Right now, as I write this, sitting next to me are two of my acoustic guitars. My new Martin sits by my desk, its warm, rich mahogany gleaming in the low light. I can almost smell it from here. On the neck a rare and beautiful rosewood from East India is laid where my fingers go, along with solid Black Ebony and Sitka Spruce details. And then there’s my Taylor. The top is a crispy crackling Sitka Spruce, making it loud and bright. Indian Rosewood runs across the back and sides of my instrument, and this fingerboard is a solid piece of ebony, a deep, durable but extremely rare wood.
So let’s get this straight…in my room right now, I have mahogany, rosewood, ebony, and Sitka Spruce. Common sense makes it seem wrong. In most countries, these are illegal to harvest. In fact, ebony can now only be found from one country in bulk, the small Eastern African country of Cameroon. But still, when a well-versed guitar player walks into a guitar shop, he or she will insist on therarest woods on the planet. Why?
Back in the 1930’s C.F. Martin & Co. was producing instruments of mahogany, Brazilian Rosewood, and other high-quality tonal woods from all over the world with free reign.
Those guitars of the 1930’s are regarded by many as some of the best sounding acoustic guitars in the world. As we know, musicians are a culture of traditionalists, preferring traditionally shaped guitars made from traditional woods and materials.
But today we know more. It is not 1930. In today’s fragile ecosystem, many of these woods are not sustainable. Regulations have been established in most countries and internationally to protect the endangered species. As a consequence, some raw woods cannot legally be used to make guitars (or floors, for that matter) even if they can still be found.
Ebony is becoming hard to find. If we continue down the current path of consumption, Ebony will become extinct. In the last 30 years the seemingly endless supply of ebony and other wood species has been outpaced by consumption. Used for the majority of fret boards on acoustic guitars, ebony’s high density allows the frets to be more permanently set in the wood, compared to fret boards made from other species like Rosewood or Maple, which can change shape as the frets are set, allowing room for error in the careful and tedious placement of frets.
Ebony grows predominantly in Africa and India, but the U.S. Lacey Act, a piece of Legislation passed in 1900 and updated in 2008, banned the trade of illegally logged wood as well as shifting the burden of responsibility to the buyers. This act effectively leaves Cameroon in West Africa as the last area for legal sourcing of ebony.
Guitar makers are becoming more and more socially responsible about the wood they use and where it comes from. Taylor Guitars now owns one of the only legal Ebony producers in the world and is sourcing ebony to other guitar manufacturers. “We live in a different world, a world where we have to respect that environment,” says Bob Taylor of Taylor Guitars. He’s learned from History and is trying to prevent what happened to species like Adirondack Spruce, or the beautiful Brazilian Rosewood (Dalbergia nigra) of those 1930’s Martins, both of which are now classified as an Appendix I species and threatened with extinction. Guitars from these woods were once widely available, however presently no guitars are made with this wood anymore. Perhaps if somebody had done in Brazil what Bob Taylor is trying to do in Cameroon, maybe Brazil would still be supplying rosewood.
Vice President of business development for C.F. Martin & Co., Gregory Paul, agrees. “There is no question that ebony is very scarce.” He explains. “Scarcity of any species creates a trading environment rife with abuse and illegality. Martin remains committed to sourcing materials from companies who clearly demonstrate that they do the right things for the resources and the people whom it belongs, all within the confines of the rule of
So what? Does this mean that great sounding guitars and the rare woods they’re created from are a thing of the past? Does this mean our future is one of poor sounding guitars? Will my grandson ever own a wooden guitar?
Of course he will. But we’ve got to think about what woods we use and where they’re from. As consumers, aka guitar buyers, aka me and you, we must shift our consciousness from “traditional” to “sustainable.” My vision is that instead of insisting on that solid mahogany body (which I did before learning all this), it will become tradition for players to insist upon and ask for sustainable and legally harvested species of woods. That’s my vision. Ok world. Go. Create my vision.
In fact, there’s already a plethora of information regarding substitute tonal woods, and guitar companies like Martin, Gibson, Taylor, and Fender are working in collaboration with The Rainforest Alliance to build guitars from different species of woods that are sustainable…but sound great too. Greenpeace has made progress with the release of their “Good Wood Guides” to help companies and players choose woods that aren’t endangered. Martin and Gibson both have guitar models out currently made from exclusively “SmartWood” certified lumber. Below is a list of Alternatives for you to consider when buying your next guitar.
Sapele (Entandrophragma cylindricum) – Similar to mahogany in both look and tonal qualities. Also from Africa. Currently used by Martin.
Nato (Mora gonggriijpii & Mora excelsa) – Another mahogany substitute. Takamine has a current model using this wood.
Canadian Red Wild Cherry – Commonly used substitute tonal wood for back and sides. Used by the Godin Family of guitar companies.
Ovangkol (Guibourtia ehie) – An African wood that can replace Rosewood for bodies and fret boards. Taylor, Fender, and Martin have been using this wood for some time.
Bubinga – Related to Ovangkol. Used similarly as a substitute for Rosewood. Look out for the Dean Exotica Bubinga guitar, which features Bubinga back and sides.
Bamboo – A renewable resource. Guitars have been made from Bamboo in the past, and it looks like this wood choice will grow in popularity as scarcity of the more common woods grows. In 2011 Fender showed a Telecaster made from Bamboo Laminate at the NAMM festival in Anaheim, California.
After reading this article you should be inspired. With this new information under your belt, you can’t make the same buying decisions you’ve made in the past. It’s 2012. Life is different. Take a look at your instrument. Look it up. Are you a holder of rare, unsustainable woods? I sure am. But I’ll never buy another guitar made from mahogany or ebony again. Ever.
Marc Beauregard is an accomplished singer-songwriter, surfer, and environmental advocate who uses his voice to inspire communal change. Based in Los Angeles, Marc Beauregard is a global ambassador for SurfAid International, The Plastic Pollution Coalition, Rareform Upcycled Products, among others. He is currently working on a studio album with Producer Kevin McCormick (Jackson Browne, Melissa Etheridge, Brett Dennen) entitled “Unabbreviated,” due out this year. Marc and his trio play regularly in the southern half of California and have toured as far as Argentina and Hawaii. Look out for a west coast tour this year.