In musical terms, “sustain” is the duration of a sound before it becomes inaudible. Guitars have a lot of sustain, which is one reason for their rich, versatile sound. But the kinds of guitars that traditionally have the most sound—high-end, handmade instruments crafted from rare and exotic woods—are among the least sustainable, environmentally speaking. With help from organizations like Greenpeace, the music industry is doing something about it, before buying a new ax begins to seem a lot more literal.
There are several kinds of wood that are traditionally used in guitars: Rosewood, maple, mahogany, ebony and spruce, to name a few. The reason these species have endured as “tonewoods’ is that they have exceptional tonal properties (they sound good), workability (they can be easily manipulated), durability (resistance to cracking and twisting) and unsurpassed beauty. But the trees from which they’re made are being irrevocably lost.
Bob Taylor, cofounder and president of Taylor Guitars, says it’s a simple function of “More people, more goods and a higher rate of harvest than regrowth.” And, he says, “We need good, quality wood.”
That’s why Taylor and competitors Gibson, Fender, Martin and Yamaha guitars have banded together with Greenpeace in what they’ve dubbed the “Music Wood Coalition.” Their goal? To encourage sustainable logging practices of sensitive species so that guitar manufacturers can continue to have access to the woods they need, and to protect old-growth forests from over-harvesting.
“We originally created the Music Wood Coalition to address aggressive logging in Southeast Alaska, but the timing was perfect,” says Greenpeace Forest Campaign Coordinator Scott Paul. “Guitar manufacturers were already meeting about the tonewood problem on their own.”
Southeast Alaska is home to one of the word’s largest coastal temperate rainforests with virgin stands of native species like Sitka spruce, western hemlock, and red and yellow cedar. Some trees are hundreds of years old. Green-peace began researching the “chain of custody” of logs harvested in Alaska in 2003 and found that this region supplies most guitar manufacturer’s Sitka spruce—the slow-growing wood often used for guitar soundboards. But the majority of Alaskan lumber isn’t used for guitars—it’s shipped to Asian markets for home construction and millwork. Taylor says, “Our company probably uses 50 logs of spruce each year. But a sawmill might cut that many logs in an eight-hour shift for construction lumber.”
It isn’t the first time that valuable tonewoods have been endangered by other industries. Before WWII, New York Adirondack spruce was the choice soundboard material. But the post-war housing boom wiped out the tree, and guitar makers had to look elsewhere—Alaska. But, Paul says, “What happened with the Adirondack spruce is happening now with Sitka spruce.”
Taylor agrees. “Our beloved Brazilian rosewood was taken from us more than 25 years ago,” he says. “Adirondack spruce was logged out. Today we see the signs of our current woods being diminished to a point of unavailability.”
Over-foresting Gets the Axe
To protect the remaining Alaskan forest, the Music Wood Coalition has been working with Sealaska Timber Corporation to get approximately 190,000 acres of coastal temperate rainforest—privately owned by the corporation—Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified. “These [private] lands are going to be logged,” says Paul. But with FSC oversight, the forests can be managed sustainably. The first part of the two-step certification process has already been completed.
But what are guitar manufacturers doing to reduce consumption of rare woods, while keeping instrument quality high? “We’ve changed some factory techniques that allow us to use a broader range of grades of wood,” Taylor says. “Also, an ultra-primitive method of harvesting wood is really the answer for us. Walk in with your donkey; cut one tree; walk out with chunks of wood and make guitars. The forest never even notices that.”
Banding Together for Change
Guitars are difficult to construct using synthetic materials or alternative construction techniques. “A guitar is already a fully designed musical instrument,” Taylor says. “Alternative woods are the key to successful guitars. But the market needs to go there all together.”
Paul agrees. “Part of this is a leap of faith in changing markets, where people are becoming more environmentally conscious,” he says. But as any string-picker knows, it always comes down to sound quality and the physical beauty of the guitar. “Tradition is a huge driving force,” says Paul. “Players expect a spruce soundboard; a mahogany neck; an ebony or rosewood bridge.”
Changes must come from within, and in the end, players will make the decision. Colorado-based strummer Jennifer Nealy says, “I’d love it if guitars were made from more sustainable materials, but if it sounds bad, what’s the point? It’s not like recycled carpet or something. Guitars need to sound a certain way. But then again, what’s the cost of great sound? What kind of guitar will my kids be playing if these trees are gone? It’s tough.”