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more... AcousticJuly 2009

Sustainable Tone: The Forest and the Trees

Necks, Fretboards and Bridges

Katalox bridge and "diaperwood" top on a Martin Sustainable Wood OM.
Necks perform some very important functions for guitars. Not only do they have to stand up to 150 pounds of string tension, but they also contribute to a guitar’s tone, look and playability. Maple, walnut, mahogany, and cherry are common choices, with mahogany being the only one of those that anyone would expect to see on the endangered list any time soon.

As for fingerboards and bridges, ebony is the gold standard for a great acoustic, with rosewood a close second. But there are some options emerging from the new, more sustainable logging practices. One of those practices is to clear-cut one acre in the middle of a forest and take everything out. This is a minor wound in the forest that heals over time, but causes less disruption to the forest ecosystem than traditional methods. The companies that clear-cut this way need to find commercial uses for every stick of lumber they get in order to make a profit. One recent success story is katalox, which Martin has used for fingerboards and bridges on some of the guitars in their Sustainable Wood series. It’s comparable to ebony for density, and polishes very well. Its dark purple and brown grain also make a subtle but beautiful accent.

A wood that compares nicely to rosewood is jacaranda, which Long likes to use as much as he can. It’s an ornamental tree seen around plantations in Africa and South America. According to Long, “it polishes very lustrous. Beautiful tap tones. Everything about it I think is as good as any rosewood for a bridge or fingerboard.”

Although some high-end electrics have had great success with carbon fiber fingerboards, acoustic guitarists are extremely resistant to a synthetic. Hoover takes it in stride: “This is another place where we have an enlightened clientele who want to be responsible, but they still want the rare woods with the guitars. It’s really hard to sell the synthetic stuff. They just don’t buy it.” As woods like katalox and jacaranda become more familiar, the demand for ebony and rosewood may ease.