Samick Motherlode

December 2014
more... AcousticJuly 2009

Sustainable Tone: The Forest and the Trees


Sides and Backs

Black walnut back and sides on Long Small Jumbo.
Richard Hoover wants to make one thing very clear: Brazilian rosewood that’s cut from living trees is completely useless as a tone wood. It’s not even pretty. “The neat thing about Brazilian Rosewood,” he says, “is that it sounds lovely and looks absolutely gorgeous, and it doesn’t gain its beauty until the wood dies. So, it’s not a standing tree in the rainforest that you go cut and get guitar wood out of. In fact, it grows solitary in a savanna, and it’s necessary to gather the wood that has partially gone through a secondary decay.”

But that’s a very limited resource and impossible to import legally. It was embargoed in 1969, and the major makers at that time were forced to find alternatives. As Hoover explains, “Martin changed to Indian rosewood, and it became the standard for acoustic guitars. Most people didn’t even notice the change, except for aficionados. And that’s been a pretty practical alternative. In fact, it’s become a staple. But many people didn’t even see it as an alternative.”

Lucky for us, there is an embarrassment of riches to be found in wood choices today. To a lot of trained ears, cocobolo offers a lot of the same qualities that Brazilian rosewood does. In fact, Taylor quips, “People are cuckoo for cocobolo!” Cocobolo has a rosewood-type tone because it’s a hard tropical rosewood-type species, but the sound is a little more compressed than a Brazilian rosewood guitar.

Mahogany, Hoover stated, should already be on the Convention on International Trade and Endangered Species (CITES) list, right behind Brazilian rosewood, because it actually comes from the rainforest. Taylor initiated a program about seven years ago in Honduras. “We have three villages participating now. Each one of these villages cut mahogany for us, and they take so little wood out that they can do it indefinitely. Each village only provides us with about four or five trees a year, and that’s all they can provide. But those trees provide 40 percent of their village’s annual income, so that’s like a premier example of what a nice tidy sustainable operation would be. You take a little bit from a lot of places, and the money goes straight to the people.”

FSC and CITES

Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)
FSC is an independent, non-governmental, not-for-profit organization established to promote the responsible management of the world’s forests. FSC has offices in more than 46 countries. It provides standard setting, trademark assurance and accreditation services for companies and organizations interested in responsible forestry. Products carrying the FSC label are independently certified to assure consumers that they come from forests that are managed to meet the social, economic and ecological needs of present and future generations.

Visit: fsc.org and accreditation-services.com

Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES)
CITES is an international agreement between governments. Its aim is to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival. It accords varying degrees of protection to more than 30,000 species of animals and plants.

CITES is an international agreement to which States (countries) adhere voluntarily. Although CITES is legally binding on the Parties, it does not take the place of national laws.

Visit: cites.org
Supplies of fine exotic woods like cocobolo, Macassar ebony and Madagascar rosewood often fluctuate, and the chain of custody has to be minutely studied to pass muster for ethical companies, like our interviewees, to consider putting them into their guitars. Colesanti says, “There are stories about unethical labor practices in the harvest of all kinds of stuff, including wood. We spend a lot of time now working with companies who are doing that kind of deep supply chain research.”

But a lot of the lower-end mahogany guitars made overseas are made with far less attention to supply chain or labor practices. None of the makers interviewed here have any desire to be perceived as elitist, but all are concerned that the plethora of guitars currently flooding the market in the $99 to $300 range most likely contain wood from questionable sources. Hoover sighs, “There are a lot of hard woods around the world that would work great for musical instruments but they come from areas with absolutely no regulations—or let’s say the industry has no social conscience.”

Walnut is a perfect example of a sustainable tone wood. Grown in orchards all across the US, many makers, and increasing numbers of players, are falling in love with it. Most of the walnut that guitar makers use comes from trees that are at the end of their lifecycle. This happens only once every eightyfive to ninety years for most orchards, but the supply is steady. “Walnut has the breathiness of mahogany, but,” Taylor laughs, “it’s got some balls! A little bit of grit underneath so it can handle a little more snap.” It combines nicely with both cedar and spruce, making it a great choice for fingerstyle or flatpicking guitars.

Colesanti says creating a strong market for alternatives is often a simple matter of listening to the tone: “I think we had talked ourselves into thinking only certain kinds of wood sounds good acoustically for the flat top steel-string guitar. But once we got over that hump and started building with those materials, we found the sound was really good, and then the difficulty became actually convincing folks out in the world that it’s okay to have a guitar made out of that material. A lot of that wood grows right in Pennsylvania, so it’s not like you’re going to South America or Africa or Europe or Australia to find these woods. You can buy maple and cherry and birch and even walnut right here.”

The Future Sounds Brilliant but Warm, with Plenty of Sustain
It’s an exciting time to be an acoustic guitar player. There are more options available than ever before, and it’s possible to know with a great deal of confidence where your wood came from and how it was harvested. With ninety percent of your tone coming from the top of the guitar, it’s possible to use the back and side wood sort of like an EQ. If you learn about different tone woods and what properties they bring to a guitar, you can get incredibly close to your ideal tone before your guitar is even made. That makes me feel like, well, a guitar player in a luthier’s workshop.