Bob Taylor, founder and president of Taylor Guitars, has always been a pioneer in the guitar industry. When we talked with him about conservation and the MusicWood Coalition, he had more to say than could fit in our print-edition. In this extended interview, Bob touches on the process of introducing alternative woods, Taylor's unique environmentally friendly necks, and how visiting Alaska gave him a new perspective.
How did you get into conservation?
Our conservation efforts started years and years ago just with our own use of materials. Guitar factories are pretty notorious for eating the heart and throwing away the rind, so to speak, so the most basic way for us to contribute is pretty much a lifelong practice of using every drop of the wood we get, which reduces the amount of wood that we use.
In 1999, we redesigned our entire neck to work on a different size and scale of mahogany. I could tell that mahogany was becoming a big issue for the future. We knew that the trees we had gotten in the past and the style of sawyers that were cutting that wood - big lumber companies providing the wood over the last two to three centuries - would not be environmentally friendly. We knew we would have to be going towards a more primitive type of yield.
We've spent the last six or seven years developing a project in Honduras where we buy wood directly from a tribe of Hondurans. They are going out on foot with their donkeys and chopping up a half dozen trees per year. They cut them into the lumber sizes we need, which are easy to cut because of our neck design. The old way we made necks could have never done it.
Their economy has boomed, the amount of trees that are cut have been reduced to nearly nothing and there are no roads built. We do a lot of projects on our own like that. Until Alaska, we'd served wood conservation mostly in terms of tropical woods.
Do all of your necks come from that handful of mahogany from Honduras?
No, but I think within the next couple of years we can get it to 20%. These things move really, really slowly. From the time that this thing started, it took over six years before they delivered their first batch of wood. Now we get wood every year, and we're looking to parachute this system into a few other remote tribes.
Do you have a hand in training these guys?
Yeah, when it's log-cutting time we go down and train them in our cutting methods. They really need to be trained more in the selection process of the logs and the grain. If there are two mahogany trees, and one is good for necks and the other isn't, we don't want to cut it - just let it be a tree.
The fact that there aren't all these middlemen involved, that there's no bulldozers, no outside corporations and no roads, the forest basically doesn't even know that the trees were taken.
They probably make a lot more money also, right?
Boy, they're … I wouldn't say dancing in the streets … but they're pretty happy.
You guys have always been leaders of using alternative woods. How do you determine what will work where?
It starts with just looking at the wood, being the guitar maker and knowing. After that it's trial and error. It's really hard to use alternative woods - you go down with bright eyes, thinking, "Let's try this wood, let's try that wood." You get the wood and find out that the reason that this wood hasn't climbed to the top of the food chain is because 300 years ago when they were taking mahogany out of Honduras, and there were 20 other species that looked similar, they cut it and somebody got a rash, or the wood cracked, warped or made you sick. Those woods haven't changed; they still have those negative properties.
For the lesser-known species of wood that work out and sound good, how does the public respond?
People are usually open to it. One way to market the woods is to just make the guitars. For example, right now I am working on a species from Tasmania called blackwood, and it's a first cousin to the koa tree. In the beginning, I'll get a little bit of wood and make a guitar. If it makes a good guitar, I'll get a little bit more wood and make a limited run of guitars - 50 to 100 of them - and sell them as a special edition.