What Is Ebony?

Ebony is a hardwood that comes from various members of the Diospyros genus. It’s one of the densest woods around – so dense that it sinks in water – and has had multiple uses for thousands of years. In fact, ebony was even popular with the ancient Egyptians. In terms of applications, it has long been a popular material for ornamental use, chess pieces and personal jewellery. It also has a storied relationship with musical instruments. Over the years, ebony has been a fashionable choice for black piano keys, along with chinrests, tailpieces and tuning keys on traditional string instruments. But in musical instruments, ebony most commonly appears on fingerboards.

Ebony Variations

There are no fewer than ten different types of ebony, though only two – Macassar ebony and Gaboon ebony - are generally used on guitars. Both varieties are very hard and dense, although Macassar is the heavier of the two. Macassar also often has a striped appearance, while Gaboon ebony more commonly features the jet-black appearance that is synonymous with ebony.

How Is Ebony Used in Guitars?

The most frequent use for ebony in electric and acoustic guitars is for the fretboard. The wood’s natural hardness, density, oiliness, and classic dark appearance make it an excellent choice. In addition, ebony is an option for bridges and headstock overlays on acoustic and semi-acoustic models.

Ebony is not generally seen elsewhere in guitars. It’s relatively brittle, so not suitable for use as a neck. Additionally, its high density means it’s too heavy for solid guitar bodies. It is, however, occasionally used in the construction of acoustic guitar bodies, whether on the top, back or sides, along with hollow-body electric guitars.

Is Ebony Easy to Work With?

Ebony is regarded as one of the harder woods to work with. Its density means cutting and drilling are challenging, dulling tools quicker than softer woods. The wood’s oiliness can cause problems when glueing, while its brittleness means that bending it can also be problematic.

Is Ebony a Good Wood for Guitars?

While rosewood is perhaps still the most popular fretboard choice, ebony is favoured by many. It offers a bright and snappy sound, somewhat like maple, with excellent articulation and separation of notes. However, ebony also retains some of rosewood’s warmth and mid-range qualities. In addition, it has an attractive, dark appearance that is more akin to rosewood than creamier maple. Many therefore consider ebony to fit in between rosewood and maple, offering some of the advantages of both woods. Ebony is also even harder than rosewood, giving it more resistance to marking.

Is Ebony Sustainable?

Ebony is, unfortunately, not the most sustainable of wood options. The trees of the Diospyros genus are relatively small and slow growing, some taking as many as 200 years to reach maturity. They’re also susceptible to over-harvesting, illegal logging, and loss of natural habitat, further damaging their sustainability.

Some ebony varieties are more affected than others. However, neither of the types commonly used in guitar making can really be called sustainable. While Macassar ebony isn’t on the CITES list, it does appear as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List due to losing over 20% of its population over the past three generations. Meanwhile, having lost over 50% of its population in the same period, Gaboon Ebony appears as vulnerable on the Red List and is also on the CITES list.

Are Ebony Fretboards Durable?

When properly maintained, ebony is very durable. Its high density and hardness mean that it offers excellent wear resistance and is unlikely to damage easily. It also has excellent resistance to fungus, insects, and wood rot.

Ebony is, however, known as a brittle wood, which can warp or crack if it dries out or is subject to significant changes in temperature or humidity. It’s essential to correctly store and maintain a guitar that features ebony in its construction.

Are Ebony Fretboards Easy to Maintain?

Thankfully, in most cases, it’s easy enough to avoid damage by simply following good guitar-keeping practice. If your guitar has ebony parts, it’s even more crucial to keep it at a stable temperature and humidity, and it’s always wise to store it in a bag when not in use. As ebony fretboards are unfinished, you’ll also want to apply a small amount of oil every six months or so to avoid it drying out and cracking. While there’s some debate over which oils are safe to use, there are plenty of good quality, guitar-specific offerings to choose from.

What Are the Pros and Cons of Ebony?

Excellent hardnessMore expensive than other options
DenseProper maintenance/storage is essential to avoid damage
Striking appearanceCan be brittle
Great articulationQuestions over sustainability
Bright sound
Incredible resistance to wear

Ebony Alternatives

Ebony is one of the three most popular fretboard woods, which all have their strengths and weaknesses. If you prefer a lighter-coloured fretboard or want an even brighter sound, then maple is your friend. Alternatively, for a warmer, mid-range twang, go rosewood.

There are also choices to be considered if sustainability is a concern, such as pau ferro, laurel, or even engineered materials like Richlite.

Find Your Ebony Guitar

If you think an ebony fretboard or acoustic guitar body is the one for you, it’s time to start searching for your new axe! Use our Finder tool to enter your search parameters and pick out your perfect guitar.