Maple vs. mahogany electric guitar necks
Is maple (like the one pictured above) better than mahogany or is the reverse true? Let's find out.
When guitarists debate maple vs. mahogany, generally speaking they're referring to Fender vs. Gibson, as most Fender electrics use necks made of maple and most Gibson electrics use necks made of mahogany.
That being said, let's get this out of the way first:
"They don't make 'em like they used to."
Fact or Fiction? FACT.
But it's why that counts here.
Where Gibson electrics are concerned, the necks used to be made of Honduran mahogany. Gibson doesn't use that species of wood anymore and hasn't for a long time now. The current wood type they use is African mahogany.
What this means is that Gibson literally cannot build 'em like they used to because there's no way to do it. The Honduran mahogany supply was depleted and Gibson had to go elsewhere to get another mahogany type similar to the Honduran stuff. They did, and that's what is used to make them now.
Where Fender electrics are concerned, the maple they use today is basically the same as it was years ago - with one rather important exception. The vast majority of Fender electrics made now use flatsawn maple instead of quartersawn. Why? Because flatsawn boards are far cheaper to source. You can visually see the difference just by looking. With quartersawn you will see the straight grain lines on the back of the neck (in the direction of headstock/pegboard-to-heel,) whereas with most flatsawn boards you won't. Why "most?" Because some flatsawn boards come from the middle of the log and those will have straight grain lines; this is why some Squier guitars do in fact have straight grain on the neck.
Fender does offer certain guitars with quartersawn boards, such as the Eric Johnson Stratocaster model. That neck type is considered a premium option, and it is because it costs more to source.
Gibson had to get a different mahogany source. Fender decided to use a cheaper way of getting maple. The end result is that it is totally true that both Fender and Gibson don't build like they used to. This is not to say they build bad guitars. But it is to say that the way both companies source wood has changed significantly.
Maple is harder. Mahogany is softer. How does that affect your guitar?
In the world of woodworking, there's this thing called the Janka hardness test; this is a test to determine how resistant a species of wood is to denting and general wear and tear. Obviously, some woods are harder than others.
Honduran mahogany has a Janka hardness rating of 800. African mahogany of the Khaya variety is slightly harder at 845. The type used on Gibson guitars is most likely the Khaya type, or a species close to it that has a hardness between 800 and 900.
Hard North American Maple has a hardness of 1450. There is also ivory maple with a hardness of 1500, and soft maple with a hardness of about 1000.
What does all this mean to you?
It means that the guitar string tension when tuned to pitch is different between maple and mahogany guitar necks, and it also means maple will require less periodic truss rod adjustment while mahogany will require truss rod adjustment more often.
Where new string installations are concerned, some guitarists state to not play the guitar until a new set of strings has been on the instrument for 24 hours. Some even say to only change one string at a time so no significant tension on the neck is lost while performing a string change.
Do you need to follow this advice? You can if you wish. I don't recommend doing the one-string-at-a-time thing, solely for the reason that you'll never be able to clean your fretboard properly by doing that. At some point, you're going to have to take off all the strings to get all your finger grime off the fretboard. It doesn't matter how many times you wash your hands before playing, because the grime will get in there and it does have to be cleaned out periodically.
With hard maple necks, you can get away with a lot more compared to mahogany. Maple is harder and ordinarily doesn't require anywhere near the same amount of settling time that mahogany does. Maple allows to slap on a new set of strings, stretch, and in minutes you're ready-to-play instead of waiting for the wood to settle back into its proper bowed shape.
How does this apply to vintage electric guitars?
Over time, when a guitar neck is flexed back and forth enough, it gets to the point where strings, even for brand new ones, won't stay in tune anymore. The mahogany neck will be the first to become unplayable because it will flex out too much. The maple neck will have a different problem as it will be very difficult to get a truss rod turn out of it without a loud CRACK, possibly cracking the neck in the process.
If you have a vintage electric, see a luthier and have him perform neck stress tests. Trust me, he knows what he's doing. And he'll be honest with you as to whether the instrument is still playable or not.
If it's decided the instrument isn't playable, keep it for showpiece reasons, or sell the thing. (I suggest selling it, because what's the point of owning the vintage electric if you can't play it?)
Which is the easier of the two to live with?
Mahogany-neck guitars are more prone to having "off days." What this means is that you'll pick up the guitar and for some reason it just plays awful that day. But then on the next day, like magic, it starts playing wonderfully again.
What happened there? Probably a significant shift in the humidity in the air (like a rainstorm) that caused the neck to bow in a way that made your guitar buzz all over the place. The next day, the weather returned to normal, and as such, your guitar played normally again.
Maple typically handles humidity shifts better because it won't "flex out" as much. It still will flex, make no mistake about that, but not so much to the point where the whole guitar plays like crap and you have to wait a day until you can play it again.
Which is the better of the two for stage use?
Easy answer here: Maple.
The best for stage use is the quartersawn maple neck - if you can get along with its playing characteristics. The next best thing is a neck made from aluminum or carbon fiber.
Is there a sound difference between the two?
The only thing the neck material does on a solid-body guitar concerning how it sounds is how much it affects the string tension. Strings that are tighter at pitch sound different than strings that are looser at pitch.
This is how I can answer this question:
Does neck wood itself affect the tone? No.
Does the string tension at pitch affect the tone? Yes.
Does scale length affect the tone? Yes (shorter scale = looser string tension at pitch).
The point is that neck material, on its own, doesn't affect the sound for one simple reason. It's not where the pickups are.
You can hem and haw all day about "warmth" (a stupid argument because sound is not defined by temperature) and "sustain" (also a stupid argument because nobody needs a 13-second note decay.) But at the end of it all, it's the string tension at pitch and scale length that are things that actually affect the sound in a way that you can hear when it comes to comparing one electric guitar neck material to another.
On a final note, am I saying not to buy guitars that have a neck made of mahogany? No. What I am saying is that it's good to know mahogany's particular quirks, and that generally speaking, maple-necked electrics are easier to deal with.