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    I was involved in a few discussions about the possibility of buying guitars with Brazilian rosewood (Dalbergia nigra) from the US  – e.g. Fender Strats from the  early 60ies – on the Strat-Talk Forum. After talking with two officials from Germany’s authorities / customs I got some new information which I want to present with this blog post.

    In Short – Brazilian Rosewood (Dalbergia Nigra)Brazilian rosewood is the wood of fingerboards on many vintage guitars like Fenders or Gibsons from the 50ies or 60ies. Due to its endangered status, it was CITES-listed on Nov. 6 1992 in Appendix I (the most protected, same status as ivory or some turtle shells), and illegal to trade. Guitar manufacturers replaced it with other sorts of rosewood, e.g. Indian or African rosewoods which are similar but not identical in look and sound.Although all these vintage guitars were built before the date Brazilian rosewood was protected, many restrictions apply to these as well, making it difficult (or even impossible) to sell or buy such guitars.

    Still possible: importing a vintage guitar for private purpose

    Selling guitars with parts of Brazilian rosewood  – both commercially and private – requires a special permission within the EU. Importing (or exporting) these into (or from) the EU commercially is in most cases not possible!

    Brazilian rosewood on a ’62 Stratocaster

    However, for private purpose it is still possible to get export and import permission for pre-convention instruments, in other words guitars built before 1992 .  Buying a Strat from someone in the US is not commercial automatically. If you don’t buy the guitar to resell it (or to make money from it in any other way, e.g. to sell photos of it), it is for private purpose.

    It does not matter here if you buy the guitar from a shop or a private person.

    ****Now the bad thing: you can never ever sell the guitar again, not to anyone, no exception.****
    [Regarding the five digits prices for e.g. vintage Strats from the early 60ies, buying such a guitar becomes econmically difficult: it is still true that it will keep its value, or the value will even increase further, but you are not allowed to sell it!!?? ]

    You are allowed to perform with the guitar in public (seems ridiculous, but this was not sure some months ago) . This is because in such a situation you don’t primarily display your guitar commercially but your music. However, if you plan to display the guitar on e.g. a guitar show, or print pictures of it e.g. in a book you are going to sell, it is considered commercial.

    Importing the guitar commercially – e.g. to resell it – is usually not possible. The only two exceptions are :
    – the guitar was made before 1947 ,
    – or if the guitar has once been imported into the EU before 1992, and you are going to re-import it.

    How to do import a vintage guitar from the US into the EU

    If you buy a Strat on e.g. ebay, the first thing that is required is an export permission from the US. To get this is the seller’s job!  The permission can be obtained from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife website (application form here) , it costs USD 75, and processing time can be up to 60 days (or even longer) !!

    The seller then needs to send a copy of the form (a scan via email will do, the original will travel with the guitar) to the buyer. With this export permission, the buyer can then get an import permission from his country’s authorities (in case of Germany, it is the Bundesamt fuer Naturschutz). The import permission will cost  20 Euros (price for  Germany).

    Prices and authorities might vary from country to country, but the same should be true for any EU country as these laws are EU-wide laws.

    One thing that is very important: On the export permission from the US, field #15 must be stamped by the export customs office. For this reason, the seller must take the instrument to one of the export customs offices in the US to get it stamped there!

    If this is missing – which seems to be often the case when just leaving this job to the post service – the guitar cannot be imported into the EU, in other words will not pass the border to the EU. The missing stamp cannot be received afterwards.

    The guitar will then be confiscated and will remain in the possession of the government forever (but can e.g. be given as a permanent loan to a public music school etc.). The buyer’s money is lost then, no compensation.

    I wrote a few blog posts about selling vintage guitars within the EU before, see the list with links to related blog posts below (in very short: it is possible to sell a guitar with Brazilian rosewood within the EU with a special paper that is available if the guitar is proved to be built before 1992 and was imported into the EU before this date. If it was imported after, you cannot sell it!)

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    Guitars with Brazilian Rosewood: Info Update

    Posted in: Vintage guitars by Ingo on November 04, 2013

    I already reported in two previous blog posts (here and here) about the difficult situation we are facing when buying or selling guitars with parts of Brazilian rosewood (e.g. the fingerboard on vintage Fender or Gibson guitars).

    Yesterday I was on Germany’s biggest vintage guitar show in Oldenburg. Last year the show was cancelled due to exactly this issue – the problems of displaying guitars with Brazilian rosewood in public. This year Brazilian rosewood played a role again: there was an info booth where you could compare samples of different rosewoods and a workshop on Endangered woods on musical instruments with PD Dr. Gerald Koch from Hamburg University.

    Distinguishing Brazilian rosewood (Dalbergia nigra) from similar rosewoods (e.g. Indian rosewood) is not easy (some info and pictures can be found here). The samples of  these two rosewoods at the info booth looked very similar, even the number of pores was similar on these. I also did the ‘smell test': Brazilian rosewood is said to have a typical sweet odor, a bit like vanilla or roses. However, I have to admit that – after some sanding of the samples – both had some odor but I found the Braz rosewood neither stronger nor ‘typical’. And another rosewood – Cocobolo – smelled to me much more of vanilla than the Brazilian.

    Many vintage Strats with Brazilian rosewood on the Oldenburg Vintage Guitar Show this year - but only with CITES certificate!

    Many vintage Strats with Brazilian rosewood on the Oldenburg Vintage Guitar Show this year – but only with CITES certificate!

    Here is an overview of some – partly new – aspects discussed in the workshop:

    * The overlap between Brazilian and Indian rosewood on vintage Fender guitars is wider than previuosly believed. While almost all Fenders up to 1966 had Brazilian rosewood, it can be found in the late 60ies or even early 70ies as well.

    * It is confirmed now that it is possible to gig with instruments with Brazilian rosewood! This was not clear as displaying instruments with this wood commercially is not allowed. To play an old Fender on a gig where you perform for money can be considered commercial, but it was stated that on a gig you mainly present your music and not your instrument. The same should apply for e.g. Youtube videos where you play such a guitar. However, if you want to sell it it is not allowed to present it on Youtube for this purpose without having the proper CITES papers.

    * Trading these instruments beetwen the different economic areas (e.g. the US; the EU, Japan,..) is NOT possible, even with CITES certificate!!!
    If someone offers e.g. a 1962 Strat on ebay and offers world wide shipping, this is illegal. The instrument can be confiscated when passing the borders!!

    * If you want to sell such an instrument WITHIN your economic area, you need the CITES certificate.

    * You can get the CITES paper when your guitar was made before 1992 (the year Brazilian rosewood was added to CITEX annex 1) AND you can prove that the guitar was imported to your econmic area before this date. If you e.g. bought the 1962 Strat on Ebay US in 1995 and let it ship to Europe, your guitar was imported illegally and you cannot obtain a CITES certificate for it !

    * Hamburg University is a leading place for identifying endangered woods. They sent samples and information – including pictures of the endangered wood and the most similar legal ones it can be mixed up with – to many customs authorities all over the world. So hoping that the customs officers will not recognize endangered woods on a vintage guitar you are to buy is highly risky at least!! As customs are responsible for controlling trade with endangered species, they must be qualified and are thus trained for this.

    * Instruments made before 1947 are free to trade in the EU.

    * Everyone agreed that the CITES laws were intended to protect species, and not to criminalize guitar players who have owned their vintage guitar for maybe 30 years. But the idea is to control and reduce any demand for these species: if you cannot buy e.g. ivory legally, there is less demand for it and so less elephants are killed.

    * CITES is a world-wide law which cannot be modified by local authorities. So if trading such an instrument is not allowed, authorities have to confiscate it and are not allowed to make exceptions.

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    I reported about the increasing problems concerning guitars with Brazilian rosewood (used e.g. for fingerboards on vintage Fender or Gibson guitars) last year (see here). As a consequence of this, Germany’s biggest vintage guitar  show last November was cancelled, as the CITES restriction does not allow to display a guitar with parts of Brazilian rosewood in public without a special licence.

    With this short blog post I just want you to inform that in fact at this year’s Frankfurt Music Fair (the biggest trade fair for musical instruments worldwide) no vintage guitars were displayed at all for this reason. Last year there was a special display area with lots of vintage Fenders and Gibsons (see this blog post), like Strats from the 50ies and 60ies, even 50ies “bursts” (Les Pauls from 1958-1960) . The only exception was one booth by No. 1 Guitar Center from Hamburg, Germany, who had some old Fenders – but all with the required papers directly next to each guitar.

    Last year you could see lots of vintage guitars-  not this year

    Last year you could see lots of vintage guitars at the Frankfurt Music Fair – not this year

    This shows that the  EU law is really repected meanwhile. It is almost impossible to sell or even display a vintage guitar with the protected Brazilian rosewood – unless you have the proper papers for it. And as this is an EU-wide law (to be correct, even a world-wide law), it will soon be similar in all other European countries soon (German authorities are often said to be more correct than others so no wonder they made the start).

    I also phoned the authorities office for my town to inquire how to get such CITES papers. I will keep you updated after getting these, hopefully soon.


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    Brazilan rosewood and German authorities

    Posted in: Misc,Vintage guitars by Ingo on October 30, 2012

    Brazilian rosewood is one of the greatest woods for fingerboards. Unfortunately this tropical tree – Dalbergia nigra – is  on the CITES list of endangered species so that strict restriction were put on trading this wood in 1992, the reason why Brazilian rosewood was found on many vintage guitars but hardly on new guitars (which often use Indian rosewood as a substitute).


    Carrying such a vintage guitar on a tour requires a lot of different papers – acording to German authorities

     Vintage Guitar Show cancelled

    Germany’s biggest vintage guitar show which was planned for the coming weekend (November 3/4) has been cancelled for legal reasons that have to do with this wood. What happened? German authorities (the Bundesamt für Naturschutz) released an anouncement (German language) about Brazilian rosewood last year that explicitely explains how to deal with any items, like guitars, that contain parts of this wood: if you want to travel with such a guitar from e.g. the US into the EU, you need a paper from the US authorities that allows exporting, and another one from German authorities that allows importing it. This is true for new instruments (which makes sense), but also for any instruments that were built before this wood was added to the CITES list (1992). It also requires another special paper (Vermarkungsbescheinigung) to display such an instrument in public on a non-private event.

    This means: if you are an amateur musician and own such a guitar, you are not allowed to play it on a local gig in a pub, or to display it on a guitar show, theoretically not even to play it in a youtube video that includes advertizing, unless you have such a paper from the authorities.

    This paper however requires a (sometimes expensive) certificate that your guitar was produced before 1992, and that you bought it before this date. If you bought it after 1992, you need papers that prove when and where the guitar was imported into the EU. If you bought it in e.g. 2005 on ebay, you might not got such papers from the seller, who also maybe had bought it from somwhere else without these papers, and you cannot prove legitimacy of the EU import.

    This theoretically also applies to touring bands. Mark Knopfler’s Les Pauls, his ’61 Strat, his sunburst Telecaster, some of his Pensas and Pensa Suhrs, and possibly some of his Martins, have fingerboards of Brazilian rosewood. If after the US leg of a tour he continues the tour in the EU, the customs office might insist on an export paper from the US, an import paper from the EU, plus the licence to use it in public, and this for each guitar. If he does not have these papers, they might confiscate the guitar, or finally even destroy the wonderful 1958 Les Paul  “due to public interest”.

    This has not happened to any touring artist yet (and hopefully never will), but it has been officially confirmed that this is law (or at least the way German authorities interprete some EU laws), and it is thus a theoretical threat for any musician.

    Violin confiscated

    The following however has happened, and it shows the way  German authorities can act: A Japanese star violin player carried a violin worth about 7.6 million Euros on a tour. German customs insisted on her paying 19% VAT (about 1.4 million Euros) to get the instrument into the EU, and this although it was clear that she did not want to sell it there but to play it on a classical concert (the violin was not even hers but a loan of some cultural institution). The violin was confiscated. It took an argument between the Japanese and German government to get it back some time later.

    It is good to control trading with endangered species, and thus to protect the rain forest, but it is crazy to make playing an instrument illegal which you might have for years and that was built when the wood was legally available everywhere, unless you can provide a bunch of  difficult to get papers.

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    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),  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, and  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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