Friday, November 17, 2017

Exotic Woods -- Favorites of Total Rojo Guitars

When choosing wood for my acoustic guitar creations, several considerations come into play.

I never build two guitars alike, which places an automatic constraint on every build.

However, there is one component that is constant . . . I like mahogany for neck stock, and beyond this things are variable.  Some design elements are similar (headstock shape and overlay, bridge shape, fretboard position markers, and heel caps), but beyond this, I try to vary the design.

Rosewood and ebony seem to be the go-to fretboard and bridge stock in the industry, but I like ziricote and cocobolo for custom fretboards and bridge combinations simply because of the wild and unpredictable grain in the wood.  It's dense hard wood and it requires a lot of elbow grease to contour shape, but it's also very stable and less flexible than other softer species.

I like Indian Rosewood and mahogany for body sides and backs, because of how easy it is to work, but there isn't enough variation in wood grain and color to get me excited, so I lean toward exotic wood for bodies, again because of the unusual grain running through the pieces.

Plastic binding material (usually white, black, or cream color) is another go-to element in the industry, but I think the sharp contrast and foreign substance (plastic) separating body parts takes away from the overall beauty of the guitar, so I choose to customize my binding with real wood choosing from mahogany, rosewood, walnut, cherry, and maple.

I use a lot of small exotic pieces to create sound hole rosettes, strap button end cap inlays, and other inlay designs that float around in my imagination.

The grain in a piece of exotic wood is so visually dramatic, I want it to stand out beyond any other element and to capture, hold, and please the eye, so I finish my guitars with a satin spray or a hand rubbed oil finish.

Pictured here are some of the exotic wood species I like.

ZIRICOTE is a wood from Mexico and Central America and is one of the most strikingly figured tonewoods. It is similar in figure to the best, now impossible to get Brazilian Rosewood, with beautiful black veining which is known as spiderwebbing.  Ziricote is very heavy, hard, and has a loud, glassy tap tone. The colors can range from olive green to dark grey with black veins throughout. Incredibly difficult to source in guitar sized stock. 

COCOBOLO grows in southern Mexico and Central America.  Its tap tone is outstanding, very glassy, nice ringing sustain. Cocobolo when freshly cut exibits colors ranging from reds to oranges, yellows and purples.  As cocobolo is exposed to air and sunlight, it darkens to a deep reddish color and sometimes exibits black streaks known as spiderwebbing.                                                                                           

BOCOTE grows in Mexico and Central South America and is an extremely exotic tonewood that is in the same family as Ziricote (cordia), and shares many of the excellent tonal characteristics, but is much easier to work with. This wood is very similar in weight and density to Cocobolo Rosewood. Brilliant, ringing taptone. Beautiful wild figure.

Bends and finishes very nicely, it is almost non-porous.

WENGE is a Central African wood, medium brown in color with nearly black stripes and straight grain with very course texture and low natural luster.  Very durable and can be difficult to work.

CHOCOLATE MANGO is a Hawaiian and Tropical Asia wood with a straight or interlocked grain with medium to course texture and great natural luster. Because of the spalting that is commonly present, the wood can be a kaleidoscope of colors. Under normal circumstances, heartwood is a golden brown, while other colors such as yellow and streaks of pink and/or black can also occur.Curly or mottled grain patterns are also common.


GUANCASTE, also known as Parota, has a beautiful golden brown, Hawaiian Koa/Acacia-like figure. It comes primarily from Central America, but also from Mexico and Northern South America . Its unique appearance and texture, which is mostly large pores, reminds one of Monkey Pod.


STRIPED OSAGE ORANGE , also known as Mora, and/or Guatemalan Tigerwood, is light to medium reddish brown, with streaks of lighter and darker material making it one of the most beautiful tonewoods on earth.  The straight to interlocked grain has fine to medium texture.  It is a dense, non-pourous, hard wood rarely found in instrument quality and size, and it bends and finishes easily.

PAU FERRO (AKA: Bolivian Rosewood, Santos, Jaracanda, and Morado) is a very finely grained non-porous wood that is a dream to finish. It is heavier and more dense than the rare Brazilian Rosewood, but regarded by many instrument makers as a great alternative, because of its beauty under finish and its taptone. Its color includes choclates, creams, reds and deep browns.

INDIAN ROSEWOOD -- The color of Indian Rosewood ranges from red to light brown with golden streaks, but more often runs to various shades of purple-brown (which eventually oxidizes to a rich brown color).

ZEBRAWOOD -- A more boldly colored alternative to Indian Rosewood with about the same density, workability and resonance as Indian Rosewood.  It is evenly striped overall with small alternating bands of gold-tan and dark brown.

CURLY AMBROSIA -- Ambrosia Maple comes from the regular soft maple and hard maple trees that have been infested with the ambrosia beetle. A fungus is responsible for the blue, gray and brown streaks and decorative patch work that accompany each beetle tunnel and adjacent wood.  This wood is mostly found in the central part of the Eastern US.

PADAUK is an excellent tonewood with beautiful deep red color, which darkens some over time, and fine, consistent, straight grain. This is a fairly heavy, dense wood, with strong well balanced tone. Loud ringing tap tone with nice sustain. It is heavier and harder than Indian Rosewood, but bends without much difficulty and finishes nicely.

HONDURAN MAHOGANY -- Instruments built from Honduran Mahogany exhibit a strong mid-range, excellent punch and good sustain. It is prized for its beauty and rich color ranging from pinkish brown to a dark reddish brown. The grain varies straight and tight, to flamed and wavy, to visually stunning and highly figured.

LEOPARDWOOD -- This South American wood is occasionally confused with some of the lacewoods, but it's much harder, denser, and heavier (a little heavier than Indian Rosewood in weight), and darker. It is cinnamony, darker brown in color with a bold figure. It finishes nicely, but there's a rumor that it's a little tricky to bend. Rich, lots of depth, beautiful wood. Good tap tone with pronounced low-midtones, clear high-midtones, slightly dark, and warm. The sound warms as it ages and falls between Maple and Claro Walnut with a good treble.Long on sustain.

OVANGKOL -- This West African wood is similar in figure to Indian Rosewood, with dark gray straight lines over a golden-brown or olive-brown background. It comes from the same family as Bubinga and has an interlocking grain pattern. It is reasonably easy to bend and plane and it finishes well. It is not as dense as most Rosewoods.

GONCALO ALVES (aka: Tigerwood) is from Mexico and southward to Brazil. It is typically a medium reddish brown with irregularly spaced streaks of dark brown to black, and the color tends to darken with age. Grain can be straight, but is usually wavy or interlocked with fine, silky, uniform texture with good natural luster. This wood finishes beautifully and makes outstanding sounding instruments. The tap tone is similar to Koa. It bends easily and is very stable.

Sunday, October 29, 2017


I like to introduce 'Dobie' to you.

He's a 14-fret (this refers to the number of frets from the nut to the heel of the guitar) dreadnaught-size electro/acoustic resonator guitar.

The neck is mahogany with rosewood fingerboard and pearl position markers. The headstock overlay is ovangkol with my logo made of exotic chatekok (red heart) inlaid into the surface. Grover enclosed gear tuners draw Martin SP 12-54 gauge strings across a corian nut and saddle to the vintage stainless tailpiece.

The body of the guitar is quilted maple with ovangkol top and rosewood binding, heel cap and end piece. You'll notice that sound holes are a combination of stylized initials and yin-yang symbol.

A spun aluminum cone is the sound resonator with wood biscuit and corian saddle perched on its top. And, the most fun part is the cone cover, which is a re-purposed vintage automobile hubcap.

These photos are pretty self-explanatory.

This is the recessed cylindrical cavity where the cone resonator rests on the ring.  Notice the small wood support shafts (tone bars) which are glued between the back braces and base of the cone ring.

The spun aluminum resonator cone, and the fabricated vintage hubcap salvaged from a local junkyard.

And, last, but certainly not the least, is my friend Jimi Vincent taking 'Dobie' for a test drive.

Jimi has been playing guitar for more than fifty years, so when he critiques my work, I listen.

Jimi said, "This is a wonderful instrument. I love it."

That's good enough for me.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Sumpin New

I didn't name this creation, because it is a commission build for a fellow from Cleveland, so I'll leave that to him.  However, 'city scape' came to mind after I commenced with the process of making it
different than others I've built, and looking at the shape of the headstock and the inlays.

Starting from the top working down and around, here's what makes up what has turned out to be a really cool guitar.  It looks good. It feels good, lightweight and comfortable. It plays very well with a soft and close action. And, it sounds great with strong warm bass and bright treble with a ton of sustain.

The headstock overlay on the African mahogany neck is a combination of East Indian rosewood and elevated Goncolo Alves with tuning machine recesses on the Alves side. A hand-fabricated bison bone nut separates the headstock from the rosewood fingerboard, which has pearl position markers and medium/medium gauge hand set and polished frets. The soundhole rosette inlay is a combination of twenty-six individually cut pieces of exotic wood, which were glued together, cut and shaped to fit the center recess of the three part design. The outer circles are thinner black composite strips. The bridge is made of hand fabricated rosewood with a bison bone saddle and ebony pins with abalone inlay, which anchor the Ernie Ball 10-46 gauge strings. Further down the top is another grouping of  wood pieces that carry out the 'city scape' design into the tailpiece, each being made up of eighteen individually assembled exotic wood pieces. The back and sides are mahogany as well, with narrow rosewood binding formed to separate and add strength to the joints, where the body pieces are glued together. A one-half-inch strip of ebony bordered herringbone walnut inlay runs along the spine of the back from the bottom of the tailpiece to the Wenge (when-gay) heel cap of the neck. You'll notice a carryover of the spine inlay into the other inlays, tying it all together.  The small heel cap is a combination of rosewood, redheart, zebrawood and wenge. Moving up the neck and finishing off this description are the Grover closed back geared tuners. The last photo is to show how I sometimes customize the interior without sacrificing any structural quality, by perforating the ladder-style back braces, and all bracing is scalloped and individually fitted to each design.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

'The Chief'

Several months ago, I purchased a raw Goncalo Alves acoustic guitar back and side set, which caught my eye because of the interesting highly figured grain in the wood.  I wasn't sure how I'd use it in a design, but the pointed shape of the dark grain in the back led me on a journey in my mind that resulted in creation of 'The Chief', a tribute to one of my favorite Native Americans, Chief Joseph, the great Nez Perce leader.

Goncolo Alves is a hardwood sometimes referred to as tigerwood, a name that underscores the wood's often dramatic, contrasting color scheme, that some compare to rosewood. The wood's color deepens with exposure and age and even the plainer-looking wood has a natural luster. Brazil is the main exporter of this neotropical wood.

The primary construct of this guitar is slope-shoulder dreadnought design. The neck is mahogany with rosewood fingerboard and bridge, bison bone nut and saddle. ebony bridge pins and strap button, mahogany headstock overlay with arrowhead inlay created from scrap left over from profiling the back and sides. Grover black tuners draw Ernie Ball 10-50 strings across the frets. The top is cedar. Internally, spruce top bracing is like all guitars I create, which is based on the Martin Guitar pre-war (WWII) scalloped design, and typical ladder braces stabilize the back.

These closeup shots of the top and back demonstrate why it's named 'The Chief'.  I drew the art on the top, which was then burned into the wood.  The figure on the back carries the natural shape of an arrowhead.

The soundhole rosette is a combination of art, which in my mind forms a 'dreamncatcher'.

The broken cord on the deer antler is separated from the eagle feather on the lower bout, which represents the broken promises made to Chief Joseph by the federal government.

The circular birch branch bending around the sound hole opposite the antler signifies the great strength of the Nez Perce people.

The eagle feather is a symbol of strength and honor. It is of two parts light and dark, which represents daylight and darkness, summer and winter, peace and war, life and death. According to legend, the eagle feather tells the story of life,

I choose to believe the image of Chief Joseph on this guitar serves to express what I attempt to create in my guitars . . . strength, beauty, peacefulness, and a voice that will be heard, understood and appreciated.

I hope you enjoy it.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

'Funky Munky'

The 'Funky Munky' sit-down bass is the result of a trade a couple years ago with my friend Carlton Gil Blythe, who lives in Ireland.  Carl wanted one of my cigar box guitars and a couple hand-wound magnetic pickups, so we settled on trading for an old but nice wood drum, a really cool spun aluminum racing disc automobile hubcap the size of the drum, and a couple other doodads. I knew the drum would eventually become an instrument, but not sure quite how.

Well, here's the 'how'.

When I say sit-down bass, I mean on a tall stool, or if your a little on the height-challenged side of life, you may be able to stand to play it.  It's a long-scale (34-inch) 4-string bass with John Pearce wound strings stretched from open-back gear tuners over a handmade rosewood bridge, from custom made rosewood/poplar combo tailpiece. From top to bottom, it's 57 inches tall.

It started with a 18-inch diameter wood drum, 4 inches thick, with calf skin stretched and pinned to the side.

The neck was an interesting pursuit. Much thought and doodling resulted in laminating five pieces of 4- x 36-inch poplar together in a sequence of 1/2" --1/4"--1/2"--1/4"--1/2", which provided for overall design. The scarf joint headstock is 2 inches wide by 9 inches long, and the neck is 25 inches long, tapering from 1-1/2" at the nut to 2-3/8" at the 22nd fret. Once I had determined the size and configuration that would accommodate hardware and be playable, I called on friend Art Richey at the local Carrousel Works factory to rough cut the wood to the pattern I wanted. I had pre-cut the center piece of poplar to allow for insertion of a 1/2" x 1/2" square steel truss rod, which worked out perfectly. The fretboard is a combination of 1/4" poplar and 1/4" Indian rosewood 30 inches long to allow for a 5-inch extension over the drum head, where the TotalRojo logo is inlayed. If you look carefully, you will see a threaded bar extending at an angle from the back of the neck. This 1/2" rod is used to attach the neck to the drum body, and to give strength to the overall build.

The headstock, which is 2 inches wide by 9 inches long is designed with two 1" x 3" openings for tuners. You'll notice the odd shape, which allows for the tuning machines to be properly aligned with the fretboard. Everything was done by hand from cut out to sloping the opening shoulders to allow for the strings to ride unobstructed over the handmade buffalo bone nut.

The horns and footrest were designed to add a little funk to the creation, otherwise it would have been a little boring for me. I hand shaped each piece from 2" basswood (another bit of help from my friend Art). The horns are for looks, but the footrest serves a couple important purposes -- it covers the end of the threaded support rod, and it carries a threaded insert, which can be used to hold a foot extension if someone wants to play it as a standup bass. Each piece is attached to the drum body with heavy duty screws.

Yes, each piece was cut from a solid piece of basswood.

Remember the threaded steel neck/body support rod? Well, it serves another important purpose, too.

Under the extreme pressure of the strings on the bridge, the skin top of the drum would collapse if it was not supported. I chose to create a 'shoe' that would slide on the support rod and fit snugly against the inside of the top.  It is held in place by nuts and washers, in the same manner as how the neck and foot are attached to the body.

The 'shoe' serves another purpose, as well.

Recessed into the 'shoe' surface below the bridge are two piezo transducers, which serve as electronic pickups to amplify sound through an output jack on the body to an external amplifier.

The custom made bridge is crafted from a 1/4" x 1-1/2" x 3" piece of Indian Rosewood from the same piece as the fretboard.  Buffalo bone serves as a string rest for the top of the bridge.

The 3" x 7" tailpiece is a combo of poplar and the same rosewood as the bridge. In order for the tailpiece to function properly, it must be able to move, so I fabricated a hinge that would attach to the body of the drum. I wanted something unique and different as the hinge, so I looked through odds and ends tucked in parts drawers and came up with a brass hinge from toilet seat.  Yup, straight from the lid of a shitter. A 1/2" dowel fit perfectly into the hinge hole, and once it was attached to the bottom of the tailpiece, we were in business . . . monkey business you might say, but it works.

Random shots you may enjoy.

So, where did the 'Funky Munky' moniker come from?

This entire instrument is a bit goofy, so anything less than unusual wouldn't work for a decoration for the headstock. I thought about a lot of things, but nothing rang my bell, until I was clawing through a bin of cabinet drawer pulls at the local craft store.  Out popped this head of a gorilla. Who would ever want a drawer pull like this? No one, I suspect, because there were many in the bin. But, when I saw it, I knew it was perfect for my bass.

Voila, the Funky Munky'!