Rosewood, maple, spruce, mahogany, ebony: If you played or built acoustic guitars before the end of the last century, those woods would probably have covered almost all species under your fingers. Alternatives like cedar and koa were used for specific instrument types or for creative design choices related to appearance and tone.
But look at the specs in some recent Acoustic Guitar reviews and you’re likely to see materials that would have seemed exotic even ten years ago: eucalyptus, sapele, bamboo, korina, Richlite, just to name a few. The use of these and other nontraditional materials is part of an effort by manufacturers to find alternatives to traditional tonewoods in a world where climate change and deforestation are no longer abstract problems but part of our everyday lives.
How are acoustic guitar makers addressing these challenges? How are they adapting traditional designs in the face of climate change? How does one make a carbon neutral guitar? Because the answers to those questions are as varied as the manufacturers themselves, we won’t attempt to be comprehensive. Instead, the following article looks at how some of the biggest builders in the industry are developing their own strategies—and possibly setting a template for others to follow.
A Crisis in Old Growth
When C.F. Martin & Co. was founded, in 1833, the idea that trees would ever be in short supply in the Americas was simply unfathomable. With European colonization creating global empires by the middle of the 19th century, the natural resources of Africa and Asia made supplies seem even more limitless. This perception carried well into the postcolonial era of the 20th century.
“For 200 years, buying wood for musical instruments was pretty easy,” says Scott Paul, director of natural resource sustainability at Taylor Guitars. “It was all old growth, it was pretty well priced, and you could buy it locally.”
The environmental landscape has changed mightily over the last few decades. Deforestation is just one example of how human activity has literally altered the face of the Earth. “Today, the process of buying almost every wood for musical instruments—traditional tonewoods, newer tonewoods—is getting increasingly complicated, either because of international regulations and policy or deforestation,” Paul says.
While the dangers of overharvesting have long been recognized—not least because of the effects it has on carbon in the atmosphere—the U.N. says “global deforestation continues at an alarming rate.” The places where the problem is most acute often happen to be where some of the most traditional tonewoods come from: Africa, South Asia, Oceania, and South and Central America.
Sourcing wood is important for many industries, but instrument making requires much more specific materials. Woods that work well for construction of furniture aren’t necessarily going to deliver the goods for a guitar, violin, or drum.
And guitars are in demand. According to a report by Australia’s Cosmos magazine on the guitar industry’s use of wood, more than 2.6 million new guitars were sold globally in 2022— with much of their material coming from old-growth trees sourced from six continents.
“Habitat destruction for agriculture and urbanization led to Brazilian rosewood—once considered the ‘gold standard’ for guitars—being effectively banned from use since 1992,” Cosmos reports. “Guitar companies replaced it with similar species from other places, but they too were overharvested.”
While the guitar industry uses a small percentage of the wood being harvested, its very specific needs mean it feels the lack of supply more than industries where alternative materials are easier to use.
The Cosmos article cites Martin and Taylor as two major companies working to try to solve the problem through reforestation, experimenting with alternative materials, and developing new construction techniques that make better use of available resources.
The quest to alleviate pressure on traditional resources isn’t exactly new—I remember reviewing a Martin OMC made of birch in the early 2000s—but according to Martin CEO Thomas Ripsam, companies are now looking at sustainability from a more strategic standpoint.
“Martin was actually the first to get FSC [Forest Stewardship Council] certified among the guitar makers,” Ripsam says. “We had lots of different efforts in the company. But we didn’t have a full picture of what we were doing, why we were doing it, and what our priorities should be.
“So last year, we defined sustainability for Martin,” he continues, “and it includes three components: environment, community, and employees. It’s a very complex piece of work trying to figure out what is the carbon footprint of a guitar. Then we also did a full carbon footprint analysis for our entire company.” Martin now publishes an annual impact report available on its website. Taylor’s sustainability policies are also online.
The environmental side of the equation is the one most visible across the industry, and it’s the impetus for change among a growing number of manufacturers. “The harbingers of forest destruction for a manufacturer are when you see changes in price, quality, and geography—I can’t get from this country and get into that country,” says Paul, who worked on deforestation issues for Greenpeace before being hired by Taylor in what he believes is an industry-first role.
“If you start seeing all those three things, then resources are stressed,” he continues. “And everywhere we look, we’re seeing changes. After 200 years of status quo, over [the last] five or six years, Bob Taylor and [Taylor master guitar designer and ownership partner] Andy Powers will both say, ‘Yeah, it’s changing.’”
Those changes may mean that the models people consider definitive and traditional—the Martin D-28s and Gibson J-45s—may have to either adapt or give way to new alternatives. Ripsam says part of the sustainability effort includes educating customers about the opportunities afforded by new instruments. “We embrace alternatives without letting go of some of the things that are very important to Martin, like tone and aesthetics,” he says. “We’re never going to jeopardize that.”
Another effort is to make sure that the materials come from legal sources. The Yamaha Group has “established a due diligence system to prevent the procurement of timber from illegal sources,” according to an article on sustainability on the company’s website. Yamaha, which also offers a downloadable sustainability report, “promotes a strict confirmation process for the legality of timber harvesting” and “is expanding the use of certified timber, which is produced in socially and economically sustainable forests and contributes to the advancement of the community.”
Educating players is an important aspect of moving forward, Ripsam points out. “As we see the younger generation becoming guitarists, they have a totally different outlook on and approach to topics like sustainability,” he says. “They expect you to do things that are much more [environmentally] responsible.”
One example from Martin is the FSC-certified OM Biosphere, which the company calls “the second plastic-free guitar in production today.” In 2019, Gibson launched its Sustainable series with version of models like the J-45, L-00, and Hummingbird made of tonewoods—including Sitka spruce tops and walnut backs and sides—sustainably harvested entirely in North America.
Paul believes that Taylor—a company founded in 1974 as an upstart taking on the traditional giants like Martin and Gibson—has an easier time introducing unconventional models to its customer base. “Taylor has a tradition of innovation,” Paul says. “So our customers are okay if we change the bracing or if we change the design and build. As Andy [Powers] says, ‘You don’t know what you can build until you know what you can build it from.’ And if the resources change, then the design may have to adapt to that changing environment.”
Taylor’s Urban Ash instruments (currently available in the GT and 300 series) use wood recycled from trees salvaged from the urban canopy in California.
While manufacturers do discuss these issues—and the music industry trade group NAMM has launched a Sustainability Task Force—both Paul and Ripsam note that there is currently no industry-wide approach to sustainability outside of practices imposed by regulations.
“It’s very much an independent, company-driven approach, but of course, there’s dialogue,” Ripsam says. “It’s a challenge we all face. There are some other companies, like Yamaha, who have also been really good at establishing very clear objectives and a clear framework [for] how they think about sustainability.” He adds that Martin is also looking for “black swans”—builders who are trying completely new approaches.
“There is a much greater awareness across the industry, and you see important changes,” Paul says. “Bob Taylor likes to say that over the course of his career he’s walked through the threshold of ‘the way it’s always been,’ with [what were then considered] unlimited old growth forests, to ‘how it has to be,’ with new government regulations and scarcer resources.”
When a big company has success with an alternative material, it can open the door for its competitors to try a similar idea. “I think one of the classic examples is when we introduced variegated ebony fingerboards,” Paul says, recalling lessons learned when Taylor became partners in an ebony mill in the Congo Basin.
“Nobody knows what percentage of ebony trees have a pure black heart and what percentage are variegated, but let’s say it’s 50/50,” he continues. “Traditionally, trees would be felled, and if they didn’t have a black heart, they would be left on the forest floor. Some quick math and common sense tell you that 50 percent of the ebony trees that have been felled in the Congo Basin since the mid-20th century, when industrial logging got going, were left to rot on the forest floor. When we realized that there’s no mechanical or acoustic difference between black and variegated ebony, we introduced variegated ebony on the 814, our flagship model.”
Ripsam notes that it’s important to work with local populations in regions where wood is harvested. Like Taylor, Martin takes part in reforestation efforts. “When we use tonewoods that are challenged from a sustainability perspective, we also look for opportunities to protect the environment and support communities and reforestation efforts in places like Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Congo,” Ripsam says.
“We look at all the materials that we use and try to get a very good handle on where they come from, of course, and which of these materials face issues from a sustainability perspective and an availability perspective,” he adds. “And we have efforts underway to look for alternatives.”One example is Richlite, a sustainable material made from paper, as an alternative to ebony.
In addition to seeking new materials, companies can use a higher percentage of the materials they procure. “An effort closer to home is to make sure that we use resources to the max,” Ripsam says. “Historically, you had certain gradings for wood and hardwood and maybe used just the top-graded woods. Now we’re branching out more.”
As another example of minimizing scrap, Ripsam cites Martin’s experiments with four-piece rather than two-piece tops—just to make better use of available materials. Similarly, the new Taylor Builder’s Edition 814ce uses a four-piece Adirondack spruce top.
Using wood from closer to home is another opportunity, Paul notes, citing the example of Taylor’s Urban Ash series. “Bob [Taylor] asked me to look into urban wood and is it theoretically possible to source discarded, destined-for-the-landfill urban trees in a way that wasn’t kind of a one-off eco-marketing ploy,” Paul says. The question was whether these urban wood supplies had the quality, quantity, and predictability to produce a series of instruments.
“It’s a long story but it all worked out,” Paul says. “Now, we’re using shamel ash [sometimes known as Mexican ash] and red iron bark eucalyptus, along with other species that were previously used, like walnut and Tasmanian blackwood. We still get those from traditional sources, but now we’re augmenting our source from the urban California landscape.”
Proactive v. Reactive
The key to all these sustainability efforts is to be proactive instead of reactive. “That may mean moving beyond some traditions,” Ripsam says. “We can see it already; the challenge is already there. Genuine mahogany availability is getting spottier, for example. And if we only react, I think some companies will be very surprised how quickly a challenge turns into a real problem.”
Paul says the big companies are so active because they’re the ones who come up against the three harbingers of price, availability, and quality, where smaller builders may only notice price. And with a range of pressures affecting the wood supply, change is inevitable.
“We’re always talking about what we see coming in terms of supply and demand and quality and regulation,” Paul says. “Another one of Bob Taylor’s expressions is that the easiest day to buy wood to build guitars is today—because tomorrow is going to be harder.”
While much of the focus on sustainability has been on wood and the use of plastics, guitars also use metals for frets. But when it comes to the demand for metal, strings may be the greatest source of concern.
Unlike frets, strings are routinely discarded and most end up in the trash. Some may get thrown into the same recycling bin as beer cans, but there’s no way of knowing how much of that material simply ends up in landfill.
Enter D’Addario’s Playback program. Launched in 2016, this partnership with TerraCycle has recycled over 11.5 million strings to date, according to D’Addario’s Natalie Morrison. Players can mail in used strings for recycling or, in many locations, drop them at a local music store. “Playback accepts all brands of strings to recycle in the program—from guitar to orchestral,” she says. “In addition, Martin and Taylor guitars have joined as supporting sponsors.”
As with wood, eliminating waste is a priority for making sustainable strings. “As far as sourcing metals, D’Addario always tries to find ways to utilize our wire mill to full capacity,” Morrison says. “We’ve been purchasing precious metals in forms of rod to draw down all of our sizes needed into spools such as high carbon and stainless steel, nickel, silver-plated copper, brass (80/20), and various other alloys. Here we can control our quality, consistency, waste management, and safe inventory levels by not over- or under-producing, so we’re not overflowing our warehouse while at the same time having enough to make sure our dealers and loyal players get strings on time.”
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2023 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.