One of the first thing you’ll notice when it comes to electric guitar bodies is that they come in two main flavors: Ash and Alder. Why are ash and alder such popular choices? Where do they come from? Is one better than the other?
Taking a look at one of the most celebrated guitar companies in the world, Fender began using ash for both electric guitar and bass bodies pretty much exclusively from 1950 to mid 1956. Since then, Fender has continued to use ash on a small number of instruments. For example, electrics and basses that come with blonde finishes more than likely have ash bodies because the makeup and color of the wood receives that certain finish particularly well.
As far as what tree it comes from, there are a few kinds but when we’re talking about ash guitars, it’s the genus Fraxinus, species Fraxinus Americana to be exact – also known as American Ash. They are native to North America and are found all over the eastern half of the continent. You can find these trees all the way from Nova Scotia in the north down south to Florida, and even as far west as Minnesota and east Texas.
Because of its strong, dense, straight grained and light colored features, American Ash is used commonly for everyday applications such as flooring, baseball bats and furniture – as well as electric guitar bodies of course.
As far as electric guitar bodies go, there are two types of used – southern ash, also known as “swamp ash,” and northern ash. Of the two, swamp ash is more commonly used. Typically, two or three pieces are glued together to make an instrument body although single piece bodies have also been made.
As far as the difference between these two goes, Northern Ash is heavier, denser, harder and takes longer to grow. It also produces good sustain with more treble but has less warmth than other guitar woods. Southern swamp ash, the more popular of the two, is mainly found in wetter environments of the US South. It’s lighter than Northern Ash and has larger pore openings, making it exceptionally resonant and sweet sounding. It also features clearly chiming highs, a defined midrange and a particularly strong low end. Higher overtones are more clearly defined in lower registers, improving harmonic content. Not only that, swamp ash also boasts a beautiful grain and color that takes transparent finishes gorgeously.
There are some drawbacks to swamp ash though – they can be difficult to work with and the pores must be filled before the finishes are applied. Also, two swamp ash guitar bodies have more of a tendency to differ from one another tonally than two made of alder, which has a more consistent, tighter grain.
When it’s all said and done though, swamp ash delivers an exceptional mix of articulation and presence mixed with a great balance between warmth and brightness – not to mention it tends to look great as well!