All the components of your guitar are important, of course, but there's one where most of the “business” happens. And that'd be your fingerboard. Or fretboard. Or 'board. You know what we're talking about.
Unless you've invented a totally new way of playing the guitar, it's the one part you'll touch the most, so it must feel “right”. (Same goes for the neck, 'course!) It should be durable, and ideally not require too much care. You'll also want it to look to your tastes.
And you'll want it to sound right. Sound right? In truth, actually isolating the tonal properties of a fingerboard alone is tough. It may even be impossible. After all, you're typically talking a piece of material around ¼-inch thick and once you add myriad other variables — neck and body woods and their build, the frets themselves, string gauge and type, nut material, bridge type, electronics, your own unique way of fretting.... Yeah, good luck with the sound science of a fingerboard alone!
Still, it's good to know as much as you can about your guitar and there are characteristics of fingerboard materials many builders and players can agree on. Whether you agree that these are what you like is, shall we say, a whole new 'boardgame! Enough fretting. Here are the main options — Rosewood, Maple, Ebony, Granadillo and Richlite.
Likely the most widespread fingerboard tone wood in circulation, Rosewood is the preferred option for the majority of guitar players.
Historically, there were two types; the relatively common Indian Rosewood, and the rarer Brazilian Rosewood.
* Indian Rosewood has an even grain and is a rich dark brown color. Looks-wise, it offers a bold contrast to the lighter colours usually – but not always - found on a guitar's body. North American rosewood is also used by Gibson — it's a trustworthy source and sustainable. Madagascan and Amazonian Rosewood is also widely used.
* Brazilian Rosewood is unusual these days, because of rarity and exorbitant cost. Since a 1992 CITES export ban, it can only be used from trees harvested before 1992 or naturally fallen trees. Its use in any manufacture needs a certificate. Looks-wise, it can be light to chocolatey brown with hints of orange or even gold. It's a classic case of “guitar voodoo” - many sought-after vintage guitars have Brazilian Rosewood 'boards, so it must be “the best”, right? Or maybe it's just what was used at the time....
Rosewood is a medium density wood, and is naturally oily. That's good for guitars, because it doesn't need a finish, so it feels “natural”. In recent years, Gibson has made guitars with one-piece rosewood boards that are thicker than ever. Which is nice.
The Sound Of Rosewood? Rosewood is often described as providing a “warm” or “soft” tone — good for tempering the zing of new strings or a bright sounding guitar, but it's one of many factors.
More commonly found in the neck construction of guitars than in the actual bodies. One-piece Maple necks are common enough; Maple 'boards on top of another wood for the neck, less so.
Maple is seen by some as something of a “utilitarian” wood, but in ‘flamed’ or ‘birds-eye’ varieties it can be visually stunning. It's a light-colored wood, with tight pores and thin grain lines. Because of its light color, years of playing can take its visual toll — but, hey, one man's “vintage patina” is another's “grimy”.
Maple is a dense and strong hardwood. Some players simply don't like it, as its finish (to prevent warping) leads some players to find it “sticky”. Ideally, try before you buy - the same goes for every guitar — though maple is also consistent, making online ordering pretty reliable as long as you've played similar. Gibson's Baked Maple fingerboards of a few years back generally brought favorable comparisons to Rosewood.
The Sound Of Maple? Maple is a hard wood — associated with brightness and bite and sustain. But that could be because it's usually married to a maple neck. In “blind tests”, maple and ebony are often found indistinguishable. Conclusion? The differing appeals may simply be visual.
A fingerboard tone wood choice for years, either African and Asian varieties. African ebony is a more uniform black. So it looks great in contrast to, say, a white body and neck. Or a black body and neck. You'll also find deep black ebony on some high-end acoustics, too.
Ebony is a dense, heavy but smooth. With more natural oils than, say, maple, it can be left unfinished. However, some luthiers reported problems on refretting with ebony fingerboards and — NOTE — you'll now find Ebony 'boards on older Gibsons only. New Gibsons have been upgraded to Richlite.
The sound of ebony? Pretty much balanced, if you believe most luthiers.
Used on a few Gibson models, such as the Les Paul Studio in Alpine White. It's a straight-grained, dense wood from Cuba, which is known as “the wood that sings”. In terms of timber, it's pretty similar to rosewood, though with a sometimes more orange-y hue it adds more visual zing!
The sound of Granadillo? Pretty much like Rosewood if you can hear differences, though the very keen-eared reckon it's a little brighter.
For many years — hundreds of years — guitars were all wood because there was simply nothing better to use. These days, though, there is Richlite. It's scratch, heat, and stain-resistant, as well as being non-toxic, non-warping, and made in the U.S.A. It won't run out! Finally, neck bow issues are less likely because you don’t have two different wood species expanding and contracting at different rates, and frets don’t loosen due to wood shrinkage. If you need/want a re-fret, Richlite won't “splinter” like timbers sometimes can.
It looks like ebony. Hence some naysayers huff of Richlite as “fake ebony” even now... though maybe some of these people still use catgut strings? Who knows. A more serious point? Richlite is actually more expensive to use than ebony. Why? It's an improvement.
The Sound Of Richlite? “Neutral” and balanced, for want of better words. The best of all worlds. Check the previous discussion “Building A Better Fingerboard” for a hands-on gloves-off debate on Richlite, and please comment below on your own favorite 'board materials.
Clean Your 'Board!
If your fingerboard is really grimy, finish off with a light rub over using extra fine #000 or #0000 steel wool. Avoid steel wool on an unfinished maple 'board.
Be careful. If you do use steel wool, cover your guitar's pickups with another cloth. Even steel wool's tiny particles will be attracted to your pickup magnets.
An old toothbrush is useful. Wrap some colored tape on the handle (so everyone knows it's not for mouths) and use it to clean the fingerboard right up against the frets. Be gentle.
If you may see hairline cracks on a dried-out fingerboard, Gibson’s Luthier’s Choice Fretboard Conditioner is your friend. Or rub one or two drops of oil (mineral, almond, linseed) into the fingerboard to condition it. Please don't overdo it, and make sure to wipe off excess oil with a soft, dry cloth.
Gibson has its own Vintage Reissue Restoration Kit for older guitars.
A lacquered maple fingerboard shouldn't really need any oils, just cleaning. But even if you like a polished fingerboard, never use domestic furniture polish such as Pledge. Too many chemicals!
The jury remains out on some Lemon Oils — as they are advertised — because many contain added ingredients. Go for special guitar oil: no silicon, no wax and as few chemicals as possible. Your Gibson's rosewood or old ebony 'board should still get a light oiling at least once a year.
That's just scratching the surface of fingerboards — and not in that Zakk Wylde way — but basically, there's a material for every taste from the steadfastly traditional to the forward thinkers to the eco-warriors to the blackest of black metallers on Satan's black skateboard. Get playin'.