There are dozens, if not hundreds of woods that are used to make electric guitars. However, the most common are rosewood or maple. This is largely because the two provide notably different qualities of sound, and so they will appeal to different kinds of players. Aside from this, the type of wood will also determine ease of maintenance and care for the instrument. This is a guide to the right questions to ask yourself, and how the choice of wood may relate.
What kind of music do you play?
Straightforward, sure. But this question extends beyond genre, to the tonal qualities of the music you want to make. Maple is a relatively hard wood, and so a maple guitar offers a sharp, tight sound. This sharpness means that individual notes sound more defined from each other. It’s easy to imagine the effect this would have on things like finger-picked solos in clean rock, or the clean chords of a lot of South American-style music.
Rosewood offers a warmer, softer sound. To find examples of this, look into old-fashioned blues music and other well known, “messier” sounding styles, like grunge or punk. Be mindful of other effects on the sound though. Many musicians will attack their strings much harder than usual to increase the natural “fuzzing” of the sound.
How likely are you to maintain the instrument?
Maple, because of the hardness, creates fretboards and necks that are tough and durable, requiring simple cleaning but not special materials. This has obvious advantages in terms of saving time but often runs counter to a musician’s inclination to spend time tending their instrument.
Many musicians will use the opportunity afforded by restringing their guitar to inspect, clean, and maintain it carefully. Rosewood requires a little more attention, and there is a sense of ritual involved in its care. Oiling and treating the wood results in a kind of lasting interest. To invest that time is to make the instrument itself feel more important to the player.
How does it look?
Electric guitars are able to mimic a lot of different sounds with a little creativity in the use of pedals, amp settings and play styles. With that in mind, it may simply be the aesthetic appeal of one wood or the other that makes the final choice.
The lightness of maple provides a nice, uniform colour. Grain appears less defined, and from a distance (a stage, for example), will do little to draw the eye. This can appeal for artists or groups pursuing a uniform look, or who are eager to have something other than instruments to draw the eye.
Rosewood, with its rich red colour and stark, heavy grain has a much more vivid (or distracting) impact on the eye.
There is plenty of talk in the guitar world about the purity of music, or the value of one sound, or one material, or one brand over another. It’s worth reading about it all, and sifting through opinions to see what feels right for you, and what doesn’t. A guitar is an investment. More expensive guitars, the high-end or custom instruments out there, are owned by two kinds of musicians; those who want the guitar to make them sound good, or those that have been playing long enough to really know what they are after.
The fact is that the interaction between the guitarist and their guitar works both ways. If you become familiar with your instrument, then the way you approach your music will be in terms of that familiarity. It’s a big choice, but there isn’t really a wrong one.