Is there a difference that's based on feel or sound - why are they the two most widely used choices?
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!
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.
It makes no difference to the sound or playability of an electric guitar whether you have rosewood or maple for the fingerboard. Did you know that the human eye has a blind spot that your brain fills in for you? Your hearing can be influenced by a number of factors. People lose high frequencies as they age. Volume changes what we hear and fatigue can set in as well. Our hearing can also be influenced by what we see. If I'm in a crowded room I can focus my hearing better by looking at someone directly. There's many phenomena that fool our senses: colors look different depending on the light source, mirages that look like water on the road but isn't. It looks like the sun travels across the sky but it doesn't. Sound frequencies can add up or cancel out and this can be heard differently depending on where you are in a room. Rooms sound very different. The sound and feel of a guitar depends much more on the material striking the string, how that string is vibrating (perpendicular or parallel to the top), the gauge, length and tuning of the strings and whatever the string directly contacts (the bridge and nut). The sound is supremely influenced by pickups, amps, speakers, the room and volume. Think about it for a moment. Which sound is the true sound of an electric guitar- the neck pickup or the bridge or both? Out of phase or in phase? Does it bother you that the pickup is sensing a relatively small portion of the string length? Single coil or humbucker? I have a Les Paul that sounds big, fat and warm through my tube amp/1x12 cab and thin and bright through a Yamaha practice amp with tiny speakers. Which one is the true sound of that guitar? When I split the neck pickup to a single coil the sound gets thinner and snappier even through the tube amp. Does the rosewood fingerboard have anything to do with either? I can get a warm fat sound or a thin snapping sound just by manipulating the string- but that was me, not the fingerboard. The only thing to be concerned about is caring for the wood and the way it looks when considering maple or rosewood. Guitarists also tend to think all maple sounds the same when it actually varies quite a bit in hardness. You'll never be able to identify a fingerboard wood just by listening.
I know this is an old thread, but I'd like to add something I think hasn't been mentioned much. In my younger days, I hated maple fingerboards purely out of looks. I just never was a fan of that bright looking fingerboard on guitars. I always have been a rock guy, blues and metal type music. So for me I always liked the looks of rosewood or ebony boards.
I did own a few guitars with maple fingerboards, but I never played them much really to give them good break ins. But, I did notice for myself, all the types of things I like to play, were like butter on a maple fingerboard. All the hammer ons and pull offs, slides, bends and taps.. all of it seemed so easy to play and execute on maple fingerboards. When I'd go back to my rosewood fingerboard guitars, I found I was having to work just a lil extra to pull the same things off. I never noticed before how much "work" I actually having to put into playing certain types of things.
However I still wasn't wanting to switch to maple fingerboards yet. Fast forward 20 years later, I'm older now and have arthritis in my hands now. So, the things I used to love to play were getting more painful and hard to play. A fellow guitar player Kenny Blue Ray gave me a maple neck with maple fingerboard to try out. He has some tendon problems in his hand and had surgery, since then he's been playing more maple boards and dropped down to a set of 9's when he plays now.
I tried the neck out and man was it back to like butter! Personally I don't get the playing problem even with sweating on my hands and on the fingerboard. It still feels effortless to play on. On my rosewoods, its a struggle with arthritis now. So I've found with arthritis Maple is tops for playing! No fatigue in my hands or pains. However, I was still kind of turned off by the looks of these blond necks on my good lookin' gits. So I did the next best thing, I started finishing my rosewood fingerboards like maple boards.
I know some are going to cringe and some going to say I've ruined a Fender or something, I don't give a Rat's Bass what you think Lol I got arthritis and just want to play, not worry what the wine cork sniffers think. What I do to mine so they seal properly, most argue the porous grain on rosewood is too difficult to try and fill before sealing. But what I do is take the board and clean it, then wearing gloves, I mix a small amount of clear 5 minute set epoxy. I take a finger of my glove and take a little dab of epoxy and wipe it into the grain of the fingerboard smooth. I work the whole length of the board until its just got a thin layer over it.
But the key is to work it into the grain to fill the majority of the grain. Once I feel its filled enough the way I want it, I let it cure. After curing I then spray down some coats of lacquer sanding sealer. In between coats I use fine steel wool and smooth out each coat. Doing this gives me a level board with filled in grain. It ends up feeling just like a finished maple board. Now you can either shoot some gloss lacquer over it all if you want that shine on it. I just leave the sanding sealer as is, it leaves a natural sheen I think that looks more close to a new natural polished up rosewood fingerboard.
Again, I ain't a cork sniffer and don't care about keeping things stock, and don't worry these mods are not on vintage guitars just everyday new players and home builds. But as I got older and my hands wanted to see what Arthritis is all about, finished fingerboards are the way to go for me now. All the guitars I have with unfinished rosewood fingerboards, they kill my hands and set my arthritis off! But the rosewood boards I've finished and sealed, they bend like butter and my fingertips glide across I have no problems playing anything anymore, even on a bad day of arthritis!
In my young days I would told you rosewood all day till I die. Now that I'm older and been knocked down a lil, give me a maple fingerboard or a finished rosewood board. Oh and I should note, I also only install Dunlop 6100 fretwire. That also has helped tremendously in my playing since my arthritis has gotten worse. Finished fingerboards and big frets are key if have the same issued as I do. Good luck to all out there, keep playing and find what works for you!
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.
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!)
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.)
I have been playing guitar since 1964. For a long time I played a rosewood fingerboard. A few years back I picked up a couple Fenders with maple fingerboards. I'd played a dark fingerboard for so long it took me a while to get used to the maple color when moving up and down the neck, but that was more of a visual thing than anything mechanical. As for tone or feel, I don't notice any difference. I think the use of clear finish makes the fingerboard more slippery and I like that, but that has nothing to do with the wood type. I like both.
The difference is simple: nothing that can be isolated sufficiently to draw any solid conclusions. Rosewood and maple look different, but when guitarists state that rosewood sounds 'darker' they are hearing with their eyes in the main. What comes out of your amplifier, ultimately, is a low-fidelity approximation of the vibration of the length of guitar string from bridge saddle to fret, as picked up by a high impedance pickup, routed through all sorts of exciting tonestack and gain stage circuitry, then fired back out of one or a number of 12-inch speakers. With this in mind it is impossible to isolate the influence of fretboard material in the overall tone of the instrument. Using Fender neck construction as the baseline, how would this tonal variation come about, simply and solely from the 5/16" of material glued to the top of a maple neck blank? For one thing Leo Fender didn't move from Maple to Rosewood fretboards for any tonal reason. He went on record stating that he didn't like the way nitro-lacquered maple fretboards were holding up and appeared dirty when shown on black and white television.
Comparing two separate instruments automatically invalidates any claims you might be trying to make, even if they are of the same model. There are far too many variables at stake, and no amount of empirical evidence can compensate for that, ultimately. Comparing Les Pauls with rosewood necks to Stratocasters with maple necks is simply bad science.
I am not sure how to say this but I think I hear the difference. Once I ordered an LP style guitar. They had 2 types in store. One with rosewood and one with maple fretboard. I ordered the maple to try but they sent the wrong guitar. (again-same model different fretboard). I tried the rosewood and recorded a track digitally then sent it back. When they sent the maple one I did the same with the same exact settings I saved to my digital setup. They differ. And it is audible. -The rosewood had more bottom end -The maple sounded more nasally. ALL THESE ARE EASY TO MANIPULATE IN MIXING BUT IT IS TRUE. I HEARD THEM AND RECORDED THEM...again. It also matters what time of the day you record and how you sit in you chair..yes..but these were sure audible. (You can find there guitar on the guitarfetish website. There they are with different fretboards)
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?
Obviously, there is a tonal difference. Listen to a Paul Standard with rosewood, and a Paul Custom with ebony. Same guitar, different fretboards, and the Custom has a bit of a snappier, more articulate attack. Listen to a tele with a rosewood board, and one with a maple one. in this case, the maple has the snap. Anyone who says there's no difference, doesn't listen tot eh guitar without the amp. Anyone who says the fingers don't touch the board, doesn't "play" guitar. your fingers touch it, the strings touch it, the strings touch the frets that are IMBEDDED in the board..... of course to wood imparts something to the tone. to think otherwise is idiotic.
Just put a spectrum analyser infront of the amp, and you will read a different frequence responce with maple vs rosewood. So simple is it.