck wood and fingerboard wood each provide half of the tonal characteristics of the neck or a quarter of the entire guitar’s tonal spectrum.
The two most common and popular woods used for the neck are Maple and Mahogany. Typically, Maple necks are used on bolt-on guitars with 25.5” scale length while Mahogany is used for necks on set-neck guitars with 24.75” scale length. There are no rules in guitar construction methods that say either must be used but these combinations have been used for many decades and have become a standard that many guitar builders adhere to as they provide the classic tones that guitar players seek.
Maple is the most popular wood used for solidbody bolt-on guitars due to its strength as well as providing a bright and punchy tone. Naturally light and whitish in color with a smooth feel to the touch, Maple is also available with figuring such as Flame, Quilt, and Birdseye but such figured Maple is not recommended for neck usage as it is not as stable and strong as plain Maple. A recent trend for high-end guitars is the process of “roasting” the Maple in oxygen-free high-temperature oven to dry out the moisture and make the wood stiffer and more stable.
Tonally, Maple’s emphasis is on the high midrange with treble brilliance that mates well with softer body woods such as Alder, Basswood, Poplar, and Swamp Ash. Maple also provides excellent sustain due to its stiffness. When considering the length of the scale that vibrates over the neck, it’s easy to understand why the neck wood is so vital to the guitar’s performance and sonic character.
Mahogany has an entirely different character from Maple and is often used on solidbody set-neck guitars along with Mahogany body. Visually, Mahogany is brownish and porous whereas Maple is whitish and smooth. Mahogany is also not as stiff as Maple and it is one reason that Mahogany is not used as often as Maple for basses due to their high string tension. That being said, Mahogany is certainly strong enough for the guitar’s string tension and is used widely for both acoustic and electric guitars.
While Maple provides tonal brightness and brilliance with a punchy and tight feel, Mahogany is strong in the mid-midrange with a “barking” and “honky” tonal character with a fatness and rich warmth that guitar players expect in set-neck guitars with Mahogany body and neck. Being that Mahogany is not as dense as Maple, it also feels slightly slinkier in the way it responds to the pick attack.
One can’t go wrong with either woods. It’s just a matter of what the player likes in both feel and sound as well as the overall look of the guitar. Even within the same musical genre or playing style, some will choose a bolt-on guitar with Maple and some will prefer a set-neck with Mahogany. Ultimately, the most important thing is finding out what works best for you.
The fingerboard wood can be considered the final wood component of the guitar when compared to the woods used for the body and the neck. Being that the fingerboard is on which the players do the playing with their fretting hand, how it feels underneath the fingertips and also how it looks is a crucial factor when deciding which fingerboard wood to settle on.
There are dozens of different woods that are used for guitar fingerboards by manufacturers and individual builders today but, for sake of conciseness, we will explore the most common and popular woods in this article. One important matter to note is that due to the international CITES regulation for the Rosewood species of woods, alternative woods that are very similar in look and tonal characteristics of Rosewood are being used widely by guitar manufacturers today.
Traditionally, Maple and Rosewood are the two most common woods used for the electric guitar fingerboard. Maple was popularized by its use on the first solidbody guitars that were developed in the 50’s and remains very popular today due to its smooth feel, fast transient attack, and strong high-midrange tonal character.
Rosewood has been a mainstay for acoustic guitars, archtop jazz guitars, and set-neck solidbody guitars of the 50’s and was eventually adopted on bolt-on electric guitars as well in the 60’s. Rosewood can be considered to have a warmer and richer tonal character than Maple but also exhibits a high-end presence with plenty of upper harmonics. Visually, Rosewood can vary from light brown to dark brown and is more porous than Maple.
Due to the CITES regulation, alternative woods such as Pau Ferro, Ovangkol, Macassar Ebony, Panga Panga, Merbau, Jatoba are used as substitutes for Rosewood. These woods often look quite similar to Rosewood although the grains may vary. Pau Ferro has become a popular alternative for high-end guitar makers due to its rich brownish look with striking dark stripe patterns and a sonic character that seems to have qualities of both Maple and Rosewood.
Another commonly used wood for fingerboard is Ebony and this dark and dense wood from Africa has often been used on high-end “deluxe” and “custom” guitars. One of the densest and heaviest of all woods, Ebony has a very smooth feel and is favored by players who play fast lines and want the least amount of resistance as their fingers race up and down the fingerboard. Compared to Maple and Rosewood (and similar woods), Ebony has a lot of top-end brilliance and presence with a somewhat dry midrange character for exceptional clarity and cutting quality.
Once again, it’s a matter of personal preference when it comes to deciding which fingerboard wood will work best for your playing style. The same goes for the body wood and the neck wood and which combination will suit you best. We recommend that you try as many different guitars and wood combinations within them to determine which feels and sounds best to your own ears. Through exploration and experimentation, you will find which guitar with a particular wood combination “speaks” to you the most. In the end, an instrument that feels and sounds the best to you will allow you to play your very best.