Perfecting the Sustainable Guitar

by hoff • in
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• Created: August 2, 2013

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The guitar market is notoriously old school in its preferences. Generations of musicians have strummed their way through songbooks and garage rehearsals using a relatively tiny variety of instruments from Western, Classical, and Dreadnought acoustics to Les Pauls, Stratocasters, Telecasters, and SG electrics. For every new outlier – a skeletal Steinberger here or a fiberglass-backed Ovation there – there always seem to be ten new clones of the guitar your uncle played in his high school band.

But whether that approach to guitars is feasible for much longer is up for debate. A wide variety of new market forces that have converged on the guitar industry are responsible. Stricter enforcement of endangered wood import and manufacturing under the Lacey Act, along with the new European Union Timber Regulation (EUTR) legislation have made sourcing ethically harvested wood more cumbersome for many manufacturers. A slowly growing public demand for “green” materials has created full-time public relations pushes for many. Meanwhile, increasing demand for a shrinking supply of these tonewoods has caused costs to rise steadily.

As Flaxwood Guitars’ head of sales Rick Nelson says, “Unless something dramatically different happens, the horse is already out of the barn for the old way of doing things.”

Several solutions are being pursued by guitar makers, including new engineering techniques, synthetic or hybridized building materials like Richlite, or simply fighting to ensure sustainable sources of traditional tonewoods. The ways those options in particular are explored, developed, marketed, and ultimately accepted by the public could be the greatest factors in the guitar industry’s survival over the next 50 years.


Holding the Line

Guitars weren’t always involved in fights for sustainable forestry. During an influential Greenpeace campaign in southeastern Alaska that began in the mid-2000s, it dawned on advocates that the guitar industry might be the perfect market to lead the way toward sustainability. Scott Paul, who served as Greenpeace’s Forest Campaign director at the time, remembers following the trail of high class lumber to guitar makers’ doorsteps for the first time.

“We did analysis in Alaska and I couldn’t get my hooks into anything because they were exporting most of their wood to China and Japan,” he says. “The one really weird exception was this tiny sliver of the lowest volume, highest value species – Sitka spruce. It was trickling down into the U.S. and showing up at places like Gibson, Martin, Taylor, and Fender.”

Those companies’ high profiles were a perfect asset to Paul’s campaign. He organized a “Big Five” of MI manufacturers (Gibson, Fender, Martin, Taylor, and Yamaha) into a proactive group designed to advocate for sustainable timbering in Alaska. The idea, which culminated in Paul’s “MusicWood” campaign, was that guitars represented a segment of the economy that had more bang for the buck with consumers than any other product. “What better vehicle to educate people?” he says. “If you’re going to start a drive for sustainability, a beautiful place to start is through knowledge. Musical instruments and guitars are an exceptional vehicle for that. Blue states or red states – everybody was in a band in high school, or at least wanted to be.”

Around the same time, changes in the Lacey Act (which in 2008 expanded protection of endangered species to include plant life – hence tighter control on threatened forests) and the specter of increased CITES enforcement began to mean that other sources of traditional tonewoods available for import were drying up.

Put together, it’s created a difficult scenario for both manufacturers and consumers. Nelson believes the race is on for a new paradigm.  “The costs will continue to rise for the materials that have been traditionally used,” he says.  “So the job of the dealer and distributor will be to try and educate their customers about alternative materials. At the same time, builders are trying to hold the line against the rise in manufacturing costs.”

All is not lost, though.

Sustainable Sourcing

In the grand scheme of the timber industry, guitar makers are responsible for a tiny fraction of trees cut down every year. The problem is the types of those trees, says Ian Hanna of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). “The music quality logs are a small part of that overall harvest regime, but they totally modify the habitat,” he says.

“In some examples, particularly in the tropics, the mining of the really high-value species is typically the first stage in a cycle of deforestation where access and road building is first developed to pull out the [high quality woods like] mahogany, rosewood, teak, and Brazilian cherry. This then provides access points for ongoing settlement afterward, usually uncontrolled.

“It’s definitely the first stage in a very destructive series of events.”

The guitar industry, then, holds a great deal of influence over the future of forestry. Many are well along with efforts to ensure portions of their output is certified by the FSC, which is a 20-year-old organization dedicated to building more sustainable timber practices throughout the world (and across many industries).

Taylor Guitars is one company which has taken unprecedented moves to ensure the sustainability of their traditional tonewoods. Taylor supply chain manager Charlie Redden, who spoke with MMR from the company’s timbering operation in Cameroon, says the company believes that these tonewoods can be used indefinitely. “Business can be a major part of the solution to sustaining traditional materials such as mahogany, ebony, and rosewood,” he said.

Taylor now features guitars made with sustainable ebony from the Cameroon facility and has poured considerable resources into working with GreenWood Global, which has led to new harvesting practices of Honduran mahogany. “Manufacturers must also educate dealers and customers of the realities of buying and using a natural resource,” says Redden.

The 100 Percent Challenge

Walden Guitars takes a similar approach, aiming for FSC-100 percent certification in their top-line “Madera” guitars. “Walden is building guitars out of what are essentially the traditional guitar materials – we’re not really resorting to alternative materials,” says Walden president and chief designer Jon Lee.

Becoming 100 percent FSC certified isn’t easy (there’s also an easier ranking to achieve – FSC-CW for “controlled wood” products, designed for companies to avoid illegally harvested, threatened, or genetically modified wood). Not only does your factory need to be certified, but every step in the supply chain must be as well, and a yearly third-party audit is required to ensure that’s always the case.

 “We have to hire a company outside of FSC that is part of their short list of accredited companies that can do auditing and education every year,” says Lee.

A challenge to companies using sustainable wood is selling them to consumers who can’t tell the difference. While manufacturers report an increase in operating costs, there are no immediate improvements to the actual guitar.

“A comparison would be the organic food industry,” says Lee. “An organic tomato might cost twice as much, but it’s a better tasting tomato and people feel like it’s healthier. With these materials, they don’t actually make the guitar sound better.”

But the desire for ethical products is always rising – in some countries more than others. Lee is confident that these guitars will not only prove desirable to environmental early adopters, but will also add prestige to Walden’s entry and mid-level instruments.

A Forever Guitar?

Some manufacturers are looking for options entirely outside of the timber process, foregoing wood altogether. Hartley Peavey sums up the situation as he sees it rather bluntly: “Anybody who depends on rare tone woods is increasingly going to be in trouble,” he says. “Instead of running around paying little kids to go plant trees where other trees have been cut down and other efforts to forestall the inevitable, we’re just doing an end run and making our guitars out of this carbon graphite fiber, which is very unique.”

Peavey purchased hybrid pioneer builder Composite Acoustics in 2010 and has made efforts to push the line of instruments to the forefront of dealer’s minds when it comes to alternative materials. The composite is far denser than traditional tonewoods and results in a very thin soundboard and more durable parts (no warping means a truss rod or neck heel aren’t necessary, plus they’ve included long-lasting stainless steel frets).

“We like to call it our ‘forever guitar,’” says Peavey. “A lot of people make their necks out of mahogany, which is a soft wood. Maple is stronger, but over time any wood will take what luthiers call a “set.” Wood kind of breathes and if you get it too dry it’ll crack, if you get it too wet it becomes unstable and paint won’t stick to it. It’s a great material for what it was, but there are better materials available now.”

Peavey hates to go so far as to say the composite material, which requires substantial time cooking in molds to create the guitars, is a miracle environmental savior, though. The energy required to make the guitars is great.

But as Peavey calls it, the race is on to figure out the next step in guitar building. “What’s going to happen eventually is that the countries that grow these tone woods aren’t going to sell them anymore,” he believes. “Like that old Southern gospel tune, ‘I wants to be ready.’”

Hybrid Solutions

Other companies have found similar materials useful. The Finland-based Flaxwood Guitars have turned heads with their guitars parts made from using a special natural fiber composite (NFC) material developed in Finland. Its “Hybrid” guitar model, launched in 2011, combines a sustainably sourced European alder body with an NFC neck, created using primarily recycled Northern spruce. Flaxwood’s Rick Nelson says the product is a direct result of the company’s locality.

“The idea was to take advantage of the resources that were available in the region while at the same time looking for environmentally friendly materials and processes,” says Nelson. “In Flaxwood’s research, they tested various materials and developed a natural fiber composite made from recycled material from the pulp industry, an industry that had been thriving there for a long time. I was told that if they didn’t plant another spruce tree in Finland, they still have a thousand year supply.”

The resulting NFC material has a denser fiber content than natural wood and ends up being an extremely uniform and thick material, which the company plans to expand the use of throughout the industry, including violin fingerboards for companies like the Germany-based Mezzo-Forte Violins. They’re also looking into investing in larger molds, which could lead to new products such as fingerboards for electric and upright basses.

Earlier mainstays in the synthetic materials category are products like Micarta and Richlite, composite materials held together with resins and plastics that have been in use for decades across many manufacturers and industries. The fate of Richlite may be about to change, however, with a new EPA proposal (announced in July) to regulate formaldehyde emissions in laminated wood products.

Alternate Woods

Meanwhile a number of manufacturers are simply looking for different types of wood to use. Martin Guitars has made a concerted effort to explore alternative tonewoods such as ash, maple, walnut, cherry, and red birch. The woods tend to sound great, though they offer looks that many consumers aren’t used to seeing.

Gibson has long experimented with alternative woods as well, a notable model being their late ‘70s “The Paul” style Les Pauls made of walnut. The guitars weren’t popular at the time, but they’ve been a sleeper favorite among tone and sustain aficionados ever since. They’ve recently introduced a layered Indian rosewood fingerboard, and have made significant use of other alternatives like Granadillo. Gibson has also been an advocate of torrefied maple, which is created by curing maple wood in a kiln to increase strength and density. The process also darkens to wood to resemble a rosewood color, making it a good fingerboard substitution.

A small company called Mada Guitars, based in Austria, even takes advantage of “hemptsone” material – hemp pulp, essentially – in its visually striking guitars.


Driving the Push
Toward Sustainability

As many industry leaders have noted, though, efforts toward sustainability won’t mean a thing without market acceptance. Governments weld the power of regulation in forests throughout the world, but everyone would like to see the guitar industry (and the timber industry in general) take care of its own problems. Part of the responsibility lies with the manufacturer to educate consumers, while another lies with retailers to further make these types of alternatives both available and attractive to their customers.

“The most efficient driver of change is buyer preference,” says Hanna. “In the world of music, it’s also performers who want to stand up and talk about this and make it be part of their own advocacy. Some are hot to trot for that and some less so. It’s definitely a group of people who know they can inspire culture change.”

Peavey notes a general frustration likely felt by all manufacturers trying to push the envelope with new ideas. “I can strike up a conversation with a retailer at a NAMM show and they might say, ‘Let me see what’s new.’ I’ll show my latest hot shot thing and they’ll say ‘That’s nice but to be honest with you, I don’t have any call for that.’” Peavey shakes his head. “How can you have any call for it if nobody’s seen it? There it is for the first time.”

Nelson sees a shift in the music and technology as central to the idea of how woods are perceived. “I think the next generation of people coming into the marketplace are not going to have the same preconceived prejudices or opinions that past generations have had. They’re much more receptive to changes in technology, and I think that will open the door for us. I think that will be a good thing.”

Leave it to the die-hard environmentalist to be most optimistic. “The thing about the forest products industry is that it can be the least sustainable way to build things or the most sustainable way,” says Paul. “You can lead to the destruction of sensitive habitats or you can lead to the restoration of environment and the communities that depend on that environment.

“That’s what we’re trying to help with.”  

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