CITES, Rosewood, and G&L Alternatives for Fretboards

G&L Rosewood FretboardIf you are interested in buying a G&L guitar and live in the USA, you can skip over this blog (unless you are curious). However if you live outside of the USA, as of January 1st, 2017 things got a little complicated.

CITES, the international organization that protects wildlife (animals as well as plants) implemented new restrictions on the use and export of Rosewood. Essentially Rosewood became a restricted material, and products containing Rosewood are now required to have documentation to verify that they are legally harvested.

How did this happen? It’s all about demand, and mostly in China where the expanding middle class developed a particular appetite for Rosewood furniture. The spike in demand created over-harvesting and illegal harvesting. Rather than see Rosewood wiped out, regulations have been put in place. You can debate the logic and methodology, but something needed to be done. Also note that “Rosewood” is a rather generic term that includes many varieties including Cocobolo, Bubinga, etc.

What are the practical implications?

The short story is that new guitars containing Rosewood manufactured after January 1st 2017 that are going to be exported out of the USA, need documentation verifying the sourcing of the Rosewood. Manufacturers have to apply for the paperwork and permits to export guitars containing Rosewood. There is of course a lot more to it than that, but that is the quick summary.

Dealers (like me) in most cases do not have this type of documentation; it’s the manufacturer that holds the permit. So most dealers will not be able to ship a post-January 2017 guitar with rosewood out of the country. It stands the risk of being confiscated at customs, and nobody gets the guitar back.

Guitars built before January 2017 can be shipped out of the country provided they have a re-export certificate. These are obtained from the Department of Fish and Wildlife. The certificates cost money, and take time to obtain. A dealer can also apply for a “Master File” and purchase re-export certificates in advance, but it’s still a process. Suffice to say, many dealers are just not going to bother with exporting a guitar with Rosewood.

This is bad for independent dealers selling overseas but a boon for distributors. International distributors buying directly from the manufacturer will get legally documented product, and far less competition from independent dealers exporting into their home country.

Non-commercial (person-to-person) sales are technically exempt. I can imagine this becoming a loophole as some dealers will have a relative or friend be the shipper of record on a guitar going out of the country.

G&L Alternatives

Aside from the occasional fancy top or limited editions, Rosewood on a G&L guitar is limited to the fretboard. The obvious alternatives are Maple and Ebony. Those materials can be exported freely without additional documentation.

If you are not partial to those materials, G&L has also started using a material called Chechen, also known as “Caribbean Rosewood.” It’s a hard and dense Central American hardwood that looks and feels very much like Rosewood. It has a more color variation than most rosewood, but it’s attractive and a good substitute. Most important is that is not subject to any restrictions and is widely available. Dealers with international customers looking for a way around Rosewood should consider Chechen.

Have an Open Mind

Traditional tone woods are just that: Traditional. They have obvious desirable qualities, but what they also have in common was that at the the time they were first used, they were widely available. And there were a lot fewer people on the earth. Guitar builders have been exploring new materials for decades, and many alternatives have been proven to be just as good as the traditional woods. Just like it very hard to get totally black ebony these days, guitar players will have to adjust to other paradigm shifts in guitar materials. In many cases the adjustment is more mental than sonic. Conventional wisdom dies a slow death, and there will always be players that cling to whatever “old way” they hold most dear.

If you want to play it totally safe, just avoid Rosewood. There are lots of other good materials both synthetic and natural. If you have your heart set on Rosewood, the sky isn’t falling, but obtaining that Rosewood guitar may take more diligence and planning.


How Fretboard Material affects Fret Finish

Once G&L started offering tinted satin neck finishes a few years back, they became our “go to” neck finish at UpFront Guitars. After all, they look good, feel nice, and are an attractive combination of looks and price point.

But whenever we got a gloss finish neck in the shop, it was always noticeable that the fret finish on a gloss neck was just that much better. There is a reason for that and here’s why:

A satin finish neck has a very thin finish. That’s part of the reason they feel nice, but it also makes the finish more fragile in regard to hand filing and polishing. A little slip can damage the thinner satin finish. For that reason the workers doing the final fret finish have to be more cautious, and consequently a satin neck may not be as highly polished as other fretboard materials.

Rosewood and even more so Ebony are more tolerant to the buffing and finishing process. Even if a fret file hits the fingerboard wood, it can usually be smoothed out to the point of being unnoticeable.

Gloss necks are unique in that the gloss finish is applied after the frets are installed. After the finish cures, the varnish must be removed from the frets. The very nature of this process smooths and rounds the frets to the highest degree. For this reason, a guitar with a gloss maple fretboard is likely to have the highest level of fret finish. But this finish level is not without a cost, and gloss finish necks have the highest amount of labor content and cost. Even for imported guitars the labor cost of removing varnish is not trivial, which is why you usually don’t see a gloss maple fretboard on a budget-price guitar.

The Take-Away: While highly polished and rounded frets have a visual and tactile appeal, we find that with G&L the level of fret finish on their satin neck certainly gets the job done. However if best fret finish and a maple neck is of primary importance, a gloss finish neck will be more appealing. A rosewood fretboard is a more economical way to get an attractive level of fret finish without springing for the cost of a gloss neck. In the end it comes down to cost, and it’s interesting to learn how the materials and finishes affect the manufacturing process.

Flat Sawn or Quarter Sawn neck for your G&L?

When ordering a G&L guitar, there is quite a list of options to choose from. One of the lesser known options is whether to get the standard flat sawn neck, or the optional quarter sawn neck? So what is the difference and does it matter?

Nearly all production necks today are made from what is known as flat sawn lumber. I am not a wood expert, but essentially there is a greater yield of flat sawn lumber for necks when cutting up a tree. Greater yield means lower cost. How do you know if your neck is flat sawn? On a bolt-on maple neck guitar the easiest way to check is to look at the end of the neck where it butts up against the neck pocket. If the grain of the wood is parallel to the fingerboard, it’s flat sawn. The picture below is courtesy of Alberto Bolocan’s blog — or at least he used it too —  and Alberto has some very detailed information on the various sawing techniques.

As you can see, the quarter sawn neck has the grain of the wood perpendicular to the fingerboard.  Having the grain of the wood perpendicular to fingerboard results in a measurably stiffer neck. As you can imagine, bending a piece of wood with the grain is much easier than bending a piece of wood perpendicular or “against” the grain. The density of the quarter sawn lumber is sometimes higher too, also contributing to greater stiffness.

So you can expect a quarter sawn neck to be stiffer, and affected less by changes in weather. This is especially handy with bass guitars and their longer necks, or with guitarists that like to use heavier gauge strings. I find that when setting up a quarter sawn neck that they are naturally very flat, and sometimes it’s hard to get enough relief (bow) out of the neck. Changing up or down a gauge on strings will likely have no effect on a quarter sawn neck.

Quarter sawn necks are also felt to be brighter and more responsive than a flat sawn neck. This is due both to the increased stiffness of the neck and the higher density of the wood. I would generally agree with this observation, although it’s hard to make direct comparisons without actually changing necks on the same guitar. In general though quick attack and good note clarity are characteristic of a quarter sawn neck.

As a side benefit, the grain pattern of the headstock looks really neat when quarter sawn, especially with a vintage tint.

So is quarter sawn worth the money? This option typically adds about $75 to the price of a G&L, so for most people it’s not a deal breaker. If you tour, or live in an area with wide swings in temperature or humidity, a quarter sawn neck is absolutely more stable and will require fewer adjustments. The sonic differences are not dramatic, but if your preference run towards a snappy instrument with a solid attack it certainly cannot hurt. We recently received a custom order guitar — Classic Custom Semi Hollow — with a flame maple top and quarter sawn maple neck. The combination of reflective maple top and stiff neck resulted in a remarkably clean and detailed sound that really projected unlike a garden variety ASAT.

Whether it’s freedom from occasional adjustments or the desire for a more responsive instrument, a quarter sawn neck is a low cost option with obvious benefits.