Rosewood vs Maple Fretboards: Which is Better?

By Alizabeth Swain | Electric Guitars

Last Updated on

When shopping around for a new guitar or having your guitar custom built a luthier, the most commonly overlooked feature in the buying process is the type of material used in the creation of a guitar. Many musicians, especially beginning guitarists, are under the impression that the type of wood used in the creation of the fretboard doesn’t have a drastic impact on the overall tone of the guitar, but this thought process isn’t entirely true.

Why is choosing the right fretboard important?

While the type of wood used in the fabrication of the fretboard does have an impact on the overall tone of a guitar, the kind of wood is used for a fretboard has a greater impact on the overall feel and playability of an instrument. You can spend a lot of time and money investing in an instrument that has an amazing sound, but you’re not going to want to pick it up and play it if the fretboard isn’t comfortable to hold or play on.

If you’re really looking for a guitar that you enjoy playing as much as you enjoy listening to, it’s very important that you spend some time researching the different types of woods that are used in the creation of fretboards and the relationship those woods have with the playability of an instrument. As always, we recommend going to a guitar shop to test out different fretboard types to get a better understanding of the different relationships that you have with individual wood types.

The most commonly used wood used in the creation of fretboards are Maple and Rosewood, as there are perceptible differences in how both wood fretboards affect how a certain style of music or piece of music is played.

With all of the basics covered, let’s compare the two most commonly used fretboard tonewoods to see if one wood is better than the other!

Quick summary of Maple fretboards

Its creamy, natural white color can identify the use of a maple fretboard, but if you’re more familiar with the of historical guitars, maple fretboards are commonly used on the Fender Standard Telecaster and the Stratocaster models.

Hard maple vs. silver maple fretboards

Hard Maple vs Silver MapleThere are two different species of maple that are used in the creation of maple fretboards; silver maple and hard maple. While there are several differences between the two species of maple, both of these woods are sturdy, hard, and make wonderful material to use for fretboards.

Hard maple is heavier and harder than silver maple (AKA soft maple) but does tend to be a lot more expensive than silver maple is. Hard maple is often used by Paul Reed Smith,Fender, and Charvel, so if you’re specifically interested in using a durable maple fretboard, you may want to start looking in this area.

On the other hand, silver maple is a lot easier to find and isn’t as expensive because of how readily available it is. Models that are produced in Indonesia and China typically sport silver maple but don’t let that make you think that guitars that have silver maple fretboards are of poorer quality than guitars that use hard maple.

What are the different hard maple grain configurations?

Within the hard maple breed, there are four different types of grain configurations that can be used to make the physical appearance of your guitar more attractive. Different grain configurations are only used to make your guitar look nicer and don’t have too great of an impact on your overall sound. The four main types of hard maple grain configurations are:

  • Birdseye
  • Curly (AKA Tiger or Flame)
  • Quilted
  • Spalted

It’s not very common to find a fretboard that has obvious grain configurations to it, mainly because the grain patterns aren’t very easy to work with on a fretboard. When milling pieces of wood with grain configurations, the processing that a piece of wood has to go through to become a piece that can be used for a fretboard tends to tear out the fibers of the wood, removing signs of grain configurations.

However, having a fretboard that does a grain configuration isn’t unheard of; if you look closely, here’s an example of a maple fretboard with a Birdseye grain configuration:

Maple FretboardAre maple fretboards easy to play?

Maple is a naturally porous wood, which means that the majority of maple fretboards are sealed with nitrocellulose or a lacquer finish. This means that when you’re playing the guitar, you’re actually playing on the finish of the fretboard rather than playing on the actual maple wood itself. One downside to playing on a maple fretboard is that depending on the type and quality of the finish, you may feel that the maple fretboard is smooth and swift or you may feel that the finish is tacky and lagging.

If you’re absolutely obsessed with having a maple fretboard, it’s entirely possible to remove the finish on the fretboard before you begin playing. However, this is a costly measure of maintenance and can lead to excessive wear on your fretboard, leading to a need for an earlier replacement. There isn’t a specific style of music that is less or more suitable for musicians who play on maple fretboards, as the relationship that a musician has with the fretboard comes down to their specific playing style, technique, and what they feel comfortable playing on.

If you’re an experienced musician who is contemplating switching over to a maple fretboard, be prepared to enjoy the speed you can build up when traveling up and down the neck, but also be prepared to notice a lack of control that you may feel when attempting to bend your notes (due to how slick the finish on the fretboard is).

How do you take care of a maple fretboard?

How to take care

Due to the finish on maple fretboards, the upkeep on a maple fretboard isn’t too challenging. Wiping down your fretboard with a dry cloth after every time you’re finished playing (or every few hours if you’re playing for a long time) will get rid of any buildup of finger oils that can eat through the finish.

Every couple of weeks, you should wipe down your fretboard with a slightly damp rag that has some dish soap on it to get rid of any residual oil or residue left by your fingertips; make sure that the neck and fretboard are completely dry before you store your guitar away again.

If you’re part of the unfinished maple fretboard team, you’re going to have your clean and condition your fretboard a lot more often than if you were to have a finished fretboard. Just like a finished maple fretboard, you’re going to want to wipe down your fretboard with a dry cloth after every few hours of playing (or every playing session), but you’re also going to want to use 0000 steel wool on your fretboard every month to remove any dirt and grime that has built up on the board. After wiping your fretboard down with steel wool, you will want to use a soft cloth that has been dipped in Tung oil finish to polish the surface of your fretboard.

Pros of using a maple fretboard

  • Hard feel
  • Easy maintenance for finished fretboards
  • Traditionally is a one-piece build
  • The lighter shade of maple can create a dramatic contract in the physical appearance of the guitar when paired with a darker body
  • Slick feel makes it easy to play at a faster tempo
  • Typically produces a bright and percussive attack
  • Depending on where and who you’re buying your guitar from, you may be able to choose different grain configurations

Cons of using a maple fretboard

  • Drastic pricing difference depending upon if the fretboard is hard maple or silver maple
  • Finished maple fretboards will make it more difficult to manage string bending
  • The upkeep on maintenance for unfinished fretboards is more intricate and involved

Quick summary of Rosewood fretboards

Rosewood FretboardThe use of Rosewood in stringed instruments has been around a lot longer than Maple fretboards have been, as Rosewood has also been used for the sides and backs for lutes, mandolins, and violins. It’s easy to spot what guitars are using a Rosewood fretboard by the dark red-brown hue but is also commonly found on Paul Reed Smith, Ibanez, and Gibson guitars.

What are the different types of Rosewood?

Brazilian- Honduran- Indian Rosewood

In guitar manufacturing, the most commonly used breeds of Rosewood are:

  • Brazilian Rosewood
  • Honduran Rosewood
  • Indian Rosewood

A fretboard comprised out of Brazilian Rosewood is going to be extremely hard to find, although it is highly prized due to the rich, deep color of the wood. Brazilian Rosewood is a highly endangered species, which means that there are many restrictions on the saleability of this wood.

Honduran Rosewood has a similar grain pattern to Brazilian Rosewood but tends to be lighter in color than Brazilian Rosewood is. Some companies will stain Honduran Rosewood a darker hue to make it have a similar color appearance to Brazilian Rosewood, although Honduran Rosewood is also becoming endangered. Honduran Rosewood isn’t as endangered as Brazilian Rosewood is, which means that Honduran Rosewood isn’t under as a restrictive watch as Brazilian Rosewood is.

Indian Rosewood is the wood that many guitar manufacturers are switching over to using Indian Rosewood because it’s a lot cheaper than both Honduran and Brazilian Rosewood, as it’s a lot more plentiful.

Are Rosewood fretboards easy to play?

Regardless of the species, Rosewood is an open grained wood, which isn’t as smooth-running as Maple is. The strings on a Rosewood fretboard tend to be a lot easier to control when attempting to bend the strings. If you’re someone who is more interested in manipulating your guitar strings with certain playing techniques, you may find that it’s easier to control what your strings are doing on a Rosewood fretboard.

How to maintain a Rosewood fretboard?

The process of maintaining a Rosewood fretboard is very similar to the steps that you follow to maintain an unfinished Maple fretboard, such as wiping down the fretboard with a dry cloth after a few hours of playing or after every playing session.

The only difficulty that comes with taking care of a Rosewood fretboard is that because the board is a darker color, it’s more difficult to see when (and where) there is a buildup of dirt and grime that requires a deeper cleaning. It’s very important that if you’re playing on a Rosewood fretboard to take a close examination of your fretboard every few weeks to ensure that there isn’t an excessive buildup of dirt or grease. You clean and condition a Rosewood fretboard in the same manner that you clean and condition an unsealed maple fretboard, which is:

  • Use 0000 steel wool to wipe down your fretboard every month to get rid of dirt or grease buildup
  • Polish your fretboard with a cloth dipped in Tung oil finish

Pros of using a Rosewood fretboard

  • Provides an excellent bite for ease of string control and string bending
  • Stunning color and texture
  • Ease to maintain (don’t have to worry about finish wearing off of the fretboard)

Cons of using a rosewood fretboard

  • Brazilian and Honduran Rosewood are endangered, but some guitar companies violate restrictions in order to purchase these types of Rosewood illegally
  • It’s difficult to tell when a Rosewood fretboard is dirty, which makes it harder to tell when you need to clean your fretboard more thoroughly

Is a Maple fretboard better than a Rosewood fretboard?

In this situation, there is no right answer, as what type of fretboard works for one guitarist may not work for another musician. It’s completely up to you to figure out what wood type feels better in your hands. Here’s a quick glance at what Maple fretboards have to offer and what Rosewood fretboards have to offer as a comparison, just in case you were looking for a quick glance.

Maple

Rosewood

Summary

–       The most commonly used wood for fretboards

–       Has a natural cream or white appearance

–       Used the most often by Fender in the Telecaster and Stratocaster series

–       Large selection of pricing options, due to the availability of hard maple vs silver maple

–       Is commonly used for a large variety of stringed instruments

–       Has a dark red-brown hue

–       Used commonly by PRS, Gibson, and Ibanez

Pros

–       Easy upkeep on finished fretboards

–       Slick fretboard means it’s easy to pick up speed for playing at faster tempos

–       Easy to keep up with maintenance

–       Strings are very easy to bend

–       Bold color that’ll stand out from a light body

Cons

–       Unfinished fretboards require a lot more upkeep and attention paid to them

–       Note bending is difficult, due to the slickness of the finish

–       Depending on the quality of the finish used on the fretboard, the ease of playing can be a hit or miss (sticky vs smooth finishes)

–       Once the finish wears away, the underlying wood will start to absorb oil and dirt

–       High maintenance needed to ensure the fretboard stays in great condition

–       Brazilian and Honduran Rosewood are endangered

–       Some companies will illegally harvest Brazilian and Honduran Rosewood

Which fretboard wood should I choose?

As we talked about earlier, when it comes to choosing your guitar, the tonal production that the fretboard assists in shouldn’t be your only focus when looking to buy a new guitar. While the fretboard totally has the ability to influence the tone of your guitar, the tonewoods that are used for the body and the neck of the guitar are what have the biggest influence on a guitar’s tonal production.

So, forget about thinking that you need to choose a tonewood based on what sounds good and start thinking about picking out a fretboard that feels good in your hands. Both woods have their own unique properties, respond to touch differently, and respond to wear differently, which is why you’ll have guitarists rooting for one wood over the other on both sides.

You should choose a guitar that feels good in your hands because that’s how you’re going to grow your relationship as a musician. If you choose an instrument that sounds great but doesn’t feel comfortable in your hands, you’re never going to want to play. It’s incredibly important that you do your research and test out different types of fretboards, so you know what works best for you. Don’t forget that appearances matter too, so make sure that when you’re ready to say ‘yes’ to a guitar, that you think that the guitar you’re about to commit to is physically appealing.

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