Ask Damian Erskine: Bass Woods and Tops

Q: With some of the more pricey models of basses out there, it’s understood that they’re made with some of the most exotic and interesting types of wood. Why do these sound different, and how do colors and densities play their roles in determining the bass’s sound?

A: Primarily, the density of the wood is what impacts tone. The denser the wood, the deeper the tone. The color of the wood doesn’t effect tone at all, but is a guide reference for density. While not always true, a general rule of thumb is that the darker the wood, the denser the wood, the darker the tone.

As far as exotic tops go, I’ve been told it is mostly aesthetic and does not really impact the tone of the bass. The tops are too thin to really make a difference, so it’s all about aesthetics. This is good to know when faced with a limited budget and an affinity for high-end basses. You can save some serious coin by deciding to go without an exotic top of some kind.

The tone really comes from:

  • The body wood (where the majority of the mass is)
  • The neck wood (where much of the vibration travels from on it’s way to the pickups)
  • The electronics
  • String type (Steel, chrome, nickel, flat, tape wound, etc.)
  • Your fingers and how you are playing the instrument

Even with the priciest of hand-made basses, the builders are using fairly standard wood for the body (ash, maple, mahogany, etc.) and necks.

Some will acquire some prettier versions of these woods, but the aesthetics impact cost and don’t really change the tone.

If you want a super burled or spalted maple body or fretboard, it’s for the looks, not the tone. Maple is maple for the most part, tonally speaking.

Hope that answers your question!

Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to [email protected]. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

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Share your thoughts

  1. Jason

    I like ebony for fretless fingerboards. What would you recommend for neck and body wood?

  2. Tim

    Oh wow! I never knew that the colors had no effect on the tone! Thanks so much for the information! I can’t help but wonder how acrylic body basses compare in tone to those made of wood? Does anyone have one that can provide a description of its tone?

  3. Being the owner of many different basses, I totally agree Damian.