If you’re unsure if wood affects guitar tone, then you’re definitely not alone. In fact, it’s a pretty intense debate.
The Quick Answer
The wood a guitar is made from affects the tone of acoustic and electric guitars, but has more impact on acoustic guitars. Denser woods create more sustain and a sharper tone. The body wood type affects the tone more compared to the neck and fretboard wood type.
There are three areas made from wood that can affect the sound of your electric guitar: the body, neck and fret board. Different wood combinations can create different tones.
How Guitars Produce their Sound
Before we go into the different types of wood, and how they affect guitar tone, it’s good to get an idea of exactly how guitars produce their sound.
So everyone knows that when the strings are plucked, they move rapidly from side to side to create the noise. But how exactly does this happen?
Well, when the string moves from one side, it pushes air to the side to create high pressure. And when it moves back the other way, it moves into an area of low pressure, where there is less air. These pressure changes radiate from the string until they hit something. This causes whatever is hit to vibrate as well.
It’s these vibrations that are then detected by the guitar pickups. They then send a signal to the amplifier which produces the sound via the speaker.
Does Wood Affects Guitar Tone
Okay, so now you know how electric guitars produce their sound, where does the wood come into play?
With electric guitars, the vibrations caused by the strings, which are the source of the sound, are detected by the pickups. Now this is quite different than with an acoustic guitar.
With acoustic guitars the vibrations produce sound when they are transmitted to the saddle, then the soundboard and body and then the sound comes through the sound hole. Hence, with acoustic guitars, the wood is a lot more important as it is what actually amplifies the sound and picks it up. Whereas with electric guitars, this is done by the pickups. Still with me?
Here’s a quick diagram to show the difference.
Now it hopefully makes a bit more sense why the wood the guitar is made of affects electric guitars less than it does with acoustic guitars. But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t affect it at all.
The wood the guitar is made from affects the way the sound resonates that is detected by your pickups.
Wood is not completely uniform, it has grains and gaps which affects the vibrations produced by the strings.
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.
Main Guitar Tone Woods
So now you know a bit more about guitar wood and how it affects the tone, you’re probably wondering what wood is the best? Well, there isn’t a definitive answer to this of course, but here’s a quick guide to guitar tone woods to give you some more information.
Body wood Types
Like I mentioned before, there are three main areas where wood will affect guitar tone, let’s start with the body wood.
Alder body woods tend to produce a balanced tone. It’s a lightweight wood which is fairly dense but does still have a decent grain. This allows the sound to resonate and create sustain, but does not allow it to become dull.
There are two mains types of ash wood: hard and soft (aka swamp ash). The softer form has more gaps and pours which looks great. This is what causes it to have a more scooped sound with more emphasis on the treble. Hard ash is a lot denser which gives it more sustain. Generally, soft ash works better for blues, jazz and light rock, and hard ash is the better option for hard rock and metal.
This is a pretty lightweight and soft kind of tonewood. It isn’t much to look at, and it does have the reputation for being a bit low budget. It doesn’t have a huge amount of character but does produce a warm and balanced sound. Although it can be a bit thin sounding if you pair it with single coil pickups.
This is one of the heaviest types of guitar body woods. It is usually the choice of body wood for guitarists looking or a lot of sustain, and a warm tone that has a lot of low-end frequency giving a thick sound. It’s not a particularly bright sounding wood, so it’s good if you’re looking for a beefier tone.
Maple bodied guitars are best known for their bright and sharp sounds. It’s a very dense and heavy type of wood so produces a characteristically bright tone that favours higher frequencies. This is what allows it to highlight notes so they are more pronounced than with less dense body woods.
fret board wood types
Now you know about the main guitar body wood types, here’s some more information about the fret or fingerboard wood.
This is a striking choice of fret board wood. It’s very smooth which is great for playing quick riffs and is also incredibly durable. It’s very dense and heavy so gives you a brighter tone.
Maple is also used on fret boards quite commonly, even more so than it is used as a body wood. It’s very heavy and dense so is known for producing a bright tone with a lot of clarity. It’s quite light in colour so compliments a lot of guitar colours, however, it can show wear a bit more easily than other wood types.
This is probably the most common fret board wood choice. There are two main types: Brazilian and Indian, with the latter being a lot more common. It’s a well balanced wood that produces a warm and smooth tone. It’s also a very durable choice.
neck wood types
Finally, here is a quick guide on neck wood types.
This very versatile wood is also popular on guitar necks, as well as the body and fret board. It’s traditionally used by Fender and is the most common neck wood type. It’s strong and dense so has great durability.
Rosewood necks are commonly seen, although not as often as rosewood fret boards. They offer a balanced sound with a lot of sustain and it gives you plenty of versatility in terms of the different genres its suited to.
The heavy and solid nature of mahogany makes it a great choice as a neck wood as it’s very resistant to wear and warping over time. It’s not quite as dense as maple so allows the sound to be absorbed more readily giving a deeper tone.
Guitar Tone Wood Summary
What Else Affects Guitar Tone?
Okay, so now you know more about body, neck and fret board wood and how it affects the tone of your guitar. But what else can affect tone? Here are some of the most important factors to consider.
There are three main types of body type: solid, hollow and semi-hollow. Each of these different types produces a different tone.
Solid body guitars produce a longer sustain and usually have less feedback issues than hollow or semi-hollow guitars. Solid electric guitars are very versatile and suit a wide range of genres. The most popular solid body electric guitars are the Fender Stratocaster and Gibson Les Paul.
Hollow guitars have a more acoustic-sounding tone. They produce a warm and bassy sound, however, have a lower level of sustain. The most popular hollow electric guitars are the Ibanez AF55 and Gretsch G2420 and they tend to be more used by jazz and blues players.
The middle option, is the semi-hollow body electric guitar. These offer a happy medium between a warm tone and resonant sound. The Gibson ES-355 is a popular choice in this category.
There are also three main types of neck construction: bolt-on, set neck and through-neck.
Bolt-on necks are usually the cheapest option and produce a twangier tone. Set necks are a bit more expensive and produce a fuller sound. Neck-through electric guitars offer the best sustain and resonance, but they are the most expensive choice.
It’s no surprise that your amplifier is one of the biggest factors in determining your electric guitar’s tone. They allow you to make alterations using the controls so you can change the volume, gain, bass, mids and treble which gives you the customisation options so you can get the tone you’re after. Head over to our post on 7 tips to make your amp sound better for some more information.
There are two main types of pickups: single-coil and humbucker. Single coils are found most famously on Fender Stratocasters and produce a twangier, brighter and more crisp sound. On the other hand, humbuckers produce a thicker and fuller sounding tone that’s generally deeper and smoother. They’re most famously used on Gibson Les Paul guitars.
Not only do your actual pickups affect your tone, but your pickup selector does too. Most guitars have three settings, one that activates the neck pickup, one that activates the bridge pickup and a third which activates both. Here’s the difference:
- Bridge pickups: used for lead guitar because it’s sharper and crisper.
- Neck pickup: used for rhythm guitar because it’s fuller and smoother.
As I mentioned before, the actual sound your electric guitar produces comes from the vibration of the strings. There are several factors which affect your strings: gauge, material and age.
The gauge refers to the thickness of your strings. The heavier the gauge, the thicker the strings which produces a darker and heavier tone. Thinner or lighter gauge strings produce a brighter sound, but they have less sustain and volume and are also much more prone to snapping.
The material the strings are made out of also affects the tone. Steel and nickel strings are most common on electric guitars.
- Steel: produces a bright tone
- Nickle strings: rich and dark tone
The age of your strings also impacts the tone. The older the strings, the duller the tone. You should be changing your strings after every 100 hours of playing in most instances.
Head over to our post on the 4 ways your strings impact your tone for more information.