Got Wood? - A Look at Guitar Neck Wood

OK, my fellow guitar gurus this month we are all about the wood. Let’s recap where we’ve been, so we can keep track of where we are going.

Click On the titles to see the articles.

1st. We covered “Fretboard Radius”
2nd.We covered “Neck Shape”
3rd. We covered “Fret Size”
4th.We covered “String Nut”
5th We covered "11 Guitar Woods You Should Know"
And this month we tie it all together with our topic: “Wood”

This is probably the most important piece of our guitar puzzle. Knowing and understanding the characteristics of what the wood does and how it responds is critical in achieving the tone and playability you are looking for.

I have a couple of rules I follow when I am looking to see if a piece of wood is good quality on an instrument, or when I’m selecting a blank to make into a guitar neck.

Rule 1: Good wood is paramount in achieving good tone. Always select quality pieces, if the wood is cheap the tone will suffer, and you will run into neck stability problems.

Rule 2: Wood is a living thing and the grain is telling a story of how it was cut, how it will dry, and how it will age. Knowing how to read the grain will save you from purchasing a lemon, or selecting the right piece that will bring you a lifetime of performance.

Now I know this is easier said than done, and there are many pitfalls in selecting the right kind of neck. The level of quality or the price of the wood usually comes in grades. “A, B, C, or AA, AAA” etc… This is based upon the cut, the size and the quality of the grain.

But just because you spend more money on a neck still doesn’t insure that it’s the right piece for your application or tone. Wood is a living thing and each piece of wood is inherently unique, every piece is going to differ from each other, the grain pattern, color, weight, and density are all subject to nature.

Let’s start with the types of maple: There are five types of maple most commonly used for guitar/ bass necks.

Eastern Hard Maple (Acer saccharum-hard rock maple):

Is a very hard, heavy and dense wood, the grain is closed and very easy to finish. The tone is bright with long sustain and lots of bite.

Western Hard Maple (Acer macrophyllum-Pacific Maple):

Grows in Washington State, it is usually much lighter weight than Eastern Maple but it features the same white color. It has a bright tone with good attack, but is not brittle like the harder woods can be.

Flame Maple (Acer macrophyllum-Pacific Maple):

Flame, Fiddle-Back or Tiger maple all generally refer to curls or stripes which vary from tight, wide, straight or crooked.

Quilted Maple (Acer macrophyllum-Pacific Maple):

Is a more rare form of figure occurring mostly in western maple. It is distinguished by its billowing cloud or even popcorn appearance. This figure can vary from large to wide.

Birdseye Maple (Acer saccharum-Hard Maple):

This figure is only found in the eastern hard maple trees. Birdseye (Swirls) does not usually run deep in the boards.

Out of all five one isn’t any better than the other, they are all a hard wood that will serve you well. But the price of these woods per square foot is dramatically different, and how can you tell if one flame, quilt, or birdseye is better than another? Let me show you how to read the grain.

Let’s start with the eastern and western rock maples, most commonly found on strats and teles. What you are looking for is even tight lines that run pretty straight down the neck. You don’t want to see knots in the wood, but if you see one? That’s ok. You want to look for an even color. Some companies finish their necks and it’s hard to see under all the polish and finish coat to see exactly what you are getting, but if you can see an even grain that looks uniform, then your getting a pretty good piece. If the wood looks grainy and off colored? (Not white or light brown) Them the wood is cheap and not dried properly, and will give you problems down the road.

Next let’s touch upon the quilts and flames. The main differences between these woods are aesthetics they both hold the same tonal qualities but they grow on different parts of the tree. That’s how they get the different grain patterns. What you want to see in a flame neck is even strips that match. The quilts should have the same even patters. But you may run across some hybrid pieces and these pieces to me tend to be the most beautiful. These pieces are also cheaper than some of the pristine flames and quilts.

What is a hybrid? It’s the piece of maple that grows between the flame and quilt parts. It will have a little of both. Very cool and very different looking, and they hold all the tonal attributes of the maple, and they hold a combination of two of the most visually beautiful parts of the tree. If you are looking for a neck that looks different as far as grain pattern? Then ask for these blanks, most custom shops and custom parts companies usually have a couple of these lying around. These are truly one of a kind pieces.

Birdseye is the only maple that people get confused on the most. The pits or swirls on the maple are technically a disease, made by a tree bug. The good thing is that the swirls don’t run deep into the wood and creates a very cool looking grain pattern. Here is where the confusion comes in, the more Birdseye swirls equals to a weaker piece of maple. So when you are looking for a Birdseye maple neck you want a good coverage of swirls but you also want to see a bit of the normal maple grain mixed in with it. So even though tons of Birdseye swirls looks cool, it’s not as strong as a standard maple piece would be.

Let’s switch gears to mahogany necks. There are two types of mahogany mainly used for guitar / bass necks.

African Mahogany (Khaya ivorensis):

This is a medium to heavy weight wood, contains a good level of chatoyancy, has a rich consistent color and finishes beautifully.

Honduras Mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla):

This is the benchmark for stability, contains a good level of chatoyancy, has a rich consistent color and finishes beautifully, usually browner in color than African.

Unfortunately this resource is also one of the most abused. For years mahogany trees have been harvested in a completely unregulated environment, under valued to the point where it was widely used as a paint grade molding instead of being saved for fine furniture and musical instruments. With proper management this specie could have been used for generations instead of being responsible for the deforestation of the Amazon basin.

With both of these types of mahogany you are looking for the same qualities, even patterns and a consistent color. The pattern type is different from maple the grain swirls more and it can look like it has these little pits in them, and the grain is bigger in appearance. But remember that mahogany is softer than maple and it held more moisture/ sap.

Because there is a shortage of Honduras mahogany the guitar manufacturers can’t get the bigger pieces so they tend to glue smaller pieces together. Really look for glue lines, because I have seen many popular brands of guitars out there with two or three piece necks. If you are spending big bucks for Honduras mahogany, make sure they use bigger pieces because that will justify the price tag.
Mahogany necks provide a wonderfully warm/ soft tone and feel. The softer feel of the wood makes the necks very player friendly. They tend to have that broken in feel faster than maple, but maple tends to hold up to the elements better.

Which brings me to my next point: “Seasons” When seasons change so does the moisture in the air, this will make your neck expand and contrast. Remember the wood is a living thing, and how the wood was cut and dried will determine how much the neck will move.

This is where most guitar manufacturers earn their reputation. The top guitar manufacturers all have a drying process and they work with wood brokers that have very strict drying procedures. The drying of the wood is what quarantines you the player that your guitar is going to age properly. Guitar manufacturers that don’t dry their woods right are prone to necks twisting and bowing.

You should check your neck at least twice a year a good quality guitar over time will probably only need a slight adjustment once a year. There are acceptations to this rule of course, the smaller, thinner necks will bow or twist; the more wood the more stable.

There is one more type of neck wood I want to mention, it’s rare to find this wood as a whole neck because it’s very expensive to get a piece that big, but if you are looking for something different than mahogany and maple you might want to try:

Rosewood (Dalbergia baroni):

The tone is warmer than maple, but the highs seem to be dampened somewhat by the oily nature of the wood, more mid-range than Mahogany.

You might find this option as a custom shop upgrade, it’s expensive but the tone and feel is very cool. I wouldn’t recommend a rosewood neck with a light body, because the rosewood is heavy. Matching the rosewood with mahogany or walnut is cool, and will give you a very different look and sound. It’s not for everybody and if you don’t mind the added weight, you will have a guitar neck that has tons of smooth sustain.

I’m gonna stop here for this month and let you soak in all the knowledge. I hope you are starting to connect the dots from the previous articles, and see that all these little things add up to your tone formula. Like baking a cake we just added another ingredient. I’ll see you next month when we cover fretboard woods, and truss-rods.


Tony J. Pasko

©2009 Tony Pasko & Fred Russell Publishing, All Rights Reserved. This article can not be used without permission from the Author. To Contact the Author email curt@RockHouseMethod.com

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