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Alder vs Ash

Discussion in 'Basses [BG]' started by DinoRock, Feb 4, 2016.

  1. DinoRock


    Mar 26, 2015
    New York State
    I know what I like when I play it, yet I would like to understand why many/most basses are made of alder or ash and what the difference is.

    If you would, while I've played professionally at a very high end for a decade or more 40+ years ago, and now work semi-professionally, I have no knowledge of woods, construction (other than bolt on vs neck through), whatever. So, I'd appreciate at the start of this thread if you don't make assumptions just because I've been playing for a long time.

    This is just an idle curiosity issue for me as I use what I like. FYI, about 1/2 of my basses are Fender American. The other half range from Ric, to Aria, to Ibanez, and so on. Basses are as early as 1974 and as recent as 2015. I'm the original owner on almost all. I do also have two MIM Fenders.

    12BitSlab and Ian Perge like this.
  2. blmeier7

    blmeier7 Supporting Member

    May 7, 2006
    Amarillo, TX
    There are a lot of threads here on TB regarding this exact subject. I'd suggest a quick search and you'll find enough info to keep you busy reading for a few hours.

    Ash vs Alder - tone, weight, and appearance are the three characteristics that come to mind.
    DinoRock likes this.
  3. Bob_Ross

    Bob_Ross Gold Supporting Member

    Dec 29, 2012
    I suspect economics and/or availability are also important factors in why those two species are the most popular.
    Picton, AaronVonRock and blmeier7 like this.
  4. jallenbass

    jallenbass Supporting Member Commercial User

    May 17, 2005
    Bend, Oregon
    Leo calls a wood supplier: "I need a relatively inexpensive wood to build guitar bodies. What do you have?"

    Wood Salesman: "I got alder and swamp ash."

    Leo: "Good. Send me a truckload."
  5. AaronVonRock


    Feb 22, 2013
    According to the first Google search result for "Alder vs Ash for bass body", you are correct.
    "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."

    Tech Talk: Ash and Alder | Fender Tech Talk
  6. While the above are very well be true and at The Beginning players used whatever companies could purchase in quantity, that's not to say there aren't tonal differences between the two woods (as well as numerous others as time passed) and why by the '70s Ash-bodies Jazz Basses with the Bridge Pickup about 1/2" closer to the Bridge, giving a brighter tone and influencing Funk, Disco & Pop music until... well, still (how many smaller companies offer a "'70's Pickup Option" or larger ones a completely separate model of its own?...) Owning high-end Basses that use both Alder & Swamp Ash as their main body woods, I've used my ears, ears enhanced by reference-quality Headphones, and my own personal Likes & "Ehh's" (with these particular Basses I feel they're certainly no outright "dislikes" in my case, simply areas that might not match my personal tastes in "Standard Areas" 100% without an option to change things up ).

    My Custom/Customized Spector Euro Bolt-Ons 4s, 5s & Legend Classic 6-String Basses (Hipshot HB6Y "Y-Key" Ultralite Tuners, custom-wound, string-spaced & EMG 5 & 6-string cased Nordstrand "Big Single" Pickups & Aguilar OBP3-SK/PP Preamps, with one specific anomaly discussed below) aka "ReBop4/5 Dlx Fm & Ex" have Alder backs to both Flame Maple & Zebrawood tops, which I find are quite neutral and do a great job of letting the "tops" (which is an unfair term, as Spector has made the top woods so thick they are at least equal to, and in some case thicker than the "bottom wood"). In the Maple-topped I find a certain "sweetness"... a "pleasing resonance" in the upper mids and high-end, or however one would explain it in technical terms, which is quite apparent in my 5-string fretless. The Zebrawood-topped, likely explained by its higher density and/or mass has a much quicker initial attack and punchier tone. My Zebrawood 5-string is my main "Go-To Bass" for these reasons, but I wouldn't use it for slow tempo, ballad-type or Precision-needed songs (I have one of my Maple-topped Spectors set up with EMG40-P5 "Precision-in-EMG-Soapbar Casing" pickup and while not a spot-on P-Bass Tone, especially with the Maple-topped "softer" tonality it does a more-than-reasonable-facsimile of a Precision)

    My Mike Lull M4 & M5 "Modern" 21/24-fret, downsized bodies and Active/Passive Electronics: the M4 has Bartolini NTBT 2-band Preamp and Lindy Fralin hum-canceling pickups (which I never knew in the 7-8 years I've owned it until I called Mike Lull to ask about having some work done, and they pulled its build records and informed me - I would have laid money they were straight-up Single Coils until that moment.) The M5 has Bartolini NTMB 3-band Preamp with the 3-way Midrange Frequency switch incorporated into the newer "NTMB+" & Aero "J-Bass 5 Type 1" Single Coils that Mike only installed in "4 or 5 Basses" by his account as a Test Run: I've played my M5 vs standard Lull/Basslines pickups and the only difference I hear is a slightly muted high-end in the Aeros. In both Lull, made of 2-piece bodies of Swamp Ash and a fairly thin 1/8th+ Figured Maple top, they both have the prototypical "Swamp Ash J-Bass Tone" of intense low & high-end with a slightly muted midrange. I've played many a J-Bass, first when in the middle of my "Bass Midlife Crisis", having left my "Neck-Thru Hippy Sandwich Basses" behind and searching for a new direction, and then trying a multitude of J-Basses when I found that Bolt-On, Single-Coil Basses made of 1 body wood or 1 "with a kicker" to accentuate the main body (...as shown with my Spectors) and then finding the J-Bass that suit me the most in terms of Woods, Pickups & Preamps, String Spacing and all the little things that bond you to a Bass. I found mine in Mike Lull's Instruments, and while both they and my Spectors are Bolt-on Basses made from "mostly" one wood bodies & Maple Necks and using Single Coil pups with modern, Active Electronics, they both sound fairly different... certainly different enough that I feel strongly enough to own multiples of both models. So mainly it depends on the Bass and the tone/uses it's going for (which sounds like a huge cop-out at this point) but in general I prefer a quality piece of Alder as it's typically even across the tonal spectrum for 4-to-6 String Bass but also can be, to a certain degree, "malleable" by adding a top wood that has its own tonal qualities. But Swamp Ash certainly has it's own, great thing going on, which is why I imagine I'll always have Basses of each wood(s) in Active Use in My Bass Toolbox.

    ...although, I believe I'll have additional sonic information when my 40th Birthday Gift from my Better-Half, a Mike Lull PJ5-24 "being built as we speak" arrives in roughly 8 weeks: basically Mike's "Modern 5" downsized-and-24 fret Bass but front-routed with a custom "Wee Pickguard" and Control Plate to have the 24-frets, Modern Electronics & Hardware and playability in a somewhat vintage form. Especially mine, which will have a dual "J" and "P" neck route & EMG-type "Quik-Connect" wiring to allow swapping from its standard P/J setup to a J/J just as fast as Pickguards can be changed. This will allow me to put this Alder-based Bass up against my Swamp Ash & Flame Maple "Modern 5" and truly tell the similarities and differences.
    Last edited: Feb 4, 2016
    MobileHolmes likes this.
  7. taylor16


    Dec 25, 2012
    There are several other potentially more significant factors involved in tone: strings, pre-amp, amp, cab, pick vs fingers...
    El-Bob, 12BitSlab and AaronVonRock like this.
  8. MobileHolmes

    MobileHolmes I used to be BassoP

    Nov 4, 2006
    All else equal, swamp ash is going to have a little more high end pop to it, but all else is rarely equal
    Oleg BassPlayer, Picton and gebass6 like this.
  9. DinoRock


    Mar 26, 2015
    New York State
    Wow. Thank you for taking the time and giving me your in depth thoughts. Happy 40th! Sounds like it will be a good one :)
  10. lancimouspitt


    Dec 10, 2008
    dayton Ohio
    Alder has a grainy,more mid range dark ,tone.
    Ash is very bright with mild,smooth,lows......................:bag:
  11. StuartV

    StuartV Finally figuring out what I really like Supporting Member

    Jul 27, 2006
    Manassas, VA
    It's mostly been covered. Alder and ash were/are suitable (for making bass bodies), in terms of basic wood characteristics, like hardness, etc., easily available, and relatively cheap. That's the why.

    The difference is that one typically looks better when you can see the wood grain. Thus why you see so many basses that were available with either wood but one wood was used when the finish was translucent and the other wood was used when the finish was opaque.

    I speculate that the wood used for translucent finishes was a little more expensive (or perhaps just in shorter supply). I am pretty confident that if one of the two were prettier AND less expensive AND available in plentiful quantities, we would all be used to just one wood (as the main wood for higher quality bass bodies), instead of two.
    Picton and DinoRock like this.
  12. Double Agent

    Double Agent

    Mar 10, 2006
    Lakeland, FL
    I've liked all of my alder-bodied basses. I have not liked any of my ash-bodied basses with one exception (a Stingray5). I don't know how much of that can be chalked up to the body wood verses other factors. It also isn't to say that I wouldn't like ash basses besides the ones I've owned or that I would like every alder bass that is out there. Just that, generally, I've found alder basses work better for me. YMMV
    Arthur U. Poon likes this.
  13. bassbenj


    Aug 11, 2009
    Summary but no details.

    Tone: Alder has a rather nice rounded mellow tone which makes it very popular as a body wood. Ash has a harder brighter tone with an edge which is why I like it though for some things I like the mellow alder tone. Mahogany is my favorite (My alembic is mahogany) and the tone sort half way between alder and ash. Basswood is getting used more these days but in a passive bass it has a very rolled off kind of "foofy" tone in my opinion. In an active bass you can make it sound anyway you want (example bongo bass)

    Weight. Basswood is lightest (and softest so can dent easier) alder is light too but not as light as most ash. Ash can vary because swamp ash can be very light weight but many basses said to be made of swamp ash tend toward Northern Ash which is quite heavy. Note my ESP LTD 6 string in spalted maple over ash is over 12 pounds.

    Appearance. Ash wins hands down. Super nice grain that just kills. Alder has little grain and basswood might as well be ceiling tile. Of course if the bass has a fancy top then base wood really never shows except at the edges (like my ESP).

    I have a Squier PJ made of Agathis (a kind of pine) and while the tone seems OK, I really somehow don't like the feel of that bass. The key thing however is that variations in tone and "feel" of the bass from body wood are really quite minor in spite of the arguments in TB over them. Weight and wood grain appearance are probably the most obvious differences in body woods.
    Last edited: Feb 5, 2016
    DinoRock likes this.
  14. Arthur U. Poon

    Arthur U. Poon

    Jan 30, 2004
    SLC, Utah -USA-
    Endorsing Artist: Mike Lull Custom Basses
    Alder vs Ash is an often debated subject here on TB. Some folks say the woods used in the construction of an electric instrument have very little effect on it's tone, and believe the instrument's pickups, electronics, hardware, and strings have the greatest impact.

    While I respect their opinions, and I do agree these things do play a role in an instrument's tone, I personally believe the woods used in it's construction, and not just the body's wood, but also it's neck and fingerboard wood(s) also contribute to it's tone, -along with the player's hands/technique.

    I respect longtime builders Michael Tobias and Roger Sadowsky's opinions on how different species of woods affect the tone of an instrument. Both gentlemen view an electric instrument first and foremost as an acoustic instrument. I agree with this because the best sounding instruments I own, or have owned, all sound, or sounded, great unamplified.

    I also believe there's variances within the same species of a tone wood. I'll use the Fender Precision as an example: I've sat at a music store and tried 3 or 4 Precision's, all with alder bodies, maple necks with rosewood fingerboards, and found one out of the bunch that I liked the sound of best. I have no idea why.

    What I've found is for live playing I need a bass with a lot of midrange content in it's tone to be able to hear myself in the mix. Probably due to the fact I've lost a bit of my hearing due to many years playing and listening to loud music, -who knows, but I need strong mids. And as an older guy, most of my bass influences played 60's Fenders, which I believe, most had alder bodies. So, for whatever reason a Fender bass' tone is the easiest for me to hear live; maybe because my ears are most attuned to the Fender sound. Not by a wide margin, but I notice it.

    I've owned probably 25 to 30 basses over the years, and I've yet to have had a problem hearing the ones with alder bodies in a live mix. I've owned 5 or 6 basses with swamp ash bodies that always seemed to be harder for me to hear in a live mix, and I have to really hype the mids on my amp to be happy with their tone live.

    I own an Alembic with a mahogany body; it's super-audible in a live mix, but I won't discount Alembic's incredible electronics on it's tone. But my guess is a bolt-on bass with a mahogany body and maple neck would really work well for me live.

    I own a Rickenbacker and a Spector, both Neck-through instruments with maple bodies. Both of these basses seem to have slightly less bottom end when I play them live compared to my bolt-on basses with alder bodies. And my basses with swamp ash bodies seem to have the strongest lows of all my basses.

    Just my long-winded thoughts.
  15. Arthur U. Poon

    Arthur U. Poon

    Jan 30, 2004
    SLC, Utah -USA-
    Endorsing Artist: Mike Lull Custom Basses
    Same here in regards to basses with alder bodies.
  16. MobileHolmes

    MobileHolmes I used to be BassoP

    Nov 4, 2006
    I don't even know what my stingray is. It is black and made of "hardwood"
  17. Double Agent

    Double Agent

    Mar 10, 2006
    Lakeland, FL
    Mine was honeyburst. Being a transparent finish, it was pretty easy to tell it was ash. I think they have all been ash for a while now, but there was a time when they could have been ash, poplar, alder, or whatever else they had lying around. Gives the whole "wood doesn't matter" crown a bit more ammo since Rays have always been pretty consistent in quality and tone.
    MobileHolmes likes this.
  18. MobileHolmes

    MobileHolmes I used to be BassoP

    Nov 4, 2006
    Mine's a 95. It is awesome whatever it is made out of. Though I might be a little hurt inside if it is really poplar. I'd rather not know :)
  19. pablomigraine

    pablomigraine Commercial User

    Feb 9, 2005
    New York
    VP & Managing Director - Willcox Basses
    I've always preferred Northern HARD ASH versus Alder. To my ears (all other things being equal) hard Ash is snappier and more focused. Swamp Ash is a different animal entirely....
    Arthur U. Poon likes this.
  20. basslicks


    Dec 14, 2015
    I think since the subject of tone woods is so often debated, that in itself indicates that the differences between woods is very minimal when it comes to tone, otherwise there would be no debate!
    Oleg BassPlayer, JLY and DinoRock like this.

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