Years ago (not that many actually) there were basically only 3 choices of fingerboard woods available. Those were Ebony, Rosewood and Maple. While these are still hard to dispute as the “top of the heap woods”, the market has opened up quite a bit as far as suitable woods for fretboards. Here are some of the choices:
Honduran Rosewood is considered by some builders to be the very best fretboard wood available. When used for electric guitar fretboards, Honduran Rosewood is perfect for several reasons. It is among the hardest of Rosewoods, and it is more stable and has more interesting visual character than Ebony.
In recent years Indian Rosewood has been the most widely used wood for fretboards on production electric and acoustic guitars. Although Ebony will give you a more wear resistant surface, there is a lot of value that you could place on the visual interest of the Rosewoods. Additionally, Indian Rosewood, as heavy as it is, is still lighter than Ebony and it is easier to achieve a more well-balanced guitar.
Madagascar Rosewood is a very dense hardwood, much like that of the protected species of Brazialian Rosewood. It also has similar visual characteristics, such as the orange/red hue and the jet black grain lines. If you can find quality wood blanks this is a great choice for Acoustic and Electric Guitar fretboards. Do keep an eye out for quartersawn wood though as this will provide you with superior warp resistance and greater strength factors.
If you can find this wood in stock anywhere, and it appeals to you, I would recommend you stock up on the wood. It’s possible this will become an endangered species just like Brazialian Rosewood.
Cocobolo, with it’s distenctive coloration, grain pattern, density and low cast, makes this the fretboard of choice for many luthiers. Fine alternating lines of red, orange, yellow and black make it a striking and exotic choice. Available in bridge blanks and headplates.
Bloodwood is incredibly dense – about as dense as either Ebony or Brazialian Rosewood, and for this reason, it is very well suited for use as a guitar fretboard. It has a deeper red color than Paduak, but the color is much more stable and will retain its richness over time. It is also a great choice for bridge blanks and as tonewood for backs and sides.
Bocote comes from the same family as Ziricote (Cordia) and is found in the same region (Central America to Northern Amazon). It features a tobacco/reddish brown color with distinct, parallel black lines.
Granadillo is a relatively new wood to American guitar making but is fairly common in South America. It is non-porous, straight grained, very dense, and has a ringing, bright tap tone. The reddish brown color will darken to a brick color over time much like Honduran rosewood.
One of the most readily available Ebony woods, Macassar Ebony will be the best value in a fretboard that you will likely find. It is very dense, but be cautious to purchase quartersawn wood, which will make it much more stable and less prone to cracking.
You may see quite a bit of striping in this wood as the wood flitches will vary from jet black to black with cream striping. If you prefer the jet black appearance (which is one of the reasons we choose Ebony), you can either stain the wood with a black dye or you can use a fretboard wax to cover them up completely. I usually buy my ebony as lumber and cut my own fretboards from the boards. I find I can do this for about 30 – 50% of the cost.
Mukushi, also known as Zambian Teak, is a promising new fingerboard wood from Zambia and Zimbabwe. The wood is a dark, brick-red/brown color with fine grain lines. It does not have the prominent, wide grain lines seen in Indian Rosewood and is a little heavier than Rosewood. In this way it is similar to Honduran Rosewood, which is a proven performer as a fingerboard wood.
Rock Maple comes from the eastern coast of North America, and unlike the more regularly figured Bigleaf maple, Rock Maple offers the requisite hardness and stability of a good fingerboard wood. These boards are quartersawn and even colored.
Snakewood is hard and dark making it a good fingerboard wood. Unfortunately, the scarcity of well-figured stock and the numerous defects (even in the best Snakewood stock) make it one of the most valuable (read expensive) fingerboard woods on the market.