Vanishing Tonewoods: High End Guitar Makers Go Green

Ann Murray

First Published: January 31, 2012 Updated: December 28, 2012

For decades, acoustic guitar players and makers counted on several tree species for the perfect guitar tone but now guitar manufacturers are looking for eco-friendly practices to keep their businesses healthy for the long haul.  

Today the oldest trees that produce the best tonewoods for acoustic guitars are vanishing fast. Just 20% of the world's intact forests remain intact.

Visit any music store that sells premium acoustic guitars and it's like taking a virtual trip to forests all over the world. To make the point, John Bechtold, the owner of Pittsburgh Guitars, pulls out a catalogue for a high-end manufacturer.

"This chart shows where their wood is procured from. You can see all the different countries from Canada, Japan, Africa, Honduras, Brazil, India," said Bechtold.

Forests in these countries produce woods - mahogany, rosewood and spruce to name a few - that have been used by generations of guitar makers. These traditional "tonewoods" have stood the test of time for a reason: they produce a clear resonant sound; they're durable and beautiful.

"The cold truth is we're quite simply running out of a lot of the species that have been used for hundreds of years to make musical instruments," said Scott Paul, forest campaign coordinator for Greenpeace.

He said guitar makers aren't the main reason for the depletion of tonewoods. "Global consumption is just really reaching, to say the obvious, unprecedented levels."

Home builders, furniture companies and paper mills have been gobbling up these species for decades. By the 1940s, overharvesting all but wiped out Adirondack spruce, the wood most commonly fashioned into guitar tops before World War II. Brazilian rosewood became scarce by the mid 1960's because of illegal logging. In 1992, it was restricted from international trade. Charlie Redden, wood buyer with Taylor Guitar Company, thinks the loss of Brazilian rosewood was his industry's wakeup call. 

"As an industry, we simply didn't manage that the way we should have. So we've taken a really tough look at what role we play in using those materials," he said.

Partnering with green groups

Redden says guitar builders need to keep the remaining tonewood forests healthy. Taylor and other acoustic guitar makers have asked for help from groups like Greenpeace, the Environment Investigation Agency and Greenwood, a group that promotes sustainable forest management.

"They have those resources to help communicate with the governments in each of those areas so we can work on the same page as far as forest inventory and sustainability to ensure those forests are managed properly," explained Redden.

Taylor is partnering with Greenwood in Honduras. They're teaching local people to manage and export mahogany.

A Greenwood video shows sustainably harvested trees in the Honduran rainforest.:

 

 

The trees that are being cut have been tagged with bar codes that are linked to their GPS location. Greenwood says this tracking process has stepped up compliance with local forest regulations.

Until 2008, wood importers in the United States didn't have to follow the timber laws of other countries and essentially import illegally harvested wood. Greenpeace estimates that new federal regulations have reduced the illegal timber trade by 40 percent. Redden thinks industry and government intervention have come just in time.

"I'm hopeful that because of that we will start to see better forest management plans so our industry can continue to make those guitars indefinitely," said Redden.

Turning to alternative hardwoods

Other guitar manufacturers aren't as hopeful. They point to the slow regrowth of forests, and political instability in countries where many of the remaining forests are located. Because of these limitations, Martin Guitar Company wants to go in another direction with its production of premium guitars.

At Martin's factory in Nazareth, PA, Brian Bailey's hand sanding the cherry wood sides of a guitar body.

"We file it down and go over it with a fine file to make it real smooth," explained Bailey. 

It's one the sustainably certified guitars Martin makes with so called alternative tonewoods. Bailey said it's 

Linda Davis-Wallen of Martin Guitars says that Martin is trying to move musicians away from the rare woods that have been the mainstay of high-end guitar building.  "If we want to make wooden guitars for another 178 years we've gotta use the woods that are available to us and we've got to maintain those forests in a sustainable way so that we can keep doing it," said Davis-Wallen.

Customers aren't beating down doors to buy their eco-friendly guitars. Of the 100,000 or so instruments Martin makes each year, only 150 are crafted with nontraditional woods such as maple, koa and cherry.

"We've got to hope that one of these days it's going to click with the buying public and they're going to realize that they just can't get the same old instruments anymore," said Davis-Wallen. "As much as we love making them too, it's just not in the cards to keep happening."

Martin is making an effort to get the word out. Dealers have to sign a contract saying they'll educate customers about alternatives. Martin also has its tonewood ambassadors.

Laurence Juber, once the lead guitarist with Paul McCartney's band Wings, and now a Grammy winning composer has a signature line of Martin guitars. He designed his instrument with North American maples.

"With the intention that over a period of time that that guitar would be significantly played and sufficiently represented as a performance instrument and that somebody could look at that and say actually you know maple works really well in a Martin," said Juber.

Juber thinks change will come slowly to the acoustic guitar world and that will have consequences for old growth forests around the globe.

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Transcript

OPEN: For decades, acoustic guitar players and makers counted on several tree species for the perfect guitar tone. But with just 20 percent of the world's intact forests remaining, the oldest trees that produce the best tonewoods are vanishing fast. The makers of acoustic guitars are tuning up eco-friendly practices to keep their businesses healthy over the long haul. The Allegheny Front's Ann Murray reports.

MURRAY: Visit any music store that sells premium acoustic guitars and it's like taking a virtual trip to forests all over the world. To make the point, John Bechtold , the owner of Pittsburgh Guitars, pulls out a catalogue for a high-end manufacturer.

BECHTOLD: This chart shows where their wood is procured from. You can see all the different countries from Canada, Japan, Africa, Honduras, Brazil, India.

MURRAY: Forests in these countries produce woods,mahogany, rosewood and spruce to name a few,that have been used by generations of guitar makers. These traditional "tonewoods" have stood the test of time for a reason: they produce a clear resonant sound; they're durable and beautiful.

PAUL: The cold truth is we're quite simply running out of a lot of the species that have been used for hundreds of years to make musical instruments.

MURRAY: That's Scott Paul, forest campaign coordinator for Greenpeace. †He says guitar makers aren't the main reason for the depletion of tonewoods.

PAUL: Global consumption is just really reaching, to say the obvious, unprecedented levels.

MURRAY Home builders, furniture companies and paper mills have been gobbling up these species for decades. By the 1940s, overharvesting all but wiped out Adirondack spruce, the wood most commonly fashioned into guitar tops before World War II. ††Brazilian rosewood became scarce by the mid 1960ís because of illegal logging. In 1992, it was restricted from international trade. Charlie Redden, wood buyer with Taylor Guitar Company, thinks the loss of Brazilian rosewood was his industry's wakeup call.

REDDEN: As an industry, we simply didn't manage that the way we should have. So weíve taken a really tough look at what role we play in using those materials.

MURRAY: Redden says guitar builders need to keep the remaining tonewood forests healthy. Taylor and other acoustic guitar makers have asked for help from groups like Greenpeace, the Environment Investigation Agency and Greenwood.

REDDEN: They have those resources to help communicate with the governments in each of those areas so we can work on the same page as far as forest inventory and sustainability to ensure those forests are managed properly.

MURRAY: Taylor is partnering with Greenwood in Honduras. They're teaching local people to manage and export mahogany.

NATSOUND CHAIN SAW
This Greenwood video shows sustainably harvested trees in the Honduran rainforest. The trees that are being cut have been tagged with bar codes that are linked to their GPS location. Greenwood says this tracking process has stepped up compliance with local forest regulations.
NAT SOUND: PERFECTO

MURRAY: Until 2008, wood importers in the United States didn't have to follow the timber laws of other countries and essentially import illegally harvested wood. Greenpeace estimates that new federal regulations have reduced the illegal timber trade by 40 percent. Redden thinks industry and government intervention have come just in time.

REDDEN: I'm hopeful that because of that we will start to see better forest management plans so our industry can continue to make those guitars indefinitly.

MURRAY: Other guitar manufacturers aren't as hopeful. They point to the slow regrowth of forests, and political instability in countries where many of the remaining forests are located. Because of these limitations, Martin Guitar Company wants to go in another direction with its production of premium guitars.

At Martin's factory in Nazareth, PA, Brian Bailey's hand sanding the cherry wood sides of a guitar body.

BAILEY: We file it down and go over it with a fine file to make it real smooth.

MURRAY: It's one the sustainably certified guitars Martin makes with so called alternative tonewoods.

MURRAY: How is this wood to work with?

BAILEY: Good. It's hardwood and it works very easily.

MURRAY: Upstairs in the factory's offices, Linda Davis-Wallen says that Martin is trying to move musicians away from the rare woods that have been the mainstay of high-end guitar building.

DAVIS-WALLEN: If we want to make wooden guitars for another 178 years we've gotta use the woods that are available to us and we've got to maintain those forests in a sustainable way so that we can keep doing it.

MURRAY: Customers aren't beating down doors to buy their eco-friendly guitars. Of the 100,000 or so instruments Martin makes each year, only 150 are crafted with nontraditional woods such as maple, koa and cherry. †

DAVIS-WALLEN: †We've got to hope that one of these days it's going to click with the buying public and they're going to realize that they just can't get the same old instruments anymore. As much as we love making ëem too, it's just not in the cards to keep happening.

MURRAY: Martin is making an effort to get the word out. Dealers have to sign a contract saying they'll educate customers about alternatives. Martin also has its tonewood ambassadors. Laurence Juber, once the lead guitarist with Paul McCartney's band Wings, and now a Grammy winning composer has a signature line of Martin guitars. He designed his instrument with North American maples.

JUBER: With the intention that over a period of time that that guitar would be significantly played and sufficiently represented as a performance instrument and that somebody could look at that and say actually you know maple works really well in a Martin.

MURRAY: Juber thinks change will come slowly to the acoustic guitar world and that will have consequences for old growth forests around the globe.

For The Allegheny Front, I'm Ann Murray.