Are you looking to learn about fret boards and tone qualities? Many factors contribute towards getting a great tone. This can include a whole range of factors, such as style of music, the player’s technique (phrasing), Environment, components and set up (fret board and pickups). If you are looking to purchase your ideal guitar then you will need to be aware of the main wood types and their tonal properties and feel as this contributes to massive factor of how a guitar sounds.
What are the wood types for a fret board? Rose Wood, Maple and Ebony are the three main wood types for fret boards. Each wood varies in tone and aesthetics, which are essential factors depending on the style of music you want to play.
In this article, I will discuss each wood in turn and outline the key tonal properties of the wood so that you will know what type of fret board is right for you.
1. What is a Fret Board?
A fret board (also known as fingerboard) is a flat, plank-like piece of wood that lays parallel to the guitar neck. This is where you place your left hand (if using a right-handed guitar) and it is the mechanism where notes and chords are produced.
Each note is separated by frets. Whereby, frets are thin metal bars that run at right angles to the strings. The frets distinguish the different notes that are being played down you run down the fret board enabling different pitches.
Fret boards are distinguished by the different the different woods they are made from. There are many woods available and in theory, you can make your guitar fret board out anything. However, there are three typical woods that do the job perfectly. As discussed above these three wood types are Rose Wood, Maple and Ebony.
This woods are more typically chosen because they are ideal for Luther’s to work with and because they produce a high quality sound.
2. Is the Type of Fretboard Responsible for the Tone of your Instrument
Fretboard type is somewhat like icing on the cake when it comes to tone.
When it comes to tone specifically, I would argue the strings, pickups and the “guitar nut” has a bigger influence than the type of fretboard its self. The pickups are mainly responsible for the tone of electric guitars, and size of the guitars body is mainly responsible for the sound on acoustic guitars. However, things like construction techniques and wood types can have minor but accumulative effect on the overall tone.
Overall, the type of fretboard wood is mainly for character and design of the guitar, however, it does ever so slightly influence tone, but more importantly the way that you play as different wood types feel different because of the densities of the wood. With that said, I will take you through in detail of people opinions when it comes to the fret board with my personal experience.
3. Rosewood Fretboards
Rosewood fret boards are by far the most popular of the three wood types and can be found on a whole range of guitars. If you have ever walked into a guitar shop then you will have probably played one without realising it.
Rosewood offers many benefits for manufacturing purposes. It is very accessible and inexpensive when shipped from India. As well as being very versatile, and dense making it the most common of the fretboard types. Rosewood is popular for three main reason being that it is plentiful, easy to work with and cheap. Manufactures are able to cut costs down by using a cheaper wood.
However, this is not to say it does not perform as well as the other types of fretboards. Rosewood does perform just as well, and it is down to personal preference whether you like it or not. It is used in a whole range of brands from PRS, Ibanez, Fender and even Gibson.
Rosewood fretboards have very distinguishable characteristics. It is easily identified by the reddish-brown colour and grainy texture. This makes the colour of Rosewood darker than Maple and lighter than Ebony. The Brazilian Rosewood is darker than Indian Rosewood but again not as dark as Ebony.
The most distinguishing factor of Rosewood aesthetics is the texture. The grains of the wood are loose and if you look closely, you will see slight ridges in the wood.
In addition, Rosewood has a natural oily texture to it and so when in manufacturing Luther’s will avoid applying a thicker finish to it. Instead, they will apply a glossy but transparent finish that highlights the natural flavours of the wood.
To this end, Rosewood is the heaviest of the three types of wood used for fretboards, weighting over 6 pounds.
Indian Rose Wood Fret Board
Indian Rosewood has a very distinct pattern and colour to it as well. It has an even grain texture and is a dark coffee colour.
This is the more popular of the two because it is easier to come by.
Brazilian Rosewood Fret Board
Brazilian Rosewood is again a dark coffee colour with a red tinge to it. However, it is the rarer of the two. If your fretboard is made from Brazilian rosewood then you are definitely lucky and should really look after it, as it could be a collector’s item.
In fact, Brazilian Rosewood is now banned from being exported from Brazil to other countries for manufacturing reasons and the only way you can get your hands on this is by having invested in the Rosewood that was harvested before the CITES treaty was put in place, or that the tree fell naturally.
Before, the CITES treaty this wood was quite popular and so you will find it on many vintage guitars. Now, often seen on Pre 1960s guitars often feature this type of wood adding to the mysteriousness and value of older guitars.
It is said that the oiliness texture of Rosewood is directly responsible for the tone. The reason people say this is because they say the oily texture absorbs the overtones (these are pitches that deviate from the true note) by which they mean the harmonics are somewhat compressed/ volume of the pitches outside the true note is slightly reduced which results in a warmer tone.
I think a lot of this is speculation, as i have personally experienced guitars with a Rosewood fretboard to have too many overtones. For example, my USA Stratocaster sounds beautiful do not get me wrong but the overtones can easily overpower the fundamental note, and you have to really play with permission and delicacy to get a nice sound. All in all, I would argue Rosewoods have a warm tone, but I would argue this is not relevant to the overtones it produces.
Rosewood & Music Styles
I would not say Rosewood is limited to any styles, as I own a classical acoustic that has a rosewood fretboard, I own a Ibanez with a Brazilian rosewood fretboard, and a USA addition Fender Stratocaster with a rosewood fretboard.
Ibanez is great for playing with high distortion, yet the Stratocaster not so much because it is tangier (although this has a perfect clean tone). I think it is more down to the picks ups you use, bridge type, branded strings and tuning that really limit your style.
If you are used to playing Ebony or Maple then it can take some time for you to adapt and get used to it. This type of fretboard is prone to drying out, especially if you play it a lot.
The hardness of the wood is harder and the texture is slightly more grainy. This is a very subconscious impact on your playing that can alter the way you play, but more specifically your phasing. For example, playing on a harder wood could make you want to press harder, but all the grainy little bumps on the fretboard actually help control ever so slightly. This can help when you are changing notes, bends or sliding into different areas on the fretboard.
Furthermore, I notice that whilst playing is slightly harsher as the fretboards have small potholes (especially older ones) and I notice that I slide less frequently when jamming about. I also find that pressing to hard can also make notes turn a little sharp in the areas of the fretboard where they are potholes.
The style does not really matter but I prefer using Rosewood fretboard on chordier / rhythm based playing. I do not particularly like them for lead just because they feel less smooth and sliding is less enjoyable.
Rosewood General Maintenance
Rosewood is an open-grain wood type so that it has more of an irregular surface, making it less smooth than Ebony and Maple. This means you will likely have to clean it more regularly as dirt and microscopic debris will collect in the callous surface. If you play the instrument a lot you will find it will soon need a good clean.
I also find that because the fretboard is like a sponge for dirt it will dull the strings quicker than Maple and Ebony so may require you to change the string more frequently. If you were playing it every day, then changing them once every 2 months would do the trick.
When changing the strings you will also need to remember to wipe down your fretboard with lemon oil. This will also prevent the neck from drying out.
Once you have changed the strings you will notice that new strings will not sound as harsh and settle quicker. In addition, Rosewood fretboards are more solid that Maple and Ebony also making it more durable.
4. Maple Fretboard
Maple fretboards are distinctly different in their appearance that makes them easier to identify (if not stained). This is because they are the only wood type that is cream/white in colour.
Yngwie Malmsteen is famous for playing with Maple fretboard as this is a classic Fender design seen in guitars like the Stratocaster and Telecaster, and basses like the Precision and Jazz.
Maple is also manufactured in two different ways. The most common way (which is seen on telecasters) is that the fretboard and the neck of the guitar is one whole piece of wood and the truss rod is inserted in the back of the neck that channel down the neck.
The other way is that the fretboard is one piece of Maple with the neck being made of another material such as mahogany and then these are glued together and sanded down to give a seamless finish.
Tone of Maple Fretboards
Maple is a dense hardwood that is known to produce a bright tone with more prominent high end. It has a higher attack than the other woods making it sound snappy and precise with a tight low end.
Guitarists that want a brighter, soothing tone will often choose maple. Out of the three-fretboard woods, maple is often described as having a tighter top end. In addition, guitars that feature this type of fretboard such as telecasters and Strats also have amazing resonance.
It is also said that when Luther’s paint the wood it will offer a different tone with a more reflective sound.
Aesthetics of Maple Fretboards
Maple is an extremely dense hardwood that is found North America and Canada. It is often described as having “flamed” appearance. They will often show noticeable signs of wear after a few years of regular. This can be a seen as part of the guitars character.
Maple is light is colour and has small grain lines / pores unlike Rosewood. It most cases it can appear almost, but you can see it with a creamy shade depending on the tree it has been harvested from.
Some guitarists tend to avoid maple necks due to the fact it requires finish to stop it from warping. It can look and feel less natural than the likes of ebony or rosewood fretboards.
Maple fretboards are notorious for showing serious signs of wear overtime. The main problem is aesthetic as the fretboards tend to wear down, and the finish becomes worn that is exacerbated by dirt absorbing into the wood. Also, being white in colour makes the signs are wear prominent.
This does not affect playability at all, and for some guitarists, this is a desired effect. Mainly a cause for some pride, but for others it would just be considered dirty and unclean.
Overall, Maple shows off more wear and tear than a rosewood or ebony fretboard, which is something that needs to be considered when purchasing a guitar. However, again we are talking about years of play before any signs start to show.
The playability of Maple fretoard are can vary in feel. The reason they feel different is how the fretboard is sealed. The biggest factor that affects playability is the finish. This is because the types of finish can be either smooth or sticky in feel. This means if you are looking to purchase a guitar with a Maple fretboard then it is important to understand how each finish performs.
The types of finishes that are available for Maple fretboards include:
- Satin Finish – Sati finish is not as shiny as Gloss but not as rough as Matte. It is quite a natural texture. This is usually painted on with a brush.
- Lacquer Finish – Lacquer is a transparent varnish and feels smooth. It is a shiny transparent protective coat. This is most common and is sprayed on.
- Gun Stock oil – Gun stock oil performs as if there’s no sealant on at all. Very slick.
- Matte Finish – Matte finish performs very similar to Gun stock oil. It is light in texture and feels very natural like there is no sealant applied at all.
- Gloss – Gloss is common for fenders and it feels slightly sticky under your fingers.
How to make a fretboard less sticky?
Low end Fenders tend to use rather sticky sealant. One thing you can do is take light sandpaper. Sand paper, grade between 600-800 works well, you will just want to sand down each fret lightly, and it will remove the sticky texture.
Overall, I find that fretboards with a sticky finish such as Gloss has a less natural vibe to it and feels more like plastic. I always feel like these textures are less comfortable. My advice would be if you are purchasing guitar with a Maple fretboard then make sure it is not sticky and definitely avoid gloss.
If your style involves pressing down hard on a fretboard, then you will be able to feel the deep ridges in the texture of the wood. This can cause slight problems for heavy-handed people as it makes bending less smooth. However, if you naturally have a lighter touch and do not like to fret down to hard then it probably will not bother you at all.
5. Ebony Fretboard
Ebony is another type of wood that is commonly used for fretboards. However, it is probably one of the least common of the three types mentioned in this post but becoming more popular. In 2017, when CITES law applied strict regulations to Rosewood has provided an opening for Ebony to manufacture fretboards.
Ebony fretboards is a common choice for styles such as metal and it is popular on a wide range of acoustic guitars for finger style.
Ebony is harvested in West Africa and naturally like most tonewoods Ebony naturally grows with varying degrees of colour. However, the Ebony found on guitar fretboards are jet black. This is because only 1 out of every 10 trees are uniformly black whereby the rest are have other shades of colour in them. The trees that are not uniformly black will be left behind in the forest.
Ebony is my personal favourite for appearance, tone and playability and below I will explain more why that is.
Ebony fretboards origins are from Africa or Asia. The African ebony wood is predominantly all black, whereas the Asian ebony wood can have brown stripes running through the wood (kind of similar to Rosewood).
In fact, Ebony can often be mistaken as Rosewood due to its dark nature. They benefit from the dark appearance and natural oils found in rosewood, so therefore will not need finishing or a lacquer placed over it for protection.
Tonally, it is said that Ebony sits somewhere in between Rosewood and Maple. This is because it looks similar to Rosewood aesthetics but sounds somewhat close to Maple. This is because Ebony shares a similar hardness and density to that of Maple.
Yes, it has a bright but smooth sound with a cutting mid-range that is just perfect for lead guitarists. Some people say that they can tell by listening to someone play whether or not it has a ebony fretboard.
Overall, Ebony delivers very bright tonal with a pleasing brightness that works well with Humbuckers and single coil pickups.
Ebony is very durable and oily. This means you do not need to apply any kind of finish, which will wear over time. Because of its dark nature and closed paws, it always looks clean even with heavy abuse.
As Ebony is naturally harder, it will probably last for a lifetime (even with every day use). It will quite easily outlive Rosewood and Maple.
To clean the fretboard you can wipe it down thoroughly with a clean, acid free cloth whenever you think it is time for new strings.
Ebony is less open grained than rosewood, but feels extremely smooth. Because the wood it naturally oily, Luther’s do not need to apply finish to the fretboard. This means the fretboard is completely natural, guitarists will not feel like the fretboard is “sticky” where they might with a maple fretboard that has had sealant applied.
However, even though the fretboard is smooth there very small but noticeable groves in the wood texture. This is actually a benefit because the grooves are small enough that dirt and debris doesn’t collect that easy but big enough that it still allows the stings to bite giving you a good amount of control. The action feels fast and slick, it’s smooth but not slippery.
There is one slight problem with Ebony, and it is down to the naturally oily wood. This is very rare but there have been cases of guitarists that experience some form of allergic reaction to the oils in ebony wood. Very unlikely but I would say it is important to go and test out Ebony before you make any commitments upfront encase you do experience some form of allergic reaction.
Overall, from my own personal experience, I would say Ebony fretboards are a good middle ground between maple and rosewood in terms of playability.
In this post, we have looked at the three main types of fretboards that you will see on a guitar. We discussed three main woods being Rosewood, Maple & Ebony whereby I hopefully gave you enough understanding so that you can go out, experiment, and make your own judgements what you like.
Overall, Rosewood and Ebony are quite similar in both aesthetics but different in playability and tone. Ebony is more suited to lead playing whilst Rosewood is good for rhythm.
In addition, Maple is completely different altogether; in aesthetics, it is quite similar to Ebony in tone as the wood densities are most similar.