Guitars are made of many different components, that each can affect the tone that’s eventually produced. Everyone knows that the body wood affects how much sustain and resonance the tone has, and that pickups are important on electric guitars, but what about the other parts?
In this article, I’ll talk about exactly why the neck wood matters, and how it affects the tone. Then I’ll run through the most common neck woods, other reasons that it’s important (except for tone), and I’ll briefly discuss the effect of the body and fret board woods too. So let’s get started!
The Quick Answer
The neck wood affects the tone of a guitar by impacting the way that the vibrations produced by the strings behave. Denser neck woods, like maple sound brighter and have less sustain. Mahogany on the other hand, produces a warmer and darker tone with better resonance and sustain. This is because denser woods tend to reflect sound waves, whereas less dense woods absorb them.
How Guitar's Produce their Sound
To really get to grips with how the wood affects the tone of a guitar, it’s important to understand how guitars actually produce their sound.
So of course, most people are pretty familiar with the fact that the guitar makes a noise when the strings are plucked. But how does this actually cause the sound?
The strings being plucked, causes them to vibrate. These vibrations are then detected by the pickups in an electric guitar and sent to the amplifier, or they’re amplified by the sound hole on an acoustic guitar.
Why the Neck Wood Affects It
Okay, so where does the tone wood actually come into play?
Well, the vibrations produced by the string, create sound waves, which bounce off surfaces. These reflections change the sound that eventually reaches your ears.
One of the biggest things that the sound reflects off, is the guitar itself, this includes the tone wood. So the surface of the neck wood, can change the way these vibrations behave, and hence affect the tone. Make sense?
It probably goes without saying, but the impact of the tone wood is more dramatic on acoustic guitars than electric guitars, since acoustics rely more on the wood to amplify the sound, whereas electric guitars use the pickups primarily. However, it does still impact both types of guitar.
So what about the different types of wood?
Wood isn’t completely uniform, it has gaps and grains. The size and amount of these gaps, depends on both the species of tree that the wood comes from, and the individual piece of wood as well.
It’s these gaps and grains that affect how the vibrations behave.
For example, if you have a very dense wood, which has very few gaps, then there is less space for the vibrations to move around in. This leads to a sharp sound.
Whereas, if the wood is less dense, the vibrations will be soaked in more and you’ll get a darker tone with more sustain.
Common Neck Woods
Okay, so now you know exactly how and why the neck wood affects the tone of the guitar, let’s move onto some of the most common neck woods and discuss how they sound.
The most common neck woods are maple and mahogany.
Maple is commonly used for the necks of Fender Telecasters and Stratocasters. It’s usually a light kind of golden colour, and it’s well known for producing a bright and sharp tone.
This is because it is a very dense and hard type of wood, so it has few grains and gaps. The sound is therefore reflected off it, rather than soaked into the wood. This means it produces a tight and sharp sound. It tends to favour high frequencies (treble), as opposed to low frequencies (bass), so it sounds fairly bright.
Mahogany on the other hand, is a darker coloured wood, that’s well known for producing a more resonant and darker tone, that has better sustain than maple. It’s not quite as dense as maple, which means it has more gaps and grains. This causes the sound waves to be soaked in and vibrate within the wood.
This causes two things to happen. 1. The tone is deeper and darker, because it favours bass frequencies. 2. The sustain is increased, because the vibrations take longer to disperse, so you get a longer more sustained note.
The depth and warmth that mahogany brings to the tone, is one of the reasons why it’s used in the Gibson Les Paul and other guitars like the PRS Custom 24. It gives them better sustain, and a thicker tone than maple wood.
Why Else Does it Matter?
There are also a couple of other reasons why the neck wood matters, in addition to just affecting the tone of your guitar. The two other most important things that neck wood affects, is the weight and the look of the guitar.
In terms of weight, the neck makes up a significant proportion of the guitar. So the material that the neck is made out of, will dramatically affect the weight of the guitar.
Generally, maple is heavier than mahogany because it’s more dense. The Les Paul is a pretty heavy guitar, but if it were to have a maple neck, then it would be even heavier still. The Strat and Tele on the other hand, as pretty light, because they have thinner bodies, to compensate for the weight of the maple neck.
However, just because the neck is made out of maple, doesn’t mean it’ll automatically heavier. There are many different species of mahogany and maple, some heavier and some lighter than the others.
The neck wood also affects the look of the guitar. Of course, this isn’t an issue if your guitar has a painted neck, but if you were to use a natural finish, then of course it can make a difference. Maple is much lighter and more golden than mahogany, which is a darker brown.
What about the Body and Fret Wood?
The body and fret board affect the tone of acoustic and electric guitars in the same way that the neck wood does. It really comes down to how dense the wood is. The denser the wood, the brighter the tone will be, and the less sustain it’ll have.
There are many different body woods, here are some of the most common.
- Alder: produces a fairly balanced tone.
- Ash: there are two types of ash, hard and soft (aka swamp ash).
- Basswood: this is lightweight and soft, so it produces a warm sound.
- Mahogany: this sound warm and dark, and has a lot of sustain.
- Maple: this sound bright and sharp, making it a good choice when you need a crisper tone.
There are also a few different common fret board wood types:
- Maple: this sound bright and sharp.
- Rosewood: this produces a warmer and more balanced sound.
- Ebony: this gives you a pretty bright tone because it’s very dense.
Take a look at this post on the different tone wood types to learn more about this topic.
Don’t worry if you still have some more questions, here are some FAQs to round off this article.
does neck wood matter more on for acoustic guitars than an electrics?
The tone wood is more important on an acoustic guitar than an electric guitar. This is because the wood is what amplifies the acoustic guitar’s tone, whereas the pickups are more important on an electric guitar. The neck wood is still important for both guitar types though.
does the shape of a guitar affect the tone?
However, if you have a thicker or larger piece of wood, this will sound more resonant than a thinner or smaller piece. Take a look at this article on why the shape of a guitar matters, to learn more about this topic.
what else affects the sound of a guitar?
There are many different factors that affect the tone of a guitar. These include the body type e.g. solid body, hollow, semi-hollow, the wood, pickups, strings and construction. Take a look at this article on the 7 main factors that affect the tone of an electric guitar to find out more.