The Electric Guitar Body – Why certain woods are used and their different tonal characteristics

Pickups are a big part of the voice and tone of an electric guitar and you can improve the sound of a mediocre guitar with a pickup upgrade, but the tone starts with the wood. This time we’re going to have a look at what difference the wood used in the body of a guitar makes, and the characteristics of the main woods used in solid body electrics.

The prototype Fender solid bodies (Broadcasters) used Pine for the bodies, and you can now get aftermarket bodies made from pine. It sounds great but probably wouldn’t be one of the first woods people think of as a tone wood, but it does share a lot of tonal similarities with Swamp Ash which is what Fender used for the Telecaster and Stratocasters throughout the 1950’s. Pine has knots and is difficult to finish if there is a lot of resin/sap, it’s also prone to warping if not properly seasoned – which is why Swamp Ash became synonymous with 50’s Fenders and not Pine.

Before I talk about the tonal qualities of each wood, lets look at the reasons why specific woods are used and where they come from:

Trees grow more, and faster when there is plenty of sunlight and water, so the regions above and below the equator have the right conditions for speedy growth. Trees that grow in drier and less sunny climates grow more slowly and have higher densities (less water equals tighter grain; more water equals more open grain, a bit like the difference between a dry sponge and a wet one). Swamp Ash is wood taken from the lower portions of the trees which grow in swamps and so has its roots permanently submerged. When it dries out the wood has more air in it than Northern Ash, which grows more slowly and has a higher density. This is why Swamp Ash is lighter than Northern Ash. It’s also why Mahogany from Central and South America is prized for its tone.

In the Seventies, Fender continued to use Ash for bodies but this was sourced mainly from more plentiful (and cheaper) supplies in North America which explains why Strats and Teles from this era are some of the heaviest guitars made by Fender. The other “standard” tone wood used by Fender is Alder. Alder grows in North America and is medium weight with less highly figured grain, it is easier to work with than Swamp ash – which requires more grain filling before finishing. In general 50’s and 60’s Fenders with sunburst and blonde finishes (where the grain shows through the finish) used Swamp Ash and solid colours used Alder.

So now lets look at the different tonal qualities of body woods:

Northern Ash: Northern Ash has more midrange, pronounced highs, more punch and a tighter, less full bass. It is not as “warm” as Swamp Ash but can sustain well and can be more articulate when using distortion or high gain.

Swamp Ash: Swamp Ash sustains well, has a slightly less pronounced midrange, a warm full bass and soft pleasing highs. It is twangy, squashy and has a kind of compressed attack when you hit the strings hard. Single notes seem to “bloom” after the initial attack.

Alder: Alder is a good all-rounder, balanced lows, mids and highs, good sustain and a “woody” character to the midrange. It can be a bit brighter than Swamp Ash and has a full balanced tone on Strat and Teles.

Mahogany:  Mahogany can vary in weight depending on where the tree is grown. Medium weight Mahogany is what was used by Gibson through the Fifties and Sixties and probably accounts for the mystical qualities of the late 50’s Les Pauls.  To my ears Mahogany has a fuller and clearer bass response than Ash or Alder, more refined and articulate. Midrange is usually full and the highs less sparkly. It has a throaty-ness to the low and upper mids when you play hard. Think of a Gibson Les Paul Junior or SG and that is the tone of Mahogany.

Maple: Maple isn’t often used as a body wood because it is dense and therefore heavy, however we couldn’t talk about bodies without looking at the classic Mahogany and Maple combination. Maple is tight-grained; often with highly figured grain patterns, it has a bright percussive attack and sustains well. Bass response is tight with a hi-fi like punch but not much warmth. So if we combine a Maple top with a Mahogany back we get the punch, brightness and sustain of Maple with the low-end response, warmth and textured mid-range of mahogany. Gibson knew exactly what they were doing when they designed the Les Paul way back then.

Next time we will look at Neck woods and how they can affect the tone and feel of your guitar.