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Rosewood vs. Maple guitar fretboards

Fender American Original '50s Stratocaster

This is a case where there's definitely more than just two choices.

When it comes to all-maple necks, the first guitar that comes to mind for most people is the classic look of the Fender Stratocaster in Sunburst, such as the American Original '50s Stratocaster (seen above.) Squier also has a version of this classic look with their Classic Vibe '50s Stratocaster.

The other guitar that comes to mind right after that where all-maple necks are concerned is the classic Fender Telecaster with black guard in Butterscotch Blond finish. Fender's model that best captures this look is the American Original '50s Telecaster, and Squier once again also follows up with the Classic Vibe '50s Telecaster.

For the guitars I personally own, my Squier Bullet Telecaster has a maple neck with rosewood fingerboard and my Squier Vintage Modified '72 Telecaster Thinline has a 1-piece maple neck.

While true there are a handful of other brands such as Jackson, Charvel, Ibanez and so on that make guitars with all-maple necks, the lion's share of those you'll find will be either Fender or Squier. The vast majority of electrics otherwise use rosewood fingerboards, followed by ebony and pau ferro.

Two woods, 3 different types of feel

Maple when used as a fingerboard wood is always sealed to keep its color and prevent it from turning gray/green. How it's sealed affects how it feels to the fingers.

There are basically two types of maple fretboard feel, smooth and semi-smooth. And this 100% depends on how the board was finished. If it was finished in a high gloss polyurethane, the feel is smooth. If finished in a semi-gloss satin urethane, you get the semi-smooth feel.

On Squier guitars with all-maple necks, it's usually true the entire neck is sealed in a high gloss polyurethane. But with Fender guitars, it's a different story. Some guitars are finished in all high gloss, while others have semi-gloss on the back and high gloss on the fingerboard, and others with semi-gloss as the entire neck finish.

It is easy to tell the difference visually between high gloss and semi-gloss. High gloss finish will exhibit mirror-like reflectivity while semi-gloss will not.

As far as which finish feels better to the fingers, the answer is semi-gloss. The semi-smooth texture of the satin urethane finish is preferred by many players.

Where rosewood is concerned, the unsealed open grain feels "softest" to the fingers. When you run your finger along the board, it's easy to feel the grain, and for many this wood type feels best during play.

Which is the best?

The decision of which to go with depends on soft vs. smooth. The softer-feeling fingerboard wood is rosewood, the smoother-feeling wood is high gloss maple, and the one that sits in the middle is the semi-smooth satin finished maple.

I've personally owned all three, and the neck I think that works best is satin urethane finished maple back with rosewood fingerboard.

This is, by the way, why the cheap-as-dirt Squier Bullet Strat neck feels as good as it does, because it has the maple neck with satin urethane on the back and a rosewood board on the front.

There's only one problem with satin urethane finished maple. It looks a bit on the dull side, which is the nature of how the semi-gloss finish looks. The mirror shine of the high gloss definitely pops more. That, and tint color doesn't work with the semi-gloss that well. Several Fender and Squier models that use a high gloss maple finish are tinted for that orange-ish "warm" look, and it works - but it wouldn't if it were semi-gloss.

While I feel maple neck with semi-gloss satin urethane finish + rosewood fingerboard feels the best, I know full well that it doesn't look the best. And yeah, the look of a guitar is important.

My Bullet Tele has that maple/satin back + rosewood front, while my VM '72 Tele is all high gloss maple front + back. Each neck feels distinctively different from the other. I get a better feel off the Bullet neck, to be totally honest. But the VM '72 looks cooler.

I'm glad to own both so I can go with whatever neck I'm in the mood to play. 🙂

And what about nitrocellulose lacquer a.k.a. nitro for short? I hate it. Worst maple neck finish there is. Irritates my fret hand and feels sticky. Yes, through many hours of play, the nitro wears down and the neck starts feeling better. Screw that. I'm much happier not having to constantly subject my fret hand to skin irritation over a period of months just to get a correct-feeling neck.

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