Tonewoods of the 21st Century 


Gaskell guitars and basses are made of different tonewoods. Choosing the right tonewood for your build is an important early step in the overall process of building your dream guitar. Here is some info about them. 

NOTE: There are many other well-known tonewoods used in the making of acoustic guitars. This article is not about acoustic guitars. The following has to do with electric guitar manufacturing in the 21st Century. Tonewoods are listed in no particular order. 



BASSWOOD. Botanical name: TiliaAlso known as Linden in America and Lime in Europe, basswood is a colourless wood which is very easy to work with. It is native to Europe, Asia and North America. As a tonewood it is used for guitar bodies only. Visually it has no grain so is not used for natural finishes. It is quite soft and can dent more easily than other tone woods. Basswood has excellent mid range tones and has a very warm and pronounced sound with very good sustain. Because of it's "growl" it is very suited for Rock and Metal. It is the best wood choice for Floyd Rose equipped guitars as the tremolo tends to be very tinny sounding with other woods due to it's minimal contact with the guitar body. The tonal properties of basswood elliminate that problem. All Superstrat guitars (Strat-style guitars with tremolo) are made of basswood for this very reason. Since the beginning of the 21st Century basswood has become the tonewood of choice for many international brands and has become the hallmark of the "Rock guitar."      



MAHOGANY. Genuine mahogany is of the genus Swietenia in the Mahogany family which is native to Central and Southern America and the Caribbean. It has three species, two of which have been used as tonewoods in the past. All species of Swietenia are collectively called American Mahogany. Mahogany gives a dark yet warm sound with a lot of bottom end. In combination with a maple cap and/or a maple neck the overall sound will brighten. Due to consequences of decades of illegal logging and exploitation mahogany can no longer be regrown natively and native sourcing has been banned since 2003. Today all newly harvested American mahogany comes from plantations in Asia and the Pacific. There are two terms to describe mahogany: "genuine mahogany" applies only to the Swietenia species, whether grown natively or elsewhere. "True mahogany" applies to any other mahogany family timber that is not specifically Swietenia. There are quite a few other woods in the Mahogany family suitable as tonewoods and are commonly used in place of genuine mahogany now that genuine mahogany is not easily available. No mass-produced guitars today are made of genuine mahogany. For more information about mahogany we encourage you to click on the following link to the authoritative article What Is Mahogany?



ALDER. Botanical name: Alnus is grown all over the world and is most commonly associated with Fender® guitars. It is light in weight with soft tight pores like basswood. but with large swirling grain patterns and rings. Alder gives more highs and less of the mids and is relatively deficient in bass in comparison with other tone woods. It has a very warm sound but does not quite have as much "bite" as ash. It was most popular in the 1950's and 1960's. It has become quite expensive and this has lead to similar yet cheaper woods becoming popular replacements.



SWAMP ASH. Botanical name: Fraxinus pennsylvanica is a particular type of ash tree whose root systems are under water, with it's above water equivalents being Northern AshGreen Ash or Red Ash. It is used as a body wood by many American guitar manufacturers. It is mostly obtained from the Southern parts of the United States. It is very light and attractive and is a popular choice for natural finish instruments. The swamp-ash sound is twangy, airy, and sweet. It gives firm lows, pleasant highs, and a snarly midrange, and good sustain.



JAPANESE ASH. Botanical name: Acanthopanax ricinifolius also called Sen, or Sen Ash is a high quality tonewood native to Japan and south western China, most recognized on Japanese-made Fenders and Tokai guitars. Although it's trade name includes the word "ash" it is not related to real ash other than by visual resemblance. It's tonal qualities are similar to that of alder hence the commonly used quick description "looks like ash, sounds like alder." It has a bright, and even cutting midrange tone, good bass, and excellent sustain. Like real ash, it is a good choice for natural finishes and can be particularly outstanding in appearance. It is quite expensive and thus not a usual option for mass-produced guitars.


maple flame   maple quilted   maple birdseye   spalted maple
Flamed maple   Quilted maple   Birds Eye Maple   Spalted maple 

MAPLE. Botanical name: Acer. Traditonally used for guitar necks. It is very hard. It has a uniform grain and it's tonal qualities highlight and amplify the body wood well. It sustains very well. Maple is found in the northern hemisphere with most species found in Europe and Asia. It can have a highly decorative grain called "figure" and can produce "quilt", "flamed", "spalted" (ink-like patterns caused by fungi in the wood) or "burly" appearances. Laminates of these grains are often glued to the top of a guitar body for a beautiful appearance. Veneers are usually 1mm or 2mm thick or they can be a full 5mm-18mm solid cap. 



KORINA / LIMBA. Botanical name: Terminalia superba. This wood is grown in the tropical regions of western Africa and has a very interesting and appealing grain. It is held in very high regard by guitar builders. It was first introduced to the world as a tonewood in 1958 By Gibson. It was only briefly used then but it has never been forgotten. It has a very warm, balanced sound with excellent sustain. For a hardwood it is quite lightweight. Some pieces can have dark or light stripes and/or lots of interesting swirls and some can have a mahogany-like appearance. Korina these days is mostly offered as an option in Custom Shop guitar builds.



POPLAR. Botanical name: Liriodendron tulipifera also known as American Tulipwood is native to America. It is is cheap and used for guitar bodies of mass produced lower-end American guitars. Tonally it is similar to alder but has a bit more snarl. Tulipwood tends to have an undesirable green tinge and often little figure and suits painting in solid colours only. Jackson, Fender and Parker guitars are often made of this wood. There is one other species, Liriodendron chinensewhich is native to China and Vietnam. Both these species should not to be mistaken for another timber also called "Poplar" from the genus Populas which is grown all around the world and is used mainly as a pulp wood. 



WENGE. Botanical name: Millettia laurentii is a very exotic and very expensive hardwood native to western Africa. It is used by some high-end Custom Shops for bodies, necks and fingerboards, particularly for bass guitars. It it is very dark with lots of brown streaks and is very rich and warm sounding. It is a lot more porous than other woods and is thus much harder to work with. The dust of this wood is also extremely hazardous to one's health and personal protective equipment and other dust removal systems are essential in any workshop that uses this wood.  



PHOENIX. Botanical name: Firmiana simplex comes from the "Chinese Parasol Tree" which is native to China. It is also called Wutong. It has been used by the Chinese for thousands of years in high quality traditional Asian musical instruments. At the end of the 20th century when China superseded Korea as the leading world manufacturer of musical instruments, many new and interesting tonewoods previously unheard of in the Western World were introduced by the Chinese. This was one of them. Phoenix is used as a body wood on many Chinese-made guitars, often as a replacement for expensive American alder. But remember this has been a preferential tonewood in Asia for thousands of years. That's a lot longer than the Johnny-come-lately electric guitar of the Western world! Today, entry-level brand Encore (by John Hornby Skewes & Co.) use it for all their guitar bodies. Tanglewood also use this wood for their budget range Strat copies. 



PAULOWNIA. Botanical name: Paulownia tomentosa, also called Empress Wood (or Kiri in Japan) is a nice-sounding, extremely light-weight Asian hardwood which has only recently been "discovered" by the Western world. Rising costs and restrictions on other tradtional tonewoods has intensified the need for good alternatives. Paulownia is native to China and is also cultivated extensively in Japan and Korea. It has been used in Asia for hundreds of years to make high-quality traditional musical instruments (including the Japanese koto.) Paulownia is the fastest growing hardwood species in the world, taking only 5-7 years from planting to harvesting (as opposed to 35 years for mahogany.) Because of it's fast cultivation it is at the top of the list as a solution for world reforestation projects. It is used in guitar manufacturing for electric guitar bodies and has a sound similar to poplar. Dean Guitars, Glendale Guitars, Mario Guitars and others use this wood for some of their instruments, and it is often used in generic DIY guitar kits.



AGATHIS. Botanical name: Agathis is called Kauri in New Zealand and Australia. There are 21 species and it only grows in Australia, New Zealand, New Caledonia, Fiji, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, Philippines, and on the island of Borneo. It's timber has many uses. Some modern guitar manufacturers use the Asian kind for the bodies of their budget priced guitars. Squier Telecasters and Stratocasters are made from Agathis as are many Tokai guitars. It is a good tonewood with similar sound properties to mahogany but has no grain like basswood, hence not suitable for natural finishes.



COCOBOLO. Botanical name Dalbergia retusa is species of rosewood native to Central America and is an exotic, reddish-brown wood which became popular with custom builders in recent times for guitar fingerboards and veneers. It is used as a direct rosewood replacement following the restrictions on obtaining other "classic" species of rosewood. Tonally it is apparently a brighter sounding wood with less lower end than other rosewoods. Woods from Panama and Guatemala were listed on CITES Appendix II in 2013. 


brazillian_rosewood       indian_rosewood       madagascar rosewood
Brazillian rosewood       Indian rosewood       Madagascar rosewood

ROSEWOOD. Botanical names: Dalbergia nigra (native to Brazil) and Dalbergia latifolia  (native to india.) Used for fingerboards. It is an oily wood and is perfect for sustained human contact. Up until 1992 guitar manufacturers usually obtained rosewood from Brazil but trade in Brazillian rosewood was banned in that year due to it becoming listed in CITES Appendix I (the most restrictive.) The rosewood used in guitar manufacturing today is usually sourced from either India or Bangladesh, with India being the largest exporter in the world. Other rosewood species used in guitar-making include Madagascar Rosewood, Dalbergia baronii, and Dalbergia maritima both native to Madagascar (now restricted since 2011); Honduran Rosewood, Dalbergia stevensonii, native to Belize (restricted since 2008); and African Blackwood, Dalbergia melanoxylon native to central and southern Africa. The African species is one of the hardest woods in the world. One rosewood unique to guitar builders is Panama Rosewood, species Dalbergia tucurensis, also known as Yucatan Rosewood and native to central and southern America. It is fairly new to the mainstream wood market and it is not restricted.


indian_ebony   macassar_ebony   madagascar_ebony   african ebony
East Indian ebony   Makassar ebony   Madagascar ebony   African ebony

EBONY. Botanical name Diospyros ebenum  is one of some 700 species of Diospyros and is used for guitar fingerboards. It is native to southern India and Sri Lanka and commonly called Ceylon Ebony or East Indian Ebony. Ebony is very hard and durable. It is usually brown-black in colour. Ebony fingerboards are popular with lead guitarists due to it's perceived additional hardness over rosewood. Diospyros celebica or Makassar Ebony, endemic to the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia, is another highly sought after species with attractive streaks and stripes. It is one of the most expensive woods in the world due to limited supplies. Diospyros perrieri, or Madagascar Ebony is another prized ebony timber used by high-end guitar builders. Trees from this area are typically 300 years old. Unfortunately all Madagascan ebony species were added to CITES Appendix III in 2011. African Ebony, species Diospyros crassiflora used to be major export timber from Africa however there are restrictions in place now and this species is on the IUCN Red List as well. It is noted for being the blackest of all ebony species.


pau ferro

PAU FERRO. Botanical name: Caesalpinia ferrea is a tree found in Brazil and Bolivia. Also called Santos Rosewood, it is a popular rosewood replacement and is usually used for the fingerboards of electric guitars. Tonally it is cross between ebony and rosewood and is physically harder than rosewood. Although it is a completely different genus to genuine rosewood it is the most closely related species. 


Author: Kevin Gaskell. Last updated November 29, 2014.

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