As one of the few mainstream manufacturers of electric guitars that works to a custom-order format, a G&L custom order customer has several decisions to make. One of these is which wood to use for the body.
The general rule for G&L guitars is that Alder is used for Standard Colors (solid colors, 2 and 3 color Sunburst, Tobacco and Cherry Burst) and Swamp Ash for Premium Finishes (translucent finishes and most bursts). But, Swamp Ash is also available as an option for the Standard Colors too. For a less dramatic effect, you can get Alder with a premium finish. How much does the wood matter, and is one wood better for certain types of guitars?
Alder – Alder is a traditional tone wood for solid body guitars, and has been used for decades by Fender and others. Alder is dense, has a nice grain, and is reasonably light. If you are concerned about weight, Alder is consistently lighter than Swamp Ash. Tone is often associated with weight with the generalization that lighter is better. There are many factors that affect guitar tone, and unless weight is the primary consideration, don’t obsess about it too much.
Tonally, Alder is punchy, tight, with a solid midrange and a bright high end. Alder works very well with Legacy guitars, and it’s characteristics gives the lower output Legacy pickups some good punch. It’s a great combination, and the best choice for those looking for the classic Fullerton sound. For pickups with a lot of output and midrange — such as the Z-Coils used on the Comanche and Z-3 — Alder can be a little too zippy, giving the Z-Coils a very fast attack and somewhat harder midrange.
Swamp Ash – Swamp Ash has a striking, deep grained appearance and looks great with translucent and clear finishes. A nice translucent finish on Swamp Ash can be just as interesting as flamed maple, and less expensive. Swamp Ash has some fine tonal properties too, with a lighter midrange and a sweeter top end than Alder. Consequently, Swamp Ash works well with pickups that have a lot of midrange and top end. It’s a great match for the large MFD’s used on the ASAT Special, Z-Coils, and S-500 pickups. Swamp Ash is a more delicate sounding wood, and in my opinion works very well with the Z-Coils.
Legacy guitars can sound good with Swamp Ash — and look awesome — although the sound is somewhat lighter in body than with Alder. The high end is rounder and smoother, but the reduced midrange can have a thinning effect on the bridge pickup. If you like to install hotter bridge pickups in your Legacy guitars, Swamp Ash works very well.
The ASAT Classic pickups seem to work well with either wood, which is a testament to the flexibility and musicality of these pickups. So if less weight is a consideration, go with Alder. Occasionally a Swamp Ash ASAT will hit 9 pounds, which can get fatiguing during a three hour gig. Another fix is to go Semi-Hollow, which takes a little low end out of the guitar, but makes them up to a pound lighter and is sonically very balanced.
Conclusions – This is obviously a very subjective topic, but after ordering and playing dozens of G&L’s certain patterns do emerge. So if forced to grossly generalize, my recommendations on the most common G&L models would be:
- Legacy – Alder is first choice. Swamp Ash works with a hotter bridge pickup (Semi-Hollow really sucks the bottom out, not my pick)
- Legacy HB – Alder or Swamp Ash. Alder for a dense tighter sound and Swamp Ash for a more open airy tone.
- ASAT Classic – Alder, Swamp Ash or Semi Hollow. Alder for more punch, Swamp for sweeter top end, Semi-Hollow for overall balance.
- ASAT Classic Alnico – Classic low output pickups work best with Alder which provided fuller midrange and snappy low end.
- ASAT Special – Swamp Ash, Alder or Semi Hollow.
- ASAT Bluesboy – Adler to maximize twang, Swamp Ash for a cleaner, leaner humbucker sound
- ASAT Bluesboy 90 – The P-90 is very flexible and Alder works as well as Swamp Ash
- Comanche or Z-3 – Swamp Ash on the Comanche is my pick if using the DF vibrato. With the Saddle Lock bridge, Alder or Swamp Ash both work.
- S-500 – Swamp Ash is my favorite. Alder is a little harder and darker with the S-500
- SC-2 – Alder is punchy, Swamp Ash is a bit more lush. Vibrato option really makes the guitar lively.
- Legacy HB2 – OK, not a common guitar at all, but like the HB Alder gives it a tighter more dense tone, and the Swamp Ash will open up the humbuckers a little