Secrets of Vintage Guitars: Brazilian Rosewood

Posted on 12 CommentsPosted in Guitar in general, Guitars, Mark Knopfler gear, Vintage guitars

Fans of vintage guitars normally claim that vintage guitars sound better than new ones. Why? Some say because the wood is old and dry, or it resonates better with the time a guitar is played.

Others say that some parts were in detail different than they are today. Some of this is vodoo, but there are in fact a few real differences. One of these is the kind of wood used for fingerboards: vintage Fenders mostly had Brazilian rosewood (botanical name: dalberia nigra),ย  a wood – as the name suggest – from the tropical rainforests. Brazilian rosewood is protected by strict environmental laws these days, it cannot be legally obtained since 1992. No cutting of trees, no export or import. For this reason it is almost impossible to get, and also extremely expensive. New guitars come with Indian rosewood instead (dalberia latifolia, it grows on plantations) , or from some other parts of the world like Madagascar.

Some specs of Brazilian rosewood like average density or hardness are in fact different than for Indian rosewood, also the look is slightly different. As far as colour is concerned, both can be almost black or rather brown, from lighter brown over redish brown to purple brown. Brazilian rosewood can feature a highly figured grain, andย  often has tiny holes (I have heard these are in fact wurmholes). Besides it is said it has a typical sweet smell but since I can’t smell anything like this on a guitar, I guess this is rather when working with the wood.

Brazilian rosewood on a ’62 Stratocaster. Vintage guitars often have imprintsfrom
the fingernails where these rest when playing frequent chords like E or Am.

Indian rosewood can look very similar.

Brazilian rosewood often has an attractive grain .

Indian rosewood

Brazilian rosewood is said to sound a bit brighter but nevertheless warm. To make one thing clear: the tonal differences are very subtle, and both kinds of wood can sound fantastic. If you google for ‘brazilian + Indian + rosewood’ you will find hundreds of pages or discussion from guitar forums about these differences.

What is my personal opinion: I have played many guitars with Brazilian rosewood. The problem is as always that you will never have two guitar that are identical with the exception of one single feature like the type of rosewood (and nobody would replace his fingerboard to make an A/B comparision obviously). Nevertheless, I got the feeling that the ones with Brazilian rosewood had something in common that is missing with Indian rosewood. A subtle difference, but still there. Or I am simply wrong, who knows (now the experts can chime in).

Mark Knopfler’s ’61 Strat has Brazilian rosewood – Fender changed only gradually to Indian rosewood sometime between the late 60ies and early 70ies. His Pensa Suhr from late Dire Straits days also has Brazilian rosewood, I am not sure about his later Pensas (luthiers often still have small supplies of it, their ‘personal treasure’), the Signature Strats haven’t.

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Audio sample from Hamburg 78 (speed corrected)

Posted on 1 CommentPosted in Guitar in general, Mark Knopfler gear, Misc, Misc, MK guitar style and licks

Today I messed around with an audio player plug-in for WordPress (the software used to create this blog). In some other post I wrote something about the Hamburg concert (Musikhalle, Hamburg, Germany, Oct. 28, 1978) and mentioned that I slowed it down to the original speed (the concert around in some fan hubs or on torrent trackers runs almost ridiculously fast), so I added the audio player with a sample song from this legendary concert. See the original post (click here), I added the audio player below the pictures (so you have something to look at while listening).

The song I selected is Lions. Note how the sound changes when Mark switches between bridge and middle pick-ups to middle pick-up for the solos. He used the ’61 red Strat with the rosewood neck (#68354) on probably all concerts in late 78 (see this post for more about this).


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Zen and the art of playing the guitar

Posted on 1 CommentPosted in Guitar in general, Misc, MK guitar style and licks, Understanding music

Zen – a word sometimes heard, but only rarely explained. Those who practice Zen say that “Zen is what cannot be explained” – not really helpful. So what is it, what does it have to do with art, and what with playing the guitar?

Basically Zen is a Japanese form of Buddhism. It is not a religion – you don’t have to believe in any gods or in Buddha. Instead it has something to do with a particular state of mind. It is this state of mind that is the ultimate aim – it is finally the way to what Buddhists call enlightenment.

Take a look at the following three pictures that all have to do with Zen.

MK picture courtesy of lukas

So, what do these have in common? The Zen mind is characterized by clearness, simplicity, and mindfulness. The monks who work in a Zen garden do this to practice concentration, combined with a certain kind of relaxation. They concentrate on all the details in their garden, on the sand, on those tiny pebbles, on the plants. Concentration is also essential for the sword fighter, one tiny moment of unawareness might result in his death in a fight. And the guitar player – not all, but at least the one pictured here ๐Ÿ˜‰ – performs a piece of art where also each tiny detail matters, everything is important: each single note can be made to sound perfect by concentration, the attack matters, he volume, the vibrato, the song itself of course, simply everything.

Just like the Zen garden must not look overcrowded but open and simple instead, a piece of music should be clearly structured and should have enough open space, so better leave out this killer guitar solo, leave out that complex rhythm fill, leave out things that are not required and disturb the peaceful flow of the music.

Zen focusses on the things “as they are” and concentration is the gate to being aware of the world around you. Never think about the past, which is over anyway, never think about the future, which is totally open and outside your control. Instead live in the now, in the very moment.

One essential way to build up such concentration is meditation. Meditation basically combines relaxation and concentration to enter a different state of mind. All Zen masters practised meditation for thousands of hours in their life. What about our guitar player? Am I to say he also meditated a lot in his life? Well, there are thousand different kinds of meditation: pay attention to your breathing, pay attention to your interior, or to each step you do when walking slowly around, to everything around you, to the right way of standing and holding a sword, or to sit for hours and play the guitar. It is the concentration, always combined with relaxation, that matters. And yes, practicing your guitar in a particular way can be regarded as meditation, and I am sure it can have similar results as conventional sitting meditation.

Modern psychologist have a new term for this state of mind, they call it “flow”. Doing some kinds of work can under certain circumstances lead to this flow. You feel one with the world around you, your thoughts stay in the focus on what you are doing, and you feel perfectly happy.

The next time you practice your guitar you might also concentrate on things you normally are not aware of, like your body posture (very important for your energy flow and thus for your ability to concentrate), your breathing, (even and deep breathing leads to relaxation which is required for more concentration) or technical things like the perfect vibrato, more dynamics and attack control, and not on things like getting faster or louder.

Keeping up the concentration level seems to be very hard at first, so you might say it is impossible to be aware of all these things all the time. However, you might find out that the longer you concentrate, the easier it suddenly becomes to keep up concentration so it is definitely worth the effort and does not only help you to play guitar better but also to live a happier life. So …

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