A Sound Idea

Forest-Friendly Instruments Make Sweet Music


Greg Gaylord, a self-employed drum maker, works with wood almost every day. The lone owner and operator of aptly named Drum Solo in Novato, California, Gaylord spends his waking hours laboring over the many intricacies of his handcrafted snare drums. Each finished drum—its shell hewed from domestic woods like cherry, maple or walnut, or from exotic species like Paraguayan cancharana or peroba—is, in Gaylord’s own words, “great-sounding from the get-go.” Each drum is also utterly unique, extremely durable and, in most cases, because Gaylord buys the majority of his wood from a nearby lumber company called EcoTimber, socially and environmentally friendly.

A Global Scale

Welcome to the latest development in the war against deforestation, species extinction and social and economic exploitation. An increasing number of musical-instrument makers, ranging from companies as small as Drum Solo to those as large and well known as Nashville’s Gibson Guitars, are carving, sawing and sanding their products from certified-ecological wood. “The wood is tracked from the forest floor to the sales floor and every place in between,” explains Francine Stephens, a spokesperson for Richmond, Vermont-based SmartWood, one of the country’s biggest certifying agencies. SmartWood, a program of the Rainforest Alliance and accredited by the Forest Stewardship Council to certify forests and forest products that are ecologically sound, considers numerous factors when doing so—everything from the environmental sustainability of forest management and timber-harvesting methods to the effect those methods have on indigenous communities.

Frankie Frost/Drum Solo

Through programs like SmartWood and Oakland-based Scientific Certification Systems, as well as similar programs in Canada, Europe and Africa, the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) has put its stamp of approval on nearly 50 million acres of forest worldwide. To be sure, only an extremely small percentage of certified land’s trees goes to the “green” musical instrument industry. But also true is that only an extremely small percentage of all the world’s trees are used in making musical instruments of any kind.

Traditionally, guitars are made from the world’s finest cuts of mahogany and rosewood harvested from rainforests in countries like Brazil. Similar woods are used for drums, clarinets, oboes and wooden flutes and piccolos. Because such trees are typically scarce, loggers must destroy massive swaths of forest just to gain access. By the time they’ve built roads and bridges and rumbled away with prized logs, they’ve scarred the forest and opened an otherwise inaccessible land to habitation. Inhospitable jungle often turns to farmland.

Fortunately, such practices are falling out of favor. Instead of pulling logs without regard to the consequences, many forestry operations are now following the guidelines of groups like the FSC. The result is eco-friendly wood and, for sectors like the musical-instrument industry, a brand-new market.


Its success depends on a number of factors. For one, consumers have been told for years that the best instruments are made from precious tropical woods like mahogany, ebony and rosewood—the very species most in danger. The thought of buying a guitar with an American red-cedar neck may, consequently, be less than appealing. Another problem is supply. Major manufacturers gripe over a lack of raw materials, claiming there just isn’t enough high-quality certified wood to meet their production needs and make the process financially feasible.

Certified woods are nevertheless gaining ground among musicians, and by all accounts a program known as SoundWood is leading the way. A component of Britain’s Fauna and Flora International and now based in San Francisco, SoundWood works directly with the music industry, harvesters, scientists, governments and consumers to develop species-conservation solutions. “SoundWood doesn’t tell the music industry what they should and should not do,” explains Robert Garner, the program’s director. “We work in collaboration with the industry.” In fact, the group has enjoyed the endorsement of an array of big-name musicians, including the Blues Travelers, Roseanne Cash, Don Henley, Bonnie Raitt and others.

Playing It Out

Dispelling the belief that certified woods are inferior to traditionally harvested tropical varieties, and so not suitable for instruments, is high priority. “Certified woods come from the same trees,” says Garner. “They just come from forests managed in a sustainable way.” According to Garner, environmentally conscious consumers are catching on. He compares it to the market for organically grown food: “The more people understand and ask for these products, the more it’s expected. The market is getting bigger every year.”

One of the major movers has been the Gibson Guitar Corporation. The company produced what it billed as the first cost-effective, high-quality, forest-friendly guitar, the SmartWood Les Paul, in 1996. Today, Gibson offers a line of six certified-wood guitars known as the Les Paul Exotics. The instruments feature mahogany backs, curupay fingerboards and tops carved from Paraguayan hardwoods like taperyva, guasa, cancharana, peroba, banara and ambay guasa. Each guitar retails for $1,299, and a portion of all sales is donated to the Rainforest Alliance.


Many other guitar manufacturers, including Fender, Martin, Modulus, the Santa Cruz Guitar Company and Taylor, have followed suit. Novato, California’s Modulus, for one, offers several certified woods for the necks, fingerboards and bodies of their electric guitars and basses; their handmade instruments blend sustainably harvested granadillo, chechen, red cedar, chakte kok and soma with high-tech carbon fiber.

Up the coast, at Dave Maize Acoustic Guitars in Cave Junction, Oregon, where owner Dave Maize custom builds just a handful of high-quality guitars each year, instruments are crafted from less-utilized, sustainably harvested, or non-endangered timbers. “I’ve always been concerned about the state of the world’s forests,” says Maize. “I decided to make sure my work didn’t make the situation any worse.” Much of the wood Maize mills is from “reclaimed” sources: walnut trees downed in road-building, bug-killed Canadian red cedar and Engelmann spruce, Sitka spruce salvaged from old logging rafts, and pear trees from demolished orchards. His clients include Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead, Adam Clayton of U2 and Jeff Ament of Pearl Jam.

In another conscious effort to preserve rare trees, Yamaha has developed a guitar line and series of snare drums made largely from bamboo, which grows one-third faster than the fastest growing tree. Many other eco-friendly instruments—from wood whistles and violins to marimbas—are also available to musicians, amateur and professional alike. Instrument maker Boosey & Hawkes, for example, offers a line of oboes and clarinets made from a heat-treated mix of African blackwood sawdust, carbon fiber and epoxy glue. The manufacturing process utilizes the entire tree, not just the tradition

al cuts. The same technique permits old instruments to be ground down and recycled into new ones.

Ultimately, instrument makers may choose certified woods over other varieties as a matter of industry survival. According to a recent joint report by the World Resources Institute, the United Nations and the World Bank, the Earth is losing nearly 34 million acres of tropical forest every year. The trees everyone loves so much—for their instruments, furniture and homes—are fast disappearing. A complete shift to sustainable forestry may be the only answer. As Adam Wiskind, retail sales manager at Berkeley, California-based EcoTimber puts it, “There just aren’t enough forests. We have to do it this way. There’s just no other choice.”