TNAG Connoisseur, Tonewoods
Tonewood Tours: Rosewood
Connoisseur recruited some of the finest guitar builders alive to tour the globe and assess the tonewoods our planet offers for makers and players alike. Today's journey explores somewhat familiar, yet increasingly scarce, territory: rosewood.
Several factors contribute to rosewood’s supremacy among woods used in guitar making over the past two centuries or so—tone, beauty, tradition—and in many ways these have converged to create yet another factor, scarcity, that has also helped to make this the premium wood for use in high-end guitars. To some extent, the situation surrounding rosewood supplies would almost seem to have set up a circular argument for this species: we want to use it because it’s considered desirable, and it’s considered desirable because we want to use it. Even so, many of the world’s finest luthiers will tell you that there are many very real, empirical reasons that rosewood has become so highly prized, and will likely be even more so as supplies of the best quality wood become scarcer.
Rosewood is the common name given to a wide variety of species within the Dalbergia genus, which includes small to medium-sized trees and shrubs of Central and South America, Africa, and Southern Asia. As Rory Dowling of Taran Guitars in Scotland, UK, puts it, “When I think about the Rosewood family, I think of a group of very different woods with the same last name. It’s multiple genres tied into one, if you like.”
Among those used in guitar making, Indian (aka East Indian) Rosewood (Dalbergia latifolia) is by far the most commonly available today, while makers also turn to Madagascar rosewood (Dalbergia baronii), Laotian rosewood (Dalbergia lanceolaria), Bois de rose (Dalbergia maritima, also from Madagascar), African blackwood (Dalbergia melanoxylon), Cocobolo (Dalbergia retusa), Amazon rosewood (Dalbergia spruceana), and the most desirable of all of the species, Brazilian rosewood (Dalbergia nigra), as well as other exotic and lesser-seen varieties.
“There are a lot of Dalbergias,” says Richard Hoover, founder and proprietor of Santa Cruz Guitar Company, “and unfortunately there’s also some hybridizations between specific ones. There are a lot of rosewoods that come out of South America, and some I couldn’t even identify, even experts couldn’t identify, because of hybridization. But the real tried-and-true Dalbergia negra, Brazilian rosewood, is pretty straightforward to identify, and that’s one that we use a lot. And we do also use cocobolo, Indian rosewood, and we use some of the variants of other South American rosewoods as well.”
There probably isn’t a guitar connoisseur out there who isn’t aware of Brazilian rosewood’s desirability, as well as the hassle and expense involved in its acquisition and use these past several decades thanks to worldwide restrictions imposed by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), where its use faces more stringent regulations than other species of rosewood that are also CITES-listed. Aside from the age-old laws of supply and demand, then, what is it that makes this species so highly prized?
“In its natural growth state, its density is such that it imparts a clarity of tone to the guitar,” says Hoover, “and when I say ‘tone,’ I’m talking about the scale of bright to dark, not EQ, which is bass to treble. Brazilian rosewood can be articulate. It can be really slatey when you find it on old classical guitars or old wood inventories. Real slatey, real dense, in a way we’ve grown to love, and it’s also beautiful. That’s the biggest thing against its undisturbed natural state, is it’s really, really pretty [laughs], and therefore really desirable.”
“But for guitar making the Brazilian—let me say this—is not better or worse, but it’s different, and there’s nothing else like it. So, if you’re looking for the sound of Brazilian rosewood, that’s where you get it.”
Hoover is also quick to point out that any and all tonewoods used by SCGC are fully above board and legally acquired.
Most makers with whom we discussed the subject agreed that the sonic properties of different species of rosewood can vary, but that the key was to get good quality Dalbergia, whichever type you’re working with—in which case each has something positive to offer.
“I think that any good Rosewood will bring a richness to the tone of the instrument,” says Dowling, “and if you’re looking at Indian rosewood through to Brazilian rosewood the spectrum of what they offer is massive. Indian will give you warmth, power and some overtone, Braz will give you huge amounts of overtone and bell-like notes. Whereas if you look at African Blackwood you get a very different tonal palette.”
“African blackwood is definitely one of my favorites. Trust it to be the hardest to get hold of! It just adds a real bell or cathedral-like tone to the instrument and solidifies so much of the dynamic of the instrument as well. It is absolutely beautiful wood to look at as well, almost holographic the way it catches the light.”
Relatively few luthiers today can boast the half-century-long connections that Hoover and his SCGC enjoy. Which makes, for most, the acquisition of the best rosewoods—Brazilian or otherwise—quite the hunt on many occasions, and a costly proposition at any time.
“I love Brazilian,” says Eric Weigeshoff of Skytop Guitars. “I have a small stash, but it’s available if you know who to kill [laughs]. It’s the holy grail, truly. Glassy tone, big bass, mids and highs that shine. Every Brazilian guitar I’ve made has been a beast. Why? Most of it is old. Old wood equals good wood. There’s not a lot of new Brazilian being cut, and if there is, shame on them! Having said that, there is some really good East Indian rosewood out there, which in time will rival some of the Braz. We’ll see”.
Ben Wilborn of Wilborn Guitars also uses rosewood a lot, and finds the better supplies of different species contributing similar characteristics to his finished guitars, which he mainly hears in “sustain, a long, sophisticated decay, and an overtone-rich sound.”
“East Indian rosewood is quite easy to obtain in high quality,” he adds. “Cocobolo is fairly easy to find, although quality can be an issue. This basically holds true for Tucarensis, and various other Central and South American species. African blackwood it really hard to find in good quality, and Madagascar seems to have really dried up.”
Although East Indian rosewood is still readily available, the talk among many builders is that supplies of “the good stuff,” while not quite going the way of Brazilian, will inevitably require more and more chasing, if they don’t dry up entirely. As supplier Stephen Ondich of California-based Commercial Forest Products notes: “Supplies are limited, but it’s available. However, all true Dalbergia rosewoods are now on CITES. Many builders are using non-Dalbergia substitutes like Pau Ferro, also known as ‘Bolivian rosewood,’ if for no other reason than to avoid the headaches associated with the CITES bureaucracy.”
Inevitably, those taking the long view on (East) Indian rosewood are approaching it as many did the situation with Brazilian rosewood a few decades ago, laying in stashes that they hope will last them through several guitars, and ideally well into the future.
“I bought a lot of Indian rosewood early in my career, so I have a fair amount of that,” says Dion James of Dion Guitars, “and it’s still possible to get good Indian Rosewood on the market. I bought the estate of a deceased guitar maker about ten years ago which had a lot of perfect cocobolo, so I’m set for a long time on that as well. In general, it’s becoming harder to get cocobolo of the quality I have.”
While Brazilian rosewood is still the pinnacle, and is likely to remain so for quite some time, most makers acknowledge that it’s more a choice for players and collectors who want that badge of honor of equipping their new guitar build with the very best, rather than any kind of necessity to achieving excellent tone from the instrument.
“People come to me specifically for my proven reputation of being able to build a guitar that sounds the way that they want,” explains Hoover. “And in that, it’s usually not necessary for someone to get Brazilian rosewood to get what they’re looking for. The Brazilian comes into play when you want the best, you don’t mind paying for it, you’d like it to keep its value, and you want something that’s really, really pretty.
“But the Brazilian rosewood in and of itself doesn’t have this tonal advantage that we’re paying for. What we’re paying for is scarcity and desirability, and the esthetics of it. So, you don’t have to have Brazilian to get a good sounding guitar, and maybe Brazilian isn’t even the sound that you want in an instrument. So, we advise people accordingly. I never, ever try to ‘upgrade’ people into the higher-priced stuff, unless the discussion leads us to it.”
For those who are still acquiring legal, certified supplies of Brazilian rosewood much of it comes down to long-standing connections. That, and as SCGC’s Richard Hoover puts it, an unwavering insistence on doing it the right way.
“We’re looking for stuff that’s responsibly harvested,” he says, “and with Brazilian rosewood, a lot of our job’s done for us, because you’re not going out and fetching a tree from the savannah and cutting it down and turning it into guitars… The wood has to go through secondary processes to get the nice chartreuse and violets and chocolates and things in it that we really know and love. It’s more of a treasure hunt than a lumberjacking expedition to get that stuff. So, we’re looking for old, dead stuff anyway, which helps us a lot.”
“Then there’s the provenance of who it goes through and so forth; we don’t like to finance crooks, and neither does anybody [in this business], from that regard. And our sources for this go way, way back. In many cases I’m in the third generation of people and families that supply our rosewoods. We’re actually buying wood now that the principle, the grandfather, would have sold to people that would have bought it on speculation, and now are putting it on the market when the prices come up.”
Ben Wilborn adds: “Brazilian, despite CITES and export bans, is still narrowly available, sort of. A lot of it is black or grey market, or such poor quality it isn’t worth building with. But there are still stashes of old, high quality Brazilian rosewood popping up now and then. You have to be ready to act fast if this wood becomes available!”
Available, that is, and legitimately so. “Brazilian rosewood is also incredibly difficult to get hold of now with the relevant paperwork,” says Rory Dowling. “I have been lucky enough to get some beautiful old stock from between 1992 to 1999 with paperwork. I’m keeping these for very, very special builds. They are phenomenal and when you pick them up, the tap tone is just like glass, but glass with a huge amount of depth and warmth in behind it. It’s quite incredible to hear that in a piece of wood when it’s just being tapped with your finger, let alone under the multitude of frequencies that the top will impart on it.”
When it comes to rosewood alternatives, many makers are willing to explore the range encapsulated by Hoover’s declaration “there are a lot of Dalbergias” near the top of this piece.
“Looking at others in the Dalbergia family,” Dowling tells us, “Mexican Cocobolo has huge power, less warmth, but a beautiful slightly crystalline tone to it. Thinking about that, but with more of the crystalline or almost glassy tone, and Madagascan rose come to mind; incredible wood for articulation and clean, crisp notes that hang like diamonds. Then through to Amazon rosewood, Santos rosewood… All of these woods give you varying degrees power, warmth, overtone and richness.”
For both makers and players alike who are seeking woods that are entirely out of the Dalbergia species, but which will deliver many of the same characteristics—either because of the scarcity of supplies of premium wood or because, as some believe, it’s important to start opening our minds to other tonewoods rather than putting all the pressure on traditional timbers—there are several that might stand in with good results on any given build.
“There are many wood species that have a rosewood-like appearance but are not true Dalbergia rosewoods,” says tonewood supplier Stephen Ondich. “Tagging a specie with the ‘rosewood’ name is bit of a marketing tool. Would you rather use Platymiscium [aka ‘Monkeywood’ or ‘Macacauba’] or Granadillo rosewood? [Laughs.] Same thing happens with mahogany. When we’re asked for Brazilian rosewood, for example, we offer Brazilian Kingwood or Ziricote, both beautiful, dense hardwoods. There are a lot of rosewood-like species that are not Dalbergia, and builders are more open to alternatives than ever before.”
Asked if he’s happy to dive into some alternatives, Ben Wilborn, for one, says, “Absolutely! Pau Ferro and Granadillo are two of my preferred rosewood substitutes. The fact is that, although steel-string customers are more adventurous than classical guitar customers, rosewood is still seen as the ultimate wood for high-end guitars, so sometimes alternatives are a harder sell. I think these alternative woods are becoming more and more accepted, however, and that’s a good thing.”
Likewise getting out of the Dalbergia family on occasion, Dion James tells us, “I really like Wenge, and Lapacho. Both are hard and dense with a bell-like tap similar to good rosewood.”
For others, however—Eric Weigeshoff among them—if it’s that rosewood magic they’re seeking, then rosewood it is: “If I’m looking for a rosewood sound, there’s no reason to look anywhere else but in the rosewood realm. Like I said, there’s great East Indian rosewood, Cocobolo, Madagascar, etc. It’s just good stuff.”