Is Ebony A Good Guitar Tonewood? Electric, Acoustic & Bass


Guitars are made of numerous different parts, many of which are made of wood. The choice of wood in the guitar body (the solid body and laminate in electric guitars and the sides, back and top of acoustic guitars), neck and fretboard all contribute to the overall playability, feel and, of course, tone of the instrument. Since ebony is used in the construction of guitars and basses, it’s worth investigating whether it’s a good tonewood or not.

Is Ebony a good guitar tonewood? Ebony is a hardwood with high density and weight. It offers a bright, responsive tone with notable sustain. Ebony is usually utilized as a fretboard material but is also seen in acoustic backs/sides. Its weight makes it impractical for solid bodies and necks.

In this article, we’ll discuss if and how ebony tonewood is used in electric, acoustic, classical and bass guitar construction with a keen focus on its tone.

Note: in my research for this article, I used Sweetwater’s extensive guitar database to find examples of guitars with ebony in their construction. The links to the guitars in this article will send readers to Sweetwater’s site for more information. Sweetwater is featured in My New Microphone’s Top 10 Best Online Audio Gear/Equipment Retailers.


Table Of Contents


Characteristics Of Ebony Tonewood

Ebony is a tonewood from several species in the genus Diospyros. The two most common types of ebony are Gaboon ebony (Diospyros crassiflora) and Macassar ebony (Diospyros celebica).

Gaboon ebony (Diospyros crassiflora): is also known as Gabon ebony, African ebony, Nigerian ebony, Cameroon ebony, or black ebony and grows in Equitorial West African regions.

The heartwood of Gaboon ebony is generally jet black in colour and may feature dark brown or grayish-brown streaks. Its grain is straight and sometimes interlocked, with a fine, uniform texture and medium-to-large pores.

Gaboon ebony is a very clear tonewood with incredible articulation of bass and treble alike. Its attack is concise and fast with high damping yet notable sustain. The overtone profile is clean and sharp, offering superb separation between notes. Additionally, it provides ample volume when necessary.

Macassar ebony (Diospyros celebica): is also known as Makassar ebony, Striped Ebony, or Amara ebony, and grows on the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia.

The heartwood of Macassar ebony generally has yellow to reddish-brown body colours with dark brown and/or black stripes. Like Gaboon ebony, Macassar ebony grain is straight and sometimes interlocked, with a fine, uniform texture and medium-to-large pores.

Macassar ebony is also rather transparent with slightly more sustain. It’s defined by a slightly scooped midrange, and its low-end and high-end shine with amazing clarity. Its sound is open and responsive to all practical playing styles, though it is slightly darker than its African counterpart (Gaboon)

Both Gaboon and Macassar ebony are listed as “endangered” (Category EN A1cd) in the IUCN Red List, meaning they’re endangered due to habitat destruction and over-exploitation.

Ebony hardwood has a blunting effect on woodworking tools. Though it’s prone to cracking, it also bends quite easily. Its porous nature means it requires filler before finishing.

As a tonewood, ebony, in general, is bright and responsive but also smooth in its sustain.

Another ebony tonewood worth mentioning, albeit not so popular in guitar-making, is Mun ebony (Diospyros mun), also known as Vietnamese ebony. It’s medium brown, sometimes with a reddish hue, commonly with dark brown to black streaks. Mun is not as hard as the two common ebonies, and it sounds nearly identical to Macassar ebony.

Here are a few notable specs of Gaboon and Macassar ebony:

  • Type: Gaboon Ebony
  • Hardwood/Softwood: Hardwood
  • Colour: usually jet-black
  • Grain: usually straight, sometimes interlocked
  • Texture: fine, even
  • Pores: diffuse-porous
  • Density: 955 kg/m3 / 59.6 lb/ft3
  • Janka Hardness (Typical): 13,700 N / 3,080 lbf
  • Elastic Modulus: 16.89 GPa / 2,450,000 psi
  • Tone (Warm/Bright Scale): bright
  • Price: extremely high
  • Type: Macassar Ebony
  • Hardwood/Softwood: Hardwood
  • Colour: yellow to reddish brown body with dark brown or black stripes
  • Grain: usually straight,sometimes interlocked
  • Texture: fine, uniform
  • Pores: diffuse-porous
  • Density: 1120 kg/m3 / 69.9 lb/ft3
  • Janka Hardness (Typical): 14,140 N / 3,180 lbf
  • Elastic Modulus: 17.35 GPa / 2,516,000 psi
  • Tone (Warm/Bright Scale): bright
  • Price: extremely high

Sources: wikipedia.org and wood-database.com

Here are links to the official website of the IUCN and Cites:
IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature)
CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora)


Is Ebony A Good Electric Guitar Tonewood?

Before we begin, I should mention that tonewoods don’t have nearly as much of an effect on the overall sound of an electric guitar as they do on an acoustic guitar. The guitar pickups, strings, the signal chain and the amplifier all play a huge role in the overall tone of an electric guitar. It’s not all about the wood, though it is a factor.

Ebony is a very popular electric guitar tonewood, particularly as the fretboard material. Its density and hardness make it somewhat impractical for necks and bodies, though it is chosen as the top/veneer material for some notable electric guitar bodies.

Is Ebony A Good Electric Guitar Body Tonewood?

With such high densities (Gaboon ebony is 955 kg/m3 / 59.6 lb/ft3 and Macassar ebony is 1120 kg/m3 / 69.9 lb/ft3), ebony is considered far too heavy for solidbody constructions. It would make for poor ergonimics in the instrument.

However, the articulation of ebony’s tone makes it a superb choice for bodies, which are responsible for most of the tone as far as wood goes (pickups and strings also play a major role). So then, some designers utilize ebony as a top material to get a bit of the amazing ebony tone without its great weight.

Additionally, ebony can be a viable back and sides wood (as we’ll discuss in the section on acoustic guitars), and some hollowbody electrics utilize it to their advantage.

Examples of electric guitars with ebony bodies/tops:

Is Ebony A Good Electric Guitar Neck Tonewood?

A solid ebony neck would likely throw off the centre of gravity of the electric guitar unless the body were impractical heavy as well. Though both Macassar and Gaboon ebony could be a viable laminate material in guitar necks, they’re broadly overlooked. There are plenty of lighter, less brittle options (maple, mahogany, walnut, wenge).

Is Ebony A Good Electric Guitar Fretboard Tonewood?

Though rosewood is by far the most popular fretboard material for electric guitar, ebony is the undisputed second choice if a dark-coloured fretboard is wanted (maple is just as popular, though light in colour).

The density and hardness of ebony play a significant role in its success as a fretboard material. Not only is the wood durable, but it also finishes nicely and feels amazing under the fingers. Tone-wise, ebony brings out the individual notes like no other tonewood, thereby improving the articulation and note separation the guitar is capable of.

Examples of electric guitars with ebony fretboards:


Is Ebony A Good Acoustic Guitar Tonewood?

Ebony is also a fantastic tonewood for acoustic and classical guitars. Not only is it perhaps the most commonly-used fretboard material, but it can also excel in acoustic bodies if worked correctly.

Is Ebony A Good Acoustic Guitar Body Back/Side Tonewood?

Ebony is hard and can require additional work to bend into shape. However, the effort can be certainly worth it when building the back and sides of an acoustic or classical guitar.

Relative to the top back and side tonewoods (mahogany, rosewood, sapele, maple), ebony is much stiffer, heavier and harder. In the case of ebony, these factors can make for improved reflectivity and sustain along with enhanced bass response.

Examples of acoustic guitars with ebony backs and sides:

Is Ebony A Good Acoustic Guitar Body Top Tonewood?

Ebony is very heavy and dense for a guitar top, though its popularity has prompted its experimentation, even among the big-name guitar manufacturers.

All-in-all, ebony produces a rich and articulate tone as a soundboard, though it is relatively quiet and heavy.

Examples of acoustic guitars with ebony tops:

Is Ebony A Good Acoustic Guitar Neck Tonewood?

Like with electric guitars, a solid ebony neck would likely be too heavy for an acoustic or classical guitar.

Is Ebony A Good Acoustic Guitar Fretboard Tonewood?

Ebony is perhaps even more popular than rosewood when it comes to acoustic and classical guitar fretboards.

Again, the wood looks and feels fantastic and will surely withstand even the hardest playing styles. The African (Gaboon) variety is often preferred due in large part to its smoother aesthetic.

In terms of tone, acoustic and classical guitars benefit even more than their electric counterparts from ebony’s responsive attack and smooth sustain when the tonewood is utilized in the neck.

Examples of acoustic guitars with ebony fretboards:


Is Ebony A Good Bass Guitar Tonewood?

Ebony is an excellent fretboard tonewood for bass guitars for the same reasons as electric and acoustic guitars. It sounds amazing, looks fantastic, feels phenomenal and withstands the tests of time and hours of playing.

Ebony can also be a viable back and sides material for acoustic basses but is rarely used in bass body construction.

Examples of bass guitars with ebony tonewood:


Other Tonewoods

Of course, there are plenty of other tonewoods besides ebony. Here is a list of other tonewoods with links to check out more in-depth articles on each:


This article has been approved in accordance with the My New Microphone Editorial Policy.

Arthur

Arthur is the owner of Fox Media Tech and author of My New Microphone. He's an audio engineer by trade and works on contract in his home country of Canada. When not blogging on MNM, he's likely hiking outdoors and blogging at Hikers' Movement (hikersmovement.com) or composing music for media. Check out his Pond5 and AudioJungle accounts.

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