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The sound of a guitar can be described as the sum of its parts: its body wood, neck wood, fingerboard, pickups, finish, age, and—most importantly, the player—all play their roles. While the player (you) can be the wildcard in determining a guitar’s tone, knowing how common combinations of tone woods, body types, and pickups will sound goes a long way to helping you find the right instrument for you and your personal sound. Below is a list of common types of woods used for guitar bodies and necks, as well as descriptions of body types, neck types, pickup types, bridge types, and more. Having these fundamentals handy will help paint a picture of what a guitar might sound like before you pick it up. Please keep in mind that we are talking in terms of general characteristics, and there will always be exceptions because no two sets of wood are identical, and no two guitar builders are identical in their process.
Agathis: Readily available wood from conifer trees found in the tropical Far East and South Pacific. Often found in entry-level guitar construction.
Alder: This popular body wood is generally lightweight and offers a fairly balanced tone response, occasionally favoring a slightly brighter tone. It was one of the body woods of choice for the famous double cutaway, single-coil guitars introduced in the 1950s, and remains widely in use today. It is often used in guitars with opaque finishes.
Ash: Another popular body wood choice from the 1950s to today, ash is commonly found in two varieties: hard ash, which is heavier and denser than the more popular swamp ash. Swamp ash is sourced from the southern United States, from wetland trees whose roots grow entirely underwater. For its part, swamp ash offers a slightly bright, airy tone with balanced lows, and typically sports a transparent finish.
Basswood: This more affordable body wood is commonly found in entry level and budget guitars, but thanks to its tonal properties, has been used in many higher-end axes as well. As its name implies, it provides a warmer, bassier tone. Basswood bodies typically have opaque finishes.
Bubinga: Sourced from South Africa, this body wood is comparatively heavy, and known for providing a bright tone with articulate bottom end, as well as long sustain. It is also commonly used for neck wood and tops and sides, and is seen often in laminate-constructed guitars and basses. Its unique grain usually demands a transparent finish.
Koa: Native to Hawaii (and found there exclusively), koa is known for having similar but slightly brighter tonal qualities than mahogany. It is often used in acoustic guitars and electric basses, which usually come in a natural finish to show off its lovely grain.
Korina: Famously used on Gibson’s Flying-V and Explorer guitars from the 1950s, this African body wood is noted for its similarities to mahogany, so it resides on the warmer side of the tone scale. However, korina provides more pleasing and pronounced mids than mahogany. Thanks to its fine grain, it is usually finished naturally.
Mahogany: A classic body wood, mahogany is used in any number of applications, ranging from single-wood to laminate bodies, as well as necks. Sourced from Africa and Central America, mahogany provides a rich, warm tone while offering excellent sustain and somewhat reserved but pleasing highs. Its grain usually sees a transparent or clear finish.
Maple: Another classic body (and neck) wood choice, maple is a harder, heavy wood, sourced in the Northeast and Northwest of both the United States and Canada. Like mahogany, it is often used for both body and neck woods, but unlike mahogany, maple produces a brighter tone, with more articulation. It is common to see maple tops in laminate guitar bodies.
Maple/Mahogany: This classic guitar wood pairing typically seeks to give you the best of both worlds, combining the rich, full low end of mahogany with the brightness and articulation of maple.
Poplar: Commonly seen in more affordable instruments, poplar is a fairly balanced sonically, and does not provide an overwhelmingly warm or bright response. Poplar body guitars typically take solid-color finishes.
Rosewood: Though much more typically seen as a fingerboard or acoustic guitar wood, rosewood (most notably sourced from India today and historically, but now endangered, from Brazil) has been used in electric guitar body construction. As it is a particularly heavy wood, it tends to be used in chambered, hollow, or semi-hollow-bodied electrics.
Walnut: Walnut body wood typically will provide a full sound with pronounced highs and solid lows, and is often compared to maple, sonically (though it is not as bright). Its grain and coloring, however, offer even more appeal than its tone.
Maple: Seen both by itself with an integrated maple fingerboard, or paired with another fingerboard wood, maple is one of, if not the most, commonly seen neck woods. It provides excellent sustain and a bright attack, and is hard and stable.
Mahogany: When used as a neck wood, mahogany is always paired with another type of wood to balance out its characteristics, such as rosewood or ebony.
Maple: As a fingerboard wood, maple (often paired with matching maple neck wood), provides brightness and articulate lows.
Ebony: Most often paired with a mahogany neck, an ebony fingerboard provides brightness to counter mahogany’s warmer tone, as well as a fast attack. Ebony has a tight grain, and its color can vary from black to light brown. It is also one of the hardest woods used to make fingerboards.
Rosewood: Rosewood fingerboards typically provide a warmer response, with some accentuation of the mids. Rosewood is a very common fingerboard pairing with a mahogany neck, providing a smooth tone and feel.
Sonokeling: East Indian rosewood.
The differences between common electric guitar body types can be a little “what you see is what you get,” but they provide dramatically different sounds and cater to different genres of music.
Hollow: Built like an acoustic guitar, a hollow-bodied electric will have a completely hollow inside, but generally features a single-coil or humbucking pickup, as opposed to an acoustic pickup. Hollow-bodied electrics can, not surprisingly, produce an acoustic-like tone.
Semi-Hollow: Taking a typical hollow-bodied design and adding an interior center block, semi-hollow bodied guitars walk the line between hollow bodies and a proper solid-body electric. Feedback, which can be an issue with true hollow-bodied guitars, presents less of a problem here.
Chambered: A typical chambered guitar body is a solid-body design that has had portions of its wood removed in the construction process, typically to reduce body weight when using a particularly heavy body wood. If manufactured properly, a chambered body can help provide increased sustain.
Solid Body: A body constructed out of solid wood, be it of one kind of body wood or a laminate of multiple types.
The cutaway refers to the scooped area cut into the guitar body where the body meets the neck, its function to allow access to the higher fret positions. A cutaway that swoops to a sharp point is known as a Florentine cutaway, and a soft one is known as a Venetian cutaway.
Single Cutaway: Guitars with a single cutaway have the scooped-out section only on the side of the higher strings, most famously represented by Gibson’s Les Paul or Fender’s Telecaster.
Double Cutaway: Double cutaway guitars are scooped out on both sides of the neck, famously represented by Fender’s Stratocaster and Gibson’s SG.
Fixed Bridge: A fixed bridge (also known as a stoptail or hardtail bridge) is set into the guitar body, and will not move. It provides stable tuning.
Tremolo: A tremolo bridge (also known as whammy or vibrato bridge) allows you to bend all your strings simultaneously, which changes your pitch, providing a titular tremolo effect. Tremolo bridges, when used for their intended application, can detune your strings.
A hardtail bridge (left) provides more stable tuning than a tremolo bridge (right), which can detune your strings when used aggressively.
An electric guitar’s pickups are transducers, which means they transfer the vibrational energy of your strings into the electrical signal that drives your effects and amplifiers. There are a number of different types of pickups and pickup configurations that have a great influence on your tone.
Your standard pickup is made of a magnetic core wrapped with copper wire. The magnetic core naturally creates a magnetic field, and the vibration of the guitar’s strings disturbs that field, resulting in a voltage within the coil. That voltage is ultimately carried out of the guitar through the output jack to hit your amp, DI, or pedal board.
The number of times the wire is wound around the magnet, the type of the magnet itself, the number of magnets, the adjustability of pole pieces, the distance between the pickup and the strings, and the wiring path all (among other factors) have influence on a pickup’s sound.
Single Coil: As its name indicates, a single-coil pickup only has one coil of wire and is noted for producing bright, clean, and transparent tones. One of the drawbacks of single coil pickups is their susceptibility to noise, such as the 60-cycle hum, and electrical interference from sources such as fluorescent lighting when not properly shielded.
Humbucker: The humbucking pickup was designed to eliminate transfer of the 60-cycle hum by which single coil pickups can sometimes be plagued. A typical humbucker has two coils wound in reverse, or out of phase from each other—its magnetic poles have flipped polarity for each winding, allowing it to “buck” or cancel the hum.
Active Pickups: An active pickup features a battery-powered internal preamp, resulting in more clean headroom and higher output gain, along with the added benefit of less noise. Active pickups require a battery for operation.
Passive Pickups: Your standard pickup design, based around a magnetic core wound in copper.