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Is there a difference that's based on feel or sound - why are they the two most widely used choices?

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Don't forget Ebony, which is used in a huge number of high-end guitars. It's my fingerboard of choice because it's very tight grained and resonant. –  Anonymous Jan 25 '11 at 0:18
I think in the end it simply comes down to feel. For live playing the rosewood will absorb some sweat also. –  user9177 Jan 20 '14 at 5:22

6 Answers 6

Since one answer provided a shout-out for Warmoth, I would like to reciprocate with a recommendation for Musikraft for Fender-licensed bodies and necks. I am simply satisfied consumer with a project built from a quartersawn 22-fret 1-piece maple "Strat" neck and a quilted maple over mahogany "Tele" hollow-body (a hybrid between the Thinline and the standard style).

Maple with tung oil provides a finish that polishes wonderfully over time, yielding a slick neck. (Some sources also call this "gunstock" oil.)

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It will make a bit of difference to the sound - one ond of the string is resting on the bridge, and the vibration goes through that into the body. The other end is on a fret, so the sound there goes through the metal of the fret, through the wood it's mounted in (maple/rosewood), and down the neck and into the body. It'll affect sustain and tone quality, although to be honest other factors like the type of string, pickup and body make much more difference.

In my experience Maple necks are more varnished, whcih also might make a difference to the tone. I prefer Rosewood peronally - mostly cos that's what my current guitar has (and it's brilliant!)

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The funny thing is; when you play the guitar, your fingers don't touch the fingerboard, and the strings don't touch it either. Your strings touch the frets, and your fingers touch the strings. Neither of them touch the fingerboard. Try it, fret a string, or have someone else fret a string, and watch it from the side. You can clearly see that string and finger float above the fingerboard. Unless your guitar is setup real bad, that is. If you bend the string; same thing.

So if one neck feels smoother than the other, it must have smoother frets. It can't be the fingerboard.

As for the difference in sound; it must make some difference, but very little. I am sure I could not hear the difference between two fingerboards, and I think most guitarplayers can not hear it either.

So it all comes down to looks. Which ones looks better to you?

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If you never touch the fingerboard how does it end up dirty/worn on frets you use a lot? –  Mr. Boy Dec 15 '14 at 21:10

One difference is how you treat and care for one or the other as a guitar owner.

Maple fretboards are usually varnished with the same finish (nitrocellulose, polyethylene, or other finishes) used on the rest of the neck. Thus they are sealed.

Rosewood fretboards have no finish on them, and should be treated periodically with a wood conditioning oil. Also, on guitars that are exposed to extreme seasonal changes in humidity due to climate, a rosewood fingerboard may expand or contract in size, causing problems with the seating of the metal frets. So if you live in certain climates, you should use a guitar humidifier to prevent those kinds of problems.

Another note: Some luthiers are now using a heat-treated maple fingerboard (sometimes called "roasted maple") in place of rosewood. Gibson has been doing a lot of this in the last year due to their acute shortage of rosewood (it's a long story). So now there are Les Pauls and SGs with roasted maple fingerboards instead of rosewood. Some recent Gibson models use fingerboards of granadillo (Dalbergia retusa) which also goes by names including cocobolo and palisander.

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The fret dividers vibrate differently on each type of wood, but anybody who is pro will tell you that each instrument becomes a personal choice based off the sound, looks, and overall playability. A lead guitarist would most likely prefer a maple board because of the brightness, as a rythimist would prefer ebony or rosewood. It's all preference and your ability to enforce it.

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Maple boards are typically placed on Swamp Ash or brighter wood bodies and it lends a snap to the tone of the guitar. Rosewood is known to be much mellower, and usually makes it's way on mahogany bodies and necks. They definitely feel different too. A maple neck is harder and feels very smooth under your fingers, while rosewood has some sponginess to it due to the porous properties of the wood.

There are plenty of guitars out there that don't follow these traditional approaches so your mileage may vary. As to why they are chosen? I'd say tradition, along with the availability of the wood itself. It is however well known that woods lend specific tones to an instrument, so possibly years of experience and use by high quality luthiers have lent to the reputation of maple and rosewood. There are plenty of other fingerboard woods out there to choose from, but these two seem to be industry standards.

Warmoth has a stellar site dedicated to the distinction between different tonewoods (neck and body). Here's the neck site. Enjoy!

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+1 for the Warmoth link. Although I'm a bit skeptical of the claim that the fretboard makes much of a sonic difference, especially on an electric, since it makes up such a small percentage of the wood used. –  Alex Basson Jan 24 '11 at 18:49
I would tend to agree with you Alex. I would love to see an empirical test of the differences between a rosewood and maple neck on the exact same body. Lots of people (some quite prominent) say it makes a difference though. –  Jduv Jan 24 '11 at 18:58
Yeah +1 for Warmoth too! As soon as I get my tax return I'm getting my first custom guitar from there. Also to add, To me Maple vs. Rosewood is an esthetic choice. I have not been able to feel the difference. I prefer ebony though. I need to play on more maple fretboards to see if I can really tell the difference. –  InternalConspiracy Jan 24 '11 at 20:11
I agree w/ Alex as well. The string doesn't make enough contact w/ the FB for it to have a dramatic difference. The sure do feel & look different tho. –  Anonymous Jan 24 '11 at 22:32
More than anything, the feel of a finished maple neck seems to drag under my fingers, where rosewood and ebony seem smoother and, without the finish, more organic. The string doesn't really rub against the wood, but our finger pads do, and some people like the smooth finish, and others like the wood. –  Anonymous Jan 25 '11 at 0:20

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