When you’re looking over the specs of a Fender electric guitar or bass, one of the first things you’ll see listed is the kind of wood the body is made of. And with few exceptions, two mainstay woods have been used throughout Fender history for fashioning electric instrument bodies—alder and ash.
Why those two? What are they, botanically speaking, and where do they come from? Why have those two woods been used for so long in most Fender electric instrument? Here’s a brief rundown on each one.
Fender used ash for electric guitar and bass bodies more or less exclusively from 1950 to mid 1956. All along, however, and right up to the present, Fender has continued to use ash on a relatively small number of instruments. Guitars and basses with blonde finishes, for example, typically have ash bodies because the wood “takes” that particular finish especially well.
There are several kinds of ash trees; for our purposes, we’re talking genus Fraxinus. Even more specifically, we’re talking Fraxinus americana, also known as American ash. It’s a native North American hardwood, and the trees, which are quite beautiful, are found all over the eastern half of the continent from Nova Scotia in the north to Florida in the south, and as far west as Minnesota down to east Texas.
Strong, dense, straight-grained and light in color, American ash is commonly used in everyday applications. In addition to electric instrument bodies, it’s popular for flooring, furniture and baseball bats, among other items. There are two types used to make guitar bodies—northern ash and southern or “swamp” ash. The latter is the more commonly used of the two. Two or three pieces are glued together to make an instrument body, although there have been single-piece bodies.
Generally speaking, northern ash is harder, denser and heavier, and takes longer to grow. As a guitar wood, it produces more treble and good sustain, with less warmth than other guitar woods.
For Fender, southern “swamp ash” is where it’s at. Leo Fender chose swamp ash for his first Esquire, Broadcaster and Telecaster guitars at the dawn of the 1950s. Found mainly in the wetter environs of the U.S. South, swamp ash is lighter than the northern variety, with large open pores. That makes it remarkably resonant and sweet sounding, with clearly chiming highs, defined midrange and strong low end. Higher overtones are more clearly defined in lower registers, improving harmonic content. Further, the wood has a beautiful grain and color that make for gorgeous transparent finishes. Ash can be difficult to work with, though; the pores must be filled before finishes are applied, and two swamp ash guitar bodies are more likely to differ from one another tonally than two bodies made of alder, which has a tighter, more consistent grain.
All in all, swamp ash imparts articulation and presence with a great balance between brightness and warmth, and it looks great. So you can see (and hear) why many ash-body Fender guitars of the ’50s are so highly prized.
Fender adopted alder for electric instrument bodies in mid 1956, not because of a detailed scientific evaluation of its sonic properties, but probably for no other reason than it was there; that it was readily available and more affordable than ash. Ever since, it is the body wood for the majority of Fender electric instruments. It was and still is a very good choice.
Alder is a common name for genus Alnus, which belongs to the birch family (Betulaceae, to stick with the Latin). It grows around the world throughout the north temperate zone, which extends from the Tropic of Cancer (about 23.5 degrees north latitude) to the Arctic Circle (about 66.5 degrees north latitude); a rather large area. The wealth of regional varieties fall under two main types—Alnus glutinosa, also known as black alder or European alder and native to most of Europe and to Southwest Asia; and Alnus rubra, or red alder, which is native to the U.S. West Coast.
As you might guess, red alder is the one used for guitars in general and Fender guitars in particular. Since it grows from Southeast Alaska to Central California and almost always within 125 miles of the Pacific Coast, a plentiful and affordable supply existed practically in Fender’s backyard.
Of the 30 or so alder tree varieties, guitar-friendly red alder ranks among the world’s largest, reaching heights up to 100 feet. It is a fast-growing hardwood, albeit one of the softer ones, and it’s also used for furniture and cabinetry. Instrument bodies made of red alder typically consist of two to four pieces glued together.
Red alder boasts many sonic advantages. Not especially dense, it’s a lightweight, closed-pore wood (unlike ash) that has a resonant, balanced tone brighter than other hardwoods, with a little more emphasis in the upper midrange. It imparts excellent sustain and sharp attack. It’s very easy to work with and it glues well. Notably, alder also takes finishes well—with a light brown color and a tight grain that’s only slightly visible, it’s ideal for solid colors rather than the transparent finishes that look so good on ash.
Fender has used other electric instrument body woods at various points in its history. A small number of instruments with mahogany bodies were made in 1963 and 1964, and several mahogany-body instruments are made today. Many Japanese-made Fender instruments of the 1980s and ’90s had basswood bodies, but only very few models are made of basswood today. Other woods in use today on a very small number of Fender electric instruments include poplar, pine and koto.