By Mark Kemp
Saul Hudson was eager to see his new guitar, but he wasn’t expecting manna from heaven. After all, Hudson, better known as Slash, is the celebrated former Guns N’ Roses guitarist who’s owned some of the finest instruments in his neck of the rock ’n’ roll woods, from big-name vintage acoustics—a Martin D-18, Gibson J-200, and Guild D-100—to a string of signature Les Pauls.
What more could he want?
“I thought, ‘OK, let’s get this over with: I’m going to open the case and be happy and surprised and then we can move on,’” Slash says with a laugh.
He’s talking about the day the guitar maker Reuben Forsland dropped by to deliver a jumbo acoustic he’d built for Slash from wood that came from the Tree, a mythic source of unusually dense and beautiful, centuries-old quilted mahogany that’s coveted by some of the most respected makers and players of acoustic guitars.
“When I picked it up, I was completely humbled. It was a shock-and-awe moment. It changed everything I’d ever thought about acoustic guitars leading up to that point,” Slash continues, with a boyish wonder that betrays the reverence a head-banging kid might have for Slash himself. “It was the most amazing acoustic guitar I’d ever played or heard.”
What was it about this particular guitar that made such a powerful difference to the guy who recorded GN’R’s most famous acoustic song, “Patience,” using an old beater he didn’t even own? “It’s perfect,” Slash says. “I was amazed that you can actually make a guitar that’s perfect—perfect intonation, perfect tension on the neck, perfect sound. And it’s beautiful. I was just floored. ”
The figured mahogany that makes up the back and sides of Slash’s guitar was floored, too—some 50 years ago, when it tumbled to the floor of a forest in Central America. There’s an old philosophical riddle that asks, “If a tree falls in the forest and no one’s around to hear it, does it make a sound?” In the case of the Tree, a 500-year-old hunk of wood that once towered 100 feet and had a massive base ten feet in diameter, the answer is a resounding yes—a thousand times over. Discovered a little more than ten years after it was chopped down in 1965 and left in a ravine in the Chiquibul Jungle of what is now Belize, the Tree has been making beautiful sounds for decades in the form of boutique guitars crafted at shops including Forsland’s JOI, as well as Santa Cruz, Bedell, Greenfield, Froggy Bottom, and even the Big Two acoustic makers, Taylor and Martin.
“When I picked it up, I was completely humbled. It was a shock-and-awe moment. It changed everything I’d ever thought about acoustic guitars.”—Slash
The legend of the Tree really begins in the late 1970s, just after the birth of the boutique-guitar movement, when luthiers at small shops were beginning to find big success. A friend had told Robert Novak, a wood importer in what was then British Honduras, about the felled mahogany tree. “When the guy told me he had this stuff, he asked, ‘How much will you pay for it?,’” Novak remembers. “I said, ‘What’s it look like?’”
It looked like nothing Novak had ever seen. When he went to check it out, he was stuck by its rich, wavy figuring. “It was just very beautiful,” Novak says. He’s talking by phone from his home—still in Belize—amid shrill sounds of chirping birds that nearly drown out his voice at times. He’s no longer in the wood-exporting business—he left that behind long ago for a career as a chiropractor. “And the wood was stable,” Novak continues, as if he’s talking about a patient’s back. “That’s unusual for something that had sat in the forest on the ground for so long.”
Lying in that jungle ravine in the era of rugged Indiana Jones explorers and Jimmy Buffet pirates, Novak saw 13,000 feet of virgin lumber—and dollar signs. “I knew I could sell it,” he says, “but not because it was mahogany—you couldn’t really make much money selling mahogany unless you were dealing with millions of feet. What I made my money on was the unusual qualities of wood. Like everybody else, I was attracted by this tree’s quilted quality.”
Getting the wood out of the jungle was no easy task. First, Novak’s crew cut it in half, but it still wouldn’t budge. “So then they had to cut it in four sections and drag the logs out,” he says. “But in order to load them onto the trucks, they had to quarter those four sections—turn them into 13-foot pieces. Sometimes they couldn’t get but one piece on a logging truck at a time.”
When the crew eventually got the wood out of the forest, they had to truck it some 90 miles to the coast, where they floated the logs out to a saw mill. “There was an old mill that was on the river that the Belize Estate Co. had had,” Novak says. “This redneck guy who had saw mills in Honduras and Nicaragua ran it.”
The process of getting the wood into the hands of customers in the United States was painfully slow, but Novak was determined. “We started bringing it up, one-sixteenth at a time, and sawing it,” he says. “I wanted big boards, I wanted as wide a boards as possible.”
Of the 13,000 feet of tree he’d seen in that jungle ravine, Novak harvested about 500 feet of high-quality, defect-free wood from the middle; 3,000 feet of heavily quilted wood; and five or six different patterns. By 1982, he was delivering his special mahogany to anybody who would buy it. “I just contacted everybody I’d ever sold to, and we had sold rosewood to Martin,” Novak says. “So I figured I’d call people who looked like they could handle something like this and were willing to pay enough money for it.”
An article on Novak’s mahogany in a 1985 issue of Fine Woodworking magazine got attention from independent guitar builders, making it a hot commodity in the lutherie world. Novak ended up buying back some of the wood he’d initially sold, reselling it at higher prices. Though he won’t say how much he sold the wood for, the article quoted it as $10 to $30 per board—today, wood from the Tree fetches as much as $1,500 per 12-by-12-by-1-inch board.
Guitar maker Michael Greenfield saw the Fine Woodworking article in the mid-1990s. “It was really spectacular stuff, but back then I never really paid much attention to it beyond that,” he says. However, “sometime right around the year 2000 I was visiting my friend Tom Ribbecke, who had just finished a 335-style guitar for Seal, along with a very early Halfling for another client, which was made of the Tree. He had just strung it up, possibly the prototype.
“This is great mahogany, period,” Greenfield adds. “I love mahogany guitars and this timber is as good as any I have heard.”
As for Novak, he wishes he could find another Tree. “If I found another one like that, I’d clone it,” he says, “but it takes hundreds of years for a tree to grow that big.”
Slash was impressed by the “esoteric locales” Reuben Forsland scavenges for the materials he uses in his guitars. When Forsland approached the guitarist with a menu of options for his custom jumbo, Slash chose 2,800-year-old glacier Sitka spruce for the top; another piece, he says, came from a house Jimi Hendrix once occupied; and for the back and sides, of course, he chose mahogany from the Tree.
“The Tree was mentioned as this very special prized wood that had this great history,” Slash says, “so I picked it based on that.”
Forsland had come across the Tree a few years earlier and thought it was stunning to look at, but it wasn’t something he wanted to work with at the time. “I had other woods I was focused on working with, but then earlier this year, Kevin Hennig and I were talking about sought-after tonewoods and the Tree came up as a great wood to combine with my ancient glacier Sitka spruce tops.”
Hennig, owner of Symphontree Guitars in Vancouver, Canada, had been looking for guitars made from the Tree, but was never bowled over by one until he played the Santa Cruz 1929 00 Custom that Richard Hoover had made entirely out of mahogany from the Tree—back, sides, top, everything.
“I had played a few guitars that claimed to be Tree,” Hennig says, but none of them sounded like the Santa Cruz. “That one did not sound at all like a traditional mahogany guitar. The look is stellar and the tone is enveloping and lively.”
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Like most builders, Hoover had been interested in working with Tree mahogany for some time, but not because the wood has some magical sonic quality. He was drawn to its stunning good looks. “It’s the beauty of the wood that’s desirable,” Hoover says. Making a Tree guitar sound good, he explains, is just part of the craft of building a great instrument. “When it comes to Tree wood, not all of it is suitable for a top—some of it is too flexible and too random in density,” Hoover says. “We chose a particular piece that was stiffer than most Tree wood you would find, and made it with proper bracing and thickness.”
Hennig, though, maintains that mahogany from the Tree does have unique tonal qualities. “Tree mahogany is denser than traditional Honduran mahogany,” he says. “When I think of a traditional ’hog guitar, they tend to have a snappy box with a dry fundamental. Tree ’hog is like traditional ’hog on steroids—thus, you get a very snappy box and thicker, wetter tone.”
About ten Tree guitars have passed through Hennig’s hands over the years, but he’s never seen the one that most captures his interest and imagination. “I imagine the G4.2 Michael Greenfield to be the ultimate Tree, but unfortunately, I never had a chance to play it,” Hennig says. “Michael is known as the ‘wood whisperer,’ and I can imagine the signature Greenfield tone paired with this wood would be intergalactic.”
That was Greenfield’s first Tree guitar. “It’s the model that Andy McKee plays,” Greenfield says. “It is quite exceptional to have a 17-inch set of Tree, let alone matched sides. The guitar had a cutaway, ‘Grit’ Laskin-inspired arm and rib rests, and is bound and veneered in ebony. The black ebony is an extremely dramatic and striking contrast to the deep, red-brown of this mahogany. The Tree was married with a very old Adirondack red spruce soundboard from my personal reserve.”
When Novak hears people talk with such reverence about the mahogany he dragged out of a Belizian jungle nearly 40 years ago, he’s not just a little amused. “It wasn’t until last year that I heard people were referring to it as ‘the Tree,’ ” Novak says with a laugh. “I was surprised, so I looked it up and was like, ‘Oh geez, I never even saw any of this!’ But it’s cool the amount of attention this tree has gotten. It’s very beautiful and it should get attention.”
But does the legend of the Tree precede the actual wood? Is Tree mahogany any better than other mahogany, or has its appeal become the stuff of myth? “I wouldn’t say it’s mythic,” Hoover says. “But to me, it’s about the beauty of the wood. That’s its appeal.
“It wasn’t until last year that I heard people were referring to it as ‘the Tree’ ”—Robert Novak
“Let’s use the Tree and Brazilian rosewood in the same explanation,” Hoover continues. “Both woods are really beautiful, and that makes them desirable; both are also rare, which makes them desirable. From there, it takes on a mythos that goes above and beyond the actual material. To ascribe sound quality to Tree wood is a very general statement, because wood from the Tree varies greatly. It would be hard to make a specific statement about the sound of the Tree.”
Slash doesn’t seem to care why his new instrument made from Tree mahogany and ancient Sitka spruce sounds so good and plays so well. But he’s absolutely sold on the way Reuben Forsland put it all together in a perfect mix of sound and vision. “It just has this very smooth, very neat and tidy sound, but it’s also really warm and it resonates beautifully,” the guitarist says. “I have it up in the bedroom and still, every time I pick it up, it just blows my mind.”
Former AG senior editor Marc Greilsamer contributed to the reporting of this story.