The Future of Wood in Electric Guitars

Fender’s recent announcement that it will remove ash from the majority of its regular production models came as a sharp reminder that some woods considered for decades to be in endless supply may be unavailable in the future.

For many electric guitar players, wood is mostly about tone—about the sometimes mysterious qualities of a guitar’s materials that contribute to the sound it makes. For many guitar makers, wood is more about its availability and price—its potential to be dried and worked, its relative weight, and so on.

Somewhere in between, there’s a sweet spot where the wood in an electric guitar is both a magical medium and a rational choice. I asked a selection of guitar makers, big and small, to consider that spot and to see if we can make this mighty subject a little bit clearer.

Setting the Scene

Over the course of many decades, the big two brands have created a strong sense of what we might call the traditional set of woods for electric guitars: Fender mostly with ash and alder for bodies, maple and rosewood for necks and fingerboards; Gibson leaning to mahogany for bodies and some spruce, as well as a lot more of that maple and rosewood.

These days, Fender, at its HQ in Scottsdale, Arizona, sources a wide range of woods for its factories, still centered on that traditional core. Swamp ash comes from areas on or near the Mississippi River, and their alder comes from the Pacific Northwest of the United States and from British Columbia in Canada. Rosewood comes from India and Indonesia, and their hard maple is primarily from the east of North America but also as far north and west as the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

Gibson Firebrand "The Paul" Deluxe, Mahogany Body.

Tim Shaw at Fender reminds us that some of Fender’s earliest steels were made from pine, and as the supply of ash becomes more uncertain, it’s being used on newer guitars. "While mahogany is less common historically, Fender’s use of this is increasing, too," he says. "We get this from Guatemala, Belize, and managed plantations in Fiji. Pau ferro looks similar to rosewood, but it’s a different species. Historically it was used for fingerboards when rosewood was hard to obtain, but sourced from Brazil and Bolivia it’s been back in use the past few years when Indian rosewood usage was restricted by CITES concerns. Fender also uses ebony from Central Africa for some fingerboards, mostly from Bob Taylor’s mill in Cameroon."

Mat Koehler in Product Development at Gibson’s HQ in Nashville says today the firm sources many of the same woods that it’s used for over a century. "And they come from mostly the same places: mahogany from South America, maple from eastern and western North America, red spruce from Appalachia and Canada, Sitka spruce from western North America. Most of our rosewood is now from India, but also we’ve explored sustainable sources from Bolivia and Indonesia—different strains from the Brazilian rosewood that Gibson used before 1965, of course, but we don’t believe that makes a lot of sonic difference, since it’s used primarily for fingerboards."

Curl, Resonance, Roasting

Over at PRS in Stevensville, Maryland, the company draws on the traditional set and uses mostly maple, mahogany, and rosewood. "We tend to use big leaf maple from the West Coast, and European maple, which grows in Switzerland, northern Italy, Croatia, and Russia," Paul Reed Smith says. "We use some sugar maple, what they call rock maple—the rest of them are for curl. Also, we use some red maple for necks, which comes from the East Coast. We do use swamp ash on the bodies of some of the guitars we make, and we use alder for the John Mayer bodies, with a sugar maple neck and an East Indian rosewood fretboard."

PRS uses South American mahogany for necks, and typically African mahogany for bodies, along with other mahoganies with some curl from central American countries. "Rosewoods we use for the fretboards," Paul says. "They can come from old supplies of Brazilian rosewood, but most of our guitars have East Indian rosewood on them, though we use a bunch of other rosewoods like cocobolo and African blackwood. There’s a bunch of exotic woods that we use in Private Stock, but for the most part our guitars are made from rosewood, mahogany, or maple."


PRS Private Stock

Jol Dantzig at Dantzig Guitars in West Simsbury, Connecticut, says he too uses what are considered the classic tonewoods for electric guitars, because his instruments have always been inspired by classic vintage models. "That means mahogany, rosewood, maple, spruce, and so on. I’m also known for using African limba, or Korina as it’s often called—I love its weight and resonance. And having been a builder for almost 50 years, I’ve amassed a nice stash of old-growth woods, so a lot of what I have came directly from brokers working in South America and Africa."

Silvan Küng at Relish Guitars in Sempach Station, Switzerland, uses local ash for bodies, local maple for necks, and bamboo from China for fingerboards. "For our Trinity By Relish guitars we use basswood from Asia for bodies, maple from Canada for necks, and laurel from Asia for fingerboards." Spring Li at 10S Guitars in Beijing, China, uses mahogany and ebony from India, plain and hard rock maple from Canada, and alder and swamp ash from the United States. "Those woods are for our Standard models, and we purchase them from the country of origin. We bring them into our workshop to climatize and rest, and then we can put them to work.

Trinity by Relish Guitars. Photo by Heartbreaker Guitars

"We do all of that to provide great resonance and avoid warping and deformation of any kind. We also use some high-grade woods, like European flame maple and quilted maple, European burl poplar, and American buckeye burl, but these are hard to ship and quite expensive."

For guitar bodies, Joe Balaguer at Balaguer Guitars in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, uses mahogany from Africa or East Asia; alder, ash, roasted ash, and swamp ash from the United States; and white limba from Africa. For necks, he uses mahogany and limba from the same sources, plus maple and roasted maple from the United States, rosewood from India, and wenge from the Congo in Central Africa.

"For fingerboards, we use ebony, maple, roasted maple, and roasted birdseye maple from the United States," Joe says, "rosewood from India, cocobolo from Mexico, purpleheart from Brazil, and wenge, again from the Congo."

You won’t get far in a discussion about the future of wood for electric guitar-making without coming across the word roasted. Torrification (or torrefaction), generally known as roasting, is designed to increase the yield on certain woods, and to make some woods that might otherwise be too heavy more usable.

Fender says that part of taking a sustainable stance on wood use is to consume as much of the raw material as possible and reduce waste. "With ash, for example, we’re using the entire log. The ‘punky’ lower-tree wood goes into solid wood guitars; the medium weight gets roasted; and the heavy gets chambered."

The Sustainable Wood Recipe

You also won’t get far in a guitar-wood chat without coming upon the word sustainable. A sustainable or renewable wood means one that comes from a sustainably managed forest, designed in part to provide a long term future for wood supplies.

Tim at Fender says the alder, maple, and mahogany the firm uses are readily available and sustainable. The domestic woods it uses—except ash—are abundant and sustainable. "That’s why Leo started using them in the first place," he says. "The mahogany we source from Guatemala is from one of the best managed forests in the world, and the mahogany from Fiji is also plantation grown. Both are actively managed by the communities and governments to support long-lasting forest health."


Mahogany Fenders

Jol at Dantzig Guitars has always considered domestic ash and maple to be great woods for guitars, and notes that they’ve been plentiful and fast growing. "Unfortunately, I’m now being told that ash is in danger, so I suppose it comes back to that balancing act between profit and environment. It’s important to tie the harvest to the ability to replenish. If that drives costs up, that’s the reality, not endless price cutting."

When guitar factories and builders choose their woods, it mostly comes down to a handful of key factors. "An instrument is a recipe," Tim at Fender says, "the result of the sum of its ingredients. And it’s important to acknowledge the ‘righteousness’ of the original recipe. Over time, and with a recorded body of work, that recipe becomes your sound—the crisp snap of a maple neck, say, or the midrange cut-through of an alder body—and the sounds people want and expect from you. We experiment at Fender and we do vary the recipe out on the fringes, but we definitely keep the core product true to what it is. It just works, and these materials have become the standard."

The key factors are ever-present in guitar making. Factories and builders rely on a continuous supply of raw materials. Woods must be stable when dried correctly, they must not tear or splinter when worked, and they have to take finish well. Neck woods must withstand string tension; fingerboards must be hard enough to resist wear. Simply put, the wood has to sound good—and many of the vast array of woods around us simply do not. And, of course, the finished item needs to be light enough to hold on stage for several hours around your neck.

Jol Dantzig Darkburst Tulsa. Photo by Destoy All Guitars

There is a notorious idea, mainly circulated by drummers, that guitarists have conservative tastes, and this might account for the continuing popularity of the traditional set of guitar woods.

"In fact," Mat at Gibson says, "it’s more to do with the people who developed electric guitars in the first place being extremely conscious of how they could maximize sustain and the shape and character of tone through woods. In so many cases, the designers got it right the first time. It’s tough to improve on that! And I believe our sonic desires are set by the sounds we find familiar and pleasing."

Tradition or Change?

For Paul Reed Smith, it’s simple. "Traditional woods work because history says they work. History says curly maple and maples work, history says mahogany works. I had a choice when I was a young guitar maker. I could either check every single wood there was in the world, or I could trust the people that had made guitars before. I didn’t have the ten years, so I decided to trust them. And I’ve stayed with the norms."

Jol Dantzig says there are two main forces at work here. "For centuries, South American woods like mahogany and rosewood were considered beautiful and rare materials for anything made of wood, be it furniture or musical instruments. Also, we tend to consider the form and tone of ‘golden era’ electrics to be the defining esthetics. Just as curly maple and spruce are associated with the penultimate violins, so too are the traditional ‘50s guitar materials."

Every wood has its tone, and we are used to the traditional tones. "Our ears are very picky," Spring Li at 10S says. "Mahogany sits in the mid-to-low-range frequencies and has good resonance, maple adds highs, alder is quite similar to mahogany, and ash is good for high-mids. In recent years, people have started to look at unconventional woods for guitar tops, to alter the look and make it unique. But in most cases, that’s not about the tone, but more about the look. For example camphor burl, or some other burls—they look good, but the tone is just muddy water."

10S Set Neck Stratocaster, 2018, Walnut Body. Photo by Joe's Music Fever.

There are some little-used woods that show promise. Silvan at Relish calls bamboo "an amazing solution" that delivers what he describes as the hardest fingerboards with no compromise in sound and look. "At first, people think it looks and feels like a tropical ebony, say, but actually it’s just harder, and sustainable, and it doesn’t shrink with humidity changes. The only minus from its hardness is that you have to change the CNC cutting tools more often."

The traditional woods are readily available, still, and that’s a big factor. "It wasn’t until recently that certain woods like rosewood, among others, have become endangered," Joe at Balaguer says, adding that this scarcity is due to large furniture manufacturers and not to guitar makers. "Also, mahogany, maple, and other popular guitar tonewoods are easy to work with and complement each other acoustically."

Furniture vs. Guitars

Some species, like ash, are being eliminated by infestations such as the emerald ash borer, which is killing the trees. Others, like some tropical hardwoods, are over-harvested or only available in conflict zones. So, should we be worried about future wood shortages?

Mat at Gibson says any problem in this area lies not with musical instrument makers but with giant industries like furniture making and construction. "Instruments represent such a minuscule category in the commercial use of wood that we have to be aware of the impact of the other industries. Within musical instruments, Gibson has been a leader in responsible wood sourcing for decades, and we’ve always been quick to change woods if supply threatened sustainability. Most importantly, Gibson makes sustainable guitars that last forever and age gracefully."

Joe Balaguer agrees that it’s the big furniture manufacturers that are the problem. "They make their large orders for wood, and that causes mills to source the material needed before forests are able to bounce back and grow. Monopolization on certain mills, where only a few large companies are able to source specific species in certain areas, forces some suppliers in the States to raise prices or have a lackluster inventory."

Ormsby fretboard made of Tasmanian blackwood—a Honduran mahogany alternative.

Part of the answer lies in finding other renewable resources, Spring Li says. "We need to think about this—but we needn’t worry too much. For example, CITES restricted the use of Honduran mahogany some years ago, but instead, people found Fijian, Indian, and African mahogany. Okoume is in fashion now, which is from the same family, and it’s proved to be as stable as mahogany. Also, let’s be honest, not many people will be able to hear the difference between okoume and mahogany through a Tube Screamer and a cranked Marshall."

Silvan Küng at Relish mentions the way he uses top veneers for look and impact, but keeping the inner wood as ash. "We have plenty of resources for that here in Switzerland, so there’s no big CO2-exhausting impact—we’re using local wood."

According to Paul Reed Smith at PRS, the forests in the United States are in better condition than they’ve been in over a century. So he’s not worried about continuing supplies of relatively local woods. "But there must be a balance between commerce and the natural world," Jol at Dantzig says. "When these things are gone, ultimately humankind loses. We are not above the laws of nature."

Beyond Those Trees

Many makers have looked for alternatives to wood through the years, dating right back to some of the earliest solid electric guitars, Rickenbacker’s Bakelite models of the early ’30s. Fender, for example, has tried plastics, foams, composites, metals, and more, and soon hit the limitations when it comes to adapting "new" materials to existing manufacturing processes. Some of the alternatives will simply prove to be too heavy, or they don’t sound great, or they’re too expensive.

Back in the ‘80s, Jol Dantzig partnered with Modulus Graphite to build carbon fiber necks for some 12-string basses. As a Formula 1 fan and a cyclist, he loved the idea, but in the end it just didn’t work. Later, he was at Ovation for the development of the ‘Q’ guitar, an acoustic entirely constructed from carbon fiber, in a collaboration with engineers at Kaman Aerospace and the Callaway race car company. The results were good, but management ran out of patience and pulled the project. And Jol says today he still worries about the downsides of carbon fiber and epoxies for the environment—not to mention the toxicity for the builders working the stuff.

Ovation Adamas 2098-GCF Carbon Fiber Acoustic Electric

Joe at Balaguer believes that makers will want to use other woods, or non-wood materials, purely out of creative freedom and pushing the envelope of guitar design. "And I’m all for that," he says with much enthusiasm. But he reckons it will be difficult to find a composite or other non-wood material to replace the mojo that goes on between a wooden neck and body. He’s tried a phenolic material for fingerboards and other parts that seems promising, but worries that this, too, sacrifices some of the natural, intangible "feel" a guitar has when it vibrates throughout its structure.

"I’ve tried a few of the alternatives," Paul Reed Smith at PRS says. "Graphite, when it’s made correctly, rings like a bell. There was once a Goya guitar, made by Hagstrom, with a mother-of-toilet-seat scalloped fretboard and a plastic body. It sounded pretty good. I was really stunned how much I liked it. It’s possible to make really good instruments out of non-wood materials—but it’s not my market, it’s not my way, it’s not my understanding. I would look more to sustainable, really well dried woods than I would to plastics."

Wooden Futures

Guitar-wood experts know that wood like alder and maple will still be in use well into the decades to come. They know the future of swamp ash is undoubtedly in doubt, and that mahogany’s future depends on continued good management of the current timber. They expect a decline in ebony and other tropical hardwoods, and they see more local and plantation-grown woods being used.

Stump of a harvested ebony tree.

"A great opportunity would be the woods in our backyards," Tim Shaw at Fender says, "woods reclaimed from the urban forest canopy." Paul Reed Smith agrees. "I got to work on one of Eddie Van Halen’s guitars once, and the body was made of poplar. Poplar’s in my backyard! Maples are in my backyard. You should be able to cut trees down in your backyard and make good guitars out of them."

Paul says the more he makes guitars, the more he concludes that the species of wood is less important than proper drying. "Let’s say you buy some Home Depot two-by-fours made of red spruce—this is what they call Adirondack spruce, the holy grail, but they make two-by-fours out of it. You glue a pile of them together, you dry it correctly, you get all the resins crystallized. You can make a good guitar out of it."

Take ten guitars, Paul suggests, and go try ‘em. This is not an onerous task. "The guitar that rings for five seconds is not as good a guitar as a guitar that rings for 45 seconds. You can almost check the guitar with a stopwatch. How long it rings will tell you an awful lot about how it was made and how well the woods were dried. If the wood is wet and the resins aren’t crystallized, it ain’t gonna ring very long."

Spring Li at 10S agrees. "The most important factor is the humidity of the wood. It has to be dried properly. All of the woods that we use must be under six percent humidity—lots of luthiers follow this principle. Another important thing is to not throw lots of ‘unique’ woods into one guitar. We can use a piece of beautiful wood for a guitar top, and that’s just a visual thing. But if the whole guitar becomes a mix of ‘unique’ or ‘rare’ woods, the tone will be unpredictable, especially with passive pickups. Like I said before, our ears are picky."

"When these things are gone, ultimately humankind loses. We are not above the laws of nature."

If you go in for guitar history, you might have detected a trend that big companies seem to get bigger and sometimes become out of touch, while smaller firms can often make the running with new ideas. Jol Dantzig at Dantzig Guitars says that building instruments in the traditional manner, from legacy materials, is what he knows and loves. "I’m not interested in making tons of guitars and money. I’m connected to the continuum of the craft. I’m not part of the new electric guitar economy—it has nothing to do with why I fell in love with guitars in the first place.

"There is room for change, even though there will always be a high-end premium wood niche," Jol concludes. "I’m hoping that more sustainable woods can be accepted for the mainstream—it’s insane to scorch the earth for inexpensive mass-produced guitars. Every couple of years I read someone’s prediction that the electric guitar is dying, but they have yet to be correct. That’s why I’m not in the business of predicting the future."


About the author: Tony Bacon writes about musical instruments, musicians, and music. He is a co-founder of Backbeat UK and Jawbone Press. His books include Electric Guitars: Design & Invention, The Ultimate Guitar Book, and Electric Guitars: The Illustrated Encyclopedia.. Tony lives in Bristol, England. More info at tonybacon.co.uk.

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