The Undeniable Fact About The “Cheap” Wood

There’s a “B” word that when mentioned puts the thought of “Eww!” into many bass player’s heads, and that word is basswood.

Why the “Eww”? Mainly because it’s such a common wood material used for guitar body building these days. And, of course, that means that it’s everywhere, including the cheap bass guitars as well as some expensive ones.

As a tonewood, basswood is considered by most players to be “okay”. Not necessarily bad and not necessarily good. Just “okay”.

You’ll notice that on pricier models by some major manufacturers that if the body material is in fact basswood, it’s barely mentioned or sometimes not mentioned at all. And that’s simply for the reason the “B” word for many means “cheap”, even though on expensive models that’s not the case at all. Yes, the body material on its own is inexpensive, but if there’s a lot of good craftsmanship around it, that justifies the higher cost for an upper-end model.

An example of “cheap wood, good craftsmanship” are some Japanese Fender Reissue bass guitars, several of which do in fact have basswood bodies. And Fender guitars made in Japan are known to be of good build quality, generally speaking.

There is however one undeniable fact about a basswood-bodied guitar that most people gloss over:

It’s weighted very well.

The one complaint you never hear about basswood is “it’s too heavy” or “it’s too light” concerning its weight when playing a basswood-bodied guitar sitting or standing.

The weight of basswood is very close to alder (also considered to be a very good choice, weight-wise), and for Fender-like builds, you can say “Eww!” to basswood all you want, but nobody can argue the “just right” weight of it when constructing standard body shapes.

Does weight truly matter that much?

You’re darned right it does.

What players like for body weights is something that for all intents and purposes feels like a natural extension of the player – with no neck dive, thank you very much. And it just so happens that basswood really fits the bill there.

Many of you have at some point probably played an exotic bass or two (meaning exotic woods were used). And with the exotics, a very common complaint is that the instrument is either too heavy or too light. Yeah, it’s got the picture-perfect craftsmanship, perfect frets, perfect sound and perfect everything… except for that darned weight.

Here’s what happens with weights that don’t agree with you:

If the instrument is too heavy, the moment you stand with the instrument strapped on, you really feel the pull of the strap. That bothers you, and no matter what alternative strap you try (maybe the thicker/wider variety made of leather?), you feel that pull on the shoulder and there’s really nothing you can do about it.

If the instrument is too light, you either get “body slap” (the body pulls away and then slaps the body as you play the instrument), and/or whenever you turn while playing the instrument standing, the bottom of the body lifts away from you (which is very annoying).

Believe me, it’s a true disappointment when you strap on a $4,000 bass that was made with ultra-exotic wood materials only to find that no amount craftsmanship can fix a weight problem once the instrument is completed.

Not once have I ever heard any player complain about basswood concerning its weight. There’s just something about it that feels “just right”.

A few quick tips to those thinking of putting together a budget-build basswood-bodied bass guitar

1. Use a solid-color or “heavy sunburst” finish

You’re not going to get those cool grain lines out of basswood compared to other wood species, so going for a natural finish isn’t recommended. Stick to solid colors or a heavy sunburst (meaning a thick black outline with decidedly darker hues near the middle).

2. Know that basswood dents easily

This is one of the major complaints of basswood. The only advantage to an easy-dent wood is that it does make for an easy “relic” job, but chances are that’s probably not your style. When applying your finish, yes you are better off spraying on a few more coats to accommodate for the softer nature of basswood. While that won’t prevent denting, it at least slows it down.

(Tip: An advantage of the softer nature of basswood is that installing things like bridges and preamps that sometimes require wood removal will be easier to install.)

3. Flat finishes work very well on basswood

Many players like a super-glossy finish, but if you ever wanted to try your hand at a flat finish, basswood works very well here. Being that the grain is a bit “flat-looking” to begin with, you can get that super-smooth flat look with a basswood body fairly easily.

With flat finishes, colors that work well are charcoal (dark gray with hint of blue), “deep sea blue” (same as charcoal with more blue in it and a small amount of green), brown (slightly darker than the color of a walnut), dark pastel green (yes there is such a thing), and so on.

Of course, you don’t have to go totally flat. You can do your flat finish and then add on a light gloss so the body has some sheen to it.

Yes, basswood may not be the premier tonewood of choice and it may dent easy – but the weight is great and you can experiment with finish types that you wouldn’t ordinarily try on other wood species. So before you say “Eww!” again to basswood, give it a try in your next build. You may really like the result.

35 thoughts on “The Undeniable Fact About The “Cheap” Wood

  1. Basswood makes for good drum shells as well. For sets under $1000 they hold up well & sound pretty good. Usually you find better hardware on basswood sets because the wood is cheap. Taye uses, or use to, use basswood.

  2. The only problem I have with basswood is the denting. A while back I got a cheap Rogue five string, and despite the price it was actually pretty good looking and played and sounded just fine. Then a few months later I decided to sell it and it already had a bunch of dents in it, while my Fender jazz, which was a couple of years old at that point, didn’t really have any.

  3. I’ve played a few basses made from basswood, and don’t have any issues with it. For me, the “A” word makes me go “Eww” – Agathis. It just seems to be a tone-dead wood, to me.

  4. Almost all the MusicMan instruments are made of basswood, despite price range. Low end Squiers are made from Agathis, which is far worse in my opinion.

  5. I’m an unlikely advocate for basswood. Great weight, “okay” tone. The tone is somewhere between the warmth of mahogany and the “pop” of alder. Good tone for what it is, but not my particular taste. That said, “agathis” makes my stomach turn in knots. Just hearing a bass made of agathis makes me feel sick (and yes, I really can tell the difference). As for basswood, I give it a B+; solid possibility for me.

  6. Richie Kotzen’s newest signature guitar (the black one, not the sunburst) is a high quality guitar made of Basswood. It’s weight is perfect!… great tone and playable.

  7. I have a peavey millenium made of basswood and it feels great, with the right EQ and a compressor i do whatever i want with it’s tone. It feels about right in everything. Agathis depends on the hardware, i had a squier mb4 and it sounded crappy, i have now a vintage modified ’77 with babicz bridge, schaller tuners and EMG JVX pickups and sounds amazing, classic like and a bit more gain and turns modern like. So there are expensive woods and cheap woods, none will sound great if the hardware is crappy, also, the hardware must go accordingly with the wood, as in, a heavy wood, as mahogany, use brighter pickups as the low-end will always be given by the wood, basswood use more hi-fi pickups as active and will boost low-end and hi-end freqs which will increase the possibilities of the bass tone. But this is my opinion and the way i see the bass build, all is relative.

  8. Basswood is a type of Lime or Linden (in German) – perhaps it needs ‘re-branding? popular with cheap makers as its very easy to machine and finish – being a little softer than Alder or Ash – hence also popular with High-end makers as they can create exotic shapes (and toilet seats – Bongo fans) easily without wearing out the milling machine!! Never had a problem with a Basswood bass.

  9. To me the biggest problem with Basswood is that its very light density not only allows it to dent easily, and for screws to strip in it but its the tonality isn’t there. The low density causes it to over emphasize the low frequencies and you almost never get a full, well rounded, articulated note from it. It is like taking swamp Ash one step Swampier. As a builder I stay away from it. I believe the better choices are Walnut, Mahogany, Alder and Cherry. That s just my opinion but it seems to be substantiated from years of building and evaluating different body wood choices.

    But, having said that, Basswood is fine for an introductory level instrument.

    • You hit the nail in the head! I share the exact same sentiment. All this talk about basswood, its physical characteristics are inferior to other woods. Easy to get screws in because its lets dense? Sure is, just remember its also easier for them to get loose in time too especially where the neck meets the body. I dont think there will be many 50 or 40 year old basswood bass guitars around in the future eheh

  10. The truth about wood used in solid core guitar bodies is that it has very little to no effect on the tone of the guitar. “Tonewoods” are used my manufacturers and builders to increase cost and thus profits. It is a big marketing tool used to lure in those who don’t know.

    • Remember that all guitars, even solid bodies are acoustic until you plug them in. Tonewoods change the acoustic tone of the instrument greatly. If you play on a pure clean channel you can hear the difference. Although, once you plug in effects, you can bolt your neck to a piece of 2×4 and it wont matter (ive done it)

    • Bravo, I’ve always been of this opinion as well. In an acoustic guitar, yes, tonewoods are a very real deal. In electrics, the electrical components themselves will have a lot more to do with tone, IMHO, than the body.

    • Sorry, but you are wrong. Basswood (unplugged and amplified) sounds different to alder and mahogany. I had two of the same Ibanez guitars. Both had the same hardware and pickups and basswood bodies. One of the guitars was significantly heavier than the other. The frequencies of the heavier guitar were shifted to the bottom range with heaps of bass and lower mids while the lighter guitar had less bass. The lighter basswood body sounded more like alder whereas the heavier basswood guitar sounded more like mahogany, if I may use this as an example. Even among my alder strats, there is a clear and audible tonal difference that effect where the frequencies lie.

    • ah you’re another clueless conspiracy theorist…prob got that from nutjob scott grove idiot on YT. you and he prob believe in aliens and flat earth too. weirdos.

  11. I own two MTD bass guitars both of which are bass wood (Artist and CRB). Mike Tobias is known for his commitment to quality, even his overseas models.

  12. One of the good things about basswood is that it has not been oversold as a commercial timber, so builders can still buy decent planks of the stuff. While we’re at it, we could also mention willow, tulip, and poplar, which also get slammed unfairly. All these woods if harvested, sawn, and dried properly, make good bass body material. We have to remember that alder was originally just another west coast paint grade species that happened to be cheap and plentiful when Fender started procuring it. I think we got a bit lucky when it proved to be a decent tonewood (and today’s alder is not the same as the alder of 50-60 years ago)

    • Exactly – alder (my personal favorite) was a staple for furniture as well. Just as long as they don’t start making Ikea basses of particle board next! 😉

  13. I made a bass (P-style 5 string, with EMGs) that has a flame maple top over basswood. Great combination of weight and tone!

  14. If I were to use Basswood, (which I haven’t yet) a clear epoxy varnish would be the first layer of the finish I would go with. It would help to resist, at least, light denting.
    One softer wood that I do build with is Poplar. (mainly for body-backs, under Maple) It’s often priced lower than Basswood. Has similar properties, both in hardness and workability and tonally as well. It at least has a grain texture to look at (if you ignore the ugly green tinges) and when finished in a sunburst or a coloured tint, can look alright. Murph Guitars used Poplar for bodies in the mid-1960s.
    I’m about to experiment with Silver Maple and Manitoba Maple in the search for the perfect body wood.

  15. I’ll likely earn some “hates”with this, but Think basswood is awful stuff in general. It may sound “okay” to some people “with some help,” like great electronics, great bridge, etc. (MusicMan,etc.), but it seems more common, as with many Ibanez basses, the resonance is just not there to me! Mind you, I’m not exactly a “top shelf bass” kind of guy; my Laklands are both swamp ash. It may be somewhat “unrelated,” but in the 1990s, I worked for a company that manufactured indoor wooden window shutters. I remember the various lumber we used and the various results achieved with solid finishes vs. stains. The cheapest wood we used for the louvers was basswood; it was used only with solid finishes. It was so soft that if the wind blew just the right way, it dented! We used to refer to basswood as “popsicle stick lumber.” I recall how snapping a rubberband against it produced a horrible tone! (It also dented it!) I’d generally agree with your comments about basswood. I never really considered the weight or balance thing. I once owned an Early Ibanez BTB series 5-string bolt-on with quilted maple top and Bartolini soap bars. I thought the Barts and my SR2000s sort of “made up” for the softer resonance, but my ash 55-01 was light years ahead! The BTBs have a decent body size for a bass, unlike those tiny Soundgears (yuck). Basswood is something I’ll tend to avoid! But to each his/her own! Thanks for the informative articles!

  16. I had a 62 Precision bass in the early 70’s and by chance it had a basswood body, and it sounded amazing, classic P sound, I used to get comments all the time about it, like ” I recognized that sound as soon as I walked in the door”. I was the classic sound. Eventually the pickup needed to be replaced and I put an aftermarket pickup in, but it changed the dynamic, and that coupled with my seemingly unsatiable desire for the “perfect” bass I moved on.
    I wish I still had it, it was a classic.

  17. I have an old Tom Anderson body made of basswood. When it was a whole bass, the sound was a tad brittle. That said, I am researching some theories, and have come up with the idea of using a thinned out wood petrifier to penetrate the unfinished body. Seal it with one coat of enviro tech lite after painting, and use brass as high mass nodal points to carry string energy— the brass is an old and well traveled idea, proven by many companies– perhaps a sustain block minimizing string contact to the wood. Use solid tuning gears with a taut ratio- etc. would add less then a pound to the weight of a home- brewed bass, and increase string energy. Simple.

    • I also have a Tom Anderson body, and have thought about how to make a new build out of it/– it was originally an Anderson – with a kubicki ” flame top ” neck— sold the neck ages ago, the shape ( too flat ) gave me wrist problems. If I do recall, the thing sounded brittle

  18. Love my 2003 (first year build) Bongo 4H with a basswood body. could care less about the wood, my ears are happy.

  19. People have funny ideas about some wood. They don’t like basswood, but they like swamp ash, even though they sound pretty much the same. But basswood is not attractive. Poplar is another similar wood, and sounds great. Tp the guy that doesn’t like the Ibanez SR basses, I have an ’87 SR-885LE made from basswood, and it’s a great sounding bass… once I changed the electronics.

    Now you may wonder why basswood? It’s not because it’s cheap. Back in the mid 80s I worked for American Showster guitars, and they made a guitar that looked like the tail fin on a ’57 Chevy. They were made from basswood. The reason for that choice of wood is that the guy who did the original hand carved body chose it because it’s often use for carving. It has no grain, much like mahogany, so wood carvers like it. Duck decoys where made from basswood. it’s also light, and the body on that guitar was kind of large.

    It gave those guitars a unique tone, and soon Ibanez copied several features from them, such as the basswood body and teardrop cross section, and all of a sudden basswood was a common and popular wood for instruments back in the 80s.

    Light weight woods have a warm tone. I like alder better, but it’s not a bad sounding wood, and it doesn’t reqier all the pore filling as with swamp (pumpkin) ash.

    To the guy with the ’62 P bass… no, it’s alder. No one used basswood until the mid 80s, after Showster used it. Fender used alder for all their painted bodies, and most sunbursts. They used hard white ash for natural bodies in the 70s. Those are very heavy.

  20. Most light wood;for Bass Bodies like ash or basswood ,they will dent and scratch easy.I always put a flat oil finish on these soft woos because,all you have to do if you scratch or dent your Bass is;sand and re-oil Simple.You never have to worry because they touch up very easy.Many builders say the sound of the wood us better because you are not filling the pours of the wood up .

  21. Weight is by far the most important consideration. I’ve got a lovely Teardrop six-string, great P-90’s, sounds wonderful, plays beautifully, but … it’s neck-heavy. I usually reach for my cheapie Saga kit Strat first. And “tonewood” isn’t even a consideration in any electric guitar. On an acoustic, yes, very much so. On anything electric, it’s far more dependent on the electrics — which can, and have, been put in bodies made of clear plexiglass, cigar boxes, and probably bedpans, for all I know. And there are all manner of cool finishes you can do for plain-jane woods, like he dipped swirl finish for example.

  22. Basswood sounds great, there is no question. Just ask Eddie Van Halen, whom prefers it. Many great guitars are made of it. Problem is that it is a common wood, which means it is not expensive. So some builders will have to use another wood just to rationalize a higher price. Especially if the bass or guitar has a standard machine made body and OEM parts bolted on. How else can you justify adding another $500?

    It is a soft wood, but I would rather have a guitar that resonates nicely, and sounds good, than one with rock hard wood that sustains a bad tone for longer. Let’s be honest: you don’t buy a guitar wood for the chance you will drop the guitar one day, you buy it for the tone.

    Basswood has never been called a bad sounding tone wood by luthiers, as it resonates well. The harder exotic woods tend to have odd tonal characteristics. Indonesian rosewood is the worst, as in Canada the dry climate cracks and splits the wood, even though it is more dense. Swamp ash is a label applied to the ash industry when old-growth timbre started getting expensive, and someone wanted to sell water-logged stumps instead of leaving them in the swamp after cutting. Just go look at timbre prices, and you’ll see it was an inferior ash quality by price. Northern ash is nice, decent hardness and a tougher wood than basswood, but sounds very, very similar. Those and alder are the 1/2/3 common choices, and to my ears, sound similar (played bass for 30 years now).

    Ibanez came to prominence with their basswood body guitars in the 80s, and the Japanese Fender Aerodyne with basswood replaced my Gibson TB 5 with Mahogony. I use a Kenneth Lawrence Associate with Alder body capped by figured maple, with a Quebec Hard Rock Maple neck and 100 year old Brazilian rosewood fretboard. The Basswood Fender Aerodyne is a keeper to my ears.

  23. what about acrylic bodies. ampeg made acrylic basses and guitars in the early 70s and they sounded great, and command high collector prices. jeff baxter has a couple of acrylic strats he used with doobies, and has used them to play on many other recordings. heavy slabs of plastic,. tone woods?

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