Bob Taylor walks in the Cameroon bush during a visit in 2017. Taylor Guitars—in partnership with Madinter Trade, a Spain-based supplier of tonewoods—recently purchased an ebony mill in Cameroon, an African country on the Gulf of Guinea. Photo courtesy of Taylor Guitars
Part III: Wood
In January 2017, CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, which, according to their website, is “an international agreement between governments whose aim is to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival,” listed the entire Dalbergia genus—i.e. every species of rosewood—as Appendix II. That means, in a nutshell, that rosewood is considered a species at risk and its international usage is regulated.
Needless to say, that sent the guitar world into a tizzy.
“Basically, what happened is there has been growing demand for rosewood, mainly from China,” Eric Meier, the author of WOOD! Identifying and Using Hundreds of Woods Worldwide and the administrator of The Wood Database, says. “I’m not trying to completely blame the Chinese, but they have a growing middle class and a cultural tradition of rosewood furniture. The resurgence in demand for rosewood furniture is an unprecedented amount of global demand, which was the main contributing factor. Obviously, there are other factors as well, but that was the main contributing factor for the CITES decision. CITES controls how and when wood moves across international borders.”
However, according to Meier, the regulation does have a provision for touring musicians. “This doesn’t affect Brazilian rosewood, which has always been restricted,” he says. “But for the other species of rosewood they’ve put the limit at 10 kilograms (about 22 pounds) and non-commercial. Basically, as long as you’re not selling the instrument—it isn’t a commercial transaction, you’re just traveling with it—then it’s exempted.”
That isn’t the case if you want to sell a guitar, even if you’re selling a used instrument. “It’s affected the guitar business in a negative way,” Bob Taylor, the founder and CEO of Taylor Guitars, says. “People think that the ‘guitar business’ is conducted only by corporations. That is a false idea, because guitars are durable and last for a century or more. In that time, those guitars will have many owners. In today’s world, individuals sell used guitars all day every day, often across borders. This doesn’t happen with flooring, or even most furniture, for example. It’s just as illegal for a person with a 20-year-old guitar to sell it across a border without all the proof and paperwork as it is for Taylor Guitars to do so with a new guitar. As the CITES rosewood regulation is currently written, it criminalizes people who have no idea or even the ability to know about the legality of a certain guitar. One small piece of rosewood on the guitar makes it a CITES-controlled product, forever. You can see the problem with this. It’s relatively easy for Taylor Guitars to comply because we are a business and we deal in new guitars. We know exactly what pieces of wood are in them, their botanical names, where they came from, and we have the accompanying proof. We also know the management authorities around the world. We have the good fortune of a good reputation. We know how to file the paperwork. It isn’t easy, but we can comply. It’s very hard for an individual, who is the third owner of a guitar to comply, because he has to know all this, too, and prove it.”
The challenge is greater for smaller, boutique builders—especially those who have been in business for a long time. “Most of the sources that we have always gotten wood from—and ‘we’ means the guitar-building community at large—are places that have done this forever,” Amilcar Dohrn-Melendez, the materials buyer for Ryan Guitars, says. “A lot is older material, which is really good for us, and is the stuff that’s harder to track. Kevin [Ryan] has been building for 30 years and he has material that is that old. Most shops do. When you get serious about building guitars, a lot of your investment early on is to get those source materials. You can use them forever and the longer they cure, the better. Guitar builders are wired to be like squirrels and keep gathering stuff. But how do you find out who the person you bought it from bought it from if you bought it 10 years ago? You can imagine, if it was longer than 15 or 20 years ago, it’s just a wash in terms of how any of us kept track.”
“We’re married to ebony because it works,” says Bob Taylor. “Substitutes don’t work as well. Plus, they have their own sustainability problems.” This majestic ebony tree resides in a forest in Cameroon, in Central Africa.
Photo courtesy of Taylor Guitars
Ebony is another wood the guitar building community is concerned about, especially since it’s one of the best woods to use for fretboards. “As a builder, one of the things I would say about ebony is that structurally it takes frets really well,” Dohrn-Melendez says. “The density and how stiff it is—even compared to rosewood—frets just grab on and hold on like you want them to.”
“We’re married to ebony because it works,” Taylor adds. “Substitutes don’t work as well. Plus, they have their own sustainability problems. It’s good to realize that guitars aren’t the only instruments that depend upon ebony. Violins, cellos, contra-basses, also use it. I think it’s better to conserve and regrow ebony than to look for alternatives.”
Along those lines, Taylor—in partnership with Madinter Trade, a Spain-based supplier of tonewoods—purchased an ebony mill in Cameroon. Learning about woods at their source changed Taylor’s opinion about what types of ebony were suitable for use. “When we first arrived, we found out from suppliers that they cut down many trees to find one with a pure black heart. Not all ebony trees are pure black and many trees were simply left to rot. That was not acceptable to us. I thought the wood was beautiful, and I felt I was in a position—not as a supplier of ebony, but as a maker of guitars—to change perception. Today, we are repurposing much of the colored wood into sides and backs. We had to build a lot of capabilities, but it’s a great use of that material, and we don’t have to depend upon using it solely on fingerboards.”
Taylor Guitars is committed to replanting and conserving ebony through the Cameroon Project. The first stage of the project planted 15,000 seedlings in the Crelicam nursery, with the goal of supplying instrument manufacturers with
high-quality ebony in the future. Photo courtesy of Taylor Guitars
Part of the challenge, in terms of sustainability, is that trees take a long time to grow. “Some of the controversy in Madagascar was someone cut down protected trees in the national forest,” Meier says. “The trees were 200 or 300 years old. Yes, trees can grow back, but if you just consider that that was a 200-year-old tree—there is an element of timing. Is it realistically going to be sustainable in our lifetime?”
However, in spite of that, Taylor is planting new trees. “We have a huge project to replant ebony and it’s in full swing,” Taylor says. “In fact, we just signed a public-private partnership with the government of Cameroon on November 14, 2017, at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bonn, Germany, to cooperate on our initiative. We are partnered with the Congo Basin Institute in Yaoundé, Cameroon, which has UCLA as the driving partner. Professor Tom Smith, the director of the Center for Tropical Research, has spent 35 years working in Cameroon on forest-related science. There is top-notch science being implemented with them as our partner. Together, we are making progress planting ebony as well as fruit and medicine trees in villages, and the villages own these projects. This first stage of the project will plant 15,000 ebony trees. My partner Vidal de Teresa from Madinter Trade in Spain oversees the work.”
One thing that isn’t possible—at least not on a significant scale—is growing these tropical trees in greenhouses. “What you need is good site location, good soil, and good seeds,” Taylor says. “Hawaii is a contender to grow ebony, rosewood, and mahogany. There’s a lot of mahogany already on Hawaii, so we know it grows well there. There is also the topic of improving the species through planting shoots from a good tree, thus copying that tree’s qualities. With time, we may be able to crossbreed trees as well to make certain varieties that serve us well, just like it’s done with edible plants. While we haven’t crossbred anything yet, we have grown new trees from cuttings of trees we like.”
“The environment that these trees grow in has so much to do with what they become as trees and, then by proxy, how we can use them as builders,” Dohrn-Melendez says. “It’s a difficult thing to manufacture. For example, you have to have a rainforest if you want to grow Brazilian rosewood. You might not have to go to Brazil, but Nebraska isn’t going to cut it.”