Maple vs Rosewood Fretboard: What’s the Difference?
Maple or Rosewood
The most common fretboard woods for electric guitars are maple and rosewood. There is a big difference visually, but sound and feel are what matter the most. If you are going to choose one over the other you need to understand the pros and cons of each so you can make the best choice.
In this article you’ll get the information you need to make your decision, as well as some opinions based on my three decades playing guitar. As a newbie it may not seem to make a difference whether your fingerboard is made from maple, rosewood, or anything else for that matter. But as a veteran player you will certainly come to appreciate what each tonewood can do for your sound.
You guitar’s fretboard is where the action happens. This is literally where your fingers make the music, and finding the right combination of tone and feel is very important. Your fretboard material will impact your technique as well as the way the strings ring through the pickups. Some fretboards require a little more care, where others are almost bulletproof.
Clearly this is not a decision to be taken lightly! Just like every other aspect of your guitar setup. fretboard material matters. So, let’s get to the bottom of the maple vs rosewood fretboard debate and see if we can’t sort it all out.
Maple Fretboard Sound and Characteristics
Maple is a dense, hard tonewood that produces bright, snappy tones. In the context of a guitar fretboard, this means precise, articulate notes with good bite and a tight low end. Maple fingerboards are often paired with maple necks and brighter body tonewoods like alder.
There are two ways you will most often see maple fingerboards incorporated into a guitar build. The first is the one-piece maple neck. The fingerboard is literally integrated into the same piece of wood that makes up the neck, with the truss rod inserted through a channel in back of the neck.
This is a classic Fender design seen in guitars like the Stratocaster and Telecaster, and basses like the Precision and Jazz. Of course many guitar companies today feature necks and fretboards built this way too. The result is a smooth, solid feel.
With the second way of building a neck with a maple fingerboard, the neck itself may be maple, mahogany or any other tonewood. A separate maple fretboard is then glued in place. Obviously one advantage here is that you not limited to a maple neck. For example, you may think a mahogany neck would go great with a maple fretboard. I had such a guitar custom built at one time, and it was a pretty good combination.
Rosewood Fretboard Sound and Care
Rosewood is a warm, sweet tonewood. Compared to maple the difference is notable, as rosewood will soften the sound, even for guitars with maple necks. This is one of the reasons some guitar players prefer Fender Stratocasters and Telecasters with the option of a rosewood fretboard. The rosewood takes a bright guitar and mellows it out a bit.
A lot of guitarists like that, but of course this is where you own personal taste comes into the equation. Some players find maple too harsh and prefer the warmth of rosewood. Others like the bite and percussive characteristics of maple.
It is also important to realize that you may come to prefer different fretboards for different styles of music. The tonal characteristics of each wood make it a bit more suited to different genres. Just as you may prefer different body and neck tonewoods for different styles of music, you may gravitate to a specific fingerboard as well.
Where maple fretboards are usually finished and only require some basic cleaning, rosewood fingerboards require occasional conditioning. Most players used a lemon oil conditioner made especially for guitars. This keeps the wood grain healthy and in good condition. This task isn’t anything to worry about, and can be accomplished in a couple of minutes each time you change your strings.
Before you get down to the nitty gritty of choosing maple or rosewood, there is one more contender to throw into the mix.
Ebony is a less common fretboard material, but still quite popular. It is a dense, dark wood with a smooth, slick feel. To my ear, ebony is somewhere in between rosewood and maple, though certainly on the brighter side. It does not require finishing, and so many players who prefer the crisp attack of maple without the finished feel may prefer it. It is also a very attractive tonewood, with deep, dark grains.
Practically, you won’t see as many options for ebony fretboards, especially on mid-priced guitars. However, if you decide you like the sound and feel you can find some reasonably priced guitars that utilize ebony. Some versions of the ESP-LTD EC-1000, select Schecter guitars and the Ibanez Iron Label Series are a few great places to start.
Like rosewood, ebony is under increased stress due to overharvesting and the clearing of forests for other uses. In many places harvesting the best-quality ebony is now illegal, and the sources have become more and more scarce. Guitar companies like Martin, Gibson and Taylor have made strides in the smarter sourcing of tonewoods, as well as developing alternative tonewoods.
It also means the ebony we see today is not as visually perfect as that which was harvested in the past. Check out the eye-opening video below and learn how Taylor has made a huge impact in the management of the world’s supply of available ebony.
How Taylor Manages Ebony
Which is Better: Maple or Rosewood?
So, which is the right choice, maple or rosewood? Or should you skip them both and go with ebony? Here are the takaways:
- Bright, percussive attack
- Tight lows
- Hard feel
- Sometimes harsh
- One-piece or traditional build.
- Loose low-end
- Requires conditioning
- Featured on guitars with many different kinds of necks
- Bright like maple
- Requires conditioning like rosewood
- Dark and attractive
- Very slick feel
As for my personal opinion on each:
I am a huge fan of one-piece maple necks, as on a Fender Stratocaster. It’s one of the things I really love about the Strat, and in my opinion a maple fretboard on a one-piece neck plays fantastic. This is my preferred neck for classic rock, old-school metal and blues.
But it is a bright, tight sound, and in my opinion not suited for everything I play. For heavier metal, shred, jazz and anything else where I need a warmer, deeper tone, I go with one of my rosewood fretboard guitars. In this case I want the rounder, fuller notes made possible by rosewood.
As for ebony, I can take it or leave it. It feels fast and slick, and that I like. However, I would prefer maple if I were looking for a guitar with a tight, precise attack.
So what about you? Are you any closer to deciding which is right for your tone? Hopefully this article helped you straighten a few things out. Now it’s time to get out there and experiment with different guitars until you settle the issue for yourself! Good luck!
Maple vs Rosewood vs Ebony Fretboard: Your Opinion
Which would you choose most often?
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