Fretboard wood is yet another hotly debated bass topic out there. And, it’s another topic that may have no real answer. While we can take a look at the different factors that play a part in the comparison between a maple vs rosewood fretboard, we’ve found that it comes down to a lot of personal preference and psychology.
However, there are still some very interesting things to consider regarding fretboard types, so read on. You may at least find out why time and time again bass players are still asking, “maple vs rosewood fingerboard, is there a difference in tone?”
Common thoughts about a maple vs rosewood fretboard bass
Some bassists swear that maple fretboards sound brighter and more aggressive than rosewood, which tends to have a darker, more mellow, warmer sound they claim. Maple, they feel, sounds crisper and snappier, while rosewood can sound more “woody” and round. These are really common sentiments that you’ll find all over forums and IRL discussions.
But, what makes people say these things? Is it a real sonic difference that they’re hearing, or is it that they’ve come across these ideas and have a psychological bias before they even compare maple and rosewood fingerboards?
Being that I’ve owned both rosewood and maple board basses, I thought I’d give my two cents on the subject.
To be completely honest, I don’t hear a difference between the two. I’ve owned and played several rosewood and maple fretboard basses, but any variation in tone that I’ve heard could be attributed to many other factors.
It may not actually be a difference between maple and rosewood at all. It might be a difference between pots, the style of music I was playing, or even how I felt during a specific playing session. Who knows.
So, let’s dive into this exploration of fretboard material and try to get to the bottom of whether there is any sound difference between the most common fretboard woods.
Sound differences on a bass – what goes into the mix?
Body wood, pickups, electronics, neck construction, strings, and other factors all contribute to the overall tone of any given bass. It’s hard for me to believe that a thin layer of wood on top of a much thicker chunk of wood (the neck) would have any noticeable effect on the sound. However, I could possibly see how the thicker slab rosewood boards on early ’60s Fenders and reissue basses may have slightly more of an effect on the overall sound of the bass.
Body wood on a bass guitar
Obviously, the body wood on a bass is a much more substantial piece of wood than the neck is. If we’re talking about how the vibrations of the strings are interacting with the embedded electronics and whatnot, we should be talking about the body first and foremost, right? Maybe. The answer is most likely to be found in the combination of woods.
A lot of the comments that I’ve read focus on the whole picture of the bass construction. And I think that’s right. Clearly, the combination of maple and ash, or rosewood and alder, or whatever the combination might be, is much more important than the fingerboard on its own.
When we’re thinking of tone, we’re never thinking of each piece of a bass guitar in a vacuum. We can think of how a certain piece will affect the overall tone, but we still think of it as a part of the whole.
How do bass strings factor in?
No one will argue that your strings will have a massive impact on the tone you get, no matter what type of fingerboard you’re using. But again, we need to think about this in terms of the whole.
So, if you string up a set of old flatwounds on a rosewood board, will you have the ultimate in heavy, dark, thuddy goodness? Maybe. Either way, this is exactly how we should be approaching this topic.
What combination gives us the perfect tone that we’re after?
Electronics in the mix
I won’t spend too much time on this aspect since it seems to be a little too self-evident to be honest. Electronics are there to enhance and change the tone that you get naturally from the acoustic elements, and this article is about those acoustic elements.
I will say that pickups play a huge role as their job is simply grabbing and amplifying the vibrations from the wooden body, the neck, and the strings. We could do without the tone knobs and other effects built into a bass, but pickups are integral, and they make a huge difference in tone overall.
Quality and type of pickups are probably the biggest factors in your overall tone. And the higher the quality of your pickups, the more the nuances from the different woods in the bass will be noticeable.
What about pick vs fingers on maple vs rosewood?
So, in general, I’ve seen more people that play with a pick preferring maple over rosewood. There could be any number of reasons why this is the case. It could be that maple does enhance the brighter sound that pick players normally look for.
If you’re using a pick with a bass guitar, you’re definitely wanting that aggressive, bright tone with lots of attack. If maple is brighter sounding, it would make sense that, over time, bass players who use a pick would gravitate towards that type of wood in general.
But, it could also be that most bassists who play with a pick use basses with maple fingerboards. So, new players wanting to replicate that sound do the same.
Using a bass with a maple fretboard with genres like punk, metal, hard rock, and others where a pick is common might just be what we’ve all come to expect. Sort of a chicken or the egg situation with this one.
How does the setting play a part in maple vs rosewood?
The setting you’re playing in may play a huge part in hearing the difference between a maple vs rosewood fingerboard sound. The subtle difference between the two different necks might be much more pronounced depending on what you’re doing and where you are.
If you’re playing live in a loud club, the difference in sound might be completely lost. While, if you’re recording on highly sensitive equipment in a controlled environment, or playing quieter music in a more intimate setting, the differences may be a lot more evident.
I think this could end up being one of the most important factors to consider here. It might also be a great reason to have different basses for specific situations. Maybe you like to record on a rosewood board with flatwounds, but you like to play live with a maple fingerboard and half rounds to cut through the mix.
Finish and feel on maple vs rosewood
This, I feel, is another huge factor in the difference between fingerboards.
So many times in discussions the thread moves away from sound and lands on feel. Feel isn’t as debatable as minute sonic differences you might get between maple and rosewood. It’s not as debatable because it’s a lot more subjective, and people won’t argue that fact…for the most part. Kind of like chocolate vs vanilla.
On a finished fretboard, whether it’s on a one-piece maple neck or an open-grained wood like Brazilian rosewood, the final result is largely based on what the guitar manufacturer uses for the finish. With unfinished fretboards, the feel is all about the wood. And, in this case, the grain is a huge factor in the feel of the fretboard material.
What’s interesting though, is that as the debate moves back toward feel, there seems to be more agreement. People mention that rosewood has a slicker, faster feel than maple. Some people like this, and some feel that they can’t get good “bite” from rosewood because of it.
Whatever you prefer, remember to consider the finish that’s been put on the wood as well. The type of oil or other coating makes an enormous difference in how your fingers move across the fretboard. And this comes down entirely to personal taste.
Fretted or fretless?
One last thing to consider is the frets. It seems reasonable to think that the maple vs rosewood fingerboard debate would apply much more to a fretless bass than one with frets. The connection between the strings, your fingers, and the wood is more significant, and it seems fair to say that this connection could make the type of wood a more important aspect of the overall tone.
The feel of the wood is also a lot more of a factor on a fretless bass. And one thing that I keep coming across in this debate, as I mentioned, is that feel is a big thing between the two types of fingerboards.
Maple vs rosewood fretboard – All in the Mind?
I do think there are some psychological factors at work here. The fact that maple is a lighter colored wood than rosewood could be one possibility. Lighter equals brighter and darker wood equals a darker tone.
The fact that maple is harder than rosewood would also lend many to believe that it should sound brighter than rosewood. This actually makes sense to me, but I still don’t hear it.
You can get some wonderful warm tones and also crazy percussive attack if you’ve set your bass up right, you’re using the right strings, and you have the right tone controls dialed in.
Maybe my ears aren’t good enough, but I still feel most of the tone from the neck is generated by the neck wood, not the fingerboard. The majority of the wood mass is in the neck, and being that most basses, especially Fenders, feature a maple neck, this would have a stronger effect on tone than the fretboard surface would.
The bottom line is that your choice for either a maple or rosewood fingerboard is a purely aesthetic one in my opinion. I know some bassists prefer maple simply because it’s easier to see while playing on a dark stage.
For me, it depends on the body color. I like the contrast between maple and dark bodies and rosewood with light bodies. A bass with a striking bold color and a fretboard that compliments it well screams to be played.
So, how do a bunch of pieces of wood and some electronics come together and make magic? And, why do we argue over such tiny, if at all discernable differences? Because we love it.
What really matters, of course, is how the bass sounds and feels to you.