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How I Choose Wood For An Electric Guitar

Introduction - The tonewood debate

The question of whether the tonal properties of wood significantly impact the sound of an electric guitar has long been a subject of debate among guitar enthusiasts. A quick search for "tonewood" in the r/guitar subreddit shows a lot of debate, mostly sarcastic, and just as many downvotes.

Reddit tonewood debate

While many people believe that the type of wood used to build an electric guitar makes a difference in tone, I personally disagree. In this article, I will discuss my point of view on guitar woods and my criteria for selecting woods when I build a guitar. Additionally, I will provide wood options for each part of the guitar based on my experience and preferences.

It's important to note that I’m only talking about solid body electric guitars, as the wood does change the tone on an acoustic!

How I select wood for a guitar


The most important thing for me is stability. The stability of the wood refers to its ability to resist warping, bending, or shifting due to environmental changes, primarily humidity. Wood undergoes changes when its humidity level fluctuates, and as a result, a piece of wood can bow or warp significantly when exposed to varying humidity levels. In the most extreme cases, a neck build with the wrong type of wood may be too weak to withstand the pressure from the strings.

Stability is particularly important for the neck, as the body is thicker and not subjected to the same forces. By selecting a stable piece, I can ensure that the instrument I'm building will experience minimal changes in dimensions, and over time it will remain as close as possible to its initial setup. A stable neck also greatly enhances tuning stability, as even the slightest alteration in neck dimensions can noticeably impact the tuning. The neck blanks below show perfectly straight grain along the length of the neck, and (less visible in the picture) vertical grain at the ends of the boards.

Straight grain for neck blanks

The stability of the wood also has an influence on the long term durability of the guitar, as a stable wood minimizes the risk of cracks, splits or other structural issues that can happen when wood moves.


Once I have a stable neck blank, my next priority is finding wood pieces that will transform my guitar into a piece of art. I believe that having a beautiful instrument is essential in being motivated to pick it up and play it, and I want the guitars I build to bring joy to their player - even when just looking at them.

I love the natural look of wood and exclusively use clear finishes - no paint in my shop.


When planning a new build, I usually first come up with a “color theme”. I like to use visually complementary woods, and often include contrasting colors. One way I achieve that is by tying every part of the guitar together: I typically use the same wood for the top of the body, the headstock plate and the fretboard binding. Adding binding to the fretboard is a great way to create continuity between the body and the headstock. The example below is a mini guitar I built with a curly hackberry top. You can see I used wood from the same board to bind the fretboard and for the headstock plate.

Fretboard binding

Contrasting colors are another way to make the instrument visually interesting. Think maple and walnut for example. A body color that contrasts with the fretboard can be stunning. My favorite way to achieve this is by creating a 3-color palette on the body, where the back, top and binding are different woods. I like the top and the binding to strongly contrast to really outline the body shape, and the back to be a more neutral color that complements both of them. In the example below, I used figured black walnut for the top, quilted maple for the binding and African mahogany for the back.

Walnut top, maple binding and mahogany back

Grain and figure

The grain of the wood is formed by the arrangement of fibers within the material. The grain can be straight or wavy depending on how the board was cut and how the tree grew. When selecting wood for the neck, I typically opt for vertically oriented, straight grain as it offers greater stability. For the body, I look for interesting pieces for the top and the back, although the back is less visible so I keep the best looking stuff for the top!

The figure refers to distinctive and uncommon patterns in the surface of the wood. Figured wood is relatively rare, and each piece has a truly unique appearance; it can help make a guitar look different and more interesting. Common types of figures include flame (also called curl), quilt, birdseye and spalting. Using a clear finish enhances the depth of the figure, and as a result, these types of wood are rarely painted (that would be a shame!). Adding dyes can introduce colors to the wood, further accentuating the depth of the patterns. In fact, most figured guitars are dyed before a clear coat or oil is applied. The example below is curly hackberry. The curl is fine and gives an impression of depth that really shines. It was finished with about 8 coats of Tru Oil.

Walnut top, maple binding and mahogany back


The last thing I consider when selecting wood for an electric guitar is its weight. With solid bodies being between 1.5 and 2 inches, choosing the wrong type of wood can result in a heavy instrument (a 2.5" thick Les Paul can easily weight 8-10 pounds).

The weight of a guitar plays a crucial role in overall playing comfort, especially while standing. It reduces fatigue during long practice sessions, rehearsals and performances, enabling the player to maintain a more relaxed and natural playing posture. We've all experienced playing standing up for hours at a time and waking up the next morning with a painful shoulder; I try to minimize that as much as possible.

I have 3 ways to reduce weight when building a guitar:

  1. Pick a light wood for the body. The top can still be a heavier wood, but it will be thin enough that most of the weight comes from the body wood. Alder is one of my top choices due to its light weight.

  2. Use smaller shapes. My custom single-cut shape is slightly smaller than most common single-cut shapes. This allows for less material, resulting in a lighter instrument. This is also important for the headstock, since a heavy headstock with a light body could create a neck-diving problem. I use small-size tuners on most of my builds, enabling me to use a smaller headstock size, making it lighter.

  3. Add some weight relief to the body. When a guitar body has a top, it's easy to route out material from the body before glueing on the top. In addition to reducing the weight, it also allows for routing a channel for the pickup wires, which will be invisible once the top is glued. The picture below shows weight cavities on a body blank.

Weight relief cavities

Wood selection

Best woods to build a neck


My go-to wood for building a guitar neck is Mahogany. I've used both African and Honduran Mahogany, they are similar in look and feel and I noticed very little differences in stability. African Mahogany tends to be cheaper than Honduran, so if you're starting out, I would recommend going with African Mahogany.

Mahogany is very stable when you pick a piece that has straight grain that is oriented vertically at the ends. While it may not be the densest wood available, it is more than strong enough for constructing a neck. It's easy to work with, both with hand tools and power tools, and it finishes beautifully with a clear finish. It typically has a lot of depth and a golden color. It feels smooth to the touch, although its pores will be noticeable without grain filling.

Mahogany neck


Maple is another commonly used wood for guitar necks. It is dense and hard, making it stable and durable, provided that the appropriate piece is selected. It is also a relatively cheap wood, at least when it's not figured. Using a figured maple (curly and birdseye maple are often used) can create a beautiful neck.

Maple is a closed-grain wood that feels smooth even with a simple oil finish. The main downside of maple is that it is harder to work with than Mahogany, especially using hand tools. Since I use hand tools a lot in my build process, I usually prefer Mahogany.

Laminate necks

Another option for building a guitar neck is to use multiple pieces and glue them together. This method can be particularly useful when utilizing flat-sawn boards; by rotating them 90 degrees, the grain becomes vertical. This can create very stable necks as long as both sides of the centerline are as symmetrical as possible. It's even possible to use multiple species of wood to create interesting patterns, although it's important to note that some woods can expand and contract at different rates, which can result in small "ridges" that can be noticeable to the touch.

The example below is a 7-piece laminate neck: walnut - mahogany - maple - walnut - maple - mahogany - walnut.

Laminate neck

Best woods to make a fretboard

I will go against the popular opinion and say that any wood can be used, as long as it's strong enough to hold the fret tangs in place. Unless you use extremely light string gauges or apply excessive pressure when fretting a note, the string should not touch the fretboard. For that reason, anything with a hardness close or higher than maple or walnut should be a good choice. Should, because some hard woods can be brittle, which may lead to issues with keeping the fret tangs secured in the slots.

The most commonly used woods for fretboard are Rosewood, Maple and Ebony, although other options such as Pau Ferro and Ziricote have become widely used too.

I personally like to use non-traditional woods for my fretboards. I've used quilted maple, black walnut and even curly hackberry (picture below).

Curly Hackberry fretboard

Best wood for a guitar body

Almost any kind of wood can be used for a solid body guitar. Some guitars have even been built out of pine! The primary considerations are the wood's hardness (how easily will it dent) and its visual characteristics. I focus more on the visual aspect, as every guitar will eventually get some dents and to me it is part of the history of an instrument. Still, I wouldn't use something as soft as pine unless it was required, since using a wood that soft would be almost begging for dents! I've listed some of my favorite body woods below, but feel free to experiment.


Just like with necks, Mahogany is one of my preferred choices for building an electric guitar body. It is easy to work with (especially with hand tools), relatively lightweight when adding weight relief cavities, and it finishes to a deep, beautiful golden red color. Mahogany is strong and hard; it will dent if hit hard enough, but should provide enough hardness to resist minor scratches and dents.

Mahogany body


Alder is a softer wood compared to Mahogany, but it is also significantly lighter. I typically use it when I'll add a figured top, as it allows me to reduce the weight of the guitar and still have a stunning top. Alder tends to be less interesting visually with fairly straight grain, but it can have a beautiful golden color when finished with oil. If you pick the right pieces, it can even look very close to Mahogany in color, so an Alder body can look great with a Mahogany neck, like on the picture below.

Alder body with a Mahogany neck


Walnut can be dense and heavy, so if I use it for a body, I would minimize its thickness. It is relatively easy to work with and has a rich, dark brown color, sometimes with reddish hues. Due to its weight, I usually prefer Walnut for body tops and use a lighter wood for the back. Walnut can also have interesting grain patterns with curls or other figure, such as shown below.

Walnut top


When selecting woods for building an electric guitar, it's essential to consider various factors. Contrary to popular belief, I believe that tonal properties play a minor role for an electric guitar, and the stability, look and weight of the wood are a lot more important.

Ultimately, there are no rules when it comes to selecting wood for a guitar build. With the vast number of options available, it's important to experiment and try new combinations to find what you like.

If you have a dream guitar in mind and this article resonates with you, reach out! I'd love to talk and help it become a reality.