Play Responsibly: Guitar Makers Seek Sustainable Sound

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Famed manufacturers, like Gibson and Fender, are experimenting with innovative ways to use their ever-dwindling supplies of prized timber

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Next time you go to smash your guitar after a particularly rocking concert, realize that you may be destroying a section of a 250-year-old spruce tree, a rare cut of mahogany, or a slice of endangered Brazilian rosewood.

Musical instruments don't use much timber, but when they do, it's usually prized wood. Large forested areas often need to be cleared in order to reach these supplies. This puts specialized, high-quality wood at a premium for luthiers, and when it comes to living species, there are some federal regulations. What will musicians do if guitar makers run out of supplies good enough to produce the right sounds?

SUSTAINABLE SOURCING

"Expensive musical instruments are a combination of many species from many different parts of the world," said Scott Paul, director of the forest campaign for Greenpeace. "In order for a musical instrument manufacturing company to become more sustainable, they have to look at the primary resources from the planet that they're using and get those resources in the most environmentally sustainable way."

The largest environmental focus for guitar manufacturers is ensuring that the wood they need will be around for centuries to come. Alternative sources just don't cut it for traditionalists, who can claim the ability to hear the difference between Indian rosewood and rosewood from Madagascar, Paul said. Still, some guitar companies are researching other ways to produce the desired tonal quality without using precious timber sources -- before it's too late.

"The guitar companies are concerned because they won't look at a Sitka spruce tree unless it's 250 years old or older."

"We have enough technology to make a really great guitar, a really beautiful guitar using alternative sources," said Henry Juszkiewicz, CEO of Gibson Guitar Company. "But it's going to take a while for me to convince people that we can do that."

Gibson has been at the center of controversy regarding its wood sourcing, the subject of two high-profile investigations regarding violation of a wildlife protection act in the past two years.

In 2008, an amendment to the 100-year-old Lacey Act added protections to forest products in an effort to curb illegal logging. The new rule makes it the responsibility of U.S. companies to ensure trading partners are obeying all laws in all countries as the timber makes its way through the supply chain.

In 2009, Justice Department officials found rosewood from Madagascar in Gibson's factory, though an investigation regarding its legality is pending. Again this past August, officials searched Gibson's Tennessee factories on claims that some rosewood and ebony obtained from India had violated laws in the source country.

"I support the idea of the Lacey Act, but I think it needs to be clarified," Juszkiewicz said. "I think the intent is right, but the law is not well formed."

Sustainable guitar making has been on Juszkiewicz's mind for a few decades and has been a focus of conservation groups since he became the company's CEO in 1986. Gibson seeks Forest Stewardship Council certification for all of the products that enter its supply chain. Additionally, Gibson funds training for small forest-dependent communities to build FSC supply and provide income for the indigenous enterprises.

"I think we have a responsibility that goes beyond just meeting lawful standards," Juszkiewicz said. "We have a responsibility to the large community we operate in to make the world better."

OTHER GREEN EFFORTS

About five years ago, Juszkiewicz came together with several competitors -- Taylor Guitars, Fender, C.F. Martin and Company -- to partner with Greenpeace in the Musicwood Coalition, a now defunct-attempt to unite guitar makers in optimizing an Alaskan forest of Sitka spruce for sustainable management.

Sitka spruce is the most important species for acoustic guitar and piano production, according to Scott Paul, director of the forest campaign for Greenpeace, because that's what the soundboard is made from.

"The guitar companies were very concerned because they traditionally won't look at a Sitka spruce tree unless it's 250 years old or older," Greenpeace's Paul said. So they spent the next few years trying to help the Sealaska corporation achieve FSC certification, and they planned to expand to other species as time went on.

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Sara J. Martinez is a reporter for the Medill News Service. She was previously a Pulliam Fellow at The Arizona Republic in Phoenix and a Dow Jones News Fund intern at The Journal News in White Plains, New York.

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