ENDANGERED WOODS & GUITAR SUSTAINABILITY – what musicians need to know.
Today I’ve been trying out my new traveller guitar. I just can’t keep my hands off it, I love it. The sound is bright, but with a warmth I’ve not often found in traveller guitars. Most tend to be a tinny, overly bright sounding instrument, more similar to the likes of a ukulele. But this one has these rich silken undertones with a chime like resonance that practically shivers at my strum. The music springs out of the guitar almost of its own accord…and carries me away with it.
Would it come as a surprise then, to know that this guitar was made from recycled timbers, and not the famed rare tone woods we have come to know and love so dearly? Well it is, all the timbers in this guitar were salvaged from parts of an old Queenslander home.
This guitar is part of a project I am currently working on, one that I hope will help to revitalize the music industry in Brisbane and allow guitar making to be sustainable into the future. With natural resources already running low many of us are seeing that something has to change.
So why might a guitar maker like myself feel the urge to make a more sustainable guitar? Let me tell you, I wasn’t always this way. I, like many of you was convinced that rare and expensive tone woods were what made a great quality guitar. But now that I’ve made some mistakes, seen the mistakes of many other guitar builders and looked at the bigger picture I can see that I really only had half the facts.
One of the most pressing facts coming into light more recently is that the rare timbers which guitar manufacturers have come to rely on for producing guitars, are either disappearing or they are becoming obscenely expensive, and are on the verge of disappearing. We are running out of forests.
So how did it get to this?
Several hundred thousand guitars are sold every year in Australia alone, using woods like mahogany, rosewood, ebony, and Sitka Spruce. These woods are synonymous with guitars and many guitar manufacturers use at least one of these timbers in almost all of their guitars. But now that we know more about the displacement of Forests (due to things like logging, farming and spreading civilisation) this feels wrong. In most countries, these timbers are illegal to harvest. In fact, ebony can now only be found from one country in bulk, the small Eastern African country of Cameroon. But still, when a well-versed guitar player goes into a guitar shop, they will insist on a guitar with the rarest woods on the planet. Why?
When it comes to talking about tone or sound it is a very abstract and subjective topic. It is not something that can be measured, and due to its subjectivity no one can really ever completely agree if the best guitar is one that is throaty or snappy, silky or warm. Whereas timbers are much easier to talk about, they are a physical and tangible object that we can point at and touch.
Having timbers as a reference has been an easy way for players to differentiate between a quality guitar and one poorly made. The materials used on high end guitars tended to be expensive and rare and therefore superior, whereas the materials used on a cheap guitar were inexpensive, more common and therefore inferior.
These things seemed to attract one another, generally if a manufacturer was paying more for materials they would take more time and care with them, and if a manufacturer was paying less it was because they want to produce as many instruments as possible, as cheaply as possible without any thought for quality control.
At least that is how things have been for the most part.
More recently though, we are starting to see more and more poor quality guitars being made with rarer timbers to give the illusion of great craftsmanship, or of being made by another more sought after brand. Conversely, there are a number of respected guitar manufacturers now making instruments using alternative materials.
Back in 1995 Bob Taylor wanted to ‘return emphasis to the guitar maker’ and show that it’s the Luthier’s skills, rather than the materials which determine the quality of an instrument, so he created the pallet guitar which was made from pallet wood scraps. The guitar was successful; it sounded great, even Martin guitars were shocked by the sound of it. In 2000 he released another 25 more pallet guitars. I suppose at the time demand hadn’t caught up with him, but the seed was there, the only thing that really needed to change was public opinion.
All industries run by supply and demand.
A great example of this is the story of the 1930's series of ‘Dreadnought’ Martins, considered by many players and collectors to be some of the best sounding guitars ever made. What many don’t know is that at their time of release they were actually considered to be less than popular. Now these guitars are worth a small fortune and are highly desired by players and collectors alike.
The only thing that changed was time and mindset.
We’ve come a long way from fingerboards and bridges being made completely of ivory, and when we look back on these decadent guitars we are ashamed of the unnecessary waste of life and resources. We can hardly say that we are even impressed by the look or the tone of those guitars, at the time though, this was what players demanded, and of course suppliers were enthusiastically meeting demand.
So what can we do about this issue?
While there is no one single solution there are already ongoing initiatives to preserve and develop more sustainable sources of tone wood, ranging from sustainably and ethically harvested plantation timbers to alternative materials being used in production.
Let’s talk more about synthetics, composites and alternative materials. Guitar makers are experimenting more and more with things like ebony dust fingerboards, carbon fiber (though not completely sustainable due to the substantial energy requirements etc.) and recycled materials (targeted at a slightly more boutique market) to name a few. Even Martin is now producing a ‘Sustainable Wood Series of Guitars’ as well as using composite materials for the back and sides of some guitars.
Not only do we need more sustainable guitar materials but we need a sustainable work industry. Currently many manufacturers are getting timbers from countries where saw mills have unsafe and poor working conditions and unethical logging practices rife with abuse and illegality.
It will take a lot of intervention from us to save these woods. The Multi-plan of attack needs to also include the buying, selling, customizing and repairing of ‘pre-loved’ guitars in order to preserve the great quality guitars we already do have.
I think many more manufacturers would use more wood alternatives and sustainably sourced materials, but at the moment the market is very resistant to these changes. While manufacturers need to educate consumers about sustainability and continue their efforts to increase their ethical footprint, the most powerful solutions rests within each of us, as the consumer ultimately wields the power of choice.
We need to change ourselves and change the way we look at instruments. This might be a little difficult at first, but as ivory has shown us we can kick this habit together, and we’ll all be better for it.
As a guitar maker I decided I wanted to take the leap and give a sustainable option for Brisbane that was made locally by hand. I wanted to create a series of guitars that was sustainable and had the smallest negative impact possible on the planet. It’s been hard, change always is, but it’s been worth it and I am over the moon with how great these guitars have turned out.
I look forward to seeing more companies come on board and start producing other more sustainable and environmentally friendly or recycled options for guitars and also in items such hardware, plastics for bindings, cleaver timber laminating, decorative scratch plates etc.
Whether or not they do, is really up to you. ________________________________________________________________________________
If you’ve got a guitar made from sustainable, ethical or recycled materials, or one you’ve had restored we would all love to see it. Take a photo of your baby and use the hashtag #imasustainableguitarist
Book: The History of the American Guitar (1833 to the present day) - Tony Bacon
Taylor Guitars "The State of Ebony" - Guitar Wood - Bob Taylor Video Watch Here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=anCGvfsBoFY Setting the tone: make your music sweeter with ethical guitars
ROSEWOOD RESTRICTIONS http://www.lmii.com/more-lmi-news-next-month#JAN17