The electric guitar fretboard wood often referred to as the fingerboard, is one of the main factors I look at when picking out a guitar. It is arguably one of the biggest factors that determine how the guitar feels and sounds.
But what is the electric guitar fretboard made of, and what’s the difference?
In this post I’ll be explaining the most common materials used in an electric guitar fretboard, and how it affects the overall sound and feel of the instrument.
After reading this post, you’ll be able to decide on the best fretboard wood for your playstyle.
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What’s The Difference Between Electric Guitar Fretboards?
The main factor that differentiates electric guitar fretboards is the type of wood used.
The different types of wood can have a huge influence on the overall playability, tone, and aesthetic of the guitar.
Naturally, since the fretboard is the primary way your fingers interact with the instrument, it’s absolutely imperative to make sure it feels comfortable to you!
Different woods can vary in smoothness, coarseness, oiliness, dryness, etc. This has a huge impact on playability.
If you’re going to be playing fast leads, you’ll probably want something that is smoother that allows for mobility.
If your fingers sweat a lot, you might want to go with something coarser for better grip.
There isn’t a “one size fits all”, so it basically comes down to personal preference. Play around with guitars that use different fingerboard woods, and see which one feels best for you.
It’s been a huge debate among guitar players as to whether the guitar fretboard wood has any effect on tone.
Many guitar enthusiasts believe that literally everything on the guitar, from the strings to the screws holding it together; have an effect on the tone, with the fretboard being no exception.
Some of the major differences in tone include the overall brightness, warmth, and overtones generated by the wood.
Others feel that the fingerboard wood has no effect on the guitar tone, especially once you turn up the gain, and add effects.
One thing you can’t argue is that the different types of wood affect the aesthetic of the guitar.
The common woods used in the fretboard vary drastically in color from a light cream color, like maple, all the way to a dark black color, like ebony.
Also, since the grains of the woods are different, it can make the fretboard look either smooth or rigid.
If you can’t tell the difference between the tones, then you might as well choose a guitar with a fretboard that is aesthetically pleasing to you.
Most Common Fretboard Wood for Electric Guitars
The 3 most common types of wood used in the fretboard of an electric guitar are Maple, Rosewood, and Ebony.
Basically every guitar out there, either electric or acoustic, will likely be using one of these 3 materials for the fingerboard.
Also, keep in mind that within these 3 main categories, there are unique differences between each type as well. For example, not all maple fingerboards are the same as it can vary in hardness and heaviness, finished and unfinished, etc. (though I won’t delve too deep into that in this post).
Maple is one of the most common fretboard materials used on electric guitars. The Fender Stratocaster is an iconic example of a guitar that uses maple fretboard.
You will usually find maple fingerboards on guitars that already have a maple neck. They’ll typically just put the frets directly on a piece of maple used for the neck itself, rather than laying on a separate piece of maple for the fingerboard.
Maple fretboards are known for having a very bright sound with a lot of overtones. The overtones are prevalent because the grains and pores in maple are very tight. As a result, overtones are absorbed into the wood, unlike rosewood and ebony.
There isn’t anyone specific genre of guitar that excels with maple fretboards, so it really just comes down to personal preference.
I’ve owned a Fender Stratocaster with a maple neck and can safely say that I never felt that it’s held me back from playing any particular genres.
Since maple is a porous wood, maple fretboards are usually coated with a lacquer or nitrocellulose finish. This can make the neck look glossy.
Depending on the quality of the finish, it can have a huge effect on the feel and playability of the instrument. This is because your fingers are making contact with the coating, rather than the wood itself.
Playing on coated maple fretboards can feel “sticky” which can potentially limit your mobility.
To remedy this I use a spray-on my fretboard called “Finger-ease” guitar string lubricant which is essentially a spray that makes the fretboard easier to move around. You can check it out on Amazon if you’re interested.
Also, if your fingers are prone to sweating, it can feel grimy and disgusting to use coated maple necks (I speak from experience on this one).
However, the one nice thing about having a coated maple neck is that it’s very easy to maintain. It lasts a long time, and cleaning it is a breeze.
Some players prefer the feel of unfinished maple necks, myself included. Personally, I think it feels much more comfortable when my fingers make direct contact with the wood.
The tradeoff is that the neck is much more prone to wear, and will not last as long.
The aesthetic of maple is something that draws a lot of people. Unlike rosewood and ebony, which are darker woods, a guitar with a maple fretboard stands out in the crowd as it is the only material among the three that has a light color.
Maple is naturally a very light, cream-colored wood. I personally think it has a very classy look. As I previously mentioned, maple necks are iconic for being used on the Fender Stratocaster.
Also, the benefit of having a maple fretboard is that it ages very well. If you look at older fender strats from the ’50s and ’60s, their neck will be grey and worn down.
It gives it this really nice vintage, relic’d look that’s actually quite desirable for guitar enthusiasts. You can tell that people like this look because manufacturers actually sell “pre-relic’d” guitars, where they intentionally give the guitar the damaged look.
Rosewood is probably the most common type of wood that you’ll find on an electric guitar. If you’ve ever walked into a guitar store, I’m 100% positive that you’ve seen a rosewood fretboard before.
Rosewood is used in guitars of virtually every brand from Gibson to Ibanez to PRS to Fender. Due to how common the wood is, and how inexpensive it is, rosewood is probably the most versatile wood for manufacture to make fingerboards.
Rosewood is known for having a very warm tone compared to the other materials. Since rosewood has oily pores, it tends to absorb overtones, resulting in a warmer tone.
Most of the guitars in my collection are rosewood, and I can comfortably say that they sound great regardless of what genre I’m playing. When it doubt, you can’t really go wrong with rosewood.
In terms of overall feel and playability, rosewood tends to feel coarse, and not as slick compared to maple and ebony.
Rosewood is an open-grained wood, which can make it feel less smooth and fast to play on.
However, the benefit is that it rosewood fingerboards tend to give better control over the strings, allowing for easier bends.
Styles such as blues, which incorporate a lot of bends, would tend to prefer rosewood fretboards. I personally do a lot of string bends when I play lead melodies, so this is right down my alley.
One thing about rosewood is that it is prone to drying out, especially if you play it a lot.
Playing on dry rosewood fretboard feels gritty and uncomfortable, so you’ll likely have to spend some time cleaning and maintaining it.
Whenever you change your strings, it’s a good idea to wipe down the fretboard with some lemon oil to keep the neck from drying.
Guitars with rosewood fingerboards are easily distinguishable due to their reddish-brown color. It’s significantly darker than maple, but not as dark as ebony.
Different types of rosewood vary in how light or dark the wood is. Some guitarists will actually stain their rosewood fretboards to make it a darker color, resembling ebony.
With rosewood, since the grains of the wood are loose, if you look closely at the fretboard, you’ll actually see the grains and ridges of the wood.
Ebony is quite possibly the classiest looking fretboard material out of the bunch. It is not used as commonly as maple or rosewood due to the fact that it is rare and expensive in comparison.
In terms of tone, ebony fingerboards are comparable to maple in the sense that it produces a very bright sound. This is because ebony is a very dense and hardwood.
In terms of playability, ebony gives a nice middle ground between maple and rosewood. Since it’s a tighter grained wood, it allows for smooth and fast playing, while not sacrificing control over string bends.
It is a naturally oily wood that does not dry out as often as rosewood, so maintenance is minimal.
One thing to note is that some people say ebony doesn’t last as long as the other woods and is more prone to cracking. However, I have never experienced this before, so it’s probably not something I’d worry too much about.
In terms of aesthetics, ebony is probably the most beautiful wood of them all. It has a pure dark black color that looks absolutely stunning.
The grains of the wood are very tight, which makes the fretboard look smooth with no visible ridges or coarseness.
If anything, the aesthetic is probably the reason I prefer ebony the most out of any other fretboard materials on my electric guitars.
Choosing the Best Fretboard Wood for You
When choosing an electric guitar, the fingerboard is definitely something worth trying out for yourself before you make the purchase.
Choosing the best fretboard wood isn’t black and white. There really isn’t a single material that is objectively better than the other. All three fretboard woods are fully capable of handling any style or genre of music you throw at them.
When I am purchasing an electric guitar, I’ll typically select my fretboard wood based on the three factors in the following order; playability, aesthetics, tone.
Playability is definitely the most important for me because I find a comfortable neck necessary for my playing since I primarily play lead instrumental melodies.
The aesthetic is the second most important because…well, come on… who doesn’t love a beautiful electric guitar?
In terms of tone, though I do hear some minor differences between the woods, personally I find it quite negligible. In my opinion there certainly isn’t enough of a difference to sway my opinion towards one fretboard wood over the other. If you’re a newer player, I can pretty much guarantee that you won’t be able to tell the difference.
Like I stated, these are the factors that determine the best fretboard wood for me. With that being said, ebony fretboards are my favorite because they fit my criteria the best.
However, this may be completely different for you. Play around with different guitars and see which one resonates with you the best.
I hope you enjoyed the post. Feel free to let me know your thoughts by leaving a comment with which fretboard material you prefer the most. For more advice on guitar gear on a budget, be sure to follow the Guitar Advise blog!