What is Alder?

Finally, another Tonewood Post! These are some of my favorites to do as I am certain to learn some new stuff along the way.  So, what is Alder? Alder is a lovely tonewood for several reasons. From being easy to work with from a manufacturing standpoint to taking a finish incredibly well, to being able to run the tonal gamut depending on what pickups you have installed in the guitar,  Alder is Vanilla. And Vanilla is awesome because you can add whatever you want to it to make it even more awesome-er!

This is what a Red Alder Tree looks like
Looks like Birch, huh? Well, they are related!


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Nerd Stuff:
  • Scientific Name: Alnus Rubra
  • Other Names and Species: Red Alder, Western Red Alder, Black Alder or, European Alder
  • Alder is harvested most often from the Pacific Northwest region of the United States.
  • Of all the hardwoods harvested from this area, Alder is the most abundantly available.
  • Alder is one of the softest hardwoods coming in at 590 on the Janka Hardness Scale, a bit harder than Pine (380-420) and Poplar (540). Some call it a semi-hardwood or the softest hardwood.
  • It has a bending strength of 9800 PSI which makes it rather pliable (bendable) for its hardness ranking.
  • Alder is also used for bedding, cabinetry, and other decorative furniture.
  • Alder Trees grow quickly. It is more economical and "Green" than many other tonewoods like Swamp Ash.


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Visually:

One of the reasons this wood makes so much sense for solid body guitars is because it has an 83% Clear Face Percentage which means the majority of the wood is clean and clear enough for it to be used. Also, a wood such as Ash requires its grain to be filled to get a smooth, glass-like finish on it. Alder does not need filler. Skipping this step saves time and money, and finishing it is much easier than the other softer woods commonly associated with guitar building... Assuming you don't scratch it while working on it! Since it is a softer hardwood, it can be scratched with too much pressure.

A clear piece of Alder was used on this Fender Custom Shop 1959 Strat
Part of the Clear Face Club, this Custom Shop 59 is blemish-free!



Alder can appear grain-free in some pieces and other pieces will have visual grain structure that mimics Ash, Pine, and a few other species. Straight grain and cathedral are often seen in the more "interesting" pieces. Knotty and Spalted Alder up the ante in the looks department.

Grainy Alder on a Fender Vintera Jazzmaster
Eye Spy Cathedral Grain on the center stripe of this Alder Body!

 

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Historical Significance:

Alder is most commonly associated with Fender Solid Body Guitars, in particular with Strats and Tele starting in 1956. There is no staple Gibson Guitar made with Alder but many Bolt-On Neck Manufacturers still use this wood most often.

Fender began using Alder sometime in 1956. Not because CLF (Clarence Leo Fender, people, c'mon!) wanted to change the tonality of the guitar. It was just... available and affordable, more so than Swamp Ash. So he made the switch and now the majority of Fender Guitars are made with Alder.

When did Fender switch to Alder? Just ask google!
Google knows everything!

 

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Random Interesting Observations:

  • Lightweight pieces of Alder are still a few ounces heavier than lightweight swamp ash.
  • If you want that blank canvas appearance under a sunburst finish, Alder is the way to go.
  • The Three Tone Sunburst is most commonly associated with Alder while the Two-Tone Sunburst is most commonly associated with Ash.
  • Alder is often painted Opaque colors since there is not much grain to appreciate.

 

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Hearsay, Conjecture, and Opinion:

Because (the average piece of) Ash is harder than (the average piece of) Alder, it tends to produce a brighter and more biting sound than Alder. I find Ash to be more pleasant for playing Clean, with no gain or overdrive. However, once overdrive or gain creeps in, I make the switch to Alder since it is less bright, punchier, and presents a more musical mid-range to my ears.

My preference has been Strats with Alder, Teles with Ash. When you have an Ash Body, a Tremolo with steel components, and a maple neck you have an exceptionally bright guitar on your hands, with the potential for getting ice-picky. If you want to play rock on a Tele, an Alder body and Rosewood Fingerboard will take the edge off or warm things up. Since a Tele is the best guitar ever, it's worth owning one of each. You're under the Opinion Section of this post, just a reminder :)

I was able to make an Alder Bodied Strat I owned a fabulous Clean-Machine by adding an F-U Tone Brass Tremolo Block along with Brass Saddles from Glendale.  It added sweetness and a bell-like top end along with sustain like you were holding the pedal down on a piano! Again, Alder = Malleable!

 

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While Alder doesn't have the Vibe of Swamp Ash ( the "it's hard to get/expensive/endangered so I want it" thing... cue Brazilian Rosewood), that doesn't discount its ranking in the world of Solid Body Guitars. Which, for the record is 1st, 2nd, or 3rd depending on who you are talking with and whether they choose fact or opinion as their basis for argument, lol.

With Swamp Ash usage being culled, we will see substitutes like Pine and Basswood creep into the mix more often but Alder will continue to reign supreme do to its abundance, ease of workability, and affordability. 

This edition of Matt's Blog was penned by 51st Ward Alder-man Mathew Jenkins.


2 comments

  • The 3 top/body woods I see used most are alder; maple/mahogany and ash. It is easy to stereotype these woods but really each wood varies by instrument; and sometimes it varies materially. In and out of that “range.”

    The write up was extremely educational (especially the tele being the best!) and just wanted to say thanks for writing that up. Learned a lot. Thanks!

    DaveJ
  • Alder is like light beer in that it’s pretty universally popular because it’s pretty much universally great sounding. But not light beer like “lite” beer, light as in the classic and delightful German “helles” which is light in color but full and deep in flavor and universal in appeal because it is universally delicious. Excellent prost! …I mean post.

    Dave

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