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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Vanishing Tonewoods

Air Date: Week of February 3, 2012

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John Bechtold, owner of Pittsburgh Guitars, says many customers want guitars made from traditional tonewoods, but many of these tree species are becoming rare. (Photo: Ann Murray)

For decades, several tree species have provided acoustic guitar players and makers of premium instruments with the perfect musical tone. But the world’s forests are in decline, including the trees that produce the best tonewoods. Now, as The Allegheny Front’s Ann Murray reports, some guitar manufacturers are finding ways to protect remaining tonewood forests and continue producing high-end wood instruments.

Transcript

GELLERMAN: The makers of high–end guitars are at a crossroads. After decades of using the wood from special hardwood trees to get that perfect tone, today - the oldest and best forests are rapidly vanishing. The situation has some who craft fine acoustic guitars searching for eco-friendly ways to keep their businesses, and the music going. Reporter Ann Murray from the environmental radio program Allegheny Front in western Pennsylvania has our story.

GUITAR STORE CLERK: Here, brother, have some picks.

[ELECTRIC GUITAR MUSIC]

MURRAY: Visit any music store that sells premium guitars and it’s like taking a virtual trip to forests all over the world. John Bechtold, the owner of Pittsburgh Guitars, pulls out a catalogue for a high-end acoustic guitar manufacturer.

BECHTOLD: This chart shows where their wood is procured from. Canada, Japan, Brazil, India.

MURRAY: Forests in these countries produce woods... mahogany, rosewood and spruce to name a few, that have been used by generations of guitar makers.

[MUSIC: Guitarist Laurence Juber playing a guitar made of Brazilian Rosewood.]

MURRAY: These traditional "tonewoods" have stood the test of time for a reason: they produce a clear resonant sound; they're durable and beautiful.

[MUSIC CONTINUES]

MURRAY: With just 20 percent of the world’s intact forests remaining, the oldest trees that produce the best tonewoods are vanishing fast.

PAUL: The cold truth is we're quite simply running out of a lot of the species that have been used for hundreds of years to make musical instruments.

MURRAY: That’s Scott Paul, forest campaign coordinator for Greenpeace. He says guitar makers aren’t the main reason for the depletion of tonewoods.

PAUL: The global consumption is just really reaching, to say the obvious, unprecedented levels.

MURRAY: Homebuilders, furniture companies and paper mills have been gobbling up these species for decades. By the 1940s, over-harvesting all but wiped out Adirondack spruce, the wood most commonly fashioned into guitar tops before World War II. Prized Brazilian rosewood became scarce by the mid 1960’s because of illegal logging.

In 1992, it was restricted from international trade. Charlie Redden, wood buyer with Taylor Guitar Company, thinks the loss of Brazilian rosewood was his industry’s wakeup call.

REDDEN: As an industry, we simply didn’t manage that the way we should have. So we’ve taken a really tough look at what role we play in using those materials.

MURRAY: Redden says guitar builders need to keep the remaining tonewood forests healthy. Taylor and other acoustic guitar makers have asked for help from groups like Greenpeace, the Environment Investigation Agency and Greenwood.

REDDEN: They have those resources to help communicate with the governments in each of those areas so we can work on the same page as far as forest inventory and sustainability to ensure those forests are managed properly.

MURRAY: Taylor is partnering with Greenwood in Honduras. They're teaching local people to manage and export mahogany.

[SOUND FROM VIDEO: CHAIN SAW, GUITAR MUSIC AND SOME SPANISH]

MURRAY: This Greenwood video shows sustainably harvested trees in the Honduran rainforest. The trees that are being cut have been tagged with bar codes that are linked to their GPS location. Greenwood says this tracking process has stepped up compliance with local forest regulations.

[VIDEO SOUNDS CONTINUE, TALKING IN SPANISH.]

MURRAY: Until 2008, wood importers in the United States didn't have to follow the timber laws of other countries and essentially could import illegally harvested wood. Greenpeace estimates that new federal regulations have helped to reduce the illegal timber trade by 40 percent. Redden thinks industry and government intervention have come just in time to save some of the forests that produce traditional tonewoods.


Martin guitars made with sustainable materials get a label from the Forest Stewardship Council. (Photo: Dennis Funk)

REDDEN: I'm hopeful that we will start to see better forest management plans so our industry can continue to make those guitars indefinitely.

MURRAY: Other guitar manufacturers aren't as hopeful. They point to the slow re-growth of forests and political instability in countries where many of the remaining tonewoods are located. Because of these limitations, Martin Guitar Company wants to go in another direction with its production of premium guitars.

[SOUNDS OF SANDING IN FACTORY]

MURRAY: At Martin's factory in Nazareth, PA, Brian Bailey's handsanding the cherry wood sides of a guitar body.

BAILEY: We file it down and go over it with a fine file to make it real smooth.

MURRAY: How is this wood to work with?

BAILEY: Good. It’s hardwood and it works very easily.


Martin Guitar's Brian Bailey sands the cherry wood sides of a guitar body. (Photo: Dennis Funk)

MURRAY: It's one of the sustainably certified guitars Martin makes with so called alternative tonewoods. Upstairs in the factory's offices, Linda Davis-Wallen says that Martin is trying to move musicians away from rare tonewoods that have been the mainstay of high-end guitar building.

DAVIS-WALLEN: Many musicians get very involved in many different movements and particularly environmental ones and yet they want the instrument they play to be very traditional which means it’s made out of all the wrong species. For instance, the ones that are most endangered, instead of helping us move forward with something that’s more sustainable and available.

MURRAY: Customers aren't beating down doors to buy Martin’s eco-friendly guitars. Of the 100,000 or so instruments the company makes each year, only 150 are made with nontraditional woods such as maple, koa and cherry.

DAVIS-WALLEN: If we want to make wooden guitars for another 178 years we’ve gotta use the woods that are available to us and we've got to maintain those forests in a sustainable manner so that we can keep doing it.

MURRAY: Martin is making an effort to get the word out. Dealers have to sign a contract saying they'll educate customers about alternative woods. Martin also has its tonewood ambassadors. Laurence Juber, once the lead guitarist with Paul McCartney's band Wings, and now a Grammy winning composer, has a signature line of Martin guitars. He designed his instrument with North American maples.

[MUSIC: Laurence Juber playing a guitar made of maple wood.]

JUBER: The maple guitars do not have the same appeal as a rosewood guitar does, but once the perception arises that you can actually get a great sound out of these instruments, then I think it will start to ease. But that doesn’t help Martin right now.

MURRAY: Juber and others think change will come slowly to the acoustic guitar world and that will have consequences for old growth forests around the globe.

[GUITAR MUSIC CONTINUES]

MURRAY: For Living On Earth, I’m Ann Murray.

 

Links

GreenWood

The Allegheny Front

Martin Guitar’s Commitment to the Environment

Greenpeace blog on the politics of premium guitars

Taylor Guitar Company

Forest Stewardship Council

Laurence Juber’s web site with info about his Martin guitars

 

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