Electric Guitar Tonewoods

Electric Guitar Tonewoods

Every guitarist likely knows a tonewood purist or two. And with the guitar world full of often-conflicting opinions, it can be difficult to determine which electric guitar tonewoods offer the sound that’s right for you. It may be helpful to realize that choosing a body wood for an electric guitar isn’t an exact science–you may find that you actually prefer the tonal qualities of a “lesser” wood to those of wood with a better reputation.

Ultimately, it’s best to let your ear be your guide–the best tonewood is the one that sounds right to you. This article will take you through some of the commonly used tonewoods for electric guitars.

Electric Guitar Tonewoods

Since tonewood choice is somewhat subjective, we’ve included the woods in this list in no particular order. Please keep in mind that our list is far from exhaustive — many adventurous builders have crafted guitars out of almost every tonewood imaginable.

#1. Mahogany

You’ve probably seen mahogany used in plenty of acoustic guitars, but this dense, midrange-focused wood is also a good guitar body material choice for solid body electrics. The tone of mahogany is often characterized as being “warm,” and it produces excellent sustain.

Mahogany also has tighter, more uniform grain patterns than some other woods, so it’s a good candidate for translucent finishes. Because of its ability to produce a rich or “fat” tone, mahogany is often used on guitars made for metal or hard rock.

Example guitar: The Gibson SG is an easily-recognizable guitar that’s made from mahogany–the powerful sustain of this guitar wood helps players create snarling, memorable solos. You can see mahogany’s distinctive grain with Gibson’s Heritage Cherry finish, and you can hear this guitar in action in this video demo.

#2. Swamp Ash

Many Fender guitars (and especially models from the 50s) are made using swamp ash. It is a very dense wood, and it produces a balanced tone — you get defined lows, sparkling highs, and well-defined mids. That said, many players characterize swamp ash as being less warm-sounding than some guitar woods like mahogany.

The grain patterns of this wood are varied, and no two guitars built with ash will have the exact same look. In most cases, builders need to fill in the open pores before finishing. That said, if you like translucent finishes that show off the wood grain on a body, you might like a swamp ash guitar.

Example guitar: The Fender made-in-Korea Lite Ash Telecaster is an excellent example of a guitar made with this wood. The sweet tone of ash seems to pair nicely with classic Tele tone, and like many guitars built with ash, this guitar has a blonde finish. This video demo lets you see and hear it for yourself.

#3. Alder

Like ash, alder is a tonewood that was (and is) commonly used by Fender. If you tend to get fatigued from playing heavy guitars, you might appreciate this wood–it’s relatively lightweight. Fender adopted this wood largely because red alder is plentiful from Alaska to Southern California.

In terms of tone, alder leans a bit toward the bright side–the highs and upper mids are most pronounced. However, alder also has a full lower midrange. Some players describe alder’s sound as “vintage,” since many older Stratocasters were made with alder bodies. Its grain is a bit less interesting than that of ash, so most alder guitars are finished in a solid color.

Example guitar: Most 1960s Stratocasters were made using alder, and this video demo lets you see and hear one in action. Alder is still used by many builders today, so you don’t have to seek out a vintage guitar in order to get one with an alder body.

#4. Maple

Maple is a very heavy wood, so you’ll almost never see it used for an entire guitar body. Its hardness makes it a great choice for necks, and many electric guitars at all price points have a maple neck. Maple is also hard enough that it can be used for fingerboard material, and many guitars with a maple neck do not need a separate fingerboard (pau ferro and Indian rosewood are two examples of commonly-used fingerboard woods, and both can add some warmth to your sound).

However, when used for bodies, maple produces excellent sustain with a bit of bite. It also comes in several grain variations–flame maple and quilt maple are two stunning variations that look especially nice with translucent finishes.

Example guitar: Many Gibson Les Pauls are made with maple tops, and the 1975 Les Paul Custom shown in this video demo has the sustain and bite that make maple such a versatile top material. In this model, the neck and fingerboard are maple as well.

#5. African Mahogany

African mahogany is a wood that has similar properties to mahogany, but it’s a bit lighter, making it a great option for smaller players. Like mahogany, it has a warm tone that focuses on the midrange. As more traditional woods have become more scarce, this wood has emerged as a viable and popular alternative.

In terms of grain, African mahogany looks a lot like mahogany. It’s a very responsive tonewood, and its balanced tonal profile makes it useful for players across multiple genres. Like alder, it is both stiff and lightweight, offering an impressive tone without causing shoulder fatigue.

Example guitar: The Ernie Ball St. Vincent Signature is made with a lightweight African mahogany body. It’s a guitar made with three mini-humbuckers for maximum tonal versatility, and the versatility of African mahogany suits this guitar especially well. You can see and hear it in this video demo.

#6. Basswood

Basswood doesn’t have the greatest reputation compared to other choices of wood for guitars. Some of this is likely due to the fact that it’s prevalent in Asia, where many major brands have their budget-model guitars produced. Some players regard it as an inexpensive alder substitute. In terms of tonal character, basswood is fairly balanced, but some players describe it as being bland.

While much of basswood’s tarnished reputation comes from being used on cheaper guitars, if you can find a well-made basswood model, you’ll likely hear a well-defined, dynamic tone. It’s important to remember that many budget basswood guitars have poor-quality pickups, so inferior tone can’t solely be blamed on the tonewood used.

Example guitar: The James Burton Signature Telecaster from Fender is an example of a well-made guitar with a basswood body. This video demo lets you hear this basswood guitar in action.

#7. Poplar

Poplar is one of the softer hardwoods, and like basswood, it’s an affordable body material for many less-expensive guitars. Some players describe it as being fairly characterless. However, others describe it as being very resonant and believe it to be a respectable alder substitute where the price is concerned.

Like basswood, poplar usually doesn’t have an especially interesting grain, but this wood can be easily covered with an opaque finish.

If you’re on a budget but dislike the sound of basswood, poplar is a resonant wood that won’t break the bank.

Example guitar: Poplar is used on some made-in-Mexico Fender Stratocasters and some other reasonably-priced guitars. This video demo shows off a custom-built Telecaster-style guitar made with a poplar body.

Final Thoughts

Hopefully, our list reminded you of some of the defining qualities of some of the woods often used for guitar bodies (and maybe you even learned about a new tonewood or two). Of course, the tonewood used in the body is far from the only thing impacting tone–your pickups matter just as much, if not more.

That said, the body wood is an important consideration when buying or building an electric guitar. What do you think? Please let us know in the comments, and don’t forget to share if you found our list helpful.               

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