A Short Guide to Jatoba Wood For Guitars

Not all that long ago there were very few woods used to make guitar fretboards, but as prices went up, and availability of materials went down, guitar manufacturers started sourcing woods from different trees, and even started to manufacture synthetic equivalents. Some of the woods that manufacturers started to use have exotic sounding names that many in the guitar community have scarcely heard of, like Jatoba, for example.

In this KillerGuitarRigs guide you’ll learn:

  • What is Jatoba wood?
  • Which guitars use Jatoba wood?
  • What are the most common fretboard woods?
  • Why is Jatoba used instead of rosewood?

What is Jatoba wood?

Jatoba wood is native to Central and South America, as well as the West Indies. It is particularly prevalent in Brazil, which is how it gets its alternative name “Brazilian Cherry”. While not actually related to the North American Cherry species usually associated with cherry wood, Jatoba does bear a resemblance color wise to stained cherry.

This wood has increased significantly in popularity in recent years due to its excellent looks, strength, stiffness and hardness – properties that luthiers absolutely love. The fact that it is low cost is also extremely helpful.

Jatoba naturally has color variations throughout the tree, with the sapwood being grey to white, and the heartwood more of a burnt orange color. But, once seasoned and treated by a luthier, it becomes a beautiful reddish brown color (similar to stained cherry), with dark striations and grain lines.

ROSEWOOD vs JATOBA vs EBONY fretboard visual comparison - Ibanez Jems

Which guitars Use Jatoba wood?

Because Jatoba is abundantly available, looks good, and has the necessary structural properties, it’s becoming a highly popular choice. Its biggest problem is the lack of prestige, as high end players tend to want rosewood and ebony on their fretboards. Jatoba is a cut above other rosewood alternatives, which is why it’s getting much more traction in the mid range instrument category.

Some examples of guitars currently sold with Jatoba fretboards include:

  • Cort CR 400
  • Ibanez JEMJR Series
  • G&L Tribute Series
  • ESP LTD Series

What are the most common fretboard woods?

In order to be suitable for use on a fretboard, a wood must have excellent strength, good flexibility, and must be incredibly hard. It should be able to bend and flex with the neck under the tension of the strings and the counter tension of the truss rod, and must be able to deal with the constant pressure of having strings applied without deforming.

Wood hardness is not a subjective measure. There is a scale known as the Janka hardness index, and according to this table, woods are rated upon how hard they are based upon their ability to withstand pressure. Specifically, how many pounds of force it takes to force an 11.28mm steel ball half its diameter into the wood.

The most commonly used woods all score well on the Janka index, although some more so than others. 

Brazilian Rosewood – Janka Score 2900

Brazilian rosewood has historically been very popular for fretboard manufacturing. It ranges in tone from very dark brown to mid brown, and is widely regarded for its beauty. The naturally oily finish of rosewood makes it very low maintenance, and its porous surface lends a warm, rich tone.

Maple – Janka Score 1450

Maple fretboards aren’t applied like other materials, instead they form a single continuous piece of wood with the neck. Maple, being a light wood, is not usually stained when being used on a guitar’s neck or fretboard, but occasionally they are roasted, which darkens the color and increases hardness. Maple fretboards are dense, but they do need to be lacquered to prevent warping, and because they are completely sealed, the tone is bright and snappy.

Ebony – Janka Score 3220

Ebony is one of the most premium wood types still in use in by luthiers. It’s also one of the hardest by a significant margin. Appearance wise it is almost black in color, and doesn’t feature much in the way of visible grain. Like rosewood, ebony is oily, and does not require finishing, and because it is dense like maple, it offers bright tones that act in contrast to the dark look.

Jatoba – Janka Score 2350

Jatoba isn’t the hardest, but it’s not the softest either. It isn’t quite as oily as rosewood or ebony and does have a tendency to dry out as it is not a finished wood, so care must be taken to keep it maintained – many guitarists swear by boiled linseed oil for moisturizing their Jatoba board. Jatoba is a little more porous than rosewood, with more pronounced ridges and grooves which add a soft warmth to a guitar’s tone.

Why is Jatoba wood used instead of rosewood?

In 2017, CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) implemented rules that restricted the import and export of rosewood across international borders. For many guitar manufacturers this was a big problem as rosewoods were widely used across the world, at foreign and domestic factories alike. At the time this affected all rosewood species, which led manufacturers to change their guitar specs, mostly on import guitars, in order to comply with the law. 

The restriction did not prohibit the use or sale of rosewood domestically, which is why it has started to become more sought after. Although much of that desire is down to the prestige of owning a US made instrument made with rosewood, rather than the rosewood actually making a better fretboard than the alternatives.

In 2019, the law was relaxed, and the only rosewood species remaining on the list of banned woods is Brazilian Rosewood, which just happens to be the most premium of all. Despite the fact that imported, non-Brazilian rosewood is once again legal, manufacturers are still choosing to use woods like Jatoba and Indian Laurel as rosewood replacements for their foreign made guitars.

Final Thoughts on Jatoba Wood for Guitars

Jatoba has proven to be a sustainable alternative to rosewood that helps to keep costs low, and guitarists don’t seem to mind! It looks similar enough, it plays well, and it delivers the right tones.

By the way, you might also be interested in our guide to agathis wood, as well as our rundown on tung oil and other fretboard oils.

Martin Holland

Growing up in rural Australia, there wasn't much to do but play guitar and stare at the red dirt. When things broke, the only person to fix them was fifty miles away, and eventually fixing gave way to building, giving me my career as a luthier. I wouldn't have it any other way.