The leaves and bark of swamp ash, a commonly-used wood for electric guitar bodies.
Characteristics of the main types of woods used for electric guitars
At first a guitarist might not be able to tell much about wood types, and the effect they have on the overall sound coming out of an amplifier. Differences regarding resonance, sustain, complexity, and strengths and weaknesses at different frequencies become more clear with experience.
Listening to electric guitars takes practice. A non-guitarist won't hear subtle differences an experienced guitarist will notice with ease. Guitarists over time develop the ability to notice and understand differences in the many factors in a guitar sound, which allows preferences and opinions to develop. This skill happens automatically, paralleling experience.
Not all guitars are made of wood. Some are aluminum alloys, types of plastic, carbon fiber, graphite, or other material. These guitars, like ones made from various woods, have potential to sound anywhere from horrid to fantastic, subjectively and/or objectively. And wood certainly isn’t the only factor in a guitar sound.
The most common woods used for the bodies of electric guitars, each of which is discussed below, are maple, basswood, swamp ash, poplar, alder, and mahogany.
Bird's eye maple.
Maple trees are over 100 species found in North America, Europe, and Asia.
This type of wood is not commonly used for guitar bodies (as in making the body out of a single chunk of maple), since it’s very hard, and hard on tools. Also, it is dense and therefore would result in a very heavy guitar.
The sound of a body made entirely of maple is considered weak in the bass frequencies, and strong in the upper midrange frequencies. Some call the bass “tight,” others call it nearly non-existent. Fact is that the bass range of the sound is not very prominent.
Although rarely used for guitar bodies, this type of wood is often used as a top – a thin layer or cap that is placed on top of a body made of basswood, swamp ash, alder, or mahogany. Used in this way, the maple adds a crisp top end to the sound. The combination of other woods, paired with a maple top, is very much sought after by many guitarists.
Maple guitar tops often have incredibly beautiful patterns, and based on their appearance are given names such as “flamed,” “bird’s eye” (pictured above), or “quilted.” Guitars within a specific model can vary from instrument to instrument in the beauty and unique configuration of their maple tops. These tops are often given grades based on appearance quality, such as AAAA, or AAAAA.
I used to think that the name of this wood means that it’s super bassy. However, this isn’t the case.
This species of tree (there’s actually about 30 species of “basswood,” alternatively called “lime” or “linden”) is native to the northern hemisphere, found in many places through North America, Europe, and Asia. They are fairly large deciduous trees, often between 65 feet and 130 feet (20 and 40 meters) in height.
The wood is soft and light, and also light in color. The lighter weight makes it a good choice for guitarists who want something that will be easier on their backs. The sound is lacking the sharp treble at the very top, which some guitarists really like. Also, the bass is less deep and powerful compared with other woods that are more dense. Overall the sound is strong in the middle frequencies.
Not all basswood used in guitars is equal. Many factories use a yellowish variety that is not considered as good as the more tan varieties used by Japanese manufacturers such as Ibanez.
This wood is inexpensive and easy to machine, and is commonly used in less expensive to mid-priced guitars. However, its tonal qualities make it suitable for high end guitars as well, even though it’s hard to find high end guitars that use it.
“Swamp ash” and simply “ash” are the same thing when discussing guitar woods. Swamp ash is just one out of 50 or so species of ash tree. Swamp ash is native to the eastern two-thirds of the United States, plus the southeastern portion of Canada.
This type of wood is hard, and yet has large open pores that make for a light guitar that ends up having fantastic resonance across the entire sound spectrum. Some of the middle frequencies are lowered in this wood, bass is strong, and treble is considered very pleasant.
The best swamp ash guitars are made in the USA, and foreign manufacturers often use wood that doesn’t have as good of pores, resulting in a rigid, and practically lifeless sound by comparison.
Classic Fender guitars from the 1950s were made with this wood. Sometimes manufacturers pair an ash body with a maple top, as discussed above.
There are about 30 species of poplar found across the Northern Hemisphere, in North America, Europe, and Asia. Two well-known species are aspen and cottonwood. Some species are massive, with trunks eight feet in diameter, and reaching over 150 feet (45 meters) in height. The trees are deciduous, with broad leaves that change color and fall off every autumn.
Although used in many inexpensive guitars manufactured in Asia, this wood overall is not considered to be very good for electric guitars. Many would consider them adequate, or passable, although many guitarists find the sonic characteristics to be bland, lacking in resonance, and lacking sustain.
One website compares the sound of poplar bodies to the more yellowish, lower quality basswood bodies that I mentioned above. Others have guitarists praising poplar and claiming that it isn’t much different from alder.
The majority of opinions about poplar suggest that beginners to guitar likely won’t have any adverse reaction to learning with a guitar made from this wood, although guitarists who are more experienced likely will want something better.
This type of deciduous tree, like others on this page, is about 30 species found across the Northern Hemisphere. Two species exceed 100 feet (30 meters) in height.
Like swamp ash, this wood was famously used by Fender in the early days of electric guitars, especially in the late 1950s and early 1960s. It is used by Fender and many other manufacturers today.
The wood is often compared to basswood due to being light in weight, and soft and easy to work with. However, alder features harder rings throughout it, which makes the tone noticeably different from basswood.
Relative to other guitar woods, basswood is a bit weak in the highs and lows, but alder is not. This causes some to view alder as having less midrange compared with basswood, when really it’s just because the higher and lower frequencies are more pronounced in a guitar made with alder.
Alder guitars are often described as having a very balanced tone across the frequency spectrum.
This wood is a hardwood from the tropical regions of the Americas. There are three species known. The one used for guitars is usually West Indies mahogany. These trees commonly top 100 feet (30 meters) in height and are now grown all over the world in tropical and subtropical areas. They are native to Florida and many of the Caribbean islands.
Mahogany has a constant and uniform density to it, producing a well-balanced sound. Soloists like that the highest notes on the guitar come out thicker and less shrill than with guitars made from other types of wood, including high quality alder and ash.
Also, the overall sound is often deep with pronounced lows. The bass is not especially tight, but is powerful. Highs are also pronounced but not harsh or unpleasant. Midrange is strong and well balanced with the other frequencies.
Guitars meant to be played with medium to high gain distortion often use this type of wood. The wood is sometimes paired with a maple top, as discussed above, or can stand on its own.
Mahogany is often reddish brown in color, and the wood has distinct lines that cause some people to mistakenly believe the guitar was made from multiple pieces of wood that were stuck together.