Although Pau Ferro sounds like a designer’s name, it is actually a tree. You might know it as Santos Rosewood, Bolivian Rosewood, or Morado. The species is officially called “Machaerium spp.”
The Pau Ferro tree is typically grown in South America, endemic to Bolivia and Brazil. Once it is fully mature, it can stand up to 100 feet tall.
These trees can develop a trunk that is more than five feet in diameter. It reaches 1,960 pounds on the Janka hardness scale, has minimal shrinkage (radial is just 2.8%), and the average dried weight is 54 pounds per cubic foot.
Pau Ferro wood comes in numerous colors, ranging from a dark violet tone to something in the red and orange range. If you get the sapwood, it tends to be more yellow. When you look at the grain from this species, appealing dark lines streak through it consistently to create a highly desirable appearance.
These traits have led Fender to start using Pau Ferro as the fretboard tonewood for the brand’s new guitars and basses.
Is a Pau Ferro Fretboard Any Good?
When you compared Pau Ferro to the standard rosewood on most guitars and basses, you’ll find that it has a smoother feel to it. The sonic characteristics remain relatively similar, but the guitarist receives a more rigid product that remains lighter in color. Fender made the switch because of 2017 CITES laws.
Pau Ferro wood is not new to the guitar manufacturing scene. It has been an essential component of the Stevie Ray Vaughn Stratocaster for many years. That fingerboard is one of the most eye-catching elements of SRV’s signature guitar, even if it is the item that gets overlooked the most by the casual observer.
Here are the other specs of the SRV Signature Strat that you will likely see on most new guitars for the foreseeable future from Fender.
|Scale Length:||25.5 inches (648 millimeters)|
|Fingerboard Radius:||12 inches (305 millimeters)|
|Fret Size||21 frets that are 6105 Narrow Tail|
|Nut:||Synthetic bone nut with a width of 1.65 inches (42 millimeters)|
|Position Inlays:||Ivory Dots|
|Switching:||A 5-position blade (1. Bridge Pickup; 2. Bridge and Middle Pickup; 3. Middle Pickup; 4. Middle and Neck Pickup; 5. Neck Pickup)|
|Bridge:||Six Saddle American Vintage Synchronized Tremolo with gold-plated hardware and a 3-ply engraved pickguard.|
Stevie Ray Vaughn’s signature guitar includes Fender USA 250R Nickel-plated steel strings with gauges ranging from .010 to .046. It comes with a vintage tweed case for carrying.
Fender intends to incorporate more Pau Ferro wood at its manufacturing facilities in Ensenada, Mexico.
Why Is Pau Ferro Wood Considered the Best Alternative?
Fender decided to use Pau Ferro with its new guitars because it delivers a warmer tone than most other species. Stevie Ray Vaughn signature Strats are known for their fast attack, creating an ideal sound for new fingerboards that’s crisp, clear, and tonally accurate.
The Pau Ferro is often available in a wider width, which is why Fender also uses it instead of the traditional rosewood for their 5-string bass guitars. The familiarity the brand has with the wood is one reason why they decided to use it as the preferred alternative.
You can also find the Pau Ferro fretboard on the Jaco Pastorius Jazz Bass.
Fender has a position called the “Director of Wood Technology.” The person serving in that role is named Mike Born. When the CITES laws came out in 2017, he said, “It’s got a similar hardness and oil content to rosewood. We know it’s got a good tone to it, and it’s got a nice, dark color.”
Any of the guitars that come from Mexico will likely have Pau Ferro wood today for the fingerboards. That includes the Standard, Deluxe, and Classic Series.
By taking this inclusive step to use Pau Ferro instead of rosewood, the company hopes to remain in compliance with all current regulations.
What Is CITES and Why Does It Matter?
CITES is the acronym for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.
It’s an international treaty that works to prevent specific plants and animals from becoming endangered or extinct because of the global import and export markets.
Under the treaty, each participating country works together to regulate how flora and fauna get traded economically, ensuring that the outcomes aren’t detrimental to wild populations and their overall survivability.
Although a few countries and territories are not part of the treaty, it’s currently recognized by the European Union and 182 nations. Over 35,000 different plant and animal species are part of the agreement, which was initially created in 1973.
Starting in 2017, rosewood fell under the auspices of the CITES treaty. Both the Indian and Indonesian varieties that include three Bubinga species are now protected under Appendix II within the treaty construct.
That means the shipment or transportation of an instrument made with this product for commercial purposes, no matter how small the amount, requires an export certificate.
In the United States, the CITES export certificates get issued through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services. Fender was also concerned that they would need an import permit to receive rosewood shipments from their vendors.
That’s why a semi-permanent shift to Pau Ferro became the company’s priority in 2017.
Traits About Pau Ferro Wood That Are Essential to Know
Although Pau Ferro wood delivers lovely colors, its poorly defined growth rings stand out when reviewing it as a production medium. You’ll find multiple radials that develop a unique visual style that directly translates to the guitar.
Fender uses it for the fretboard, but it is not unusual to see independent luthiers get Pau Ferro for an instrument’s sides and back.
|Color and Appearance:||• The heartwood from the Pau Ferro tree is quite different from the narrow sapwood. |
• It gets darker in tone as you get closer to the tree’s center, with unique purple and brown textures available in some species.
|Grain and Texture:||• Although the wood grain is typically straight with Pau Ferro trees, the ring patterns create some unique patterns and designs with some species. |
• It can even be interlocked. It tends to produce a high luster naturally while offering an even texture, although some products are a little fibrous.
|Endgrain:||• Pau Ferro wood has medium pores that come out with no specific arrangement. |
• You can sometimes see mineral deposits in the material, with some offering radial multiples in sets of two or three.
• That keeps the spacing close for most species.
|Rot Resistance:||• This material is quite durable when it is harvested from a healthy tree. |
• If it has been lying on the ground, it is not recommended for use in instruments.
|Workability:||• Most Pau Ferro wood is quite workable, although the ends sometimes blunt the cutting tool edge to create problems. |
• Some items have an irregular grain that tears out during machining.
• Guitar makers like Fender face the same challenges when gluing it as they do with other rosewood species.
|Odor:||• Although you wouldn’t recognize it after the wood goes through the manufacturing process, some species have a characteristic scent when getting processed. |
• The best way to describe it is like you’re in a kitchen toasting some walnuts.
|Allergic Reactions:||• Pau Ferro wood acts as a sensitizer. |
• It’s a trait found in many rosewoods.
• Although the processing work makes an allergic reaction rare for guitarists, there can be some problems when working around the raw materials.
|Pricing:||• Since Pau Ferro still has a reputation for being an exotic imported hardwood, the cost is more reasonable than other species. |
• Since it is cheaper than rosewood, you can sometimes see the guitars priced slightly lower if you’re grabbing a model from a non-signature series.
■ Is Pau Ferro Better Than Maple for Guitars?
When you start looking at Fender guitars (or an instrument from any brand), you’ll notice that maple is another choice gaining in popularity. Since the wood is widely available, it’s a little cheaper so that beginners don’t need to spend $1,000 or more for their first instrument.
When you compare Pau Ferro with maple, the results are more about your personal preferences as a player.
Some people think that maple adds more twang to the notes while helping the guitar sound brighter. When you play with Pau Ferro wood, the instrument becomes warmer, with the notes having more of a rounder sound.
That’s why you’ll see Pau Ferro used on jazz guitars and basses across multiple brands.
The difference between the two products is the natural oils found in the Pau Ferro. Since it has more pores, you’ll have more of the unwanted tones absorb into the material instead of getting sent through your audio signal.
Does It Even Matter What Wood Gets Used for the Fretboard?
The guitar’s fretboard is a crucial part of the instrument. Your hands are there to shape the chords and notes at all times.
Whether or not the materials used for the fretboard are crucial to how you play is a favorite discussion amongst guitarists. For me, I’m actually more of a fan of ebony when playing the electric guitar. I like having Pau Ferro for my bass.
Why do I like ebony? Although others might disagree, I’ve found it easier to get more snappiness in the higher notes with that material. The color tends to be darker, letting me see where my finger placement should be with better accuracy. If you get an instrument made with a lighter version of this species, the wood grain is very striking.
If you use maple for the fretboard, the density it delivers creates pure, bright sounds that produce more crispness in the mid-range instead of in the highs. Since that’s not where my natural playing style is for the electric guitar, my work tends to get muddier than I like with this option.
When you look at Pau Ferro, the traits are similar to rosewood. That’s why I like it for the bass. You’ll get warmer notes in those lower frequencies with enough buzz that it feels like the music gives you a warm hug. It’s smooth, gentle, and resounding.
If you don’t like Pau Ferro, some manufacturers are substituting walnut for rosewood. When you’d prefer the traditional products, you’ll want to shop for an instrument manufactured before 2016 to ensure that you get it.
Although some labels still say “rosewood,” anything made since 2018 is more likely to be Pau Ferro with this classification.