Concern over threatened and endangered tonewood species is nothing new. For nearly as long as there has been worry over forest conservation, players and builders have wondered about the guitar’s place in the puzzle. But conversation about the problem is evolving in ways experts might not have foreseen only a decade ago.
Until recently, talk of the future of tonewoods typically followed two threads: How much rosewood, mahogany, ebony, spruce, ash, and other woods were left in the world? And what would replace those woods when supplies grew too thin? Both questions address valid concerns. But the failure to consider wider, more complex factors led to a lot of binary, zero-sum thinking about the issue. As a result, many observers peddled grim scenarios where the finest wood would disappear while acoustic guitar quality steadily went to pot.
In fact, the real state of tonewoods is a multifaceted, labyrinthine, and fluid problem. The solution to supply problems and scarcity is not always a simple exchange of a classic threatened wood for a temporarily less-endangered one. Instead, guitar consumers, players, and builders are confronting a fast-evolving, intricate, and ever-changing wood supply chain—one where everything from political unrest, climate change, pests, and even the decades-old decisions of urban landscapers will shape the wood sourcing landscape. “There is a time and place for alternative woods,” says Scott Paul, an environmental advocate and director of natural resource sustainability at Taylor Guitars. “But you have to think things through a great deal when it comes to your sources. And you have to address methods of consumption rather than just shift it from one region to another.”
In some respects, the situation is chaotic. But information about the subject is also more abundant and easier to share than ever. That’s leading to better, more responsive management of resources, greater communication among builders, and in many cases, excellent instruments built from unconventional woods that may become classics in their own right.
The evolving tonewood situation demands that consumers and builders will need to be honest and informed about changes in the market. Players need to be more aware of wood myths, and alert to shifting market conditions down to the local and community level. Most importantly, they will have to be open-minded to the possibility that great guitars can come from woods other than Brazilian rosewood, Honduran mahogany, and Adirondack spruce. When they do, they will discover instruments that deliver many aesthetic and sonic surprises.
That the acoustic guitar should become a bellwether of wood scarcity is a bit of cruel irony. After all, the steel-string flattop is arguably the guitar’s earthiest expression—an embodiment of bucolic and folksy imagery that spans beach fires, Neil Young ranch jams, Maybelle Carter’s revolutionary scratch, and Bert Jansch’s solitary picking in a bohemian bedsit.
But however powerfully these scenes evoke down-home, carbon-neutral, and downright organic modes of creative expression, the fact is, acoustic guitars exact a cost to the environment—primarily because because many prized instruments use tropical hardwoods like rosewood, mahogany, and ebony that, since colonial times, were harvested with little regard for wider ecosystem health.
Many of these species remain vulnerable. Brazilian rosewood—the source of back and sides on golden-age Martin D-28s, OM-28s, D-45s and others—is threatened by habitat loss and slow regeneration rates. Honduran mahogany, which makes up the backs and sides of classic Gibson J-45s and Martin D-18s, has seen dramatic habitat loss from clear cutting. Even Adirondack spruce and Sitka spruce, North American trees with populations that have stabilized, have seen mature and old-growth populations that sustain healthy ecosystems and help new growth thrive, clear cut to disastrous effect.
Photo 1: Santa Cruz Guitars’ Richard Hoover loves the possibilities of reclaimed redwood: “We’re still at a point where we don’t have to cut a tree to get really nice stuff.” Photo by Carolyn Sills
The electric guitar industry has been profoundly affected too, as Fender’s recent retreat from swamp ash and switch from rosewood to pau ferro fretboards on affordable guitars illustrates. And though guitars make up a small fraction of the lumber consumption that threatens certain species, the instruments are what Scott Paul calls “canaries in the coal mine”—offering early, but very visible hints at the decline of certain forests.
The good news is that much of the guitar industry has their eyes wide open to the problem. Many builders have foresight, ethical bearing, and business sense enough to know that without good wood, they might as well be making badminton rackets. That awareness makes modern builders a resourceful lot. And the tonewood crisis is sparking exploration of new species, reclamation efforts, and repurposing of trees that would’ve never been considered for tonewood just a few years ago. It’s also encouraging flexible and community-engaged, smart-cultivation techniques—some of which could drive recovery for species we thought would be off the tonewood menu for good.
Amid all these challenges, builders are applying the sum of their knowledge to craft guitars that rival golden-era flattops for sound and quality. As Paul says, “We’re at an inflection point in the history of musical instrument manufacturing. The industry has really been doing things a certain way for 200 years and we’re at the precipice of having to adapt.”
Photo 2: West Coast Arborists are working with Taylor Guitars to supply Shamel ash from reclaimed Los Angeles street trees. Photo by Micah Sidmak — courtesy of Taylor Guitars
Adaptation Is Industry Tradition
Acoustic guitar historians should be receptive to adaptation. After all, many tonewoods we regard as classic were used simply because they were what was around at the time. From Spanish flamenco guitar builders that used the cypress in their backyards to Leo Fender sourcing ash and alder from furniture builders down the street, guitar luthiers have always used local wood or what was easiest and cheapest to source at the time.
Some such success stories are happy accidents, of course. Not every local tree is suited for guitar building. And for all the same reasons that prized tonewoods are scarce, there aren’t a lot of cabinetry shops sitting on a surplus of ash and eager to dump it on the cheap these days. But for all these problems, the tonewood industry is better networked and informed than ever, and its wood-sourcing options are broader and more diverse.
Given all this knowledge, why has adaptation in the guitar industry come so slowly? In part, it’s because navigating a constantly evolving supply situation is like a game of Whac-A-Mole. But it’s also because the acoustic guitar is burdened by a very romantic history that’s peppered liberally with myth—particularly when it comes to hallowed species like Brazilian rosewood that make up so many golden-era instruments.