Guitars Going Green

by Bryan Reesman • in
  • April 2018
  • Features
• Created: April 11, 2018

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The imperative to go green has increased steadily among musical instrument manufacturers over the years, and one area in which this the impact is certainly being felt is the realm of guitars.

A big challenge to guitar manufacturers is that the fact that players want their guitars to have the tone and playability they seek, regardless of the elements used to create the instrument. The consumer guitar market includes a large number of traditionalists, so manufacturers seek to create the sounds they want. If a newer type of wood or composite material produces the same sound it can be accepted; if not, it’s back to the familiar, which is translating into diminishing natural resources. In other words, customers can support being green, but they also want the sounds they crave.

What can be done to keep supplies going or to find alternatives and keep consumers happy? Guitar manufacturers are grappling with that question, and the answers include newer materials, alternative resources, and reforestation efforts to maintain and even grow our natural supply of wood.


C.F. Martin & Co.

The guitar manufacturer with 185 years under its belt, Martin Guitars has long been aware of the environmental impact that their operations have had. They have long been leaders in the green movement before such a concept even existed.

“Believe it or not, as early as 1915 we started to change materials on our guitars with sustainability and being a good steward of the land and animals in mind,” says Chris Thomas, Martin’s director of marketing. “We stopped using real tortoise shell. The tortoise that’s spacked on guitars nowadays is obviously a synthetic, but originally on guitars tortoise meant tortoise shell. So we stopped using turtles, and then three years after that we started to phase out the use of elephant ivory, which was also a big component of vintage instruments – pianos and guitars.”

Thomas asserts that the company has set the standard as far as moving away from traditional wood elements including synthetic things. In the 90s, they stopped purchasing Brazilian rosewood. “We have a pretty good stash,” he reports, “but we stopped consuming it by purchasing it, which changed the industry a little bit in terms of pricing.”

While the company started contemplating product design and sustainability as far back as 1915, in 1997 they gained chain of custody certification from the Forest Stewardship Council to create FSC certified guitars. “It is sort of like the equivalent of organic produce ,but for wood,” clarifies Thomas. “Chris Martin was a huge advocate and pioneered that approach to guitar building.”

In 1997, the company partnered with Sting, who raised their awareness about FSC woods, which led to Martin’s certification and a couple of Sting-endorsed guitar models in 1998.

“Although we had used them prior, he made it a marketing issue with his guitars and bass so that Martin, Sting, and the Rainforest received equal attention,” says Thomas. “Incredibly passionate about sustainability, Sting was the right artist at the right time for Martin, a sleeping giant of sustainability. We do much more and talk about it more than we did in the ‘90s. Thank you, Sting!” Martin also has a popular Jeff Tweedy model, and Thomas says that Maroon 5 guitarist James Valentine “is a huge advocate. He’s gone to Guatemala to see where the wood actually comes from. It’s a growing movement.”

When it comes to balancing commerce with sustainability, notes Thomas, most of their new models do not feature the traditional tone woods that Martin and their competitors are known for. He says it has been an interesting experiment over the last couple decades to introduce models with different elements and let people hear for themselves.

“They can genuinely sound great just because it is a change to the basic guitar – [from] the traditional materials of rosewood, ebony, mahogany, and spruce – [to] using things like cherry, machiche, catalox [pronounced catalosh], and things that aren’t normally associated with acoustics.”

Martin has also partnered with various organizations to raise awareness of green initiatives. “The Rainforest Alliance does a lot of great stuff with their Follow The Frog campaign where they have the frog initiative stamped on certain products,” says Thomas. “That certification of a product gives people the acknowledgment that it is certified and living up to a certain standard. We did a Follow the Frog guitar with James Valentine. There’s an organization that we partner with called Reverb, an environmental organization started by Adam Gardner from Guster. They partner with huge tours like Dave Matthews, John Mayer, and Pink, and focus on the sustainability of the tour itself – zero carbon footprint, trying to keep all of the energies that a tour uses to a minimum.” Reverb raises awareness about the “blood wood” that is harvested illegally by forced labor in an unsustainable manner. “Adam has even testified before Congress to change laws.”

Martin is also sponsoring the Clean Cruiser Project, in which participants will drive the first land cruisers completely fueled by bio-diesel from California to Panama in 2019. The goal is to plant 10,000 trees along the way as well as raise awareness about bio-fuel and serious environmental concerns. They hope to play some guitar music and film a documentary on this trek. “We wanted to get involved with more mainstream cultural changes and become a part of the movement,” says Thomas. “It’s really, really important, especially in the times we live in with the political climate and the policies that are not necessarily working in Mother Earth’s favor. We need to bond together in industry and community to do the best we can and be doing the right thing.”


Yamaha Corporation of America

As one of the world’s largest manufacturers of musical instruments, Yamaha certainly consumes its fair share of wood in their creation, being the largest purchaser of it in the industry.

They make everything from pianos to xylophones to drums – and a million guitars per year. “We have very trusted wood suppliers,” says Dennis Webster, product marketing manager for Yamaha. “We want to make sure that we’re good stewards of the environment and make sure that we reinvest with them in reforestation still.”

Webster says that Yamaha is constantly looking for different woods to use that are not becoming less accessible. Given the CITES regulations passed last November which place regulations on the import and export of rosewood, the company is looking into rosewood alternatives, which they began previously. “We’ve looked at alternatives – more abundant supplies of different species of mahogany,” says Webster. “We were the first ones to go and utilize nato in production, and it’s something we’ve been using for quite a while. It’s very similar to mahogany. As a matter of fact, other companies that use it call it western mahogany.”

Given how Yamaha consumes so much wood, they have many people importing and exporting it for them. “Having that expertise and knowledge – and Yamaha’s always been environmentally friendly even before it was cool – we definitely work together very closely with our wood vendors,” says Webster. “Are we out there looking for alternatives to wood to use in guitar manufacturing? I’m going to say right now, not really. We’re still focused on using sustainable wood. It takes a long time for a tree to grow to make a guitar or a house.”

Webster observes there is a challenge because while consumers want them to be green, they also often want traditional pieces.

“Though many customers are concerned for the environment and support environmental efforts, they still want their traditional and iconic guitars to have the look, feel, and sound they know and expect from these guitars,” explains Webster. “Yamaha faces this scenario with our traditional L Series and FG Series of acoustic guitars. We are looking ahead to the future and researching alternative and sustainable woods that deliver the Yamaha sound for generations to come.”

The company has been involved in reforestation efforts, a highly notable one being the Yamaha Forest that was created in December 2005 in Indonesia. According to the company, between 2005 and 2009 they planted over 115,000 trees (mahogany, teak, and sengon laut among them) over 120 hectares of land in Purabuhanratu County, Sukabumi Regency in West Java. Much of that area was stripped through excess logging in the area. Another Yamaha forest project took place between 2010 and 2014 at Chiremei Mountain National Park, Chirimusu County, Kuningan Regency in West Java. Nearly 53,000 trees were planted. Yamaha has also support reforestation through vendors that the company purchases wood from.

Another green effort from Yamaha comes through their guitar cases. All of their cases in the United States are manufactured by Access Bags and Cases, and together they have created cases that have been deemed Global Green. All of the Access Cases are REACH and RoHS compliant in Europe and have passed every Japanese compliancy test.

“And here in the States they are Prop 65 compliant and CARB compliant, which are the toughest laws in the U.S.,” says Webster. “We’ve gone even as far as our cases being global green.”

Yamaha will continue with their Global Green line and seek to expand it internationally. Some of their guitar cases are already being exported to different parts of the world. “We’re constantly looking and moving forward with more sustainable wood to use for our manufacturing,” says Webster. “We work very closely with our wood suppliers to make sure that we’re just not taking but also giving back and making sure that reforestation does happen.”


Flaxwood Guitars

A young player in the guitar market, Flaxwood was formed in 2005 and immediately focused on sustainability. They launched their own material, Flaxwood – “a mixture of wood fibers, cellulose fiber from pulp mill, and acoustically active polymers,” explains J-P Karppinen, managing director & CEO of Flaxwood. It is interesting considering that, as he notes, their home base of Finland is dense with forest land where trees are growing all the time, mostly of the spruce and pine variety. But their green imperative is of a different nature.

“From the beginning, our material was sustainable because we don’t need to use any rainforest-based wood,” explains Karppinen.

“Our idea in the beginning with sustainability was that the material can replace the woods that are getting rarer and rarer in the world. The forests in Finland are now FSC certified, and last year we gained the FSC certification for the material. Now we can supply FSC approved components. Our guitars are not 100 percent FSC approved because we still have some parts that are made out of older composite materials. We’re getting closer and closer to being able to supply FSC approved, certified guitars. That’s one of the latest improvements we’ve done in the sustainable sector.”

Rick Nelson, sales director of Flaxwood USA Inc., says that the company has enough years and experience behind them to know that their material and process works. The arrival of their unique material coincided “with new difficulties that other manufacturers are having obtaining the rainforest-type hardwoods that have always traditionally been used in instrument making,” says Nelson. “The timing couldn’t be better as everybody is having a problem obtaining raw materials for instruments. Flaxwood has been able to provide the material and the process and also get the FSC certification, so they’ll be able to step in and fill a potential void in the industry for tone-woods with a very, very friendly and sustainable material.”

Karppinen says that Flaxwood can produce one WFC body in less than 10 minutes. “Note that the molded body already has many details ready such as overall body shapes, neck pocket, pickup cavities, potentiometer holes, and bridge post holes,” he remarks. “Our WFC guitar neck is produced identically and it is one piece construction [with] no separate fingerboard.” He adds that they can dye the WFC material in their guitars “to imitate rare and endangered wood species like ebony, Brazilian rosewood, rosewood, and granadilla, and replace them in the future.” Further, he reports that waste of material is very low – less than 3% in the injection molding process less, and less than 5% overall. “If comparing this to traditional wood body production, where a blank of wood will be CNC-machined to final shape, the waste is approximately 50-60%.”

Around 2012, Flaxwood established their Hybrid line, which featured guitars that had a standard European Alder wood body with a composite neck on the guitar. There were four different models with two different body types, Stratocaster and Telecaster. The bodies were made in the Czech Republic, with the necks and final assembly done at their factory in Finland. “We actually dropped that line last year,” says Karppinen. “It was a bit cheaper in the price point, but we still sold the full composite guitars more than the Hybrid line with the wooden body and composite neck.” While the Hybrids ultimately did not work so well commercially, the company at least gained some experience in that sector.

“On the side of the guitar line, we are also developing our component business so we have already customers for composite components, fingerboards, guitar fingerboard, and bridge blanks – things like that, “reports Karppinen. “So the technology side of the business is also growing, and we are developing it right now. That’s one side of the business that we believe will grow faster than the guitar business itself because the Flaxwood guitar is a good reference for using the material.”

“There are a couple of other companies now that have already experimented with this material, either with components that Flaxwood produced or components that these companies produced using their own technology, but with the material,” adds Nelson. “So far it’s looking very, very promising.”

“The people who are more involved in the composite [side] – let’s say different composite technologies and developments – from time to time they ask if we can produce a composite that has wood fibers and polymer in the material,” says Karppinen.

“That might be something that we will develop in the future. We are not the material developer. We actually purchase our materials, so in that sense we are not doing the material development on our own. But if you think about the sustainability in the long run, let’s say in five to 10 years, the plastic polymer part of our material could turn to be something else that is a naturally based polymer. It’s not really an issue and nobody thinks about it now, but people [on the development side] are talking about bio-composites.”


Taylor Guitars

With factories in the United States and Mexico and a distribution center in Holland, Taylor Guitars is highly invested in their business. They are also aware of dwindling resources and are working to combat that problem. As Scott Paul, Taylor’s director of natural resource sustainability, notes, an acoustic guitar can be any conceivable combinations of wood from around the globe. “You get forests from the four corners of the world coming together in different combinations to make an instrument that is ultimately an instrument designed to tell stories, to touch the kind of human spirit,” says Paul. “Of all the instruments, it’s really representative of the planet.”

Taylor Guitars co-founder Bob Taylor asserts that his company has perennially been aware of the need to be green, and along each step of the way they have practiced the idea of ,“finding the guitar in the wood, not wasting any wood,” he says. “People might think that that’s not a great effort, but it’s a huge effort. Other guitar companies reject this, reject that, send it back, won’t use it. We use kind of everything, and we’ve managed to become a market leader, even though we use wood that is troublesome, hard to use.”

“There’s one great commonality between sustainability and profitability, and that’s really efficiencies,” notes Paul. “The more efficient you can be, the less strain on the resource and the more you’re getting out of the resources that you do have. Bob has always said your wealth is in your waste. Sometimes people look at sustainability and profitability as mutually exclusive, and very commonly they’re not. Just one example that really personifies Taylor is the issue of efficiencies and not wasting time, wood, and resources. That drives the bottom line for both profitability and sustainability.”

Taylor has always tried to run his company at a high profit level to ensure continuous instrument innovation, as well as the chance to engage green initiatives. He says that they have surpassed what would be appropriate for the company to take, so he has personally been funding many initiatives from the personal profits he has amassed. “I’m leaving behind [money] not in the form of numbers in a bank account but in the form of trees on the ground,” he says. “A lot of what we’re doing is a combination of Bob Taylor, himself, and Taylor Guitars.”

Taylor Guitars also initiated the Ebony Project. In 2011, the company became co-owners of an ebony mill called Crelicam in Cameroon, Africa. Taylor says, “I went for the ebony and stayed for the people.”

Through this undertaking, the company oversees where their wood comes from. The mill supports 75 direct employees (and 300 indirect suppliers and vendors), for whom they are improving working conditions in a country where good jobs are hard to come by. Also, as Paul says, “The concept of vertical integration gives us much greater control and insight into assuring the public and ourselves where the wood came from. We’ve also become very emotionally attached to our workforce because they’re teaching us and we’re learning a lot. It’s very sincere. We have a social responsibility as profound as our environmental and, hopefully, our economic responsibility when we’re becoming vertically integrated in places like Cameroon.”

Paul previously worked 14 years at Greenpeace, and he says that Taylor’s self-funded initiatives are based on a business model rather than relying on limited grants from governments or the World Bank, or from the changing whims of philanthropists. They can maintain resources for conservation, restoration, and reforestation, “so you really have an opportunity to build a sustainability model as opposed to a temporary, project-based sustainability model,” says Paul.

Taylor himself recently purchased 560 acres of property in Hawaii where he plans to grow at least 160,000 koa trees. He estimates it will take 40 to 50 years to get a return on investment on that, but it will be worth it. “At the end of 50 years, that property will produce ten times our current use of koa every single year, forever,” declares Taylor.

“It’s amazing. One of the things that we want to demonstrate in Hawaii is that can grow wood for guitars, that you don’t need to be having a big conversation about switching to some kind of synthetic material. This is the type of thing that we’re trying to demonstrate in both places.”

As Taylor observes, his 560 acres may be a lot of property, but on Google Earth it is literally a dot, as is Hawaii when you look at the Pacific Ocean. He believes that little speck of property, over time, could provide enough wood possibly for the whole guitar industry.

“Right now in our factory, I have a warehouse full of mahogany,” he says. “We make guitars every day out of mahogany that was grown in Fiji and planted by the British some 50 to 75 years ago. That actually caused a point of inflection with me in looking for inspiration. I realize that I’m using wood that people planted whom I don’t know and no longer own the wood. By the way, we don’t own one stick of that wood that we planted in Cameroon. It’s a combination of planting wood on other people’s property and now we have a piece of our own to call our own. But here I am using wood that somebody planted – why shouldn’t I be planting wood for somebody else to use?”


Bedell Guitars

Tom Bedell has always sought to do things his way ever since he founded Bedell Guitars in 1964 at the age of 14. He started importing guitars from overseas and selling them in his hometown of Spirit Lake, Iowa, “basically outfitting a lot of the different traveling bands and players in that region during that time period when people were playing in coffee shops and touring,” explains RA Beattie, marketing director for Two Old Hippies. But at the age of 18, the young entrepreneur, who then owned two guitar stores, left the business, went to college, and became immersed in the fishing industry. After he retired and sold his fishing tackle business four decades later, he returned to his original passion, guitars.

In 2009, Bedell and his wife Molly bought the local music store in Aspen, Colorado, rechristening it Two Old Hippies and selling both his musical instruments and her boutique items, and he bought back the Bedell Guitar brand. Other companies that would come to fall under the Two Old Hippies company umbrella would include Great Divide Guitars, Breedlove Stringed Instruments, Weber Fine Acoustic Instruments, and the flagship Two Old Hippies store in Nashville, which opened in 2011.

At the time Bedell Guitars started up anew, their products were being manufactured in China, but then in 2010 Tom had the opportunity to bring those jobs here. Plus he wanted to design his own guitars. “When the opportunity presented itself where he could purchase Breedlove, it gave him the opportunity to have the manufacturing of Bedell also in the USA,” says Beattie. “We actually produce Weber Mandolins, Bedell Guitars, and Breedlove all under one roof. They’re different departments, but it’s all the same factory.”

On the guitar side, Bedell and Breedlove do not use any clear cut woods in their product lines now, and both lines have their own tonewood certification projects that specify how their selected trees are individually harvested so as not to damage the ecosystem they are in, and to verify that they come from a collection of “treasured tonewood” and are fully compliant with international regulations.

“All of our USA manufacturing is clear-cut free,” states Beattie. “Regarding the import products for Breedlove, our goal is to be 100% clear cut free and we are working hard to achieve this, but there’s a small chance that some of the woods in the import category might not meet that criteria. We don’t have complete control over that supply-chain yet, thus my reluctance to make that claim 100%. But it’s one of our goals and we will certainly get there.”

Bedell takes their edict very seriously, even taking media trips to other countries to source and confirm where their wood comes from. “The most noteworthy would be when we went to Madagascar,” recalls Beattie. “We went to the source to really dig into that issue about Madagascar rosewood. I was with Tom on that trip documenting all the media stuff, and the outcome of that trip was that we did not feel comfortable building with that wood anymore. We did not feel comfortable with that fact that there wasn’t legal, sustainable wood coming out of there, so we made the decision not to use it anymore. They’re basically pulling it out of the national parks. It’s pretty bad stuff.”

Bedell and his company are so specific about their wood that they handle it on a case-by-case basis. For example, Beattie mentions that for mahogany they will go directly to the source in Guatemala and work with groups selectively harvesting trees, even picking the ones they want to use. Further, they are also using technology to find a way to increase the potential of alternative wood choices.

“We have a process called Sound Optimization where we use proprietary software and can really understand the density and the variability in all different types of wood to really maximize their tonal qualities,” explains Beattie. “Rosewood might be the holy grail for a lot of builders in terms of sound and a lot of qualities, but if we can find a different wood and make it sound just as good as rosewood, that opens up the door in a lot of ways and can take pressure off of different species. We build a lot with Myrtlewood, which basically grows from the bottom half of the Oregon coast down through Northern California. That’s a very small region, but it’s a very sustainable and fast-growing wood.”

Beattie adds that Bedell is the only builder to use Myrtlewood, and through their Sound Optimization process they maximize its tonal qualities “and get amazing results, and that can take some heat off of other species. There’s a ton of different types of wood that are incredibly beautiful and amazing and the tonal qualities are great, so understanding how to use different woods opens up the palette for people that are looking for something different. I love the look of Myrtlewood.”

For Bedell, their anti-clear-cut initiative is their most important priority. Beattie says he finds interesting differences between an old growth tree and a new growth one. “It is fundamentally different from many different standpoints, but if you look at the qualities of an old growth board compared to new growth they’re pretty astounding,” he remarks. “We need the old growth forest and old growth type of lumber to make the best guitars. For us, no clear cutting is super important for the long term sustainability of what we’re doing.”

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