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The fretboard has arguably the most influence over playability than any other part of the guitar. So what the fretboard (a.k.a. fingerboard) is made of will have a significant influence over the overall playability of a guitar.
The purpose of this post is to discuss what the best guitar fretboard wood is.
First let’s look at why the fretboard is so important.
Why Worry about the Fretboard’s Material?
The action of the guitar, the size of the neck, the strings you are using and the shape of the body all have some influence on the playability of the guitar.
But none quite so much as the fretboard – except perhaps the action but this is much more easily remedied (replacing the fretboard of a guitar is a much more difficult task!)
The material used can also have an effect on the guitars tone – so your choice of fretboard will also somewhat depend on the tone you are looking for – though there are other factors that will have a more profound effect on the guitars tone than the fretboard.
So What’s the Best Material?
A fretboard’s surface needs to be:
- Durable (it’s got strings constantly pressing into it)
- Assist in playability (no one likes a fretboard that is ‘sticky’)
- Compliments the tone you are looking for
So what materials achieve this? Let’s look at the three most common fretboard materials, what makes them good, and their relative differences so you can see what might be best for your purposes.
Maple is a common fretboard material on electric guitars but is scarcely seen on acoustics. It is typically used when the neck is made out of maple (again much more common on electrics than acoustic) and not often as a separate piece glued to a different neck wood.
Of the 3 woods here maple is the only one that requires finishing in order to protect it. Some people can find this finish ‘sticky’ to play. A lot of people use some form of ‘fast fret’ spray on maple fretboards for a smoother, faster slicker playing experience. Again though this is typically just an electric guitar thing.
This finish does make fretboard care easy as it acts as protection from drying out or getting damaged and so maple fretboards don’t require the same conditioning as unfinished fretboards.
Tone-wise Maple has a bright sound with a lot of overtones. The grain and the pores in maple are very tight meaning that very little overtone is absorbed into the wood.
Maple is naturally a light coloured wood as you can see in the image to the right.
Like Maple, Ebony is a dense and hard wood that supports a bright sound that some say is slightly less bright than maple and others say is even brighter.
However, unlike Maple, and more like Rosewood, Ebony does not require finishing and is naturally lubricated from the oil in your fingers (another reason to play it often!). This gives it a naturally slick, fast and smooth feel.
Ebony is also less prone to drying out than rosewood and therefore requires less conditioning. But it still needs conditioning from time to time – at least once a year and maybe more depending on your climate.
Ebony is the darkest of the 3 woods here so if you like that darker look on your fretboard then this could be another consideration.
Rosewood helps to produce a warm tone. By far the warmest of the fretboard materials here. Rosewood has very oily pores which absorb some of those overtones for that rich warm sound. If this is the sound for you or if you are looking to ‘warm up’ a brighter sounding guitar then rosewood is a good option.
Like Ebony it does not require finishing and is naturally slick. However, it is more prone to drying out than Ebony so requires more maintenance to keep it in its best condition. This is pretty easy to do though.
Rosewood (more so Indian Rosewood) is the most common fretboard material and in terms of color is darker than maple but not as dark as ebony.
(If you’re interested, I also wrote about Rosewood in my blog comparison of Rosewood vs Mahogany)
These days some fretboards are being made from synthesized materials such as Micarta – which is essentially a synthetic wood – or Black Richlite.
Some people won’t even consider a material like this on their fretboard. I played a Martin recently with a Black Richlite fretboard and I actually really enjoyed playing on it. I thought I was a wood snob but I could be changing my ways!
I haven’t personally tried a Micarta fretboard but most of the feedback I here is that it actually plays and sounds quite good.
So I definitely wouldn’t turn a guitar down just because it has a non-natural fretboard.
Some people say they can’t tell the difference between these and solid wood – but I’m sure there are some purists who would disagree!
Well thanks for reading and I hope you are now more informed about which fretboard material might suit you best.
Which fretboad do you think is the best and why? Would you ever consider a Micarta or Richlite fretboard? Have you tried Micarta or Richlite or another synthetic fretboard and can you notice the difference between it and wood?
It would be awesome to hear any opinions you have on fretboards in the comments below. Any other comments or questions also welcome.
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