Last Updated on September 15, 2023 by Teemu Suomala
Author: Tyler Connaghan
Tyler Connaghan is a guitarist, singer, producer, composer & engineer based in Los Angeles, California. Tyler has been playing the guitar since 2007. In between writing for guitar publications, he produces music for film and television. His favorite axe is his custom Pelham Blue Fender Stratocaster.
Expertise: music industry, producing, acoustic & electric guitars, songwriting
Bachelor of Science in Music Industry Studies, Music IndustryHide The Rambling▲
Editor: Edward Bond
Edward has been playing the guitar since 2002. So Edward has over 20 years of experience as a guitarist, has authored 15 guitar books, has written for renowned music blogs, and spent a decade teaching music. He began merging his passion for writing and music in 2020 and has written for big guitar websites such as Guitar Head Publishing and KillerGuitarRigs.com.
Originally from Seattle, Edward moved to Norway in 2021 for a master’s in music. He’s studied at the Jazz Institute Berlin and Conservatorium van Amsterdam, and currently resides in Trondheim. His education includes a European Jazz Master’s, a diploma in Film and Game Scoring from Sofia, and a Bachelor’s in Jazz from University of Oregon.
Edward has played in numerous bands and currently, Edward works on his own project Starship InfinityHide The Rambling▲
However, much of the guitar’s personality lies in its fretboard wood.
Rosewood and maple often rank among the top fretboard wood choices, and they are favored by some of the best guitar manufacturers in the game, including:
Though most guitarists know that each of these tonewoods boasts unique qualities, why would someone lean toward one?
Today, we will conduct a little rosewood vs. maple fretboard evaluation so you can better understand what suits your needs best.
Summary (for those who are in a hurry)
Rosewood gained popularity in instruments many centuries ago. Take a look at this pristine Renaissance-era guitar that was crafted in 1581 with a body made entirely of rosewood. On the other hand, maple fretboards gained popularity in the mid-20th century and eventually became synonymous with the Fender brand.
Pros of Rosewood Fretboards
- Warm, full-bodied tone.
- Plenty of sustain.
- Comfortable playability.
- Beautiful look.
Cons of Rosewood Fretboards
- Requires more maintenance
Pros of Maple Fretboards
- Fast attack and bright tone.
- Smooth playability, thanks to closed-pore surface.
- Distinct aesthetic.
Cons of Maple Fretboards
- Not as much tonal warmth or resonance as rosewood.
Overall, a maple fretboard is the better choice if you’re looking for a brighter, faster-playing guitar with a hard feel that doesn’t require much maintenance. However, if tonal warmth and depth are a priority, rosewood is the name of the game.
Of course, this is just the tip of the iceberg, and if you’re not feeling convinced yet, come with us as we get into the weeds.
Tone is king, so your first question might be: is there a tonal difference between these two fretboard tonewoods?
If you were to play two spec-similar electric guitars without plugging them in, making sure every aspect beyond the fretboard was identical, you’d likely discern a difference.
Compared to the warmer tones of rosewood fretboards, maple tends to produce a brighter tone. And while rosewood generally provides more sustain, maples offer a much quicker attack, lending itself to a funkier, punchier sound.
I’ve found that when plugged into an amplifier, trying to distinguish between rosewood and maple fingerboards is nearly impossible. At this point, the pickups take tonal priority, and the fretboard becomes an afterthought.
While you might be the faintest tonal variations when plugged in, the difference won’t be anything to write home about. I’d urge you to not waste your time with minute tonal differences and consider the feel and playability of the fretboard instead.
The most significant difference between rosewood and maple fretboards is how they play.
Maple fretboards are much harder than rosewood fretboards, meaning you get less friction. This means that the playing style is much faster.
What’s interesting is that even though rosewood’s softer feel can be gentler on the fingers, it is actually far similar in density to maple than you might think.
Note that hard maple, often used in guitars, has a density of around 740 kilograms per meter. In contrast, East Indian rosewood, a type often used on guitar, has a density of about 800 kilograms per meter.
Maple’s Janka rating is around 1,450 LBF, while East Indian Rosewood is about 1,780 LBF. Janka rating is a measurement used by woodworkers to determine the relative hardness of different wood types. The measurement is given in pounds-force (LBS) or kilograms-force (KGF).
So, how does maple provide a significantly “harder” feel, according to most guitarists?
The answer is lacquer. Most maple fretboards come with it, whether in gloss or satin form, while most rosewood fretboards are unfinished.
Even gloss and satin lacquer have unique personalities. I often find satin offers a smoother and quicker playing experience, while glossy finishes have a bit more friction, making the playability feel more “locked-in.”
There is a certain tactile roughness that rosewood fretboards offer, which can feel outstanding in your hands and give you a bit of extra grip and control. The one major downside compared to maple is that strings don’t bend as easily with that added friction.
When all is said and done, I don’t think either of these tonewoods is necessarily easier to play compared to the other. It really comes down to preference and style.
When you invest in a guitar, you want a long-lasting instrument. So, can your fretboard choice impact your guitar’s longevity?
Let’s start with maple.
Remember that the maple used on guitars is characteristically dense and hard, making it a very durable choice. If you play heavy and bend hard day after day, you don’t have to worry about excessive wear.
Pair that with a top layer of lacquer, and you’re much less susceptible to dents and divots. Similarly, maple is more resistant to drastic humidity and temperature fluctuations, which can be problematic for other types of wood.
On the other hand, rosewood’s relatively inferior density and hardness make it more prone to wear and tear over time. If you live in a place with constantly changing humidity, your rosewood fretboard might be more susceptible to warping over time.
Cleaning and Maintenance
Maple fretboards are much lighter in color than rosewood fretboards, meaning the dirtier they get, the more they’ll show. The beauty is you’ll know when it’s time to clean.
Rosewood fingerboards accumulate just as much dirt, though it’s often less apparent.
Regarding cleaning and maintenance, maple fretboards offer a more straightforward process than their unfinished rosewood cousins.
If your guitar has a lacquered maple fretboard, all you have to do is wipe it down with a slightly damp or dry cloth, depending on the level of dirtiness. Many guitarists make the mistake of using lemon oil on their lacquered maple fretboards, which is a huge waste, as it won’t penetrate the lacquer coating.
On the other hand, with an unfinished rosewood fretboard, you might need to perform an occasional deep cleaning with ultra-fine (0000) steel wool. I like to apply lemon oil when my fretboard looks and feels dry.
The important thing here is to NEVER use steel wool on a lacquered fretboard, no matter what kind of wood it is, as it can damage the finish.
Aesthetics are just as crucial a component as any. You want to enjoy how your guitar looks.
Compared to maple, rosewood boasts a significantly darker hue. You’ll often find it on mahogany neck guitars, as the blend between the two woods is gorgeous. I think rosewood is also complementary to guitars with darker bodies, although that comes down to personal preference.
On the other hand, maple is typically reserved for guitars featuring maple necks. Maple necks and fretboards are often crafted from a single piece of wood.
In contrast, rosewood fretboards often consist of a layered construction on top of the neck. It’s pretty rare to find a rosewood neck.
Getting an unfinished or lacquered maple or rosewood fretboard will also impact the look. I lean toward the unfinished look, as I’m a huge organic aesthetic fan, but again, it comes down to personal preference.
Let’s look at a few famous guitarists who use these fretboards.
Famous guitarists that use rosewood fretboards:
- Jimmy Page: His “Number One” Les Paul, which features a rosewood fretboard, is a staple in his arsenal.
- B.B. King: You could often see the King of Blues rocking his beloved “Lucille,” which featured a rosewood fretboard.
- John Mayer: Mayer is a huge Stratocaster fan, and you can see him playing rosewood fretboards in plenty of performances.
- Stevie Ray Vaughan: Vaughan also frequented rosewood fretboard guitars; you can see one on his famed “Number One” Stratocaster.
- George Harrison: The Beatles’ lead guitarist was known for his rosewood Telecaster.
Famous guitarists that use maple fretboards:
- Jimi Hendrix: Hendrix might be the most famous guitar player of all time, and he was best known for his white Fender Stratocaster, or “Maple Cap” Strat, which featured a maple fretboard.
- Ritchie Blackmore: The legendary Deep Purple guitarist has used Fender Strats with maple fretboards throughout his career.
- Eric Clapton: Eric Clapton has been a fan of maple fretboards throughout his career, and his iconic “Blackie” strat is a prime example.
- Eric Johnson: As one of the greatest guitar virtuosos of modern times, Eric Johnson is well known for his maple fretboard Fender Stratocasters.
- Buddy Guy: Buddy Guy, one of the biggest blues legends of all time, has long been associated with his polka dot Fender Stratocaster with a maple neck.
- Adrian Smith: Iron Maiden’s Adrian Smith is a Fender Strat fan and can be seen playing maple fretboards in many of his live performances.
Guitars With Rosewood and Maple Fretboards
Let’s get to the fun part — the guitars that showcase these fretboards!
If you’re looking for an axe with a rosewood fretboard, here are a few I’d recommend
- Fender Stratocaster: I’m a bit biased here, as I’m a major fan of classic Strat models. Though if you’re in the market for a versatile guitar, the Fender American Professional II Stratocaster is a surefire win.
- Gibson Les Paul Standard: Beyond the Stratocaster, one of the most iconic guitars ever is the Gibson Les Paul Standard. I love Les Pauls with rosewood fretboards, as they offer a nice mixture of warmth and sustain.
- PRS SE Custom 24: The SE Custom 24 from PRS comes with a rosewood fretboard and is one of the most comfortable and versatile guitars I’ve ever played.
- Gibson ES-335: As one of the world’s most popular semi-hollowbody guitars, the warm and resonant Gibson ES-335 comes with a rosewood fretboard.
On the other hand, if you’re in the market for a maple fretboard guitar, here are a few of my favorites:
- Fender Telecaster: While you can also get them with rosewood fretboards, I’d argue that Fender American Professional II Telecasters are superior with maple fretboards, especially when playing country and rock music.
- Ibanez Genesis: Anyone into 80s-style shredder metal will no doubt enjoy the speed and presence of the legendary Ibanez Genesis maple fretboard.
- EVH Striped Series 5150: Are there any Van Halen fans out there? This maple fretboard guitar pays tribute to Van Halen’s iconic axe, perfect for heavy rock and metal guitar playing.
- Squier Classic Vibe: Most guitars in the Squier Series use maple fretboards, though the Classic Vibe lineup is one of my favorites, thanks to its vintage style and playability.
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Conclusion on Rosewood vs Maple Fretboard
Choosing a rosewood vs. maple fretboard ultimately depends on your playing style and personal preferences. If you’re looking for bright tones, durability, and fast playability, maple necks may be the way to go.
On the other hand, if you’re looking for a softer, more comfortable playability with rich and warm tonal complexity, rosewood is king.
What’s important to note is that many guitars use a blend of both of these types of woods. In fact, you may find that a guitar you have features a maple neck with a rosewood fingerboard, giving you a balance of their respective advantages, all from the comfort of one axe. It’s not a bad way to enjoy the best of both worlds.
I’m a fan of rosewood, though it might just be because the Fender Strat that I’ve been playing for years has a rosewood fretboard, and it feels the most familiar to me.
Of course, as I always say, the most effective way to determine the right neck type is to head down to your local guitar shop and play as many guitars as possible to see which one feels and sounds most comfortable. If a guitar inspires you to make music, you know you’ve chosen the right one.
Is Maple or Rosewood Better Fretboard for Telecasters?
Though it comes down to personal preference, I prefer a maple fretboard on a Fender Telecaster, as it provides a bright, crisp tone that’s perfect for that classic Tele twang.
Is Maple or Rosewood Better Fretboard for Stratocaster?
I prefer rosewood fretboards on Strats, as I feel they balance their inherent brightness with warmer, mellower tones, and they feel more versatile in different genres. However, I don’t think one is “better” than the other. It truly comes down to personal preference.
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