Green guitars: A guide to eco-friendly axes
By Paul Ridden
June 10, 2009
We live in environmentally enlightened times. Familiar products have been repackaged and now proudly push their green credentials right in your face. So when looking through the racks of my local guitar shop, why is it that the now familiar “environmentally-friendly” claims are conspicuous by their absence? Given the market advantage that being green seems to offer manufacturers, could it be that no-one in the music industry gives a hoot? Perhaps the world of green awareness hasn't yet reached the world of guitars? Or maybe the kings and queens of tone and resonance are just being a bit less obvious about it?
Is there a problem?
World-wide demand for wood has increased by 64% since the 1960s and continues to rise. Trees are being gobbled up as if they were dots in a global game of Pac-Man. More than a fifth of the screen has already gone. Over 20 African Nations have had all of their dots eaten up. Almost half of Brazil's once plush forest landscape has gone too. And every year the US loses 10,000km2 of intact forest. In this game though, the screen isn't refreshed once all the dots have been devoured. When they’re gone, they're gone for good. There are no more chances for big bonuses. All lives are lost. Game over!
The axe-man cometh...
The manufacture of musical instruments involves the use of wood - no surprise there! On a global scale the timber needs of instrument makers are relatively small. If it came to a round of the blame game, they may well be sitting on the substitute bench. But there are a few things that might put them right in the heat of the game and make their part in this tragedy all the more important.
- The numbers of different species used, not the volume of trees logged but the fact that around 200 different species are used to make musical instruments
- Prized trees like mahogany, rosewood and ebony are often solitary growers which are hidden away amongst other species. For loggers to reach the target trees, large areas of woodland need to be cleared
- There’s a belief that old growth timber gives superior tone and depth. An instrument's tone can make or break a player. It's the differential, that “something” that can help raise the neck and headstock above the mire. The older the wood, the better the sound - or so they say
- The desire for the beautiful, more exotic varieties of wood. After all, the instruments need to look good and sound great or no-one will buy them
And buy them we do! Over 3 million acoustic and electric guitars are sold in the US alone every year.
If music be the food of love, play on
We love music, that much is clear. Some like to listen, others to play. And there are those who make the instruments on which we play. But what will happen to those instruments, to that wonderful music if the very material that's used to create them disappears? Does our musical future rest in digital clones of the sounds we've come to adore or can something be done to turn back the tide of destruction?
As you might expect, makers have noticed that some of their favored wood has either disappeared altogether or is becoming increasingly harder (and more expensive) to get hold of. Bob Taylor of Taylor Guitars recently remarked, “Our beloved Brazilian rosewood was taken from us more than 25 years ago. Adirondack spruce was logged out. Today we see the signs of our current woods being diminished to a point of unavailability.”
Before the post-WWII housing boom wiped it out, the Adirondack spruce was the tonewood of choice for making piano and guitar soundboards. Makers were forced to seek out another species. And now that species is threatened. Indeed, 70 of the species utilized for instrument manufacture are now threatened with extinction.
Change is scary
Now you might be tempted to think that simply changing to a non-threatened species is the obvious way to go. And in some respects you'd be right. But there are a significant number of musicians who passionately resist changes in the way their beloved instruments are made because of a fear of losing the sound that makes them so special in the first place - the tone. Other materials exist that produce great tone but convincing these musicians to ditch the mahogany in favor of something else is akin to getting believers to admit that UFOs aren't real.
Makers could try to keep musicians happy by retaining the same materials and have their business disappear before their eyes. Or they could try using different types of wood and risk losing those loyal buyers, eventually running out of the new wood too. The best solution has to be finding a way to ensure these resources don't disappear.
Save the trees
Noble efforts to legally halt the destruction of exotic trees have regrettably met with limited success. The Brazilian rosewood for instance was granted Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) protection in 1992. But rather than protect this much-loved resource, this seems only to have increased its desirability and its bounty (even today pieces of wood change hands for thousands of dollars).
Sustain in guitar terminology is how long a note lasts after you hit the string. More recently it's started to take on a whole new meaning. Sustainability is also about satisfying the need for resources but using it responsibly.
Folks representing timber users and suppliers got together with environmentalists and human rights groups in the early 1990s to thrash out how best to try and halt the massive destruction of forests around the globe. From this the Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC) was born and by 1993 was issuing its first certificates in Mexico and the U.S.
In order to be approved by the FSC , a producer must show that its management and operations conform to strict ruleswhich aim to meet the economic, ecological, cultural and spiritual needs of present and future generations.
Amongst other things, the rules prohibit the use of hazardous chemicals, ensure that workers' rights are respected, that all treaties and laws are followed and that habitat is protected.
And it seems to be working, a recent Rainforest Alliance study showed that forests managed to FSC standards faired much better than those which weren't. The report concentrated on the 2 million hectare Maya Biosphere Reserve in Guatemala and found that the rate of deforestation between 2002 and 2007 for FSC certified forests was 20 times lower than areas where the harvesting of wood is strictly forbidden. “These numbers show that certification is a real tool for the market and for conservation,” said José Román Carrera, Central America coordinator for the Rainforest Alliance's TREES program.
To date, the FSC has certified nearly 113 million hectares (around 280 million acres) of forests in more than 81 countries.
Good music needs good wood
Recently Greenpeace shared its fear that the Sitka spruce was being harvested to oblivion with the major guitar makers. The Sitka spruce became the soundboard material of choice for pianos and guitars after the demise of the Adirondack in the 1940s. Whilst much of the logged Sitka ends up in Asia for use in house building, it is the guitar makers who are working together to help ensure its survival. “Music wood is only a small part of this problem, but it can be a big part of the solution”.
All the big names are involved. Gibson, Martin, Taylor, Fender, Guild, Yamaha, Walden, along with luthiers and wood producers. They've all pledged to help the music industry in its transition to FSC approved wood.
The heavy burden of responsibility for all this forest loss also stretches down to us, the buyers. It's up to us to ensure we buy only from sustainable sources and look out for the FSC label. Gibson USA is aiming to use sustainable wood in 80% of its guitars by 2012 and Martin recently unveiled the 100% FSC certified D Mahogany. And with Taylor, Fender and Yamaha also getting in on the act, finding that future-friendly, sustainable guitar should start getting easier and easier.
But as a guitarist looking to make the transition from earth-harming Guitar Zero to tree-friendly Guitar Hero, is the use of instruments made from sustainable wood the only option?
Bamboo and plastic bottles
Making guitars whilst being mindful of the environment is a relatively recent concept but using non-wood materials in guitar manufacture is nothing new. In the 1860s Antonio de Torres famously made a guitar's back and sides out of papier-mache to prove that it was the spruce top of the guitar which produced most of the guitar's volume. Since then a whole host of materials from masonite to graphite to plexiglass to aluminum to carbon graphite have appeared but few have been accepted by musicians, who desperately cling to their beloved wood as babies to a doll.
Here are a few, but by no means all, of the recent green innovations that have caught my eye...
Ever heard of flaxwood?
Flaxwood is completely new and is produced by breaking down non-endangered European spruce and binding it with a special polymer which ensures consistent tonal integrity. This material is then injection-molded to form the neck, body and back-plate/resonator.
The finished product is fully recyclable. It can be melted down and used to produce new guitars (which is what happens to guitars that don't pass the company's strict quality control). The nut is teflon-based and the inlays are celluloid.
As no exotic wood is needed, the initial transport footprint is greatly reduced. The unique production method also means no waste from cut-offs - anything that isn't used the first time round is simply melted down and used again.
The makers claim their Flaxwood guitars have "the stability and uniformity of graphite but with a warm woody sound". No idle boast either, as the Liekki model has just received a 5-star review (the awarding of which is rarer than Brazilian rosewood) in Premier Guitar magazine's June 2009 issue. Reviewer Pat Smith had this to say, “I have played guitars many times the cost of these that can't touch them for playabil-ity, fit or finish. The sound is good and versatile, and the neck is probably the best feeling neck I've ever had my hands on. I would encourage you to seek one out and try it for yourself.”
Recycling is the NEW Rock N Roll
Simon Lee's Cyclotron guitars (the unusual name is a mash of recycled and electronic and that also happens to be shared by an early particle accelerator) have an outer body shell made from 100% recycled materials, including offcuts from industrial pipes, coffee cups, food industry plastics, CDs, yoghurt pots and plastic bottles. Each one is VERY unique due to “the random nature of the color distribution” and all are made by hand.
Wood for the body core is sourced from either local (UK) or recognized FSC-certified suppliers. For the neck, Simon is always on the lookout for sustainable, non-tropical wood and will try to source locally (although he readily admits this is not always possible). The hardware (fixings, pickups and strings) are also produced locally. He doesn't use abalone or mother of pearl for inlays so is kind to marine animals too.
Materials used to produce the guitars are always under review and waste is kept to a minimum. Environmental consideration is always at the forefront of the manufacturing processes.
Don't feed it to the pandas
First Act's Bambusa guitar has a body and neck made of one of the fastest growing plants on the planet - bamboo. The world of the green consumer has been revolutionized by bamboo, so why shouldn't guitar players benefit from this uniquely versatile natural product too?
Processed bamboo is harder than maple and being such a readily available resource has obvious financial advantages for the consumer - the finished product is fairly inexpensive. It's natural water-based finish is complimented by a good solid tone that's sure to please.
Custom guitars, Zero Impact
Zero Impact Guitars' lovingly hand-crafted eco-Axe body is made from SmartWood FSC-certified Alder, the neck is moses graphite and the bridge is made from recycled steel. But why settle for a standard build when you can customize?
You could have a recycled swamp ash body with a recycled maple/rosewood neck and a bridge and paint job supplied by a local custom car company. You want a Floyd Rose tremolo? You can have it! You need poplar rather than alder? SmartWood FSC-certified poplar it is. These guys love to customize, all done while being environmentally considerate (even the custom shop lighting is solar-powered).
For many years hemp has (allegedly) been used to great excess by numerous musicians. But the thought of using it to produce deep, rich sustain through your favorite amp is surely the stuff of smoke-induced dreams. Not any more!
The organically-shaped body of a semi-acoustic MADA guitar is molded from hemp pulp. Hempstone's unique properties offer rich sustain and sharp, organic tones. Whilst MADA makes no particular green claims, the wood is sourced in the local Austrian forests and the wildly misunderstood hemp (it's illegal to grow it in the US) is regarded highly for its eco-friendliness. Hemp is fast growing, a natural weed suppresser (meaning little or no need for nasty pesticides), it has long roots so acts to replenish soil and produces lots and lots of wonderful oxygen. The guitar is available in a range of interestingly bright colors.
The older the better
So that's sustainable guitars and green guitars taken care of. Is there any other way of enjoying a fine guitar without leaving a path of destruction and mayhem in your wake?
Well you could just stroll on down to your local pawn shop or vintage guitar store and “recycle” a previously owned model. As well as benefiting from an aged guitar and the very real possibility of a better sounding one (the tonal depth
of well-made tonewood guitars often improves with age) and being able to sleep soundly in the knowledge that no new resources have been used for its construction, you might just pick up a bargain in the process!
Unless you play acoustic you've now got another environmental headache to consider. In order to make yourself heard you're going to need electricity to power your amplifier - but for now let's leave the search for green power and green amplification for another day.