Tonewoods for your custom electric guitar

Luthiers and guitar manufacturers use Tonewoods.

Tonewood is a generic term and is entirely subjective; traditional Tonewoods are making way for new wave Tonewoods, as established woods become more expensive and more difficult to source.

A Tonewood is usually a Hardwood but can also be a Softwood.

Softwoods aren’t any softer than Hardwoods; the difference is that Hardwoods bear leaves (and tend to be deciduous), whilst Softwoods have needles and exposed seeds.

We’ll work with you to source the best combinations of Tonewoods for your custom build electric guitar, handmade by the Crew at Kanji Guitars.

Geographic Distribution
European

Appearance
Light tan to pinkish red heartwood and sapwood

Uses
Body

Tonal Characteristics
BALANCED.

Tight grain gives some prominence to mids and higher note clarity, A balanced tonewood, used in Fender body production since the 1950s. Finished wood not particularly attractive but is relatively light in weight. Prone to rot and decay so newly lumbered alder needs to be sealed and kiln dried quickly before milling.

Related Woods
Birch

Eco Risk
Wide European distribution; no CITES sanction

Geographic Distribution
European hard, Swamp

Appearance
Light to medium brown heartwood

Uses
Body

Tonal Characteristics
RESONANT. BRIGHT.

Swamp Ash is not a species of Ash; it relates to Ash yielded from trees in swampland or marshes. In particular, Swamp Ash is found in southeastern USA and has an attractive grain. Ash is highly resonant and produces scooped mids, resulting in a balanced clarity but with an emphasis on brightness. Fender used Ash in body production until the mid-1950s. European hard Ash is more expensive than Swamp Ash and produces brighter tones due to the tighter grain.

Eco Risk
No CITES sanction

 

Geographic Distribution

North America, Europe

Appearance

Pale white to light brown heartwood

Uses
Body

Tonal Characteristics

WARM. TRANSPARENT.

The US Great Lakes variety of Basswood is even and tight grained and whilst soft, is often used in guitar body manufacture. There is plenty of supply and so this is a cheap option but this doesn’t mean it is of inferior quality. Tonal characteristics are towards the warm end of the spectrum but this wood is relatively transparent in its tone and so the pick ups in a basswood body are likely to be the overriding influencer on tone. EVH has used Basswood in most of his post-1990 signature guitars.

Eco Risk
No CITES sanction

 

Geographic Distribution
North Eastern USA

Appearance

Light reddish brown heartwood

Uses
Body/Neck

Tonal Characteristics

SUSTAIN. MIDS.

Birch has been used in musical instruments for centuries; it used to be cheap and plentiful. Yellow Birch is now used when attractive Curly patterns appear. The wood is fine textured, durable and of a medium hardness. It is tonally not unlike Maple but with less prominent highs.

Eco Risk
No CITES sanction

Geographic Distribution
Eastern North America

Appearance

Light pinkish brown heartwood when cut, darkening to reddish brown

Uses
Body/Neck

Tonal Characteristics

ARTICULATE. SUSTAIN.

Fine, even textured straight grain make this an easy wood to work and finish. Produces a rich, projective midrange and balance without favouring the bass or treble. Similar to maple but less dry-sounding; clean and articulate, with more sustain and clarity than maple.

Eco Risk
No CITES sanction

Geographic Distribution
Tropical West Africa

Appearance

Light cream/ yellow heartwood with black veins (Korina is from the same tree and is the yellow sapwood)

Uses
Body, Neck, Fretboard

Tonal Characteristics

FULL. WARM.

A coarse, interlocked grain provices a striking and exotic aesthetic which leads to its use in all areas of the guitar. Tonally warmer than Mahogany, Black Limba/ Korina produces rich, warm tones. White Limba is the same wood, they’re merely differentiated based on the colour and streaking.

Eco Risk
No CITES sanction

Geographic Distribution

Europe, West Asia, North Africa

Appearance

Light cream heartwood, burl shows tight dark brown knots

Uses
Body

Tonal Characteristics

TRANSPARENT.

Medium coarse straight grain; very light, very soft. This hardwood is generally used as utility timber and is only used in guitar manufacture when the attractive burl appears. Bookmatched poplar burl tops are currently very popular; the poplar generally needs stabilising in some way before working and finishing. Tonally it is generally viewed as being transparent.

Related Woods
Aspen

Eco Risk
No CITES sanction

Geographic Distribution

Mexico, Central & South America

Appearance

Yellow/ brown heartwood with dark brown streaks

Uses
Fretboard/Neck

Tonal Characteristics

DEEP. MIDS.

Decorative pieces tend to have highly interlocked grain, it is often used in fretboards and necks. Tonally is produces a deep resonance with a very broad range of mid-tones. This is an excellent tonewood and whilst it isn’t too difficult to source, it is anecdotally all but extinct in its indigenous country of Costa Rica.

Related Woods
Ziricote

Eco Risk
No CITES sanction

Geographic Distribution
Madagascar

Appearance

Dark purple/ magenta with black streaks in the heartwood

Uses
Fretboard

Tonal Characteristics

BRIGHT. SUSTAIN.

A fine, uniform texture with exceptional lustre, Bois de Rose is prized for its unusual appearance and is used primarily as fretboards in boutique guitar manufacturing. It offers a bright, clear voice with plenty of sustain. This wood can become glass-like in appearance if sanding and polished to the highest grit. Oiling makes the wood virtually black. The same genus as rosewood, this is now on the CITES banned list.

Related Woods

Rosewood, Cocobolo, Kingwood

Eco Risk

CITES App II sanction (it’s part of the Dalbergia genus) and also on the IUCN redlist

Geographic Distribution
Equatorial Africa

Appearance

Dark reddish brown heartwood with black streak

Uses
Body

Tonal Characteristics

SPARKLE. WARMTH.

Fine grain which is straight to interlocked, Bubinga is often used in guitar bodies and/ or tops. It’s denser than rosewood, which may contribute to its great sustain and clarity. Provides sustain and note separation with warm even tones, bright midrange, and a sparkle across the entire spectrum.

Related Woods
Rosewood. Ovangkol

Eco Risk

On CITES App II sanction list, including finished product

Geographic Distribution
Eastern USA

Appearance

White/ creamy heartwood, burl is metal grey brown

Uses
Body

Tonal Characteristics

TRANSPARENT.

A soft and light hardwood, Buckeye is prized in its burl form (which generally needs to be stabilised), which displays unique knot clusters and dark discolourations. Rarely imported into the UK, this hardwood is becoming more and more popular as a body top and so prices are being driven up. Tonally, it is fairly transparent; it’s attraction is its aesthetic value.

Eco Risk
No CITES sanction

Geographic Distribution
Central America

Appearance

Heartwood can range across a broad spectrum of yellow, orange, red, brown with black/ purple streaks

Uses
Fretboard

Tonal Characteristics

BRIGHT. CLEAR.

Often nicely figured with a fine interlocked grain and good natural lustre and durability means Cocobolo is often used for fretboards. Similar to rosewood, it offers a bright, clear, sustaining voice. Provides well-balanced tone with power, sustain and volume. Responsive, with clear, slow-decaying harmonics and a well-separated and complex low end.

Related Woods

Rosewood, Kingwood

Eco Risk

CITES App II sanction (it’s part of the Dalbergia genus) and also on the IUCN redlist

Geographic Distribution
West Africa, SE Asisa

Appearance
Heartwood ranges from jet black to black with clear streaks, to highly figured black grains on cream

Uses
Fretboard

Tonal Characteristics

BRIGHT. SUSTAIN.

African Ebony is generally jet black and is used in fingerboards due to its bright attack, long sustain and its aesthetic appeal. Grey and brown streaks through Ebony may either indicate that it’s Ceylon Ebony or that it’s young African Ebony which is at the edge of the heartwood/ sapwood distinction. Pale Moon Ebony from Laos is highly prized and very expensive.

Eco Risk
No CITES sanction but export restricted in India/ Sri Lanka due to exploitation

 

Geographic Distribution
Western Europe

Appearance

Light to medium reddish brown heartwood

Uses
Body

Tonal Characteristics

SUSTAIN. WARM HIGHS.

English Elm has coarse, interlocked grain which makes it prone to splitting. It is becoming more common in boutique guitars from the UK because elm lumber is becoming more plentiful and cheap. It is very dense with discernable oblong ridges in the heartwood. Tonally, it’s similar to maple but with warmer highs. American Elm is also sometimes used in mass produced US guitar manufacture.

Eco Risk
No CITES sanction

Geographic Distribution

Mexico, West Indies, Central America, northern South America

Appearance
Pale pink to deep red/ brown heartwood

Uses
Body/Neck

Tonal Characteristics

TREBLY. COLD.

Interlocked grain with a medium coarse texture. This is a very, very stiff and hard wood (Janka hardness ~2.7k lb) which can easily cause a router bit to sheer off; it’s also very heavy. The hardness and durability make Jatoba an excellent stabiliser for necks. It’s tone tends to be cold and hard with little mid-range, therefore only use in bodies if you’re loading active pickups.

Eco Risk
No CITES sanction

Geographic Distribution

South central Africa

Appearance

Light golden brown, often with brown and purple streaks

Uses
Body/Neck

Tonal Characteristics

RESONANT. FULL.

Medium to course, interlocked grain has amazing stability and so is often used to stabilise necks. The multi-coloured streaks in the grain make it an unusual wood and whilst you don’t see it in the UK often, it’s a valuable addition to the stability of a guitar. Now described by the IUCN as threatened but not on the redlist at this time.

Related Woods

Padauk

Eco Risk
No CITES sanction

Geographic Distribution
Hawaii

Appearance
Medium gold to reddish brown heartwood

Uses
Body

Tonal Characteristics
BALANCED. UPPER MIDS.

Grain is usually slightly interlocked and wavy; medium to coarse in nature with very strong grain lines, making for attractive body tops. Indigenous to Hawaii, supply is de facto limited so this isn’t a cheap option. Tone tends to be very balanced; whilst highs aren’t compromised, the focus tends to be on upper-mids. Often used in acoustic guitar making due to its balanced characteristics, attractive aesthetics and its good working and finishing characteristics.

Related Woods
Camelthorn genus; other Acacia

Eco Risk
No CITES sanction

 

Geographic Distribution
Africa, Honduras

Appearance

Pale pink to deep red/ brown heartwood

Uses
Body, Neck

Tonal Characteristics

WARM. PRONOUNCED MIDS.

Provides warm tones with pronounced lower mids. Smooth sustain and a full tone; used extensively in Gibson Les Paul construction; heavy in weight. High end tends to be relatively subdued. Matures well with age and is stable; low risk of warping. Finishes well but it relatively soft and can dent/ ding/ scratch easily, depending upon the finish used on the guitar.

Related Woods
Sapele

Eco Risk

Plentiful supply from Honduran plantations; no CITES sanction

Geographic Distribution
North America

Appearance
Nearly white to off-cream sapwood (heartwood generally not used)

Uses
Body, neck, fretboard

Tonal Characteristics
SUSTAIN. CLEAR HIGHS.

There are manifold varieties of Acer and this is one of the most important hardwoods for guitar building. The grain is straight but importantly, it may be wavy or ‘curly’. Grain is also tight and fine, producing clear trebles with plenty of bite and sustain. Sugar Maple is the most frequently used Maple in guitar making (Sugar Maple is also used to make maple syrup). Sugar Maple may contain any number of different grain patterns which make the wood desirable; Birdseye Maple is often used in necks, fretboards and body tops (botanists haven’t identified the physiological process which causes Birdseye figuring) and Flame Maple is also often used in necks and body tops. ‘Flame’ is a generic term for figuring which sees relatively tight pores changing direction over small distances to produce a wave effect; some of the most prized forms of flame are Fiddleback, Quilt, Flame Crotch, Crossfire and Ribbon Stripe. Soft Maple is also used in guitar making and is lighter in weight than Sugar Maple; it often produces some of the most exotic figuring.

Eco Risk
No CITES sanction

 

Geographic Distribution
South East Asia

Appearance

Dark reddish brown heartwood

Uses
Body

Tonal Characteristics

WARM. MIDS.

Coarse straight or interlocked grain, this is often mistaken as part of the Mahogany family; there are many different types of Meranti and it isn’t related to the Mahogany genus. It does however share tonal characteristcs of Mahogany, ie warm tones with pronounced mids. This is a stable wood and is relatively cheap.

Eco Risk

No CITES sanction but some Shorea are on the IUCN redlist due to overlogging

Geographic Distribution

Europe, Asia Minor, North Africa

Appearance

Light to medium brown heartwood, with an olive cast

Uses
Body/Neck

Tonal Characteristics

BRIGHT. COMPRESSED.

Uneven, coarse, straight grain. English oak is occasionally used in guitar bodies but boutique makers. Plentiful and cheap in the UK (in the US, white oaks timber is generally viewed as imported lumber), it can prove attractive in guitar tops. Gives a bright sound across the spectrum with rapidly decaying harmonics.

Eco Risk
No CITES sanction

Geographic Distribution
Tropical West Africa

Appearance

Yellow brown with streaks of red/ green/ brown heartwood

Uses
Body/Neck

Tonal Characteristics

FULL. BALANCED.

A straight, interlocked grain of a medium nature; this wood finishes well and is a favourite of luthiers, despite having a muted physical appearance when finished. It’s a relative of Rosewood and shares many of the tonal qualities, giving a strong tonal response across the spectrum; generally viewed has sitting between Rosewood and Koa in tonal terms.

 

Related Woods

Bubinga, Rosewood

 

Eco Risk
No CITES sanction

Geographic Distribution
Central and Tropical West Africa

Appearance

Orange heartwood

Uses
Body/Neck

Tonal Characteristics

SUSTAIN. WARM.

Straight grain which is coarse with a natural lustre. Often called Vermillion, this orange wood turns brown over time and exposure to UV. Tonally similar to a high quality Walnut: bright with lots of sustain but arguably with some of the warmth associated with Rosewood.

Related Woods

Kiaat (Muninga)

Eco Risk
No CITES sanction

Geographic Distribution
Tropical South America

Appearance

Varied colour, ranging from orange/ red to dark violet brown with offset dark streaks

Uses
Fretboard, Neck

Tonal Characteristics

CLARITY. HIGHS.

Grain is fine, even and straight. Contrasting bands of orange, red, violet brown and black make this an ideal wood for fingerboards. Tonally, it sits between walnut and rosewood; a broad range of clarity with sparkling highs. Often thought to be a rosewood, this is a different genus isn’t on the CITES list.

Eco Risk
No CITES sanction

Geographic Distribution
SE Asia, North America

Appearance

Pale greyish brown heartwood

Uses
Body

Tonal Characteristics

RESONANT. BRIGHT.

This is an ultra lightweight hardwood which is a relation of Balsa wood. Its straight, coarse grain often looks striped because of its large pores. Prized for instrument manufacture in SE Asia (the traditional Japanese stringed instrument, the Koto, is made from Paulownia), it is generally cheap in the US and Europe. It’s ultra light, porous properties mean that it is increasingly used in guitar manufacture as a lighweight body laminate. It has a similar tone to Ash, albeit slightly more ballsy.

Eco Risk
No CITES sanction

Geographic Distribution
Central and South America

Appearance

When cut, heartwood is dull purple grey; UV exposure makes it bright purple

Uses
Neck, Fretboard

Tonal Characteristics

ROUNDED. FULL.

A medium, straight grain which works and finishes well (albeit it goes brown over time), purpleheart is a premium tonewood. It is dense and projects exceptionally well. The curly variety is extremely rare. Due to its unusual colour it is often used as fretboards and it’s dense/ stiff qualities lend it to neck strip bracing.

Eco Risk
No CITES sanction

Geographic Distribution
Brazil, India, Madagascar

Appearance
Heartwood ranging from light yellow/ brown to dark reddish brown

Uses
Fretboard, body, neck

Tonal Characteristics
FULL. WARM. NOTE SEPARATION.

Rosewood is now on CITES Appendix II list, which means you need a permit to move it internationally. Without a permit, the wood may be confiscated and the legal owner may be prosecuted. Brazilian Rosewood has been on the CITES list for some years but 2017 saw the ban expand to most other varieties of Dalbergia (and some types of Bubinga). CITES has stated that unsustainable and illegal logging has driven this ban. Rosewood sounds warm and full, with Brazilian Rosewood providing the best note distinction in the lows and highs. Indian Rosewood became a substitute for BRazilian in recent years and it provides a more dull tonal response and isn’t as aesthetically appealing. NB Kanji Guitars do not use Rosewood in any of their guitars.

Related woods
Kingwood, Cocobolo

Eco Risk
CITES App II sanction

 

Geographic Distribution
Tropical Africa

Appearance
Golden to dark reddish brown heartwood

Uses
Body, neck

Tonal Characteristics
WARM. PRONOUNCED MIDS.

Sapele darkens with age and can produce excellent figuring in the grain, such as Fiddleback, Quilts and due to the fully interlocked nature of the grain, Sapele is often Curly. Very minor tonal differences from Mahogany, which will depend on grain characteristics of the specific lumber, age, nature of finish and build tolerances. Sapele tends to be slighly cheaper than Mahogany and is slightly less soft.

Eco Risk
No CITES sanction but on the IUCN Red List due to a 20% reduction in population in recent years.

 

Geographic Distribution
Europe, North America

Appearance

Yellowish/ cream heartwood with dark striations, ie Spalt

Uses
Body

Tonal Characteristics

TRANSPARENT.

Beech isn’t generally viewed as a tonewood but where the Spalted variety occurs, it can provide attractive body tops. Spalted Beech isn’t a species; spalting generally occurs where waterlogged timber has started to rot along veins; this provides the dark, hard striations.

Eco Risk
No CITES sanction

Geographic Distribution
South Eastern USA

Appearance

Reddish brown heartwood

Uses
Body

Tonal Characteristics

CLEAR HIGHS. ROUNDED MIDS.

Pine is relatively cheap and plentiful and was used in some of the early Fender Esquire Telecaster line builds. It’s generally not viewed as a tonewood but this is incorrect; Spruce is an excellent tonewood with a fine straight grain. It produces clear highs and rounded mids. As other woods become more scarce, big manufacturers are again turning to Pine as a body wood (Fender recently released a limited edition Strat line in Pine to test the waters). NB Pine is a softwood, not a hardwood.

Eco Risk
No CITES sanction

Geographic Distribution

From Mexico southward to Brazil

Appearance

Medium reddish brown heartwood with irregular brown/ black streaks

Uses
Fretboard

Tonal Characteristics

SUSTAIN. PERCUSSIVE.

Fine grained with interlocked wavy structure and a natural lustre. It’s durability, density and stiffness make it an excellent and attractive fingerboard. General perception is that Tigerwood fretboards give a slightly less percussive attack than ebony but offer similar levels of sustain.

Eco Risk
No CITES sanction

Geographic Distribution
Eastern USA, Europe

Appearance
Heartwood ranges from light brown to dark chocolate brown

Uses
Body, neck

Tonal Characteristics
BRIGHT. SUSTAIN.

A medium textured straight grain which finishes well, American Black Walnut is often used in bodies and in neck laminates. Tonal characteristics tend to be bright with lots of sustain. Other walnuts such as Claro and English are used in guitar bodies. The wood is less heavy than maple but is expensive and so Walnut tends to be the preserve of boutique makers, rather than giant guitar companies.

Eco Risk
No CITES sanction

 

Geographic Distribution
Central Africs

Appearance
Medium brown heartwood

Uses
Fretboard, body, neck

Tonal Characteristics
LOW. MIDS.

Wenge is very hard with an exceptionally straight, coarse grain. It’s finish tends to be dull but very attractive due to the coarse grain. It provides excellent neck stability but is only usually found in very high end guitars because the wood is hard to work and finish to an appropriate level; often a machined neck (rather than hand tools) provides the best wenge finish. Associated with strong mid-ranges and prominent lows due to the very coarse grain.

Related woods
Panga Panga

Eco Risk
No CITES sanction but on the IUCN Red List due to a 50% reduction in population in last 3 generations

 

Geographic Distribution
Europe, South West Asia

Appearance

Orange brown heartwood

Uses
Body

Tonal Characteristics

CLEAR. SWEET.

Yew tends to have a prominent grain and often shows attractive transitions from orange to brown (it also darkens with age). It is often used by boutique makers in guitar bodies because of attractive, rustic appearance; live edges are often used as a design focus (it grows with many knots and burls). Yew is actually a  softwood but is the hardest of the softwoods; it’s very strong and elastic (hence its use as longbows by the Welsh archers in medieval times). It is reportedly a clear and sweet sounding tonewood, with maple-like tonal qualities.

Eco Risk
No CITES sanction

Geographic Distribution
West Africa

Appearance

Cream heartwood with dark streaks, resembling zebra stripes

Uses
Fretboard/Neck

Tonal Characteristics

DEFINED LOWS. DEFINED HIGHS.

Course texture with open pores, this exotic looking wood produces well defined lows and highs with an excellent distribution of voice. In terms of workability, it is similar to Wenge and one has to deal with heavy, coarse grain in the finish. Relatively inexpensive, this wood is used as stunning fretboards in showcase boutique guitars.

Eco Risk

No CITES sanction but on the IUCN Red List due to a 20% reduction in population in last 3 generations

Geographic Distribution

Central America and Mexico

Appearance

Dark brown heartwood with black growth ring ‘spider webbing’

Uses
Fretboard

Tonal Characteristics

PERCUSSIVE. BRIGHT.

Very fine straight grain with a unique figuring, which lends itself to showcase fingerboards. This is a heavy, hardwood and so it adds snap and percussion to a guitar when used as a fretboard. Not endangered but not often imported into the UK, therefore not a cheap option.

Related Woods
Bocote

Eco Risk
No CITES sanction