The author is a guitarist and bassist with over 35 years of experience as a musician.
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 of 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.
Your 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 the 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 your 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 use 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 takeaways:
- 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
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Guitar Gopher (author) on August 26, 2019:
Hi Monty. Those sound like some great project guitars you have there! As for the value of you necks going up, I'd think somewhat they'd have to. I mean, places like Warmoth still sell Fender replacement necks with rosewood boards so it's not like people can't get them, but if I am understanding correctly you have Fender factory-made necks, so I'd think they'd be a little more sought after.
As for Gibson/Epiphone, I wouldn't be surprised to see alternative tonewoods in place of rosewood in the future, especially for Epis. GIbson was experimenting with baked maple a few years ago.
Thanks for adding your comment. If you do decide to sell those necks with rosewood fingerboards just be careful where you ship them and make sure you have all the paperwork in place. Good luck with your guitars!
Monty Daniels from Oakland County, Michigan on August 25, 2019:
Guitar Gopher, Hi, ***Let me say this right off the bat first. ''Great Article'' and one that I do feel is an important one to think about.*** Well, first off here's something I can think of that I just ran into. I purchased 3 Strat bodies about a month ago. The oldest one in my opinion has to be either a 1968, 69 or 1970, which was turned into a 1971 with the 3-bolt style Neck [I know they're actually Screws but I'm gonna go with Bolts okay people...]. For that one, I say it's an earlier model because of the way the Pickup cavities are shaped. Plus the person who owned it plugged the 4-Bolton Neck holes & either turned into a 71, or had the work done, followed with a re-spray of the same color, or finish if you will. Looks good but for this guitar, I want to go with a Maple Neck with a Rosewood Board on it, mainly because I say it looks way better with a Rosewood Fingerboard instead of a Maple. I just happened to go into my 2-boxes where I have like 8-10 Fender Neck's stored in each of them. The one I picked out has the regular small Headstock, which is fine with me & it also has a Trussrod that ends where the top 2 Neck Bolts go, so drilling & adding a Disc into the end of the Neck will be okay to do without hitting the Trussrod, or Heel adjustment bolt head. I'll finish it up tomorrow or Tuesday once I buy an 1 1/8'' - 1 3/16'' drill bit. I've already found the correct spot for the Disc, so drilling it to fit into the Neck will be okay. I already have the Tuners & the Bridge/Trem, so I'll install both High & Low E strings so I don't guess & end up drilling & finding out the Neck isn't straight. I find it much easier when I can locate the correct spots for the top 2 Bolts, when it's done this way, then I will measure & check both sides so they're the same distance from the Bridge Plate. Now the Black Strat is done. The 1973-75 or76 Body is made of Alder & whomever owned it & made the modifications to it, really messed the Body up. Those mod's: Used a Router & removed the Pickup Cavity dividers & turned that area into a Bathtub. Apart from doing it really sloppy, I bought a short Alder Board at the local Mill & had it Planed to the same depth as the Tub. I made the Dividers & glued them back in where they would originally had been. There were also 4 - 1 1/16'' holes drilled through the Body in each corner of the Tub. So they were plugged as well. Now the Body pretty much looks & weigh's like it did before it was sprayed in a Fender Red. Yeah, the person stripped it as well & sanded it down to bare wood but, I'm not gonna leave this one Natural simply because the Body has been repaired by Fender during the CNC stage of the manufacturing part of this guitars life. I'm crazy about fender's Red Finishes so it'll probably be how it originally was when it was still at the factory. But hey, I have a blank canvas so I have a chance to make it any finish color I want. Which I'll say whichever one is easy to do, if there is one. Since I found a Neck that'll work with it & it's already a Maple/Maple Neck, I'm good there. Last is the 1979. With the changes Fender made, I knew it was a 79 before I ready the listing with it. I already found a 1979 Serial Numbered Maple Neck, so this one is also good to go. Plus it's a Hardtail & I have a 79 Hardtail Bridge, so that one is 95% there & also all 1979 parts, the best, or closest of all three I should say. So these are my 3 1970's Strat's, 71, 75 & 79.... Now back to my 2 boxes of fender Necks, which I am now down to 15 Necks total since I just pulled out a Rosewood Neck from one of the boxes. 11 of them are Rosewood. Now with the replacement of Rosewood by Fender, with the new, ''Pau Ferro'' Fingerboard, will that cause the prices of Rosewood Necks to go up in value? Well probably if it's replacement doesn't go over that well, with the PartsCaster Market & if Fender does choose to stop using Rosewood all together, maybe I should keep 3 or 4, perhaps more if I decide to keep building my own Strat's. I know my wife will hate it but since I keep the Necks boxed up, I believe I'll seal both of them back up & put them back on the shelf. Now I also have some Gibson Les Paul's plus some Epiphone's & we all know that both only come in Rosewood & since I haven't seen any Gibson Lines out that are all Pau Ferro yet but maybe in 2020 or 2021.... Or perhaps Gibson will push the replacement wood over to Epiphone so they can continue with their Models with Rosewood Fingerboards. I know more than likely the used Les Paul market will probably follow suit & go up in price, so should I be thinking about that as well now? God forbid I sell any of my Gibson's or Epiphone's, so I'll more than likely continue to add to my collection. I'll end with that. I know I didn't really touch on the tone & difference in tone between Maple & Rosewood Fingerboards but I did touch that other end of the guitar Neck spectrum. So with that, I'll turn it over to anyone else who'll either agree or disagree with me Thanks again for the article Guitar Gopher & also thanks for letting us add to it.... M.D.......
Arvid on July 09, 2019:
Guitar Gopher - Yes you are right. I forgot to include my intended footnote explaining that I use the term “RW” to represent any darker, non-laminated fretboard wood that can be treated with oil, such as Pau Ferro etc. I should perhaps have used the terms “laminated” vs “non-laminated” rather than maple vs RW. I have no favorite - I like them both for different reasons, but it’s nice that there are more maple options available now.
Guitar Gopher (author) on July 09, 2019:
@Arvid - Re: Most non-Strat guitars having rosewood fretboards, I think that is slowly changing. With stricter laws governing the import of rosewood over the last few years I am seeing more guitars that probably would have had rosewood fingerboards go to maple. Even Fender has switched from rosewood to pau ferro for their Player-series instruments. We will see more and more maple and rosewood alternatives in the future, I suspect.
Arvid on July 08, 2019:
My view on this is simple: If you are buying a Strat/Tele-style guitar, ALWAYS choose maple fretboard and never choose RW. Why? Because you will probably end up buying a second guitar one day and that guitar will most likely have a RW fretboard. Why have two guitars with the same fretboard when you can have one of each?
Have a look around the next time you visit a guitar store - virtually all non-fender-style guitars have RW fretboard. You will NOT have the option to choose maple on the vast majority of guitars in the Les Paul-style, Jem-style, SG-style, PRS, Jackson, Gretsch, Dean etc.
It is quite nice to have one of each because they are different to play. Each type will eventually bring out different facets of your musical style. Eg, When I get “writer’s block’ trying to create a new guitar solo, switching from Maple to RW (or vice verse) often helps clear the block, because I play each with a different approach.
If your first Guitar is a Les Paul-style (or other RW-bearing guitar), then, for the same reasons, make sure the Strat or Tele-style guitar you will one day buy is with Maple.
Don’t worry about how tone is affected. Remove that consideration from your head. Some say it matter, others say it makes no difference. I can only say that in my experience, I have never been able to hear any difference, at least not any difference that could not be attributed to other factors, like pickup type, pickup placement, nut material, bridge type etc. If there is a difference then it is tiny. By tiny I mean that you change the tone more by turning your tone-knob from 7 to 7.05.
Guitar Gopher (author) on November 05, 2017:
@MaxMellons - I didn't post your comment because there was a link included, but its a good one. I will address your question as best I can.
You aren't alone in your assertion that tonewoods don't matter a whole lot for electric guitar. The guitar community seems split down the middle on this one, at least according to my poll on another article. I am of the mind, simply based of decades of playing, that maple fretboards tend to have more bite, where rosewood sounds a little rounder.
Everything built into a guitar plays a part in the vibration that goes through the pickup, and that includes the neck, the fretboard, and how it is all put together. If electronics were all that mattered, to use an example I used in another post, you could slap a Gibson PAF humbucker on a vintage Martin acoustic and they would sound exactly the same. Obviously that's not the case.
That doesn't mean you're wrong. I guess it is more a matter of how far down the rabbit hole you want to go, and how much thought you feel like you need to put into the subtle things when it comes to gear.
Deus Herbert-Noel on May 22, 2017:
Rosewood is denser than Maple.
Guitar Gopher (author) on March 30, 2017:
@Sean: Thanks for the kind words! I love maple necks on Fender guitars and basses. I prefer them as well. As for Ebony, you can always check it out and see what you think, but in my opinion if you like maple you may not feel like there is any improvement with the Ebony. I think Ebony is great for players who like rosewood, but maybe would prefer a harder, glassier feel.
Sean Dylan on March 29, 2017:
Good stuff Guitar Gopher..... I play bass. My Fender deluxe jazz 5 string has maple fingerboard which I found to be better than the Rosewood on the low B string and the pups of course. My favourite is my EBMM Sterling 4 string with Rosewood fingerboard. The warmth of the tone is super sexy. Haven't tried Ebony and to be fair it doesn't really interest me.
Myki on February 14, 2017:
I was searching for this article ,Thank you for providing valuable information about the guitar fret board differences, and I got some clarity on that
Guitar Gopher (author) on February 08, 2016:
I know what you mean about those worn-out Strats and Teles, Wesman! Very cool.
Wesman Todd Shaw from Kaufman, Texas on February 07, 2016:
When I was a kiddo buying up those guitar magazines to read about the heroes and find some new ones - i would see pics of someone with a strat or a tele with a maple fretboard and see the sweat or wear stains on the thing - and I thought that was the absolute coolest thing in the world.
I would wonder with awe "how many hours of play did it take to do that?"
Great info as always.
Guitar Gopher (author) on October 09, 2015:
Thanks for the kind words, Linda!
Linda Robinson from Cicero, New York on October 08, 2015:
Hello Guitar Gopher very nice meeting you. Just really enjoyed your hub so much incredible information for all those interested in guitars, very helpful and informative. Linda
Guitar Gopher (author) on October 08, 2015:
Thanks Stella! I do prefer rosewood for acoustic guitars as well.
stella vadakin from 3460NW 50 St Bell, Fl32619 on October 07, 2015:
Good article and great advice. I'll stick to my rosewood for my acoustic guitars. Stella