With many electric guitars, the choice of fretboard material is often not an option. The manufacturer can have many reasons for choosing a particular material — cost, looks, feel — short of a custom shop model, most guitars are built with a certain fretboard material and that’s the end of it.
Any G&L guitar is available with a choice of three materials, with rosewood and maple being no-cost options, and ebony as an up-charge. In addition, there is the added option of selecting a gloss or satin finish on the maple fretboard (all fretboard materials are available with satin or gloss finish maple necks). Many players feel quite strongly about fretboard material, but in my own experience the fretboard material typically plays a small part in how much I like or love a guitar (I never hate a guitar, but I might find myself uninspired). Quite often I choose the fretboard material (and finish or tint) based on how I want the cosmetics of the guitar to come out, and the price point I am trying to hit. A satin finish neck is the least expensive and a gloss neck with ebony fretboard is the most expensive. Keeping that in mind, here is quick rundown of the options:
The original Fender guitars were solid maple necks, and this was purely a matter of cost. Maple is hard, stable and cheap. Traditional classical instruments used rosewood and ebony, but Leo Fender was first and foremost a keen businessman and manufacturer. Around 1959, Fender started offering rosewood to give his guitars a more high-end look.
A satin or gloss finish maple neck is felt to have a tighter and brighter tone than rosewood, and depending on the finish tends to feel quicker too. A satin neck has a nice dry feel that does not get sticky or sweaty, whereas gloss maple does give the guitar a more finished look. I often opt for a tinted satin neck as a good combination of looks and feel. That being said, my favorite personal ASAT guitars have had glossy maple necks. If I like a guitar, it’s a package deal.
HINT: If you are stickler for nicely polished frets, a glossy maple fretboard always had the nicest fret finish. Why? The gloss finish is sprayed on after the frets are put in, then then the finish is polished off. This extra amount of finish work results in extra-smooth shiny frets. It’s also why glossy necks cost more. Time is money.
Rosewood is likely the most common material for fretboards. It’s a traditional material that’s attractive, reasonably dense and easy to work. Depending on cost, rosewood can vary from a very light brown to a dark, almost greasy feeling brown-black. My personal preference both for looks and texture is the darker streaky rosewood, and G&L typically sources pretty nice looking stock. Less expensive guitars will often have the lighter, plainer looking rosewood. Rosewood has a little more “grip” than maple, and is a touch warmer and less percussive. I like rosewood with Legacy guitars, as it does have a tendency to round out the tone. Good rosewood is not as plentiful as it once was, and exports and harvesting are tightly controlled.
While I’ve somewhat downplayed the difference between maple and rosewood, ebony does offer a noticeably different experience. Ebony is very dense, with a hard silky feel that sets itself apart from from even a glossy maple finish. Ebony produces the most percussive tone — is great for tapping and pulls — and works well with humbuckers or darker sounding woods. I specify ebony most often with ASAT Deluxe, Legacy HSS and Legacy HH guitars, as ebony tends to fit the tone, look, and ethos of these models. I had a customer order an ASAT Classic S Alnico with ebony and I really liked it. It made the neck pickup more snappy without making the guitar brighter overall. Ebony would not have been my first pick, but the net result was very pleasing.
While pricy, an ebony fretboard on satin maple with stainless frets practically plays itself. We’ve had a couple guitars built this way, and the glassy feel made a direct impact on how we approached playing those guitars.
Ebony is quite rare and the main source is Cameroon. Jet black ebony is most prized, but constitutes only a small proportion of harvest-able wood. Out of necessity “streaky” ebony is becoming more common, and it’s attractive in its own right. Taylor guitars co-owns an ebony mill in Cameroon, and imports of non-regulation ebony is what got Gibson heavily fined a few years back. Taylor has a very good video about ebony on YouTube, and it will give you a real appreciation about why it is so important to sustainably harvest this wood.
Looks are important, and when it comes to maple or rosewood, go with what “speaks” to you in terms of visual appeal and playing feel. If you like glossy, get glossy and don’t fret (no pun intended) about any tonal side effects. If you desire the fastest smoothest playing surface, or are looking at a humbucker model, ebony is definitely worth consideration.