Breaking Down Guitar Fretboards
Understanding the fretboard is an important part of getting into what makes a guitar sing. After all, it is the place where your fingers spend most of their time playing. Many players have a strong preference for one type of board or another. For those in this boat, a dark or light fingerboard material can make or break the aesthetic of the guitar. But this all actually goes a little bit deeper than just looks. While changing out materials on the board is not going to drastically alter the tonal properties of your instrument. Most do agree that there are at least some sonic effects brought about by the type of wood you’re fretting on. Let’s take a look at some of the common and not so common woods used for guitar fretboards.
Popular Fretboard Materials
The main thing that separates fretboards is the wood that they are made from. While there are countless types and varieties of wood in the world today, there are a few that stand out as the best for instruments. We call these special acoustically pleasing species tonewoods. Within the tonewoods, there are several that have come to be mainstays in the guitar world. For example, bodies are often made from wood like ash, alder, or mahogany. Listed below are four of the most common types of wood found in the manufacturing of fingerboards.
- Maple –
Maple is the place to start when talking guitar fingerboard woods. Basically, a maple board is usually a part of a one-piece neck, meaning that it’s not actually a separate fingerboard. This type of board is usually very easy to spot thanks to it being much brighter in appearance to the other common types. More often than not a maple board will look identical to the headstock and neck. As far as the sound goes, most people attribute a brighter tone to maple boards. This tone is thanks to the pores in maple being so tightly next to one another. For many, one of the main features to consider with maple boards is that they are often lacquered to some degree. Some people like this feel and others hate it, so keep this in mind. While not every plain maple board is gloss, you will definitely come across them more than with other woods.
- Rosewood –
Until recent years, you would be pretty safe in assuming that if the fingerboard is dark it’s made of rosewood. This wood has been at the heart of the tonewoods for a very long time and with good reason. The distinct combination of rosewood’s characteristics makes for a great board wood. This wood is naturally oily and quite porous meaning it requires no finish and has a warmer tone than that of some other woods. The most common type of rosewood you will see on guitars is Indian Rosewood. However occasionally on some instruments (usually higher-end ones) there is also the use of the sought-after Brazilian Rosewood.
- Ebony –
While less common than rosewood or maple, ebony is not to be left out of the most frequently used woods for fingerboards. Often viewed as a more prestigious option from the previous two woods, you typically don’t see ebony on lower-end instruments. One of the big things that make ebony stand out is that it’s a hardwood and very dark in look. With this type of board, you get closer to a maple level of brightness, but in a stunning black appearance. Unfortunately, this wood is becoming more and more used up. If trends continue, ebony is likely not going to be seen on many guitars in the future.
- Pau Ferro –
This one is a rather recent addition to the family of common fingerboard woods. Thanks to some recent (2017) CITES restrictions on rosewood, many companies have begun to opt to use the more import friendly Pau Ferro for fingerboards. Some did not mind this changeover while others were disappointed with the situation. Those not in favor of pau ferro claim that its generally lighter appearance is a step down from the darker tendencies of rosewood. Fortunately, there is not a whole lot of change beyond the appearance between the former and pau ferro. Additionally, with recent CITES pullbacks, it would appear that we may be seeing more and more rosewood boards back on the market.
Less Common Woods
Even though the majority of fingerboard woods can be lumped into the first few mentioned, there are still some lesser-known options in use. Things like padouk, purpleheart, zebrawood, cocobolo, and walnut can be found in limited runs and custom orders. Then there are woods like granadillo, which sit in a very interesting place in the world of guitar. To most in the US and elsewhere granadillo is an unknown species, however, in central and south America it is rather popular for boards. There is really a lot out there when looking at all the types of wood that work well for fretboards.
The main reasons as to why we don’t see more variety in fretboards of standard models come down to production and tradition. Most wood species are either too rare or expensive to be placed on something like a Squier Strat, it just would not make sense to do. On top of this, most people have grown accustomed to the maple/rosewood position in which we sit. Until things like CITES start to interfere, woods used for making fingerboards will likely see little alteration.