Previously, the reason behind the different tones that different woods create has been explained. The different tones themselves were not fully explored and in this article I will give a global overview of the different tone woods, the sound they produce and in some cases their purpose. This is by no means a complete picture, only a global overview.
Alder is a tree that grows in medium, temperate climates with a lot of moisture. This fast growing wood produces relatively soft timber with long grains. It’s not as soft as mahogany or as hard as maple, which culminates to a tone without a major boost in the tonal spectrum. Generally, the highs are slightly attenuated with lows that aren’t that pronounced and a midrange that might use an extra kick because the mids aren’t that abundantly available.
Ash can come from various sources. You have hard ash, which has a lot of bite, almost like maple, but with more (and chunkier) lows. Hard ash is generally speaking on the heavier side. Swamp ash, on the other hand, is much lighter, with less compression in the tone. You will get an opener sound with lots of highs and upper mids that cut through the mix like a hot knife through butter. The difference between a billet cut from the top or the bottom of the tree makes a huge difference in tone. A high-cut piece of hard ash might be closer to the sound you’re looking for than a lower cut of swamp ash. This goes for all woods, but in my experience this is even stronger the case with ash than other types.
Basswood is a wood that’s being used predominantly on ‘metal’ guitars. This is because the tree grows rather fast, the grain doesn’t look particularly interesting or pretty (and therefor not considered to be a shame if finished in an opaque color; the extreme softness of the wood makes a hard finish a necessity, too) it doesn’t have the growl of mahogany, it doesn’t have the tightness or bite of maple, it doesn’t have the sweetness of alder or the chunky quality of ash. Instead, it has all of that, although to a lesser degree. It has some bite, some growl, some sweetness, but not much. That makes it a perfect template for your own sound. It doesn’t add anything to your tone but it doesn’t take away anything.
This classic, brownish wood has being used for instruments for years. It grew originally in South America, but due to over harvesting mahogany is now being grown in Asia, Africa, and there are even experiments conducted with growing mahogany in the more temperate climates of Europe and North America. The tone of this wood is extremely dependant on the thickness of the billet. A thinner piece, like an SG, has a warm growly tone with lots of bite and presence. A thicker piece, like a Les Paul Junior, has a thicker, chunkier, meatier tone with softer highs and more push in the lower mids. Having a thick maple cap on mahogany is a way of getting a thicker body yet retaining clarity, attack and a bit compression. For pure tonal reasons, the cap isn’t necessary: after all, a flattop mahogany guitar also has plenty of bite.
This is a dense, hard wood that’s being used on necks, fingerboards, tops and occasionally bodies and comes in three major figure patterns: flamed (stripes across the grain), quilt (cloud like shapes across the grain) and no pattern at all called plain. I don’t think that a maple body only has highs and upper mids because it also has a decent amount of lows too. It won’t be fat or juicy, but it does have a lot of bite, scream and presence. Some guitars of the ’80s were fully maple, and for the styles they were used for were extremely good. Don’t expect a smooth jazzy tone of honky, smokin blues sound, but if bite is what you need, maple is your best friend.
This wood originated in Brazil (amongst other countries) but due to over harvesting, this wood is nearly extinct in its native region. Some of the largest producers of rosewood are India and Madagascar. This hard, dense, oily wood can come with a very tight or coarse grain, and can be very evenly colored or very striped. Rosewood is most often used as fingerboards because of its durable nature and sweet, warm tone. Rosewood is on occasion also being used for neck blanks. These necks have a classy, speedy feel to them with an amazing tone. Warm but not muddy with great sustain. The highs just sing. It’s like an exaggeration of a rosewood fingerboard. Rosewood can also be used as a body wood, though. But since it’s so rare and expensive, you’d be hard pressed to find a solid rosewood guitar. I own 2 guitars that have rosewood as a body wood: one has a rosewood top, the other a rosewood back. I would be hard pressed to attribute a specific tone or feel or characteristic to rosewood in these contexts but I feel that the warmth I have with a rosewood neck or board is noticeable when the rosewood is in the body, too. The biggest downside is perhaps the weight. Rosewood is incredibly heavy!
I can be brief on this wood. Poplar sounds a lot like alder, but looks usually a lot less appealing (and
some players report a little more upper midrange compared to alder). Sometimes you get a piece of poplar though that seems to defy every ‘rule in the book.’ These pieces will just knock you off your feet due to the sheer beauty of things. Poplar is used on many inexpensive guitars, often as ‘body wings’ for neck-thru Vs and the like, but there are also much finer, higher-quality, higher-priced examples.
I believe that 75% of all guitars are made with a combination of the woods I described above. There are some other woods, though, that have been finding their way into the market.
This is a tropical wood like rosewood, but has a tighter grain and a brighter tone. Generally speaking bubinga has a slightly lighter color than rosewood. The tone is bright with an incredible push in the upper mids. I would almost describe it as maple with softer highs and more gentle mids. Rickenbacker uses this wood for their fingerboards.
As a member of the rosewood family, cocobolo has a warm tone with an open clear yet presence. The looks are always stunning. Wether it’s a wild, wavy pattern or a neat, almost spreadsheet like grain, cocobolo will always turn heads. This wood is most often used for fretboards on more luxurious guitars and as laminate tops and backs for the most expensive guitars, electric and acoustic alike.
A classic! Used for hundreds of years for fingerboards, bridges and other parts, this extremely hard, durable wood is noted for its dark color. Ebony is most closely associated with black, but brown, yellow, red and even purple hues and stripes aren’t uncommon for ebony. The coloring doesn’t take away anything of the tonal qualities we came to know and love. Brightness, attack, bite paired with a slick, speedy feel. Due to its price tag and hard nature, ebony is most often used for fretboards, though some luthiers are known for using ebony as the sides and sometimes even the top or back of an acoustic guitar, and on occasion you can even find ebony necks.
Koa is a wood that grows in Hawaii. Its color and grain pattern is a love or hate affair. Either you love it instantly or you won’t like it at all. The tone is similar to korina and mahogany but with more upper mids and highs. Koa loves to be matched with a walnut back for added power, more tightness in the lows and extra scream, or with korina or mahogany for more sweetness and growl.
This African wood also goes by the name limba and is available in two versions: white and black. Tonally and structurally they are the same, black korina comes from the edge of the tree where white korina comes from the core. Tonally korina is very similar to mahogany, with a bit more upper mids and presence. Korina makes for a great substitution of mahogany, not to mention its great looks. Having a korina body and korina top will give you a great, fat tone with more bite than one would expect from a mahogany body. As a neck, korina is much like mahogany too.
This red wood is in my opinion highly underrated. As a top you get the bite of a maple cap but with completely unique looks. As a neck you get the tone of maple but with howl. As a fretboard you get the bite of maple and the rumble of rosewood, with a unique, speedy feel. I have used it as a body wood, and despite the great sounds I get, I cannot recommend it because of the weight. For most players it’s just too heavy.
Considered by some to be the holy grail of neck woods, Pau ferro feels slick, speedy, fast. The Stevie Ray Vaughan signature strat has a Pau ferro finger board and Reb Beach of Whitesnake and Winger has sworn by Pau ferro necks for 20 years already! The tone is similar to maple but with more chunky mids. The push that Pau ferro gives your tone is amazing.
This wood is hard, heavy and dense. With a tone similar to bubinga, the feel is less ‘glassy’, more like rosewood. The purple is its natural color but it will change to a brownish hue over time under the influence of air and light.
Walnut can be found in relative abundance in more temperate climates. The wood is about as hard as maple but has a bit more oil in it than maple, making the tone a bit warmer. Compared to bubinga, walnut has a bit more presence and bite and a little less projection. Compared to Pau ferro, walnut has less push in the mids. Walnut is a great choice as a laminate top on korina or as a core for Koa.
This coarse-grained wood can be used for bodies, necks and fretboards and feels incredibly fast because your fingers have less drag. The tone is very mid heavy. The highs are kind and singing, the lows are firm but not pronounced. The mids are quite pushed though, and will give your tone a howling, singing quality to it.
This list is by no means complete, nor do I intend it to be. It should serve as a general guide to some of the most frequently used woods. It should always be remembered that no two pieces are the same, there are the general tonal characteristics to these woods.
For a list of what pickups work well with particular wood types, read this article or go directly to Tone Wizard for a personalized recommendation.