Guitar Guru – Brazilian

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Dana Bourgeois contributes the monthly Guitar Guru column to Acoustic Guitar Magazine. If you a question you’d like Dana to address in an upcoming article, please submit it to [email protected].

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Blame It on the Rainforest – Commercial demand has made Brazilian rosewood guitars a rare commodity

Q: I’m thinking of ordering a Brazilian rosewood guitar. New Brazilian rosewood guitars that I see online are beautiful, but they don’t look much like the vintage guitars in reference books, nor do they look much like each other. Can all this wood be of the same species? And how can I tell from appearance which sounds best?
Allen Konigsberg. New York

A: Brazilian rosewood, dalbergia nigra, grows in a relatively small area of Brazil’s coastal rainforest. Since the earliest days of Portuguese colonization, dalbergia has been a valuable export commodity, prized in Europe for furniture and decorative woodwork and used as far back as the late Renaissance for lutes, woodwind instruments, and ancestors of the modern guitar.

Commercial demand for dalbergia never ceased. Centuries of over-harvesting and more recent habitat degradation have taken Brazilian rosewood to the brink of extinction. As you may already know, in 1992 dalbergia nigra was listed as a protected species by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), after which most nations banned trade in Brazilian rosewood products.

The beautiful quartersawn Brazilian rosewood seen on many vintage guitars—tightgrained, straight, even-colored and often laced with inky black lines—came from the “saw log,” the branchless cylindrical center section of a mature tree between a sometimes buttressed stump and the canopy. Though Brazilian rosewood harvested prior to 1992 can be legally exported, virtually no unprocessed saw logs from the world’s most commercially valuable tree are left to be had.

Occasionally, an unused, legally certified back-and-side set processed prior to 1992 can be found. Unfortunately, many older sets are permanently darkened from oxidation and no longer exhibit traditional reddish-brown color and deep luminosity.

Straight grained sets are occasionally salvaged from sunken logs, though these are often sand-colored or grey and have a dull, washedout look. Rare as it is to find straight-grained back-and-side sets, it’s much more difficult to find ones having the traditional color. But it’s rumored that great-looking sets are sometimes salvaged from table tops. In my career I’ve only seen three.

The majority of new Brazilian rosewood guitars are made from sets salvaged either from stumps or from building timbers. Natural oils allow the stumps to remain in the ground for decades without rotting. Superbly preserved, colorful, reasonably well-quartered sets harvested from stumps are still readily available. Even wellquartered examples, however, usually exhibit figured, as opposed to straight, grain.

Salvaged dalbergia building timbers, I am told, still abound in Brazil. I see the sets. These are often riddled with cracks (many repairable) and sometimes streaked with patches of black oxidation, often yielding strikingly beautiful but highly untraditional-looking guitars. If you’re after a new guitar made from perfect- looking Brazilian rosewood (i.e. could have been used by Martin in 1937), be prepared to pay an amount equivalent to the down payment on many a house. Demand simply outstrips supply. If you’re willing to compromise, however, on cut (quartersawn vs. flatsawn), color, straightness of grain, state of preservation (hey, wormholes don’t affect tone), or a combination of these features, you may still be able to afford the guitar of a lifetime.

To my ears, and to those of many others, good Brazilian rosewood guitars are still unequaled for their unique combination of richness and clarity. And as I’ve suggested in these pages before, there’s often scant correlation between appearance and tone. If you’re in the habit of not listening with your eyes, it’s easier to recognize that it’s all the same species.