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The Traditional Tonewoods of Electric Bass

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The Traditional Tonewoods of Electric Bass

The kind of wood that your bass is constructed with is the heart of its tone. While pickups, electronics, and amplification will also shape the sound of your instrument, it all begins with the wood.  In the world of bass guitar creation, there are nearly limitless combinations of wood types - but today we will focus on a few of the most common to give you a fundamental understanding.

The first thing you need to know about a wood is that its sound is shaped by its density or hardness. Harder woods are typically more aggressive and brighter sounding, while softer woods are more resonant and warm sounding. When it comes to the sound of wood, there isn’t really correct and incorrect; it’s all personal preference. Your tone is your voice. Some want an aggressive sound, others prefer a warmer sound - and there are many options in between the extremes!

The second thing to know is that the sound of the wood is often similar to its colour. Light-coloured wood sounds brighter (more treble) than dark-coloured wood (more mellow). Ebony would be an exception - a dark wood that sounds bright because it’s extremely hard.

 

BODY WOODS

Alder is medium brown in colour and on the softer side with a tight grain pattern. Its sound is warm with an emphasis in the low to upper mid-range. It does not have as much to offer in extended bass and treble frequencies as ash. This has been the main wood used on Fender’s solid colour and sunburst finished basses. James Jamerson, Jaco Pastorius and Geddy Lee have played Fender basses with alder bodies.
Ash is kind of the opposite of Alder in that it is much lighter in colour (very light brown), harder, and has a big open grain. Its sound is bright with plenty of deep bass and bright treble; the mid-range frequencies are more subdued than with alder. Ash is most often found on “natural” coloured basses by Fender and Ernie Ball. Marcus Miller’s famous jazz bass has an ash body. Northern ash is harder, heavier and brighter than its softer, lighter, and more resonant relative, Swamp ash.
Mahogany is medium in hardness and density. It’s warm and even sounding while lacking the tight bass response of ash. Mahogany is a great choice when you really want the electronics of your instrument to shine.  It’s found most often on Gibson, Epiphone and Ibanez basses. Victor Wooten has chosen mahogany as the body wood for many of his Fodera basses.

 

NECKS AND FRETBOARDS

Maple is an extremely hard and structurally sound wood - which is why it is the most popular wood for the construction of a neck. Its hardness creates a bright and clear tone with a solid bass response when used as a neck or as a fingerboard. It is occasionally used as a body wood as well.
Rosewood is the opposite of maple. Its softness gives it much warmth, resonance and a more mellow sound.
Ebony is even harder than maple, which gives it the maximum clarity of tone with bell-like highs and a little bit of compression. Its hardness makes it an ideal choice for a fretless bass, as the steel of the strings can really dig into soft wood without the protection that frets provide.

 

COMBINATIONS

Now that you know the basics, we can start having fun with combinations. For the sake of this illustration, we will assume that the basses we talk about all have maple necks (this is the case 90% of the time) so that we are left to choose the wood for the body and fretboard.

The two most common combinations are an ash body with a maple fretboard or an alder body with a rosewood fretboard. Since ash and maple are both hard and bright, when you put them together you get an instrument that is very clear and focused with tight low bass, bright treble, aggressive attack, and a subdued midrange.

Check out our selection of basses here

 

The classic combination of alder and rosewood provides the opposite sound since both kinds of wood are softer and more resonant; the result is a warm sounding instrument with lots of focus in the low to high midrange without the deep lows and bright highs of the ash/maple combo.

What really gets interesting is when you start combining the hard and softer wood options. When you pair an alder body with a maple fretboard (my favourite combo), you get the warmth of the alder with the brightness and clarity of the maple. When you combine an ash body with a rosewood fretboard, you get the deep and tight lows of the ash with the warmth and resonance of the rosewood.

Learning about wood is a load of fun and I have to credit Michael Tobias’s article “The Quest for Tone” as one of the first places I began to learn about bass construction. I highly suggest to anyone interested in the topic to read it.

 

Special thanks to Sheldon at Dingwall Guitars for supplying the wood swatch photos.

 

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Dan Coniglio is a bassist, producer, and manager of Long & McQuade Markham. He is a graduate of the Humber College Jazz performance program and releases original music under the pseudonym Drabbit (https://soundcloud.com/drabbit-2)

 


Keywords: bass, wood, maple, mahogany, ash, alder, rosewood, ebony, tone, colour, tonewood, basswood

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