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Everything You Need To Know About Wood

Let's talk about the very first thing which produces the tone of an instrument, the wood! In this article I'd like to give you a complete information about the woods and their tone so that you can choose the suitable wood for your instrument, and your taste for sound.

First let's talk about the word "tone woods". The tone wood is a piece of wood which has a special tonal characteristic that makes it suitable for building a musical instrument. I'll give you an overview about how it works:

Whether you believe in its strength in tone or not, wood is the beginning and driving force of any instrument and the realm in which the tone is held. Different woods bring different tones to any and all instruments, the same way that every instrument is different, is the same way that every piece of wood (even the same type) is too.

The Elements
The properties and sound characteristics of woods can be described in several different ways. One way to explain the different tone qualities of different types of wood is to rate them in terms of hardness. Hard woods tend to have a clearer, brighter, more articulate sound, while soft woods are more sensitive, allowing you to hear the swelling of the overtones as a note sustains.

The second way to rate woods are by its color. Light colored woods are generally brighter than dark woods.

The third factor is the density, or simply the weight of the wood. Lightweight wood is brighter than heavy wood.

The overall tone characters of a piece of wood is a combination of these elements. For example, a very hard wood (like bubinga) does not have a brighter tone than maple, which is not that hard, because it's very dense.

So, after understanding the major elements that bring the tonal characteristics to a piece of wood, I'd like to give a short overview on various woods used for building an instrument.

Neck Woods
There are several different woods used for a guitar or bass neck. I've tried to collect complete information on this, so here they are:
  • Maple (Accer Saccharum): The all-fabulous maple has been honored in almost every instrument ever built. In general, maple produces a bright and high midrange tone that projects. There are several types of maple which are:

    1. Hard Maple: This is the traditional neck wood. Dense, hard and strong, offering great sustain and stability. The tone is bright. Maple must be finished to protect from warping.

    2. Flame Maple: While there are several maple species that show the flame figure, the only one hard enough for making necks is Acer Saccarum. Identical to plain maple above, except for the highly prized flame figuring.

    3. Birdseye Maple: Birdseye is another type of figure found in hard maple. It shows best in flatsawn wood. There is a wide variety of size and shapes in the "eyes" to keep them interesting. There seems to be a recurring rumor that Birdseye maple is unstable and not suited to guitar necks. Having made tens of thousands of Birdseye necks, luthiers can assure you that it is no different in stability than plain maple. AAA grade denotes very heavy figuring.
    Maple is generally used for both necks and fingerboards.

  • Rosewood (Dalbergia): The source from the beginning in fretboards has over the years evolved into a wood that is used any many other aspects then just fretboards. Rosewood comes in many types and each produces different types of qualities in tones. Rosewood produces a warmer tone then its counter part ebony. There are several types of rosewood:

    1. Indian rosewood (Dalbergia Latifolia): This is the most popular fingerboard wood. It has a warm "rock'n roll" tonality. Colors range from dark purple to lighter purple with yellows and orange. It's usually used for fingerboards.

    2. Brazilian Rosewood (Dalbergia Nigra): A very hard and dense wood. Great clarity and articulation in tone. Very smooth feeling. Color varies a great deal from piece to piece, all gorgeous. It's a very high class fingerboard wood.

    3. Palisander Rosewood (Dalbergia Baroni): This is the wood of choice for making solid rosewood necks and bodies. The color varies from light violet to darker purples, sometimes with darker stripes. The best smelling wood around. Very hard and heavy with somewhat open cell structure. It's used for both necks and fingerboards.

  • Pau Ferro (Machaerium Villosum): Relatively new as a fingerboard wood but very well suited to this purpose. Very smooth texture similar to ebony. Tonally brighter than rosewood but not as bright as ebony. Color varies from light tan to a darker coffee color. Usually quartersawn to show nice striping. Primarily a fingerboard wood though occasionally available for necks as well.

  • Wenge (Millettia Laurentii): A black hard wood with chocolate brown stripes. Very hard, coarser textured wood with open grain. This wood makes awesome bass necks with strong midrange tones and warm lows. Combine it with an ebony fretboard for more brightness. Used primarily as neck shafts but may also be used as a coarse fretboard. This wood is usually played raw. No finish required.

  • Bubinga (Guibourtia Demeusei): A very strong stiff wood used primarily for bass necks and in laminations. Used by Rickenbacker for fretboards. As a bass neck, it brings bright midrange and a thick well defined bottom.

  • Ebony (Dispyrus Melanoxylon): It's very hard, smooth and fast feeling that has a bright, long sustaining tone. Chocolate brown or dark gray streaks are not uncommon. Available primarily as fingerboards and occasionally for full neck construction

  • Macassar Ebony (Dispyrus Macassar): Stripped ebony, black with with heavy striping, chocolate brown to gray. A beautiful wood for those wanting the feel and tone of ebony but a more exciting look. Primarily for fingerboard wood but sometimes available for solid necks. No finish required.

  • Mahogany (Swietenia Macrophylla): Commonly called Honduran Mahogany. This is the wood most associated with Gibson guitars. Not as dense or strong as maple. Good for warmer, fatter guitar tone. An open grain wood requiring more work in finishing to fill the open pores. Must be hard finished. It's ususally used for necks.

  • Walnut (Juglans Nigra): Walnut is the only North American dark wood. It is somewhat softer than maple though stiffer than mahogany. Looks and sounds good when combined with ebony fingerboards. This wood must be hard finished. Used for necks.

  • Koa (Acacia Koa): Koa comes from the Hawaiian Islands. It is the premiere ukulele wood. It is fairly similar to mahogany in strength and weight though generally better looking. Sometimes available with flame figuring. Koa sounds best when combined with a pau ferro or ebony fingerboard. Koa must be hard finished. Used for necks.

  • Limba (Terminalia Superba): Korina is the name guitarists recognize for this wood. Its light yellow-green color is unique and looks aged even though new. In both tone and texture limba is very similar to mahogany. Limba is only suitable for neck stock, not fretboards. It must be finished. Availability is limited or sporadic.

  • Padouk, African (Pterocarpus Soyauxii): Bright vivid red color which oxidizes to a warm brown with use. This waxy feeling wood has an open grain texture similar to rosewood and a tone similar to maple. It is very stable in use and requires no finish. Feels great to play on. Used for necks.

  • Goncalo Alves (Astronium Fraxini Folium): Very dense smooth texture with a waxy fast feel - no finish required. Color is tan with darker chocolate stripes (used by Smith & Wesson for pistol grips). Articulate clean warm tone. Primarily used as a neck wood and mates well with Pau Ferro or ebony fingerboards.

  • Purpleheart (Peltogyne Pubesens): Generally this wood is used as an accent line in laminated necks. The purple like color is striking. A very hard dense wood. Similar to bubinga in its good bass tone. A specialty wood that can be used for necks and fingerboards.

  • Satine (Brosimum Paraense): It's known as bloodwood because of its dark red color. A very dense hard tropical wood with a waxy smooth feel. No finish is required and may be used as neck or fingerboard wood.

Neck Woods
  • Alder (Alnus Rubra): Alder is used extensively for bodies because of its lighter weight (about four pounds for a Strat body) and its full sound. It's closed grain makes this wood easy to finish. Alder's natural color is a light tan with little or no distinct grain lines. Alder has been the mainstay for Fender bodies for many years. It looks good with a sunburst or a solid color finish, because of its fine characteristics and lower price.

  • Ash (Fraxinus Americana): There are two very different types of Ash: Northern Hard Ash and Swamp Ash (Southern Soft Ash). Northern Hard Ash is very hard, heavy and dense. A Strat body will normally weigh 5 lbs. and up. It's density contributes to a bright tone and a long sustain which makes it very popular. It's color is creamy, but it also tends to have heartwood featuring pink to brown tints. The grain pores are open and it takes a lot of finish to fill them up. Swamp Ash is a prized wood for many reasons. It is a very musical wood offering a very nice balance of brightness and warmth with a lot of "pop". It is a fairly light weight wood which makes it easily distinguishable from Hard Ash. A Strat body will normally weigh under 5 lbs. Many of the 50's Fenders were made of Swamp Ash. The grain is open and the color is creamy. This wood is a very nice choice for clear finishes.

  • Basswood (Tilia Americana): This is a lighter weight wood normally producing Strat bodies under 4 lbs. The color is white, but often has nasty green mineral streaks in it. This is a closed-grain wood, but it can absorb a lot of finish. This is not a good wood for clear finishes; it is quite soft, and does not take abuse well. Soundwise, Basswood has a nice, warm tone.

  • Koa (Acacia Koa): This very beautiful wood comes exclusively from Hawaii making supply very limited. It's weight varies somewhat from medium to heavy and is an excellent tone wood for bass guitar bodies. Koa has a warm sound similar to mahogany, but with a little more brightness. Like walnut, this wood may be oiled, but generally will look its best sprayed clear. Koa is sometimes available in flame figure.

  • Figured Koa (Acacia Koa): Koa is exceptionally beautiful when it develops the flame figure. Usually used in thin laminate tops and sometimes available in higher grades.

  • Korina Black (Terminalia Superba): It's true name is Limba from Africa. Black Korina is usually a medium weight wood, but occasionally in light weight pieces. The tone is very similar to Mahogany. It features a very handsome olive color with black streaking. This is a great wood for bass guitars. Korina has a naturally waxy feel to it. Oil finishes work well on this wood.

  • Korina White (Terminalia Superba): It's true name is Limba from Africa. White Korina is a medium to heavy weight wood. The tone is very similar to Mahogany. It features a light yellow/green color which looks great with a yellow tinted finish. This is a great wood for bass guitars. Korina has a naturally waxy feel to it. Oil finished work well on this wood.

  • Lacewood (Cardwellia Sublimis): Lacewood is imported from Australia. It's a medium weight wood. The grain design ranges from very small spots to very large spots which create a it's signature reptilian appearance. Lacewood looks best in the form of a bookmatched laminate top, The tone is similar to Alder.

  • Mahogany (Khaya Ivorensis): It is a medium to heavy weight wood with a Strat body averaging 5 lbs or more. Mahogany is a fine grained wood with good musical properties. The tone is warm and full with good sustain. The grain is easy to fill, although, it does not tend to look good with clear finishes. It does look great with a transparent red finish.

  • Maple (Acer Saccharum-Hard Maple, Acer Macrophyllum-Pacific Maple): There are two types of Maple: Eastern Hard Maple (hard rock maple) and Western Soft Maple (big leaf maple). Hard Maple is a very hard, heavy and dense wood. This is the same wood that is use on necks. The grain is closed and very easy to finish. The tone is very bright with long sustain and a lot of bite. This wood cannot be dyed. It looks great with clear or transparent color finishes. Western Maple grows all over Washington state. It is usually much lighter weight than Hard Maple but it features the same white color. It has bright tone with good bite and attack, but is not brittle like the harder woods can be. Our flame ( fiddleback) and quilted bodies are Western Maple. This type of maple works great with dye finishes.

  • Flame Maple (Acer Macrophyllum-Pacific Maple): Flame, Fiddle-Back or Tiger maple all generally refer to curls (or stripes). Flame can be tight, wide, straight or crooked. This wood is most beautiful in the form of a bookmatched laminate top.

  • Quilted Maple (Acer Macrophyllum-Pacific Maple): Quilted maple is a more rare form of figure occuring mostly in western maple. It is distinguished by its billowing, cloud or even popcorn appearence. This figure can vary from large, wide billows to tight small blisters. As with flame, quilted maple is most often used as a bookmatched top, but can be used as 1-piece or 2- piece solid bodies.

  • Spalted Maple (Acer Macrophyllum-Pacific Maple): This wood is actually the product of a dead or decaying tree. The dark lines are created by fungal attack. This wood is soft and punky and is only used as a laminate bookmatched top on flat top bodies with binding. Spalt is difficult to finish as it soaks up a lot of finish. Don't even think about doing a "do it yourself" finish on this stuff. Each piece of Spalted maple is quite unique. It looks awesome with a tobacco burst finish.

  • Birdseye Maple (Acer Saccharum-Hard Maple): This figure is only found in the Eastern hard maple trees. Birdseye does not usually run deep in the boards, so solid bodies are not available. As a bookmatched top it can be quite striking.

  • Burl Maple (Acer Macrophyllum-Pacific Maple): This is a very busy looking wood usually with a lot of pourosity and bark inclusions. it's usually used for bookmatched tops. Epoxy is used to fill all voids. Burl looks best finished in a natural clear gloss.

  • Poplar (Liriodendron Tulipifera): This is another standard body wood having been used by many companies over the years. Due to the grey/green color, this wood is used only when solid color finishes are to be applied. It's weight generally runs about a half-pound more than alder. Tonally it is similar to alder as well. Poplar is a closed grain wood that accepts finish well.

  • Redwood (Sequoia Sempervirens): It is available as thin bookmatched laminate tops on flat top solid bodies. While the figure is intense and reflective, the depth isn't as dramatic as figured maple. It is not suitable for hollow bodies.

  • Rosewood (Dalbergia Baroni): This is the heaviest wood with Strat bodies always weighing in at well over 6 lbs. The tone is warmer than maple, but the highs seem to be dampened somewhat by the oily nature of the wood. Finishes can be a little difficult to apply.

  • Brazilian Rosewood (Dalbergia Nigra): This is "beautiful" wood with a wide range of colors, grain and patterns available in thin bookmatched laminate tops only. We have a very limited supply and it is very expensive.

  • Walnut (Juglans Nigra): Walnut is a heavy weight wood but not quite as heavy as hard maple. It has a similar sound to hard maple but it tends to not be as bright. Walnut is very beautiful with open grain. Oil finishes work great on Walnut.

  • Figured Walnut (Juglans Nigra): The figure is predominantly flame. It is usually used as a bookmatched laminate top. This is very handsome wood.

  • Wenge (Millettia Laurentii): Wenge features black and chocolate brown stripes. It is usually quatersawn to yield straight grain similar to zebrawood, but black. Usually as laminate tops.

  • Zebrawood (Microberlinia Brazzavillensis): This is another heavy weight wood with very open grain. It has a distinctive look with light and dark brown stripes. Zebrawood is more commonly used as a laminate top. It's weight and sound are similar to hard maple.
Laminating different woods certainly can make instruments more beautiful. By carefully combining woods, it's possible to focus on particular tone qualities. For example, a maple neck with a maple fingerboard is generally brighter than a maple neck with a rosewood fingerboard. When making a body, if you put a hard top on a soft back, you can make the low end clearer and more articulate but still retain the desired qualities of the softer wood for the high end and midrange.

I hope this has been helpful. As a thought to leave you with, always play a bass in passive mode and remember: electronics and pickups are easily changed.

Just hear the sound of wood!

Kasra Saboktakin is an avid bass player for life.
Add a Comment
Charlie Ford (6) wrote:
Feb 20 2013
Hi Everybody, My name's Charlie and I live in the UK. I have been playing acoustic and electric guitar for years and years [I'm 63 years young now !], but due to my spine wanting to collapse, I have had to re~think my music, because I'm finding it too hard to play [regular 6 string] guitar. I have made a switch to Banjo and struggle along playing clawhammer, I then added Mandolin, and finally settled on ukulele. I then went and got myself a bass ukulele !!! It is an "Ortega Lizard" and has an acoustic body, 4 string bass with orange, rubbery, thick spaghetti~like strings. I LOVE it, although the strings do take some getting used to. I have just come across a solid body ukulele that is an unfinished project and finally I have got to the point of needing some feedback, please, anyone. I want to make a fretless bass. The uke I've found is one piece of ash, from tip to tail. No truss~rod and I don't know what specific type of Ash. It has an Ebony fingerboard, but is fretted, so I won't know until I get the body whether I'll have to get another fretboard, or be able to "adapt" that one. Can anyone give an opinion of whether I'd need to use the [low tension] rubbery strings again, or, would a solid body, using Ash, be able to withstand the higher tension of metal strings ??? Phew .... got it all out. Help, Please, Anyone ??asset-t-158_2D5B5FB2D41642C1A17149722C15
Wayne Matthews (5) wrote:
Jun 2 2013
Hi Kasra, your article is brilliant and very helpful! I'd like to know your opinion on using cocobolo as a topwood and what it would work well with? For a 6 string fretless I'm thinking of having a centre block of mahogany and ash with chambered walnut wings. Maple neck strung with wenge and laminated with purpleheart with a pau ferro or ebony fingerboard.