Today let’s look at how different woods create different tonal characteristics. Remember, how the wood looks often has very little impact on how it sounds.
Everything You Need To Know About Wood
First let’s talk about the word “tonewood”. The tonewood is a piece of wood which has special tonal characteristic that make it suitable for building a musical instrument. I’ll give you an overview about how it works.
The properties and sound characteristics of woods can be described in several different ways. One way to explain the different tonal qualities of different types of wood is to rate them in terms of hardness. Hard woods tend to have a clearer, brighter, more articulate sound, while soft woods are more sensitive, allowing you to hear the swelling of the overtones as a note sustains.
The second way to rate woods are by its color. Light colored woods are generally brighter than dark woods.
The third factor is the density. Denser woods tend to sound brighter.
The overall tone characteristics of a piece of wood is a combination of these elements.
There are several different woods that can be used for bass necks.
Maple (Accer Saccharum): The all-fabulous maple has been honored in almost every instrument ever built. In general, maple produces a bright midrange tone that projects. There are several types of maple:
Hard Maple: This is the traditional neck wood. Dense, hard, and strong, this wood offers great sustain and stability. The tone is bright. Maple must be finished to protect from warping.
Flame Maple: While there are several maple species that show the flame figure, the only one hard enough for making necks is Acer Saccarum. Identical to plain maple above, except for the highly prized flame figuring.
Birdseye Maple: Birdseye is another type of figure found in hard maple. It shows best in flatsawn wood. There is a wide variety of size and shapes in the “eyes” to keep them interesting. AAA grade denotes very heavy figuring.
Most necks are constructed from maple with optional fingerboards.
Rosewood (Dalbergia): The source from the beginning in fretboards has over the years evolved into a wood that is used any many other aspects then just fretboards. Rosewood comes in many types and each produces different types of qualities in tones. Rosewood produces a warmer tone then its counter part ebony. There are several types of rosewood:
Indian rosewood (Dalbergia Latifolia): This is the most popular fingerboard wood. It has a warm “rock’n roll” tonality. Colors range from dark purple to lighter purple with yellows and orange. It’s usually used for fingerboards.
Brazilian Rosewood (Dalbergia Nigra): A very hard and dense wood. Great clarity and articulation in tone. Very smooth feeling. Color varies a great deal from piece to piece. It’s hard to find due to environmental scarcity. Mostly found on early Fender Basses.
Palisander Rosewood (Dalbergia Baroni): This is the wood of choice for making solid rosewood necks and bodies. The color varies from light violet to darker purples, sometimes with darker stripes. Very hard and heavy with a somewhat open cell structure. It’s used for both necks and fingerboards.
Pau Ferro (Machaerium Villosum): Relatively new as a fingerboard wood but very well suited to this purpose. Very smooth texture similar to ebony. Tonally brighter than rosewood but not as bright as ebony. Color varies from light tan to a darker coffee color. Usually quartersawn to show nice striping. Primarily a fingerboard wood though occasionally available for necks as well.
Wenge (Millettia Laurentii): A black hard wood with chocolate brown stripes. Very hard, coarse textured wood with open grain. This wood makes awesome bass necks with strong midrange tones and warm lows. Combine it with an ebony fretboard for more brightness. Used primarily as neck shafts but may also be used as a coarse fretboard. This wood is usually played raw. No finish required.
Bubinga (Guibourtia Demeusei): A very strong stiff wood used primarily for bass necks and in lamination. Used by Rickenbacker for fretboards. As a bass neck, it brings bright midrange and a thick well defined bottom.
Ebony (Dispyrus Melanoxylon): It’s very hard and has a bright, long sustaining tone. Chocolate brown or dark gray streaks are not uncommon. Available primarily as fingerboards and occasionally for full neck construction.
Macassar Ebony (Dispyrus Macassar): A beautiful wood for those wanting the feel and tone of ebony but a more exciting look. Primarily for fingerboard wood but sometimes available for solid necks. No finish required.
Mahogany (Swietenia Macrophylla): Commonly called Honduran Mahogany. This is the wood most associated with Gibson guitars. Not as dense or strong as maple. Good for warmer, fatter guitar tone. An open grain wood requiring more work in finishing to fill the open pores. Must be hard finished. It’s usually used for necks.
Walnut (Juglans Nigra): Walnut is the only North American dark wood. It is somewhat softer than maple though stiffer than mahogany. Looks and sounds good when combined with ebony fingerboards. This wood must be hard finished. Used for necks.
Koa (Acacia Koa): Koa comes from the Hawaiian Islands. It is the premiere ukulele wood. It is fairly similar to mahogany in strength and weight though generally better looking. Sometimes available with flame figuring. Koa sounds best when combined with a pau ferro or ebony fingerboard. Koa must be hard finished. Used for necks.
Korina (Terminalia Superba): Its light yellow-green color is unique and looks aged even though new. In both tone and texture korina is very similar to mahogany. It is only suitable for neck stock, not fretboards. It must be finished. Availability is limited or sporadic.
Purpleheart (Peltogyne Pubesens): Generally this wood is used as an accent line in laminated necks. The purple color is striking. A very hard and dense wood. Similar to bubinga in its good bass tone. A specialty wood that can be used for necks and fingerboards.
Alder (Alnus Rubra): Alder is used extensively for bodies because of its lighter weight (about four pounds for a Strat body) and its full sound. It’s closed grain makes this wood easy to finish. Alder’s natural color is a light tan with little or no distinct grain lines. Alder has been the mainstay for Fender bodies for many years. It looks good with a sunburst or a solid color finish, because of its fine characteristics and lower price.
Ash (Fraxinus Americana): There are two very different types of Ash: Northern Hard Ash and Swamp Ash (Southern Soft Ash).
Northern Hard Ash is very hard, heavy and dense. A Strat body will normally weigh 5 lbs. and up. It’s density contributes to a bright tone and a long sustain which makes it very popular. It’s color is creamy, but it also tends to have heartwood featuring pink to brown tints. The grain pores are open and it takes a lot of finish to fill them up.
Swamp Ash is a prized wood for many reasons. It is a very musical wood offering a very nice balance of brightness and warmth with a lot of “pop”. It is a fairly lightweight wood which makes it easily distinguishable from Hard Ash. A Strat body will normally weigh under 5 lbs. Many of the 50’s Fenders were made of Swamp Ash. The grain is open and the color is creamy. This wood is a very nice choice for clear finishes.
Basswood (Tilia Americana): This is a lighter wood normally producing Strat bodies under 4 lbs. The color is white, but often has nasty green mineral streaks in it. This is a closed-grain wood, but it can absorb a lot of finish. This is not a good wood for clear finishes; it is quite soft, and does not take abuse well. Sound-wise, Basswood has a nice, warm tone.
Koa (Acacia Koa): This very beautiful wood comes exclusively from Hawaii making supply very limited. It’s weight varies somewhat from medium to heavy and is an excellent tone wood for bass guitar bodies. Koa has a warm sound similar to mahogany, but with a little more brightness. Like walnut, this wood may be oiled, but generally will look its best sprayed clear. Koa is sometimes available in flame figure.
Figured Koa (Acacia Koa): Koa is exceptionally beautiful when it develops the flame figure. Usually used in thin laminate tops and sometimes available in higher grades.
Korina Black (Terminalia Superba): It’s true name is Limba from Africa. The tone is very similar to Mahogany. It features a very handsome olive color with black streaking. This is a great wood for bass guitars. Korina has a naturally waxy feel to it. Oil finishes work well on this wood.
Korina White (Terminalia Superba): It’s true name is Limba from Africa. White Korina is a medium to heavy weight wood. The tone is very similar to Mahogany. It features a light yellow/green color which looks great with a yellow tinted finish. This is a great wood for bass guitars. Korina has a naturally waxy feel to it. Oil finished work well on this wood.
Lacewood (Cardwellia Sublimis): Lacewood is imported from Australia. It’s a medium weight wood. The grain design ranges from very small spots to very large spots which create a it’s signature reptilian appearance. Lacewood looks best in the form of a bookmatched laminate top. The tone is similar to Alder.
Mahogany (Khaya Ivorensis): It is a medium to heavy weight wood with a Strat body averaging 5 lbs or more. Mahogany is a fine grained wood with good musical properties. The tone is warm and full with good sustain. The grain is easy to fill, although, it does not tend to look good with clear finishes. It does look great with a transparent red finish.
Maple (Acer Saccharum-Hard Maple, Acer Macrophyllum-Pacific Maple): There are two types of Maple: Eastern Hard Maple (hard rock maple) and Western Soft Maple (big leaf maple). Hard Maple is a very hard, heavy and dense wood. This is the same wood that is use on necks. The grain is closed and very easy to finish. The tone is very bright with long sustain and a lot of bite. This wood cannot be dyed. It looks great with clear or transparent color finishes. Western Maple grows all over Washington state. It is usually much lighter weight than Hard Maple but it features the same white color. It has a bright tone with good bite and attack, but is not brittle like the harder woods can be. Flame (fiddleback) and quilted bodies are Western Maple. This type of maple works great with dye finishes.
Flame Maple (Acer Macrophyllum-Pacific Maple): Flame, Fiddle-Back or Tiger maple all generally refer to curls (or stripes). Flame can be tight, wide, straight or crooked. This wood is most beautiful in the form of a bookmatched laminate top.
Quilted Maple (Acer Macrophyllum-Pacific Maple): Quilted maple is a more rare form of figure occurring mostly in western maple. It is distinguished by its billowing, cloudlike appearance. This figure can vary from large, wide billows to tight, small blisters. As with flame, quilted maple is most often used as a bookmatched top, but can be used as 1-piece or 2- piece solid bodies.
Spalted Maple (Acer Macrophyllum-Pacific Maple): This wood is actually the product of a dead or decaying tree. The dark lines are created by fungal attack. This wood is soft and is only used as a laminate bookmatched top on flat top bodies with binding. Spalt is difficult to finish as it soaks up a lot of finish.
Birdseye Maple (Acer Saccharum-Hard Maple): This figure is only found in the Eastern hard maple trees. Birdseye does not usually run deep in the boards, so solid bodies are not available. As a bookmatched top it can be quite striking.
Burl Maple (Acer Macrophyllum-Pacific Maple): This is a very busy looking wood usually with a lot of porosity and bark inclusions. It’s usually used for bookmatched tops. Epoxy is used to fill all voids. Burl looks best finished in a natural clear gloss.
Poplar (Liriodendron Tulipifera): This is another standard body wood. Due to the grey/green color, this wood is used only when solid color finishes are to be applied. It’s weight generally runs about a half-pound more than alder. Tonally it is similar to alder as well. Poplar is a closed grain wood that accepts finish well.
Redwood (Sequoia Sempervirens): It is available as thin bookmatched laminate tops on flat top solid bodies. While the figure is intense and reflective, the depth isn’t as dramatic as figured maple. It is not suitable for hollow bodies.
Walnut (Juglans Nigra): Walnut is a heavy weight wood but not quite as heavy as hard maple. It has a similar sound to hard maple, but not as bright. Walnut is very beautiful with open grain. Oil finishes work great on Walnut.
Figured Walnut (Juglans Nigra): The figure is predominantly flame. It is usually used as a bookmatched laminate top. This is a very handsome wood.
Wenge (Millettia Laurentii): Wenge features black and chocolate brown stripes. It is usually quartersawn to yield straight grain similar to zebrawood, but black. Usually as laminate tops.
Zebrawood (Microberlinia Brazzavillensis): This is another heavy weight wood with very open grain. It has a distinctive look with light and dark brown stripes. Zebrawood is more commonly used as a laminate top. It’s weight and sound are similar to hard maple.
Laminating different woods certainly can make instruments more beautiful. By carefully combining woods, it’s possible to focus on particular tone qualities. For example, a maple neck with a maple fingerboard is generally brighter than a maple neck with a rosewood fingerboard. When making a body, if you put a hard top on a soft back, you can make the low end clearer and more articulate but still retain the desired qualities of the softer wood for the high end and midrange.
I hope this has been helpful. As a thought to leave you with, always play a bass in passive mode and remember: electronics and pickups are easily changed.
Just hear the sound of wood!