Posted May 20, 2017 by James in Blog

Rosewood fretboards – How much longer will they survive?

guitar fretboard
guitar fretboard

An announcement today by Fender CEO Andy Mooney brings new light to the topic of rosewood fretboards in guitars. Before we get to that statement and explore what it means for us today, let’s explore the history of this material a little.

Brief history of rosewood fretboards

guitars Rosewood fretboards have been a mainstay in guitar construction since 1959. The story goes that Leo Fender was frustrated with the wear in maple fretboards. He introduced the so-called “slab rosewood fretboard” in 1959 on the Stratocaster. The reasons for the change are a matter of debate. Some say that Leo saw the maple fretboards on tv, which marked easily and didn’t look great. Others say that artists of the era complained to Fender, and he responded by making the change.

In any case, rosewood has since become a massively popular choice on guitars. The characteristics of rosewood gave the guitar tone a slightly deeper timbre. Many preferred the look of rosewood and felt it didn’t show up dirty finger marks after years of use. Given rosewood doesn’t require sealing or finishing, some guitarists found the feel more natural to the sometimes sticky feeling on a maple fretboard.

Rosewood controversy

Many of the early landmark guitars used Brazilian rosewood. Guitars such as the Gibson 1959 Les Paul, the Fender 1962 Stratocaster and the 1948 Martin 000-28 (with beautiful rosewood sides and back). These guitars helped to build the reputation of Brazilian rosewood and made it the material of choice on high end instruments.

At the time, rampant forestation in Brazil meant that there was plenty of rosewood to go around. However, as stocks started to dry up, manufacturers looked to alternatives such as Indian rosewood. Then in 1992, Brazilian Rosewood was added to the CITES treaty, banning its exportation. Guitar manufacturers (and anyone) were banned from using it, unless they could prove it had been exported prior to the 1992 CITES treaty decision.

Since that time, manufacturers have searched for alternatives, not only to Brazilian rosewood, but to rosewood in general.

Other fretboard woods

Luthiers have trialled and tested countless wood types when making guitars. Many claim that while Brazilian rosewood is a stunning tonewood, similarly beautiful rich tones are available in other materials. The most common woods for fretboards other than rosewood are maple, ebony, pau ferro and granadillo. Each wood type has it’s own characteristics and cost profile. Each has it’s own visual appeal as well, meaning that everyone’s tastes can be catered for.

Latest statement from Fender

Today, Fender issued a statement on their use of rosewood. The full transcript can be read below, but here’s our take. Fender are warming customers to the idea that rosewood is going to be seen less on their guitars. They know that we guitar fans can be a sensitive little bunch. So we believe this is part of a continued publicity strategy to get us used to the idea of buying guitars that have one of the alternative fretboards that we discussed earlier. This has been hang for dinner time, and this statement is another installment in the strategy.

Rosewood won’t be disappearing anytime soon, but expect to gradually see it disappear from all but high end models.

Original statement from Fender:

Fender is committed to the continued use of Rosewood in American-made solid body guitars, such as our American Professional Series. After actively exploring alternate wood options to Rosewood for selective use on a few US models, we will be transitioning most of our Mexico made product away from rosewood to pau ferro, a fantastic alternate we currently use on the SRV signature strat. The American Elite series is transitioning to ebony fretboards with dealers and our inventories. Rosewood is still used on many series of instruments, as it is a historically accurate tone wood. The changeover will be somewhat fluid in the market, there is no set date at this time.

We are still currently evaluating options for Squier and the acoustics category.

FMIC’s specialty brands, Gretsch, Jackson, Charvel and EVH will continue to use Rosewood in both solid body and acoustic models, from all source countries.

Fender is committed as a brand to comply with all CITES regulations and to ensure we are continuing to deliver the best quality and accessible products to our customers and dealers.

– Andy Mooney, CEO Fender