Backwood Rosewood

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The Rosewoods

    The soundboard is the main sound-producing component of the guitar and the choice of tonewood, along with the way the top is braced and thicknessed, has the greatest bearing on the overall tone of the guitar. The back and sides act as a "filter and amplifier" of the tone produced by the top. The back and sides can remove or emphasize various frequencies produced by the top, coloring the tone and affecting factors such as tonal balance, volume, attack and projection.

   For many years the best of back and side woods was Brazilian rosewood. Though this wood is still in common usage, it has been protected against import and export by the CITES [Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora] treaty since 1991. For this reason, a number of alternatives have surfaced- one being Indian rosewood, which in turn has become a standard choice and should now be considered a traditional tonewood itself.

   There are other rosewoods that compare in density to Brazilian rosewood, such as Honduran rosewood and Amazon rosewood. Honduran is more of a brick red/brown in color and Amazon is similar in color to Brazilian but is usually found with less figure. Both of these woods feature tight grain lines and both have adherents that claim they are finest tonewoods available.

   On the wild side are: Southeast Asian rosewood, palo escrito and cocobolo rosewood. Southeast Asian rosewood is very hard to come by and was only available from Luthiers Mercantile for a 4-year period during which we exhausted the stock from a single shipment. There may still be many good logs left but at this time, no one is harvesting them for instrument use. The wood was very dramatic in appearance, with brick reds, magentas and purples combining in unique ways. Many sets also featured dramatic black line figure and attractive sapwood centers.

   Palo escrito is a tan wood with reddish-brown lines that create unusual patterns in some sets, much like colobolo. This is a lighter-weight type of rosewood. Guitars with back and sides made of palo escrito are known for a sweet high end and good punch. This wood is becoming a popular choice for flamenco guitars, but steel-string builders who are experimenting with it, most notably James Goodall of Goodall guitars, are getting excellent results with it.

Brazilian Rosewood (Dalbergia Negra) East Indian Rosewood (Dalbergia Latifolia) Cocobolo Rosewood (Dalbergia Retusa) Madagascar Rosewood  

   Brazilian rosewood is sought after for its (usually) dark brown color that ranges from chocolate brown, to rust or a warm burnt orange.  The tone, exhibits great projection, with strong, balanced bass and highs. Brazilian can yield a dark bell like sound that is both deep and brilliant.

   This species of rosewood is no longer harvested so when the available supply is gone, it's gone!

   Indian rosewood varies quite a bit in appearance from Brazilian rosewood, though it is still quite dark. It is a very richly grained dark brown wood. Basically brown, but with purple, gray and sometimes red highlights, it is known for straighter, more homogenous grain lines and a lack of ink-line figuring. Very resonant, with a deep warm bass. A bit heavier than mahogany, Indian will give a warmer bassier sound relative to Brazilian.

   Sources of supply have been well managed, reliable and of consistently high quality.

   Cocobolo is readily available from Mexico. This superb tonewood has bold, distinctive orange highlights with plenty of black lines that can often show exciting swirly patterns.  Cocobolo is among the heaviest of rosewoods (heavier and denser than Brazilian) and imparts a strong bass to guitars. Fairly close to Brazilian in tone perhaps a little warmer.

   Some luthiers shy away from  cocobolo because of an allergic reaction  when sanding and, with abundant oils in the wood, it can be difficult to glue. If you can work around these problems, cocobolo is a great favourite for tone and beauty.

Finally, Madagascar Rosewood is visually very similar to Brazilian, though in general it is more red or rust colored. The main differences are that Madagascar rosewood is not illegal to import, it is far less expensive, and a little lighter in weight. More than a few builders claim that the lower weight bestows an additional sonic liveliness that surpasses Brazilian rosewood -and indeed, most other tonewoods. The tap tone of this wood has a noticeably strong, sustaining quality.  
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