When thinking of buying a guitar, most of us at the rookie stage will think of the color, size, and tone and choose one based on the fancy of our excitable hearts eager to learn a new instrument. That is why we often overlook the importance of the fretboard wood and the effect it has on our playability. If you’ve been playing for just a few weeks, you will have realized how often our fingers touch the wood between the metal pins we call frets. That layer of wood we call the fretboard, also aptly known as the fingerboard, is one of the top factors you should be considering before you even enter the guitar store.
The type of wood used in a fretboard is a factor we usually forget to think of when we’re browsing guitars. Yet, the fretboard is where the action happens. We are always pressing the strings down against it and, in the case of highly stylistic genres, strumming against it so we should really look into what we’re investing our bucks into. Whether you play acoustic or electric guitars, the fretboard will shape your experience. Your comfort, play style, and aesthetic tastes will determine the type of wood you will like best.
Among the many available wood types, there are three most commonly used— maple, rosewood, and ebony. Each wood offers its individual flavor in terms of tone, with physical qualities that are both easy on the eye and the hand, catered to specific types of players. In this article, we discuss each in detail and offer tips for choosing the one best for you.
The fretboard is the place of the most contact we have with our guitars. The strings rest above this layer and bounce off of it, the notes we play is entirely dependent on this area. The fretboard has the biggest impact on our playability, our fingerpicking, bends, and pull-offs can all go haywire with the wrong type of texture. A sweaty player will never know the fun of playing if he is always worrying about sliding too much on his overly smooth fretboard. It is one of the few aspects of guitars that will influence any kind of guitarist, whether you have an acoustic or an electric so, you should definitely look into it to ensure the longevity and enjoyment you get from your instrument.
Before we can begin assessing the types of woods, let’s get an idea of what to look for. First off, the fretboard has to be durable enough to withstand the constant force of our fingers and string tension. This is the objective, end-all-be-all factor of the fretboard wood. Everyone wants a long-lasting guitar. The next factors are all subjective upon the learner – the comfort, the play style, and the aesthetic. It has to be a wood suitable to your playing and also have the look you would enjoy admiring or showing off to your audience.
For instance, lead guitarists prefer smoother textures for speed and to some, the look of a guitar is enough to win them over if all other parts are standard even if not the best suited. Fretboard wood also has a minimal effect on the tone but this is overshadowed by the other parts of the guitar so the priority should be on your preference.
There are three main types of wood that are used for the fretboard – maple, rosewood, and ebony. Across the board, all three do the job genre-wise but depending on the play style, all will sound different in the hands of individual guitarists so below is a comprehensive description of each:
Maple is a commonly used wood for the neck and so, it goes hand in hand with the fretboards. Oftentimes, the fret pins are placed directly onto a maple neck. The Fender Telecaster or Stratocaster and some exclusive bass guitars have this maple neck and fretboard combination.
Regarding the style, maple is rarely used in acoustic guitars but it is pretty standard for an electric. Maple offers a bright sound with overtones that are absorbed directly into the wood as it has very tight pores. Due to the porosity though, maple requires a finishing which is often either lacquer or nitrocellulose. So, you will be playing on the finishing essentially. Good quality finishes will make your experience slick and speedy whereas a dip in quality means having to deal with a slow and sticky fretboard. The one advantage of the coating is that it makes maple fretboards very easy to clean and requires not much maintenance. It also makes it long-lasting so it’s a good investment.
Unlike the other largely available fretboard woods, maple stands out as a light-colored option. In fact, it can almost look white if the tree it’s produced from is especially light. This makes it a great contrasting option for a dark-toned guitar body. The small pores and thin grains give it a flamed or spiraled appearance. The finishing of maple also gives it a glossy look which might be just the thing you’re looking for. Maple has a very specific fanbase in the hearts of guitarists who have a love for vintage as over a length of time, say several decades, it gives off the grey, worn, and relic-like look.
Rosewood, especially Indian rosewood, is largely available which makes it relatively inexpensive and its uses are versatile. You will see it in guitars of most known brands like Ibanez, Gibson, or Fender. So, it’s no surprise that this is the most seen type of wood on a fretboard among the bunch. Even if you’ve never been to a shop and only ever come across pictures of guitars, it’s highly likely you’ve seen it, too.
High tones are not too punchy and leveled out with this type of fretboard. It has a warm and rich voice. Its oily pores allow it to absorb overtones. Rosewood has open grains resulting in a coarse texture. This gives it a feeling of authenticity that players of acoustics might appreciate when it’s available on an electric guitar. The friction allows more control so fans of string bending like blues musicians will see this as the better choice.
It requires a bit of upkeep as rosewood is prone to drying out. This can be easily remedied by wiping the fretboard with some lemon oil when replacing the strings. Due to its darker color and oily pores, owners must take care to notice and clean off any grime build-up. This trade-off is worth it as rosewood is extremely durable so it will serve for a long time to come.
Rosewood has that distinct reddish-brown color similar to the looks of the maple but much darker and more maroon. The type of rosewood will also play into how dark or light it is. The higher-end, rarer Brazilian rosewood is on the lighter side of the spectrum, starting from light caramel to copper. Indian rosewood offers a rich and dark appearance like ground coffee with an even grain.
Ebony is seen more widely in acoustic guitars due to its porosity but it’s also not uncommon for electric guitars due to the specific market its color brings. In fact, ebony is so in demand that the tree for this wood has nearly lead it to the point of extinction. Both its variants, Maccasar and Gaboon are on the IUCN Red List, the former as a vulnerable species and the latter as endangered. This makes ebony quite precious and valuable.
It is dense and a hardwood which offers a bright tone, even brighter than maple in some cases. Like rosewood, it is naturally oily. In rare cases, these oils may cause an allergic reaction so be sure to keep that in mind before you purchase a fretboard of this nature. With its tighter grains, the feel of ebony is somewhere between maple and rosewood, not quite as smooth as a coated finish but with less grip than rosewood. This balance makes it a perfect in-between for speed and agility without sacrificing too much control. Aside from its high value, this is also a reason why it’s so heralded by guitar collectors. Ebony fretboards are one of the easiest to maintain and are even longer lasting than rosewood. There is no finishing to be wary of and the oiliness makes it less likely to dry out. Conditioning a few times a year is enough.
The color of ebony, the stark, dark, and inky blackness is perhaps why it’s so popular. It looks smooth due to the grains being quite tight. Overall, it gives off this slick aura that is hard to ignore. For metal or hard rock guitarists, it’s simply a must-have staple. At times, you’ll come across fretboards with a reddish tone that has its own charm.
For centuries, guitars have been made of wood and only wood. Yet, nowadays, guitar fretboards have started being manufactured with synthesized materials like the Micarta or Black Richlite. They are not solid woods so most puritans wouldn’t even consider it. However, many players say there’s no tangible difference. Yet, if you are not satisfied with any of the three discussed wood types, it might be a good idea to look into these as well. These kinds of materials may even be the gateway to a new generation of guitars!
There is no one answer for this one. It is completely a subjective decision. There is no inherent advantage to one wood but the beautiful partnership you might have with the one best suited for you will undoubtedly make you’re playing ten times better. When shopping for a guitar, there are some key things you must ask yourself in regards to the fretboard. Does it feel comfortable to play? Is this the kind of tone I want? Does this fretboard make my guitarist’s life easier?
Then, once you’re satisfied, you should consider the durability, the budget, and the appearance. The order for these factors may differ according to your priorities.
There are many factors to consider when buying a guitar, the tone, the look, and the price. The fretboard is where the action happens so undoubtedly it has a huge effect on our playing. Having a good idea of the characteristics of fretboard wood available and knowing yourself as a player will help you achieve a brilliant playing experience and jump in skill level.