Guitar Tone Wood Basics for Buyers

Author: Patrick McGlynn 

When thinking of buying a solid body electric guitar, there are many factors to take into account. The wood your guitar is made from is one of the biggest factors affecting your tone.

Woods: The wood used on the guitar will affect the tone that you hear. Guitar bodies come made from various types of woods. The most common are Mahogany, such as used on Gibsons, which sounds warmer and thicker and Alder or Ash as used in Fenders mostly, which sounds brighter.

Mahogany - Consistent density compresses the mids a bit, but still produces nice lows and low mids. Considered a relatively thick or warm tone. Has somewhat of a nasal response. Very even spectrum of frequencies. Good for soloing because high notes are thicker than ash or alder. Used on Les Pauls, SG's, Flying V's, and Explorers, among many other guitars. Often used with humbucking pickups.

Basswood - Many guitars these days are made of this. A relatively inexpensive choice for guitar woods. Somewhat softer than others it dampens and smooths sharp highs. This can be desirable if your guitar is naturally very bright, which can be affected by tremolo setups, pickups, etc. Being low in mass though, it brings a weaker low end. Because of all this it leaves a very "out front" sound with a strong mid fundamental note, therefore is very well suited to soloing. Popular on aggressive styles of lead guitars.

Alder - Light in weight like Basswood, with more rigidity with more complex tones. Leaves in more highs and lows, so sounds less "mid-rangey" than the Basswood. Very popular for Stratocasters among many others. As with ash, often used with single coil pickups

Swamp Ash - Very resonant across the tonal spectrum. Bell-like highs, pronounced mids, and strong lows. Can have less consistency than other woods depending on the different cuts or qualities, so can vary from guitar to guitar. Also popular on Strats.

Walnut - Harder, denser than mahogany, so brighter in tone. Nasal response to rhythms, and solo notes jump out. Snappy attack and solid lows like ash, but smooth highs like mahogany. Heavy and dense, try to choose a lighter, more opened grain piece so it will resonate well. A bad piece can sound dull or lifeless. Changing pickups with this wood will have less of a change in tone as the walnut wood tends to dominate the tone.

Korina - A made up name for African Limba. Very similar to mahogany, but said to have a "sweeter" mid-range, and is more responsive, like a bit more lively with vibrations. Can be considered a "mahogany deluxe". Usually has a higher markup than mahogany. Epiphone makes some nice models of a V and explorer model in this wood at a good value.

Hard Maple - This wood has been said to "shout". It has strong upper mid-range, bright highs, and tapered off but very tight lows. Maple is often used as a thin layer on top of another body wood. Most Les Pauls are constructed this way. Generally the top layer sounds the pick attack and the wood beneath sounds the resonance and decay. Maple is most popularly used this way on top of a mahogany body, adding some brightness to the mahogany warmth.

Soft Maple - can be brassy, searing upper mid range for soloing or dry, combed rhythms. Not as often desired as other choices.

In addition to maple tops on various body woods, tops can be made from koa, walnut, rosewood, and lacewood. These are not as common, but be aware that different top woods all affect the sound differently.
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