Sunday, May 19, 2019

The end of a life, but the music goes on

Hi everyone. My name is Jay and I am one of Jess's two sons. This past April, Dad passed away after a long battle with cancer. He was an example of grace and good humor during every day of his eight months after the diagnosis.

His relationship with music and the craft of building guitars was critical to everything he did. You wouldn't think that a 78 year old would maintain his own blog, learn social media, and make friends with players and craftspeople around the globe, but he did.

We've decided to keep TotalRojo Guitars alive on the internet so that his how-to videos and postings might inspire others to learn something from scratch and to work with their hands.

All the best,

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Thickness Sanding

I got busy today and thickness sanded three mahogany back and side sets; one jatoba (Brazilian) cherry set; and six cedar tops for future creations. It's time to start bending.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018


'Ambrosia' is a fourteen-fret dreadnaught acoustic/electric guitar fresh off my bench with a variety of enhancements that make it very different from others I've created.

Standard design incorporates a mahogany neck with Indian rosewood headstock overlay; Grover enclosed gear tuners (this time gold); rosewood fingerboard with pearl dot position markers; Earnie Ball 10-50 strings; walnut back and sides; mahogany binding; Ambrosia Maple top; rosewood bridge; and bison bone nut and saddle. Enhanced features are on-board Guitar Fuel ToneMonster electronics; vintage Martin Guitar bone bridge pins; and a new design for internal support, which I call V-8 bracing.

The walnut back and sides and the ambrosia maple top started out like this.

When glued together, the body took on the shape of a real guitar, but there is a lot that went into the project before this stage. Notice the dovetail neck joint, which is the first for my construction.

Here are the individual pieces that came together to construct the 'V-8' internal bracing, which gives the guitar it's stability. 

The long, dark, piece of Wenge is the back spine brace, and the four pieces immediately above it are the horizontal back braces (note the curved relief at the bottom center, which allows the brace to 'bridge' the spine, thus giving the spine more continuous strength). Usually, the back braces are recessed into the spine brace.

The bridge plate is the artsy piece above the back braces, and above that are the 'V-8' braces for the top, which is a design I started working on in January and finally completed a couple months ago.  The ten smaller braces to the right are rib braces to support each side.

The holes in the braces don't do anything structurally, but I like to add a little flair to the inside of a guitar, which I think should look as good as the outside.

The spine is glued in place, and the rough cut horizontal back braces are sitting there ready to be hand finished and glued in place.

This is the top 'V-8' bracing structure with pieces glued in position.  Why the V-8 name?  Because, there are two long vertical braces which touch at the center of the tailpiece and extend forward to the outside of the sound hole, forming a 'V'. Two horizontal braces form support for the top around the sound hole.  And, four tone bars extend out from the vertical braces. Eight braces in total with the core being a 'V' . . . It had to be 'V-8' bracing.

The ambrosia maple grain is so cool and it screamed acoustic top when I saw the raw wood at Keim Lumber at Charm, Ohio, down the road from me about an hour.  If you look closely on the left side of the sound hole, you'll see a couple white protrusions, which are the volume and tone controls for the Guitar Fuel ToneMonster preamp, which my friend Ty Falato provided for this build. Hidden under the bridge saddle is a rod style piezo transducer pickup, which is connected to the output jack, the control dials, and to the 9-volt battery driving the preamp . . . all of this is hidden inside the cavity of the guitar.  If you want a simple way to pound sound out of your box, give Guitar Fuel serious consideration.

Gold Grover tuning machines look great on this combination of wood.

Check out the volute on the  neck near the headstock.

I like simple, so the ambrosia maple heel cap matches the headstock logo and the top.

The narrow maple-walnut-mahogany spine inlay is just enough to give the back a little style without detracting from the wood grain.

The finish on the guitar is satin, which I like, because it does not take away from the natural beauty of the wood, and the grain is not filled, again because that's how I like to build my instruments.

And, finally, the mahogany top/side binding is visible, and compliments the walnut quite well.

Yup, it's a homemade stand . . . gotta keep 'em off the furniture. 😎

It looks pretty good, but how's it sound.

Bluesman Jimi Vincent has been playing guitar for more than fifty years, so when I want a candid appraisal about each of my creations I go to Jimi.  I guess he likes them, he asks if he can borrow one occasionally for a gig, and I'll always be there to say, "Hell Ya, Buddy!"

I shot this video with my phone, so it is not great, but it gives you an idea about how it sounds. Jimi's first thought was "This would be a helluva bluegrass rig", and then he launched into an improv.

The sound is coming from a cigar box amp I built several years ago ('Black Dog' featured in another post on this site), which is a simple 9-volt driven Guitar Fuel ToneMonster harness. On-board controls allow it to sound real clean or real nasty, and for this video, it is a little on the heavy metal side. It makes a great practice amp, so if you're intrigued by it, contact Ty Falato at Guitar Fuel . . . tell him I sent you . . . he'll take great care of you.

Stay tuned for the next adventure soon.

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.