Tonewoods & The Eco-Friendly Future of Instruments
By Justin Boden
Within music, sustain denotes the measurement of time for which a note rings out. Today, however, sustain in music has taken on a new meaning as consumers and producers alike have become hyper-aware and better educated on the impact that their choices make on the planet. Ideology has changed, and a newfound focus on sustainability for our planet’s future has gained traction drastically changing the world of instrument production.
Every year nearly 2.5 million new acoustic and electric guitars are sold in the United States alone. That’s a lot of wood, a lot of trees, and a massive carbon footprint created from the harvesting, shipping, and production of wood used to make new instruments every year.
More than 200 different species of trees are used to produce instruments. Many of which are exotic tropical tonewoods, harvested from rainforests at an alarming rate. Forests have gone barren, and entire ecosystems wiped as a result of overconsumption to the point that regulators and organizations have had to step in and actively monitor the use of many of these woods in an attempt at keeping them from outright extinction.
It’s important to note that instruments actually make up a rather small percentage of this loss and are far from the largest offenders in terms of total quantity. Worldwide consumption of wood has risen some 65% since the 1960’s and that number is only increasing. Even prior to that, however, we had already farmed some species of trees to near extinction.
Adirondack spruce serves as a perfect example and was once the definition of choice tonewoods for soundboards on both guitars and pianos. After WWII, as the baby boom took root, Adirondack spruce was virtually wiped out due to immense growth in housing throughout the United States. It’s been more than 70 years and the States are just beginning to see numbers rise again as the Adirondacks begin to mature. Yet manufacturers have mostly moved to Sitka spruce, grown in Alaska, for soundboards. Due to regulations and limitations, despite its robust dynamic range and deep favorable tone Adirondack simply isn’t a favorable choice today.
Since instruments make up a small percentage of total wood consumption are musicians really culprits of over-consumption too? Well, probably. This is because while it may be a small percentage overall, instruments and their end users demand wood that is ornamental, gorgeous and rare with little to no imperfections or knots. Exotic woods, like mahogany, rosewood, and ebony that not only grow in tropical locations but also are solitary trees, meaning they are scattered within a forest instead of growing in groves. In order to get to these trees, the designated forest area is usually cleared out completely.
Decades and decades of over-harvesting Brazilian rosewood even resulted in CITES protection in 1992. CITES, or the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora effectively halted the industry’s use of Brazilian rosewood as manufacturers switched to the less desired Indian rosewood in order to make the fingerboards, acoustic sides, and backs, and just about any other part you could imagine for guitars. But even Indian rosewood is at risk and CITES is cracking down on its protection as well which could mean the end of all rosewood for instruments is near.
Fender recently announced that they will no longer be using rosewood at all, instead opting for Pau Ferro, a harder but lighter color wood on everything but their Elite Series guitars, which feature legal and approved ebony in place of rosewood. Other manufacturers are following suit too, and some are even opting to not use any exotic woods at all.
Taylor Guitars has made much effort towards a sustainable business by going beyond just abiding by compliance measures and teaming up with GreenWood Global, a non-profit organization that educates and empowers indigenous, forest-based communities to support themselves through sustainable forestry practices. They have also ceased using finishes that have environmentally damaging compounds, developed production procedures that create less wasted materials and have allowed more cosmetic diversity with their ebony wood. Similarly, nearly every large manufacturer from Gibson to Martin have made efforts to move towards a more sustainable production model, even pledging to only use woods approved by the Forestry Stewardship Council, a non-profit which certifies eco-friendly forestry products.
Taking it another step further, Blackbird Guitars, out of San Francisco, has elected to not use any wood at all for their acoustic guitars, instead opting for a material called Ekoa. Ekoa is a composite made of flax linen fibers and bio-epoxy that serves as a natural version of carbon fiber. It is strong, has fantastic tonal quality and because it is made from plant fibers, retains the grain that makes acoustic guitars so beautiful in the first place. Many other options are being developed or have already hit the market as well including guitars made from hemp and several other eco-friendly composites that could greatly lessen the impact instrument manufacturing has had.
According to the World Wildlife Foundation, 48 football fields per minute of forest are lost to consumption. 1/5th of all forests are already gone and a rise in greenhouse gases is expected to continue furthering our grasp on climate control, something that forests greatly assists in mitigating. Music has always played the role of the traditionalist as musicians want to use the same materials that were used 100 years ago or more. However, the landscape is literally changing and the time to make conscientious decisions as both consumers and producers is upon us.
The search for the ultimate tone will always fuel the want, but we need the future to be bright for those generations that have yet to come to fruition. The best way to ensure that occurs is to start acting today. Make buying decisions that limit planetary damage or purchase used instruments. Support brands like Taylor and Fender, who are actively making efforts to become more sustainable and be more open to materials you may have once scoffed at as non-traditional or less tonal, because this is something we as humans simply cannot be tone deaf about.