Bass Guitar Tone Wood Guide
The physical properties of different types of wood will all have a bearing on their inherent tonal qualities. So, aside from how good they look, and how tiring they are to wear over our shoulders for hours at a time, what are the key things to know when unlocking the secrets of Bass Guitar Tone Woods?
It’s worth acknowledging right at the start that not all bass guitars feature solid bodies. Some, such as the Warwick Infinity and Ibanez EWB205 WNE are hollow bodied with chambers that increase natural resonance at the same time as decreasing weight. However, regardless of the design, size and shape, the species of wood used to craft the body of a bass guitar does a lot more for the instrument than simply contribute visual aesthetics and weight. The physical properties of different types of wood will all have a bearing on their inherent tonal qualities. So, aside from how good they look, and how tiring they are to wear over our shoulders for hours at a time, what are the key things to know when unlocking the secrets of Bass Guitar Tone Woods?
There are a various species of wood used in all price brackets. Alder is perhaps the most commonly used, although it’s common to find Ash, Mahogany, Basswood, and Maple in pretty frequent use as well. This is by no means an exhaustive list (other more exotic woods such as Bubinga and Ovangkol are used, too), but these are the woods that we’ll investigate a little here.
With a tight and hard grain pattern, Alder is very easy to finish and is found lurking under the lacquer finish on hundreds of different bass guitar models.
The tone of Alder is often said to be the most balanced of the regularly used tone woods, and has been the mainstay on of Fender Bass and Electric guitar bodies since the mid 50s. It provides a good balance of low, mid and high frequencies with a highly resonant ‘full’ and ‘rich’ tone. It has a slightly pronounced upper midrange which makes it a good choice for clarity, and could be described as falling midway between ‘dark’ and ‘bright’.
Alder is used as the wood for the bodies on models as varied as the Warwick Corvette Basic, Fender Precision and Jazz , Stagg BC300 Fusion, Fender Squier Affinity P Bass, and the Yamaha RBX270.
There are two kinds of Ash Tone Wood: ‘Northern Hard Ash’ and ‘Southern Soft Ash’ more commonly known as ‘Swamp Ash’.
Swamp Ash tone wood, so called because it grows in the swamps of the southern USA, is highly resonant across the entire frequency spectrum, but it frequently said to feature slightly scooped middle frequencies which results in a balanced but bright and sweet sound. It has a similar tone to Alder, but tends to be slightly more pronounced at the top end with a quick attack and a lot of dynamic range.
As the name conveniently suggests, Hard Ash tone wood is relatively hard, dense and heavy compared to Swamp Ash. Although it looks very similar, it’s greater density makes it brighter sounding with a longer sustain. Hard Ashtends to be a better choice where a brighter, harder and harsher tone is desired.
There is plenty of discussion regarding the pros and cons of different types of Ash tone wood on the internet, and I’ll save you the effort and reveal that it seems impossible to come to a definitive winner in the tone wood stakes. The main things that people do seem able to agree on are that Hard Ash is the heavier of the two and that it does ring for longer.
You will find Ash in the bodies of a raft of models including the Warwick Corvette, Fender Precision and Jazz Bass, and Musicman Stingray.
Mahogany tone wood is a relatively heavy choice, and you’ll feel the weight of it more than Basswood, Alder and Ash around your shoulder. With a fine grain similar to Ash, but with a more even grain pattern, its reddish brown colouring tends to make it a good choice for a translucent finish, and it tends to have a reddish sheen when it is polished.
Having been the favoured tone wood of the Gibson family of bass and electric guitars for years, it produces a ‘warm’, ‘soft and ‘full’ tone with bold low frequencies, a tendency to pronounce the lower mids, and a smooth but relatively subdued higher end. Mahogany is a tone wood that produces a punchy growl with a good sustain, and tends be most prominent in the hands of those who play rock styles. You’ll find it on the Epiphone EBO SG, Gibson Thunderbird IV Ltd Ed (in keeping with Gibson tradition), and the Ibanez K5 Fieldy Bass, among others.
Basswood (with ‘Bass’ pronounced like the fish) is a lightweight tone wood that is relatively soft compared to other hard woods listed here, but it is abundant and therefore relatively cheap. It is lightweight, and usually white in colour so it is rarely used without an opaque finish hiding its relatively plain appearance.
Because it is a relatively inexpensive, Basswood is often written off as a cheap bland characterless option, but some claim it to be provide an ideal balanced tone with a subtle tendency towards being more ‘warm’ than ‘bright’. It tends to feature on some of the more budget models of some manufacturers such as the Japanese made Fender models and Musicman Bongo.
There are two broad types of Maple: ‘Hard’ and ‘Soft’.
In Electric Guitar construction, Hard Maple tone wood is more commonly found in neck than solid body construction because of its undesirable weight. However, seeing as Bass Guitars are generally expected to be heavier beasts anyway, its presence in solid body construction is not so unusual. Because of its density and weight, Hard Maple tone wood is very bright with a lot of bite and a good sustain. It pronounces the upper mids and high frequencies most evidently, although the bass frequencies do tend to be clearly articulated.
Because it’s softer, Soft Maple tone wood, is generally lighter than the Hard Maple variety. Although it often looks much the same, it does tend to have more intense figuring and it can look absolutely stunning. Tonally, it provides a good bright attack and sustain, but does not sound brittle like some harder woods can. The wave pattern in the wood (often referred to as ‘Curls’) reduces the stiffness, and this in turn means that the wood can vibrate more freely. Soft Maple tone wood is still relatively bright compared to other wood types listed here, but not quite as bright as the Hard Maple variety.
Combinations of Wood
It’s important to acknowledge that there are many bass guitars available that feature more than one wood in the body construction.
Some, feature a neck through design (usually written as ‘Neck-Thru’), where rather than being bolted on, the neck runs straight through the entirety of the body and therefore the whole length of the instrument. Where this happens, it’s relatively common to find different tone woods providing the ‘wings’ to the neck that may be constructed of a different variety. For example, the already mentioned Gibson Thunderbird IV Ltd Edition features a Mahogany through neck and Mahogany ‘wings’ either side, whereas the Ibanez BTB675 is built with a Walnut/Light Ash wing body. ‘Neck Thru’ designs are generally said to provide a relatively mellow tone with more sustain than equivalent ‘bolt-on’ models, and although they are more prominently found in the designs of ‘boutique’ instruments, there are some mass produced instruments also available. The previously mentioned Ibanez BTB675 being good example.
Another reason why some bass bodies are built with more than one wood is because some feature top woods. This is where one variety of wood is placed on top of another for aesthetic and/or tonal reasons. It’s a process common in electric guitar construction too. Because different woods have different advantages, combining them can result in getting the best of both worlds. Sometimes this might mean topping a relatively light wood like Swamp Ash with Maple to keep the weight down (which is the combination found on the Warwick Katana NT), it might mean marrying the inherent tonal properties of Mahogany with Maple (such as is the case with ESP LTD B1006), orAsh with Maple (The Musicman Reflex).
So, when you’re considering spending some hard earned cash, think a little further than just how visually appealing a bass may be. Think about weight, and the inherent tonal properties of the wood used to build it. The wood employed is not the only contributor to the tone of the instrument, but it certainly plays a significant part.