july 2007

The wood so crucial for the incredible range of sounds available exclusively from a high quality guitar is, in many cases, facing imminent extinction.


Going Green
As guitar players, we know a little bit more about wood than the average person.

We have seen the prices of Brazilian rosewood skyrocket. We know that there''s something special about the Adirondack spruce found in pre war Martins. We know that the right wood can make or break the tone of a great instrument, and we certainly know the difference between flamed, curly and quilted.



The most important thing however may be the one that we are all overlooking: the fact that the wood so crucial for the incredible range of sounds available exclusively from a high quality guitar is, in many cases, facing imminent extinction.

Fortunately, this is a situation that guitar manufacturers are trying to prevent. At the summer NAMM conference in 2006, Greenpeace brought together the heads of Gibson, Fender, Martin and Taylor, forming a group known as the MusicWood Coalition to work proactively to create sustainable resources and ensure that quality guitars will be readily available far into the future. For all of these companies, the MusicWood Coalition was not their first foray into environmentalism in the name of music, but it did mark the first time that all four worked side by side toward a common goal. In this special section, you will find all you need to know about the threats to the leading tonewoods, the efforts being taken to save them, and how four of the world’s biggest guitar companies have become the unlikeliest of environmental crusaders.

The Problem at Hand
In Alaska & Central America Electric and acoustic tonewoods face extinction

Clearcutting tracts on Revillagigedo Island in Southeast Alaska.
Photo: Mark Linneman, Greenpeace ©2003
The problem of deforestation is not a new one. Forests have been destroyed for land and resources for a long time – Greenpeace estimates that only onefifth of the world’s original forests remain. However, the problem is complicated when dealing with the trees used for guitars: spruce, rosewood, mahogany and others. When it comes to building guitars, the required wood usually must meet certain criteria. Because the same woods used for guitars are also used for many other things like paper and housing, perfectly aged tonewoods are being shipped away for nonmusical uses. Since tonewoods come from all over the world, addressing the problems of the specific areas is especially difficult.


Alaska: Disappearing Wood
In Alaska, the big issue is spruce -- Sitka spruce to be exact. Sitka is used extensively for acoustic tops and for soundboards in other instruments, like pianos. The wood is ideal for these purposes because of its high strength-to-density ratio. Its makeup is unique in that it is strong enough to avoid warping while still being thin enough to produce the best tone. The Sitka spruce is found in select parts of the Pacific Northwest, and in order to achieve the desired tones, the wood must come from trees that are 250 years old, or older. This so-called “old growth,” is rare – only one lumber company in the area has old growth in its forests. The company, located in Southeast Alaska, is Sealaska, owned by Alaskan natives. Here, the old growth of Sitka is being cut so extensively that it could be obliterated in 6 to15 years.

Currently, the area is harvested using 99% clear-cutting, according to Greenpeace’s Forest Campaign Coordinator, Scott Paul. Clear-cutting involves exactly what one might imagine: clearing an area with no regard for the age or type of trees that are being cut, and little regard for which trees are going for which purpose. By this method, a 250-year-old tree that could produce many wonderful-toned acoustic tops could end up lumber for housing in Asia.

Clear-cutting tracts in the Tongass National Forest in Southeast Alaska.
Photo: Stephanie Hillman, Greenpeace ©2003
Though almost all acoustics are currently made with spruce, Gibson CEO Henry Juszkiewicz says that he foresees a future where that will certainly not be the case. At this point, he says, even supply from a sustainable forest will be less than the demand, and alternatives may have to suffice.


Central America:Devastation of Illegal Logging
In Central America, a similar situation was taking place with mahogany. Isolated in reserves, with little or no access to markets for the wood, impoverished residents of these areas had no incentive for managing their forests. Because of this, Central- American forests in Honduras and Guatemala struggled with illegal logging practices.

Without incentive to manage the forests, residents had no reason to object when logging took place illegally. It was not simply the act of logging, however, that was obliterating the mahogany forests. The logging was done with little regard to cutting methods. In addition, fires and the spread of agriculture threatened the trees, as farmers cleared trees for farmland.

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