The guitar world went through a revolution that few saw coming. Guitarists were left baffled and guitar makers were stunned when news dropped on January 2, 2017 that strict new regulations regarding the sale, trade, and import of rosewood—a key component used in guitar construction—had suddenly gone into effect.
For centuries, guitarists have played, created, and lusted after instruments made from rosewood components. This prized tonewood has been such a constant part of so many players’ lives that we assumed it would always be there. But exploitative and unsustainable forestry practices, fueled by a hunger for furniture made from beautiful tropical woods, have resulted in every member of the extensive Dalbergia (rosewood) family falling under tight restrictions aimed at controlling the trade of what is perhaps the most widely trafficked genus on the planet.
Two years after these new international restrictions went into effect, the revolution has turned into evolution, as guitar makers have developed their offerings to conform to the new standards, and players have begun to actively seek out practical alternatives. That’s where this roundup comes in. Readers have asked us for more information about their rosewood-free options, so we gathered this herd of guitars to show off some of the diversity that today’s players can find when shopping in the popular $500–$1,500 price range, which was formerly dominated with rosewood-spec’d guitars. Some resolute players will never go for anything other than rosewood, but it’s a non-issue for many musicians who just want a guitar that sounds good and looks beautiful at a price they can reasonably afford. Thankfully, many great-sounding and attractive alternatives exist that offer both familiar and new tones and are free of the ecological guilt that has surrounded rosewood for a while.
Our pitch to makers was simple: Send us a guitar that uses no rosewood and has a real-world cost of $500–$1,500. Since some makers have many models that qualify, we limited each brand to one guitar of any shape or size, with or without electronics or a cutaway. Laminated and solid woods were okay, but no composites such as carbon fiber (that’s a roundup for another time). What you’ll see over the following pages are a dozen acoustic guitars, presented alphabetically, that show off some of the delightful choices available in this popular price range.
Some builders simply replace rosewood components with non-CITES-restricted woods to offer what they feel is the most rosewood-like experience for the player. One wood that has stepped from the wings and into the spotlight is pau ferro, which is known for being about as close to rosewood as possible without actually being a member of the restricted Dalbergia genus. Pau ferro can also be found branded under the names “morado” or “Santos rosewood” and shows up on a few of the instruments here.
Increasingly, makers are using one of three approaches to rosewood alternatives. Some are turning to exotic tropical woods—like ziricote, okoume, and ovangkol—which used to be found only on handmade, luthier-built guitars or limited runs, but now are more widely embraced by larger makers. Others go with mahogany and ebony, woods that are familiar to most guitarists—having been popular throughout the instrument’s history—but which may also have an uncertain future, as many predict impending restrictions on ebony. Another solution is to look at options sourced closer to home. Thus, many makers are opting for woods grown in the managed forests of the U.S. and Canada that are viewed as sustainable and easily obtainable. Some, like walnut or cherry, were once relatively common in guitars, but went underground for the better part of a century, while a wood such as myrtle has quickly become a favorite for its often striking figuring and lively tone.
All three approaches are represented over the next few pages, as we look at some of the diverse options available today. Some alternatives seen here are more sustainable than others, but each guitar in this roundup is a rosewood-free option for the contemporary guitarist.
BLUERIDGE HISTORIC BR-160
The Alternative Santos rosewood (also known at morado, Bolivian rosewood, and most frequently in the guitar world, pau ferro) is not a true rosewood of the Dalbergia genus, but belongs to a related genus that’s about as close as can be to rosewood. Santos’ medium-brown color with pronounced inky grain makes it closely resemble East Indian rosewood with a density similar to that of Brazilian rosewood.
The Guitar Beginning with its John Jorgenson model Gitane brand Selmer-style guitars, Saga, Blueridge’s parent company, has been using Santos for nearly 20 years. Our tester Blueridge dreadnought had a powerful voice, packed a nice punch, and had a solid bass response with clear, satisfying trebles. Though I liked the headstock ornamentation, I could see guitarists finding this detail—as well as the exaggerated tint on the top—a bit too much. But for someone looking for a dreadnought with a commanding rosewood-like tone at a player-friendly price, it’s a strong contender.
BODY Dreadnought; solid Sitka spruce top with scalloped, forward-shifted X-bracing and maple bridge plate; solid Santos rosewood back and sides with zig-zag center stripe; herringbone purfling with white binding; tortoise pickguard; gloss finish with aging toner
NECK 25.6″-scale mahogany neck; 20-fret Santos rosewood fingerboard with split-diamond abalone snowflake inlay; 1-11/16″ nut; Santos rosewood peghead overlay with MOP and abalone inlay; Gotoh nickel-plated vintage-style open-gear tuners with butterbean buttons
OTHER Santos rosewood bridge with white ABS and black dot bridge pins; bone nut and saddle; D’Addario EJ16 light gauge (.012–.053) strings
Myrtle, okoume. Grown in coastal Oregon and northern California, myrtle is known for a stunning figuring that makes it perhaps the most exotic-looking wood native to the U.S. mainland. It’s a sustainable hardwood that has maple-like articulate highs, but with rosewood-like basses. The guitar’s neck is made from okoume, a Central African wood similar in appearance and tone to mahogany.
Highlighted by a gloss finish, our tester’s elaborately figured brownish-yellow coloring was a conversation starter. The instrument’s tight bass and punchy tones recalled rosewood, but with the added clarity and brilliance of maple, with some warmth. Its balanced sound kept us returning for more open-tuned fingerstyle, and the well-defined notes made wide-voiced chords project confidently.
BODY 16″-wide Concerto body; solid Sitka spruce top and solid myrtle back and sides; natural gloss finish
Pau ferro. Meaning “iron wood” in Latin, pau ferro’s color can be highly varied, ranging from dark brown to purplish-tan to reddish-orange, with dark streaks, which help to give it an Indian rosewood-like appearance. Its weight and density also closely approximates that of Brazilian and East Indian rosewoods, making pau ferro a popular alternative.
With the lovely sunburst finish that recalls an autumn sunset, abalone rosette and fingerboard inlays, and bright white binding at all edges, the Cort is a visual stunner. The slender neck was comfortable and the volute at the headstock was elegant. Though the tone was pleasantly even, with a timbre that recalls rosewood, this Cort was a bit on the heavy side, which may help explain its modest output and response.
BODY Grand auditorium cutaway; solid torrefied Sitka spruce top with scalloped X-bracing; solid pau ferro back and sides; abalone rosette; white binding with 3-ply purfling; light burst with UV finish
NECK 25.3″-scale mahogany neck with walnut reinforcement; 20-fret ebony fretboard with rounded edges; 1-3/4″ nut
ELECTRONICS Fishman Flex Blend
OTHER Bone nut and saddle; ebony bridge with ebony pins; D’Addario EXP16 light gauge (.012–.053) strings; deluxe soft case
Ovangkol. Originating in tropical West Africa, ovangkol is a sustainable wood that shares many of rosewood’s traits. It has a similar weight, but a more open grain and lighter color. Guitars made with ovangkol often sound much like guitars made with rosewood, but with a less attenuated, more present midrange and bright trebles, which can make ovangkol a great choice for people shopping more by ear than specs.
Sparkling, defined treble notes, shapely bass notes, and a honking midrange thrust give players a lot of tone to work with. Tones were a bit less scooped and more even than you might expect from rosewood, with an immediacy on the front of the notes that could cut through a mix without being piercing.
BODY Grand auditorium cutaway; solid Sitka top with scalloped X-bracing; solid ovangkol back and sides; tortoise pickguard and binding (top and back); natural finish matte nitrocellulose top, open-pore finish (back and sides)
NECK 25.4″-scale mahogany neck with C-profile; 1-3/4″ nut; 22-fret ebony fingerboard with pearl dot inlays; nickel Ping tuners; open pore finish
ELECTRONICS Fishman Sonitone
OTHER Ebony bridge and bridge pins; bone nut and saddle; D’Addario EXP16 light gauge (.012–.053) strings; padded gig bag
Walnut is harvested in North America and often shows beautiful figuring when finished. Tone-wise, as a dense and stiff hardwood, it has some of the bright treble you might associate with rosewood, but with a notably warmer midrange and a low-end that develops richness and depth with playing.
Gibson’s Studio series mates walnut fingerboards, bridges, backs, and sides with spruce tops and mahogany necks. Our walnut L-00 had a snappy, crisp sound that opened up considerably during a few hours of working on ragtime fingerpicking, open-tuned blues, and strumming chords—deepening on the low end, sweetening on the highs, and delivering chocolatey thick midrange that kept us coming back for more. The nitro finish showed some orange peel and a little sloppiness, but for a guitar made in the U.S. with pickup, dynamite setup, and gorgeous woods, the L-00 Studio is an impressive value.
BODY Sitka spruce top, with scalloped X-bracing; walnut back and sides; multi-ply binding top, single-ply back; natural nitrocellulose finish
NECK 24.75″-scale mahogany neck; 19-fret walnut fingerboard with MOP dot inlays; 1.725″ nut; nickel Grover Rotomatic Mini tuners
ELECTRONICS L.R. Baggs VTC pickup
OTHER Walnut bridge with Tusq bridge pins; Tusq nut and saddle; hardshell case; also available in walnut burst finish and left-handed; phosphor bronze, light gauge (.012–.053) strings
Mahogany and pau ferro. With legendary stability, beauty, and resonance, mahogany has long been a favorite of guitar makers. Genuine mahogany of the Swietenia genus grows from southern Mexico to Brazil and the Caribbean, but the word mahogany has been broadly applied to many trees with similar traits and appearance, including African mahogany of the Khaya genus, which tends to look lustrous when finished, Philippine mahogany, and varieties from tropical plantations dating back to the colonial era.
With a 13-3/4-inch wide body, the M-120E is the smallest-bodied guitar here and it’s a comfortable, intimate companion that excels at delicate fingerpicked parts and strummed accompaniment figures. The neck has a little heft that was comfortable for my fretting hand, and its pickup and preamp will let you easily share your music with an audience.
Treated maple and African mahogany. Unless you look closely at some of rough spots on the back edge of the bridge, you could be deceived into thinking the fingerboard and bridge are ebony. Instead, Ibanez ebonizes maple with resins to darken and harden the wood for a look and feel closer to the real ebony. Though not a genuine mahogany, African mahogany of the genus Khaya is close enough for most botanists—and guitar makers—that it’s a commonplace alternative to genuine mahogany.
Though Ibanez may not be the first brand that comes to an acoustic guitarist’s mind when shopping for a dreadnought, the AVD60NT, which has a torrefied (they call it “thermo aged”) Adirondack spruce top and spruce braces, delivered straight-up mahogany dreadnought tone. The neck’s soft V-shape was a surprise, and I found it very inviting for the cowboy chords and open-string runs that dreadnoughts seem to beg for.
BODY Dreadnought; torrefied solid Adirondack spruce top with torrefied spruce X-bracing; solid mahogany back and sides; tortoiseshell binding; natural gloss finish
NECK 25.6″-scale mahogany neck; 1.69″ nut; epoxy-treated maple fingerboard with abalone dot inlays; chrome Grover open-gear tuners with butterbean knobs; satin finish
OTHER Epoxy-treated maple bridge with Ibanez Advantage bridge pins; bone nut and saddle; D’Addario EXP16 light gauge (.012–.053) strings
Sapele and ovangkol. At one time, sapele was frequently labeled as mahogany, but it’s from a different family and is now recognized by the guitar community for its own identity. It looks something like genuine mahogany, but sapele has a higher density and often produces a brighter sound with more shine.
Journey specializes in making travel guitars with an ingenious detachable neck that can easily fit into the supplied TSA-approved roller bag. You might expect to make considerable sacrifices to the altar of tone so you can fit this guitar into an overhead bin space, but the Journey challenges that assumption with a surprisingly full-bodied sound in a petite, highly portable design. The solid top and back really vibrate together for a satisfying sound, probably assisted by the body’s Mazner wedge, which is deeper than a dreadnought on the treble side and narrower on the bass side.
BODY Grand Auditorium size body; solid Sitka top with forward shifted scalloped X-braces; solid sapele back and laminated sapele sides; Manzer wedge; arm bevel; satin finish
Mahogany and katalox. Growing from southern Mexico to northern South America, katalox is a very dense wood that is among the stiffest, strongest woods available. Those characteristics, matched with a dark coloring and nearly pore-less structure, help to make it a popular ebony substitute.
As I wrote in a review in AG’s May 2018 issue, the StreetMaster’s satin distressed looks won’t be to everyone’s tastes, but no matter how you play it, this guitar has a vibe all its own. It doesn’t pack a wallop, but its sweet, warm voice would probably be great for recording, and its tone will keep beckoning you for more quality time. The StreetMaster has excellent fit and finish in a guitar that’s fun to play.
BODY 000-size, 14-fret all-mahogany body; non-scalloped A-frame X-braced top; katalox belly-style bridge with compensated drop-in bone saddle; satin distressed mahogany burst finish
NECK 25.4″-scale mahogany neck with dovetail neck joint; 20-fret katalox fingerboard with abalone diamonds-and-squares short pattern position inlays; 1-11/16″ bone nut; Golden Age Relic nickel tuners with cream knobs; satin finish
OTHER Martin Authentic Acoustic SP Lifespan 2.0 light gauge (.012–.054) strings; soft gig bag; available left-handed
Ziricote. A genuine beauty queen among rosewood alternatives, ziricote shares a similar weight and density to the now-regulated Dalbergia, but also has some characteristics in common with ebony, so it’s sometimes described as combining some of the tone of each into its own thing. Ziricote often displays an intense figuring known as spider webbing, or landscape, that is sometimes seen in Brazilian rosewood. It hails from Central America and Mexico and was used by boutique luthiers before expanding into the broader market.
Imagine landing between the clear, almost brittle sound of ebony and the warmer overtones of rosewood, and you’re close to the brisk, forward, and firmly plump tones of the SE A60E. Acoustically, the PRS presented a nicely proportioned sound, with a spanky top-end layered over a controlled bass and midrange.
BODY Angelus cutaway body shape; solid Sitka spruce top with hybrid X/classical bracing; ziricote back and sides; abalone and figured maple purfling; natural gloss polyurethane finish
Laminated walnut back and sides, ebony fingerboard and bridge. Taylor layers walnut over a poplar core and sapele interior and presses the wood into an arch, which provides strength and projection to the sustainably sourced woods.
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Given the state of many guitarists’ memories of the laminated wood guitars of the past, it’s easy for some of us to shuffle away from an instrument made from layered wood. Taylor has shown, however, that it’s possible to make laminated-wood guitars that are warm, responsive, and crisp-sounding—not to mention better equipped to withstand rapid shifts in temperature and humidity than their all-solid counterparts—at a price point many players can afford.
BODY 16″-wide Grand Auditorium cutaway body; solid Sitka spruce top with forward-shifted X bracing; layered walnut back and sides; black pickguard; varnish finish
What you see is what you get with this Washburn: a vintage-inspired dreadnought with a cutaway for access to those high frets, electronics, and a modern feel. Lightweight, all-solid woods gave it a warm and broken-in tone, the shapely neck had a slick satin finish, and Fishman electronics with undersaddle pickup and blendable mic made plugging-in a breeze. The guitar’s snazzy headstock design and logo harken back to the excellent Washburns of the 1930s. To put it another way, the D100SWCEK is an inviting value for a guitar that works as well at home as it will onstage.
BODY Dreadnought cutaway body; torrefied solid Sitka spruce top with cathedral-peaked, scalloped X-bracing; solid mahogany back and sides; abalone and maple rosette; gloss finish
NECK 25.5″-scale mahogany neck with walnut rails; 20-fret ebony fingerboard with offset dot inlays; 11-11/16″ nut; GraphTech Ratio tuners with black buttons; gloss finish
ELECTRONICS Fishman Presys+ Blend EQ with built-in mic and undersaddle pickup
OTHER Ebony bridge with black plastic bridge pins; bone nut and saddle; D’Addario EXP16 phosphor bronze lightgauge (.012–.053) strings