Famed manufacturers, like Gibson and Fender, are experimenting with innovative ways to use their ever-dwindling supplies of prized timber
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?
"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.
While the project came to a standstill because Sealaska had cut too much acreage to qualify for certification, guitar companies are still taking other steps to improve sustainability.
"The tonewoods we use come only from a small number of producers throughout the world," said Charlie Redden, supply chain manager at Taylor Guitars. "We make it a point to visit each of our suppliers regularly and discuss with them the entire supply chain process, from forest and sustainability efforts to the local mill, to export in the origin country, to U.S. Customs."
Redden said Taylor has been working with many of the same suppliers for decades, so they have built a lot of personal history and trust. The company visits its suppliers so often that it would be difficult for an illegal product to work its way into the supply chain and violate the Lacey Act, he said.
Beyond effective supply chain management, Redden said Taylor is using innovative measures at the factory to improve sustainability rather than using alternative sources.
"An example would be Taylor's NT neck design, which creates a more playable, stable neck over a guitar's lifetime, but also allows the company to increase the number of guitar necks yielded from each tree harvested," he said.
Martin took a similar approach to eliminate waste by making some guitar models with three-piece backs, recycling smaller pieces of wood instead of using only single large pieces for guitar backs. The company is also an advocate of researching and implementing viable alternatives to rare materials. Its Alternative X model has an aluminum top, and other models use various laminates for different pieces of guitars.
WHAT COMES NEXT?
High-quality guitars might make it easy to forget that what produces that memorable tune was once a living thing. To hear the same tones in the future and make sure the same high-quality guitars can continue to be made, manufacturers are aware that necessary supplies need to be preserved.
"One of the fundamentals driving [guitar companies to new practices] was that wood was a core building material for them," said Richard Donovan, vice president of sustainable forestry for the Rainforest Alliance. "They knew they had to do something to ensure the sustainability of the raw materials that they were using on a day-to-day basis."
Juszkiewicz said that in spite of its recent legal attention, Gibson has made improvements in sustainability over the past several years. An audit in May showed that about 80 percent of materials used in the company's U.S. manufacturing were sustainably sourced, and Juszkiewicz said it should be around 95 percent next year.
The company's alleged infractions to the Lacey Act are still under investigation, and Gibson maintains its innocence. Juszkiewicz added that the enforcements were not about conservation but about enforcing obscure laws of other countries. The act is still a tough subject for the musical instrument industry.
"There is not anyone that disputes the intention of the Lacey Act," said Mary Luehrsen, a spokeswoman for the National Association of Music Merchants. "We just want to find a fair and balanced, reasonable way forward to honor all of the intentions of the Lacey Act but at the same time not create this huge burden of personal liability around people who really are seeking to do their business fairly."
NAMM representatives visited Capitol Hill earlier this month to support a House bill that Luehrsen said would add clarification to the Lacey Act.
The Rainforest Alliance recommends that companies protect themselves by making sure their supply chain management systems use third-party audits to verify the legality of forest products. While verification methods don't guarantee a company's protection from prosecution, they will help to spot problems before they arise.
"Deforestation has become a serious problem for the environment and the communities living there," said Redden of Taylor Guitars. "Not only do we want to source from sustainable forests, but one of our goals is to educate and lead those producers who are working in unsustainable situations now so we can help save the forests for future generations."
Image: Gibson 2008 Slash Les Paul Goldtop.