Ever since the 50’s both Ash wood and Alder wood have remained the most popular choice for building electric guitars.
What are the major differences between these two woods for an electric guitar? (Tone, weight, cost etc).
Music: Practice & Theory Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for musicians, students, and enthusiasts. It only takes a minute to sign up.Sign up to join this community
In case there are readers of this answer who don't already know, I want to clarify that ash and alder are the two most common woods that have been used since the 1950s for the bodies of Fender and Fender-style guitars, such as the Telecaster, Stratocaster, and copies of those two types of guitars. Ash and alder are rarely (maybe never - I've never heard of examples) used for necks or fingerboards, and also not generally used for Gibson style solid body electrics like the Les Paul or SG.
The point is, my answer is going to focus on Fender and Fender-style guitars with two or three single coil pickups with ash or alder bodies.
In this video, a diligent tester of the sources of electric guitar tone provides very compelling evidence that no type or amount of wood has any significant effect on the tone of an electric guitar:
Preliminary disclaimer: Some believe that the tonal effects of the choice of body wood in solid body electric guitars is negligible or non-existent. I strongly believe I hear a difference, and I'm not the only one, although it's hard to completely rule out confirmation bias. Even those who hear a difference between tone woods usually agree it's usually not a huge difference. For the type of guitars in question (explained above), the tonal difference is very minor, in my opinion. That said, every difference makes a difference to most musicians.
EVP of Fender Products, Justin Norvell said about ash vs alder tone:
I would say ash has a great sound, especially when you are jamming at home by yourself. When you are playing with a band and need to cut through, the alder has a better peak and allows you to claim more space in the song. But there’s a warmth to ash, that’s what people love about it.
My take is that ash has a more complex, interesting tone, while alder has a more reliable, predictable, focused tone. Another way I think about it is ash sounds more "rebellious" and alder sounds more "professional".
The ash that has been most used to date for guitars is often called "swamp ash", which means it's from a part of an ash tree that has been submerged in flood waters and then harvested when the flood recedes. I don't know the mechanism but apparently this method of sourcing ash yields wood that is less dense than harvesting from trees that have not been flooded.
Typical ash wood is denser (and therefore heavier for the same body) than alder, but swamp ash as sourced above has a density very similar to alder. As all wood varies, bodies for Fender style guitars made from alder can be heavier or lighter than identical bodies made from ash. Usually the difference is less than a couple pounds either way.
You didn't mention this but it is often a factor for many guitar buyers. Swamp ash has a more apparent, swirling grain compared to alder. You will usually see ash bodies having translucent or burst finishes, while alder bodies usually have solid color finishes, and this is because of the difference in grain. Most people agree the visible grain on ash is more attractive than alder, but of course it's a matter of taste.
Up until recently, there hasn't been a huge difference in price between ash and alder bodies based solely on the wood. Translucent finishes and bursts are more expensive to apply than solid colors, so a guitar made from ash might be 5% - 10% more expensive than the same model in alder simply because of the different finish options on the ash model - offered because of the attractive grain of the ash as mentioned above.
However, as this article details, a borer beetle that destroys ash and climate change causing longer flood duration are combining to make ash much more difficult to source. According to the article, swamp ash as has been sourced and used for guitars may become essentially unobtainable in the near future. This means that Fender (and likely other builders will do the same) will be saving their ash for signature and custom shop models. The resale value of existing ash guitars will likely increase as new models made from ash start to disappear. Ash is not necessarily more expensive at this time, but there's a chance it soon will be, and prices may have already changed.
Note: Currently, the price difference between otherwise identical G&L ASAT Classic Deluxe Bluesboy guitars (Telecaster style) with swamp ash & translucent finish vs alder with solid finish is only $75, which is less than a 4% price difference. There are also two Deluxe ASAT Classic models that are the same price and only differ in ash vs alder body wood (as far as I can tell). Reference: https://www.sweetwater.com/store/search?s=g%26l+guitars+asat&sb=high2low#search-header
If you're looking for an affordable, reliable, and durable guitar, a Fender or Fender-style guitar with an alder body is an excellent choice. If you're looking for the best guitar possible for your tastes and playing style, you should definitely get to some kind of retailer and play various options to see what really speaks to you. Whether the guitar is ash or alder will almost certainly be secondary to how it feels and responds in your hands. There are excellent, top-notch guitars made from ash and alder.
My understanding is that Leo Fender used Alder as it was easily available in the 1950s. There may indeed be a small tonal difference, but I doubt its so extreme that as Justin Norvell is quoted as saying above, it "lets you claim more space in the song"; a simple tweak of your amp settings would do just as much. Ash does look better in a clear or sunburst finish but my $0.02 its that that is the only real-world difference you'd notice . Swamp Ash is a generic term for Ash that grows near water. It varies wildly in Janka hardness (White Ash is 1320, Black Ash 850) and so cannot be reliably stated to give anything consistently aginst a dry-grown wood like Alder. The best you could say, in my humble opinion, is that this specific piece of ash is very resonant and might make a good sounding instrument. That kind of piece by piece-by-piece anaysis doesnt lend itself to high volume manufacture, though you might get that from a luthier.