Green Guitars

by hoff • in
  • Features
• Created: April 9, 2014

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At the end of the day, people will buy an instrument because it sounds good and performs well,” says Blackbird Guitars founder Joseph Luttwak. That’s the challenge facing a wide variety of guitar manufacturers stuck in a transitional period. On one side is an industry leaning on a shrinking supply of unsustainable woods. On the other? A market built on eco-friendly practices, stewarding the planet’s forests into a healthy future.

Some manufacturers are finding that playing to customers’ best “green” intentions isn’t often the best sell.

Luttwak is a diehard environmentalist, doing post-grad work in eco-design at San Francisco State. But as “green” guitars look to turn the corner on the market, his approach is to hook customers on quality instruments first. “My whole philosophy around environmental product design is that it has to be a tertiary aspect to why someone would want to adopt this product.”

An ever-increasing environmental awareness throughout the world has dramatically changed every sector of retail. Often targeted by activists for its high public profile and dependence on rare tonewoods, the guitar market has had to adapt perhaps more than any other. Key figures at leading manufacturers have responded enthusiastically over the last decade, though, diving headfirst into new initiatives that involve both evolving tonewood certification standards and a variety of new hybrid building materials.

The Forest Stewardship Council is a 20-year-old organization that has become very important to guitar manufacturers, offering an intensive yet valuable certification for products that have been sustainably sourced. Manufacturers who’ve made progress with FSC-certified instruments include Martin, Taylor, Bedell, Walden, Gibson, Fender, and more. Taylor, in fact, was presented by Secretary of State John Kerry with a 2014 Award for Corporate Excellence from the State Department for its role in “fundamentally changing the entire ebony trade.”

Meanwhile, the number of manufacturers using new types of hybrid building materials − carbon fibers and forms of plastic, for the most part − is increasing. Peavey’s 2010 purchase of Composite Acoustics brought hybrid materials to the forefront, boasting a volume and durability unseen in typical tonewoods. Other brands like Flaxwood continue to innovate new composite materials made from natural items like recycled spruce wood.

Journey Instruments, a maker of collapsable guitars designed for easy storage in airline overhead bins, grew out of founder of Rob Bailey’s Convergent Sourcing company. “The main reasons we started making these guitars were stability and eco-friendliness,” he says. “First of all I don’t want to mess with the changes that different climates cause in the guitar. And secondly, carbon fiber supply is really stable right now.” Bailey points to several value adds that his instrument offers beyond its turn away from woods, including its uniquely simple method of unfolding the neck from the instrument and its structural stability when compared to woods.

“I think, to some degree, consumers are very pragmatic. In some ways, ‘renewable’ and ‘green’ is nice, but price drives it.” With the synergy between the guitars’ features, though, he’s hoping to attract a legitimately excited customer base.

In that same boat is Mi-Si Electronics, the Massachusetts-based pickup company that grew out of a desire to simply build the most efficient products possible. Co-founder Mikhail Ioffe says the team’s work led to the use of a superconductor, negating the use for a battery and resulting in the most eco-friendly guitar pickup possible.

“In general, it just goes with our philosophy, which is basically to have no extra frills in the design and simple circuits,” says Ioffe. “The result is less ‘stuff’ − less wires, less PC boards, less plastic, less components. Batteries are no good for the environment. That’s obvious. So we’re eliminating them.”

Avoiding wasting batteries is a moral choice in the United States, but in Europe there are even tighter rules about disposing of them, for which Mi-Si offers a critical solution. “Our products help musicians and manufacturers comply with those regulations,” says Ioffe. “It becomes a matter of convenience for that market.”

Mi-Si has developed several products including ukulele and acoustic guitar pickups, as well as preamps and control modules for those products since their founding in 2005. They’ve made waves for their eco-friendliness, but also the simple, effective quality of their pickups (manufacturers from Martin and Blackbird to Rees Harps have been installing Mi-Si equipment on their products).

Of course, there are lower-tech ways to build a green guitar. Take Bohemian Guitars, whose new “Boho” model guitars jumped off an idea based in South Africa − guitars made out of old oil cans. Co-founder Mark Friedman says the eco-friendly angle is a major part of the company’s marketing push and it certainly seems to have legs, yielding a ton of coverage at NAMM 2014 alone.

But Friedman notes that the environmental concerns are far from the only trait that customers are excited about. “We believe we are receiving positive feedback due to the unique nature of the product,” he says. “From the creative spin on a timeless instrument, the design, its unique twangy sound, down to the use of unconventional materials. We’ve also developed a product that is affordable, making the line very attractive to direct customers and retailers.”

Those aspects go back to Luttwak’s insistence that a product’s performance will continue to govern its success, regardless of its ideological merits. His Blackbird guitars, which he began manufacturing in 2006 out of carbon fiber, recently welcomed the addition of a new material called “Ekoa,” which is a newer type of organic composite that Blackbird was able to engineer to emulate the sounds of sought-after vintage tonewoods.

Luttwak is betting on his Ekoa material being useful across several industries, not just the MI market. Along with Blackbird, he’s started a new company called Lingrove to offer the material to a diverse clientele (his own design background includes everything from laptops to Ferraris). For MI, he points to a dwindling supply of tonewoods as a wake-up call for anyone expecting the market to stay the same forever.

Everyone making eco-friendly guitar products agrees that the landscape will eventually have no choice but to change. But a gridlock of perception and marketing might need to be broken first. Guitar suppliers have often acted as eager suppliers to customer addicts, Luttwak says, dressing up advertising and promo language to feature items like “rare tonewoods” and “difficult to obtain ebony.”

“They use that for marketing and so that becomes the thing that people want,” he says. “That is not okay − that’s the disease.”

Rather than cry foul, though, Luttwak and many of the rest of the market’s new innovators remain confident in keeping the battle on terms of product performance.

“To break the vicious cycle, you have to offer greater benefits.”  


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