The 1950s set the tone for the foreseeable future of guitar building.  Majority of the components and materials used for making guitars back then are still used today and for good reason, they have proven themselves to hold up over decades of rigorous touring and abuse by the world’s most discerning musicians.  While there have been small tweaks and advances to the formula that have happened throughout the years, (particularly in the electronics), one component remains largely unchanged and it is the one guitarists touch the most: the fretboard.

Most guitar manufacturers offer the choice between three tried-and-true fretboard options,  rosewood, maple, and ebony.  How do you know which one is right for you?  Use this handy guide to determine some pros and cons of each to make sure that you make the right choice on your next guitar.

Rosewood comes in a variety of subspecies and flavors with the most common on guitars being Indian Rosewood or IRW.  Manufacturers love it because it is very abundant in nature, relatively inexpensive, and fairly easy to work with.  Rosewood has a classic look to it and it is particularly paired well with more traditional guitar designs from an aesthetic standpoint, as it has a very woody brown look to it.  Sonically it is probably the most even and “neutral” sounding of the three as it is also the softest , providing a nice balance with less snap and high-end than you typically find on ebony or maple, making it pair particularly well with brighter guitars to mellow out the high end a bit.  The main point of contention for most players comes down to feel, it can be a pretty porous wood and offer a certain amount texture and resistance under the fingers that some people find unpleasant and would prefer it to be totally smooth.  Furthermore not every build works well aesthetically with a brown fingerboard so that’s another things to consider when making the choice.

Maple is one of the most commonly used woods to make entire guitar necks out of.  It is hard, stable, not easily susceptible to climate change and provides a very present, bright and “snappy” tone.  For those same reasons it also makes a great fretboard wood.  It’s not very porous so it feels much smoother under the fingers than rosewood, making it a favorite among fast players and ones that like to bend a lot.  Because of its bright color, it is typically paired with flashier or more “fun” looking guitars, but also works really well to provide a stark visual contrast to a dark-colored body.  The main thing that turns people off about maple is that after rigorous amounts of playing, the wood shows noticeable signs of wear by discoloring to a grayish hue in spots that are played the most.  This can look particularly cool or add some character to a guitar with a vintage flavor but if you are looking for your instrument to be pristine and “brand new” looking for years to come, gradual cosmetic wear is definitely something to consider when going with maple.

Ebony is probably the longest running tone wood we use today as it has been used for centuries by makers of classical instruments such as violins and cellos.  It feels smooth under the fingers and adds plenty of brightness and snap so it is actually quite comparable to maple both sonically and in feel.  Cosmetically the wood can vary wildly but the most common examples are jet black.  Probably the most popular fretboard wood for heavier music because it is fast to play on, sounds great with plenty of attack, and most appropriately fits the darker aesthetic of a lot of metal guitars.  The main drawback is that the wood is pretty sensitive to changes in humidity, and as a result can easily dry out and potentially crack from shrinking and expanding.  Furthermore this can lead to other problems such as fret ends popping out.  Using appropriate fretboard conditioners such as “lemon oil” and keeping the guitar away from extreme changes in temperature and humidity are recommended.  Ebony is a fantastic fretboard wood choice but it definitely requires more maintenance than rosewood or maple.

Hopefully this quick guide helped illuminate some of the common differences between today’s most used fretboard materials and will help you better decide which one is right for you.  No matter which of the big three fretboard woods you choose for next guitar, ebony, maple, or rosewood, it is sure to have a tried-and-true sound and feel that won’t let you down.

About The Author