By E.E. BRADMAN
Since 1974, when 18-year-old Bob Taylor cofounded the institution that bears his name, the bright, rich tone of Taylor guitars has found its way into a diverse swath of popular music, and the company’s pioneering use of slender bolt-on necks, V-Class bracing, and nontraditional tonewoods—like sapele and Macassar ebony—has produced fresh results while enhancing their iconic status.
Alongside Taylor’s commitment to innovation and quality, however, is a serious dedication to managing their impact on the forests that give them wood. Taylor himself has long considered sustainability an important step toward reducing waste and making sure there’s plenty of wood for the company to use, deep into the future. From recyclable guitar-box inserts and environmentally friendly polyester guitar finishes to efficient mahogany milling practices and a partnership with GreenWood Global—a non-profit that aims to empower indigenous, forest-based communities—the company has made it a prime directive to monitor its environmental footprint.
Through the years, Taylor Guitars has developed a network of compatible, longterm partners, but Bob’s desire to make Taylor as ethically eco-conscious as possible has led to the ultimate sustainable supply chain: Growing his own trees. In 2011, the company partnered with Madinter Trade, an international distributor of guitars and tonewoods, to purchase Crelicam, an ebony mill outside of Yaoundé, Cameroon in West Africa. In Hawaii, Taylor Guitars has been sourcing koa to make guitars via Paniolo Tonewoods, a partnership set up with Pacific Rim Tonewoods, who harvests dead, dying, and malformed trees. Taylor’s nearly 600-acre tract of rolling pastureland on the Big Island, leased to Paniolo, will be reforested with koa and other native species with an emphasis on wood for guitars. Taylor, now in his 60s, doesn’t expect to be around when the Hawaiian koa is ready in 40 to 60 years, and he’ll be long gone when that Cameroonian ebony fully matures, sometime between 2120 and 2220. But that hasn’t stopped him from thinking longterm.
Yaoundé, the Big Island, and the 31st century might feel a long way off, but Taylor’s latest idea just might change the way you look at the trees right on your block. The company’s Builder’s Edition 324ce is made from urban ash supplied by West Coast Arborists, who cut roadside trees throughout California and Arizona. Besides being plentiful, urban ash—also known as Shamel or evergreen ash—sounds great as a tonewood and is a joy to work with. It’s an auspicious beginning for Taylor’s vision of a world in which future generations of luthiers source their wood directly from city streets and backyards.
Taylor’s compadres on this quest are Andy Powers, the company’s master guitar designer, and Scott Paul, the Greenpeace veteran who’s now Taylor’s director of natural resource sustainability. We talked to all three about urban ash.
AG: How’d the idea of urban forestry first occur to you?
Bob Taylor: In 2017, I traveled around the world with six colleagues, looking at forestry operations. When we came back, I started thinking, “People are planting plantations out in forest areas, but what if our cities became plantations—what if everybody’s yard had a tree that could become a guitar? What if Home Depot had a category for high-value hardwood trees native to your area, right next to ornamental trees and fruit trees?” So, I asked Scott to start looking into it.
Scott Paul: I’ve done international forest policy stuff my entire career, going back to the early ’90s. I’ve studied the Amazon, Siberia, the Congo Basin, and all the forests, but I had never really thought about the urban canopy. Bob had read an article in The San Diego Union-Tribune about San Diego Urban Timber, this little shop in San Diego, so he asked me to look into it.
Andy Powers: I’ve been aware of urban forestry for several years, because as a woodworker, I’m always looking for materials. Going to a hardwood store or a lumber supplier is kind of like going to the grocery store: You’re always aware that you can also go to a farmer’s market or to a guy who’s selling his catch off right off the back of his boat.
Taylor: I’ve seen trees go down in San Diego, but if I drove up and asked, “Hey, this tree that you just cut down, is there any way I could get it?” They’d say, “Nope. Can’t do it, it’s a municipal tree.” They don’t want any liability. That’s been the state of it for years.
Powers: I’d see a road crew chipping up a log on the side of the street, and I’d pull over and say, “Hey guys, what are you cutting there?” You have to go poking your nose around.
AG: Before you finally got your hands on urban wood, did you have any idea how it might work as a tonewood?
Powers: Originally, I didn’t really think of urban forestry so much in terms of tonewoods; I was just looking at it as a woodworker. But when a buddy of mine started getting into it and converting urban trees into timber up in the Los Angeles area, I started thinking about it.
Paul: I did a two-year investigation—I talked to arborists and city officials across the country, and I attended the first United Nations conference ever on urban forests in Italy. [In terms of quantity], West Coast Arborists deals with municipalities up and down California and into Arizona, so they had volume. They’re also the arborist for the city of El Cajon, which is where Taylor Guitars is located. The irony there is pretty interesting.
Powers: We found out that West Coast Arborists had already been thinking the trees might be useful for something other than just mulch: They had started a log yard in the eastern portion of L.A., and if they found what they thought was a really nice log, they’d set it aside just in case somebody might use it.
Paul: I brought Bob, Andy, and a small team to West Coast Arborists’ short yard in Ontario, and as we went through the piles of wood, I remember thinking, “This is make or break. If there’s no tonewood in here, then it means nothing.”
AG: What was it like to see the wood in its raw form?
Powers: Initially, I didn’t know what we were looking at. We were just going through the log yard and identifying species that might have potential.
Paul: It was fascinating to watch Bob and Andy gravitate towards certain woods. They were like dogs on the hunt, and from the very beginning, they both zeroed in on Shamel ash. They were like, “Wow, this is interesting. This is weird.” Andy was cutting it with his knife and literally chewing on a stick.
AG: What was it like when you first cut open the log?
Powers: We started laughing! From the outside, it was just real nice, primo trunk cut, a big bear of a log. We got a tractor and pulled the top half off, and there before us was the most beautiful, clear, pristine piece of wood, totally covered with the most gorgeous curly figures. We were just dumbfounded. I was expecting little tiny, knot-riddled, shrubby-looking, scrawny trees where I’d be trying to pick little morsels out from in-between the flaws, and here we’d cut into this thing and it’s like primo guitar-making material that I could have found anywhere in the world.
Taylor: It’s just amazing wood. It’s so good.
Powers: This had been on the sides of our own city streets all this time? I was thinking, “You got to be kidding me!”
Taylor: Its characteristics are so wonderful. Tropical ash is the same as our ash tree but a tropical version.
Powers: I played with a few of the sample boards I brought back, and I knew it was going to sound and work quite a bit like mahogany, which is a real friendly, real easy wood to work with.
Taylor: We’ve made some guitars from it, and it’s like, “Wow, this is amazing!” It reminds me and Andy of mid-’60s giant old-growth, pattern-grade mahogany, true mahogany.
Powers: That’s why there are so many great guitars built out of mahogany. This Shamel ash is amazing—it’s got the just right density, the right sonic characteristics, the drying characteristics, the right stability, the right finishing characteristics… it’s just a joy to build a guitar out of.
Paul: Shamel ash is the golden retriever of tonewoods—it wants to make you happy through the entire process of building a guitar. From how you cut it, to how you stain it, to how you brace it, shamel ash just wants to please you.
AG: How have players received the urban ash? And is it just on the 324?
Taylor: I think it’s just the 324 right now, but it will be on a lot of other guitars.
Powers: So far, it’s just in the Builder’s Edition guitar because we wanted to introduce it as an instrument with marquee billing. Sonically, it fit the design, so it was the right ingredient for that recipe.
Taylor: Players love it—it looks beautiful, sounds great, feels good, and works really well.
AG: How do you convince customers that traditional tonewoods are not the only answer, and that Urban Ash and other species are just as excellent for guitars?
Taylor: I let their senses convince them. I’ll tell the story, I’ll put the guitar in a store, and then they can come try one and decide for themselves.
As a group, guitar players are highly interested in how guitars are made and what they’re made of. They know enough to ask about the go-to woods: “Is this maple? Is this mahogany, ash, or alder?” Which Leo Fender didn’t. He made ash and alder guitars because the cabinet shop down the street had ash and alder. Flamenco guitars were made from cypress because that was the wood that grew in Spain. All these years later, we think that’s the wood that it has to be made out of.
Powers: So many of the designs we think of as traditional, almost iconic, were based on what was available. Violins, for example, are [traditionally made of] spruce and maple. You look at the birthplace of the violin, and you can see that luthiers had lots of spruce and maple, so that’s what they designed around.
AG: Has working with Shamel ash taught you anything as a guitar maker?
Powers: It has given me a lot more appreciation for the materials that are right in front of me. This feels like a return to an earlier instrument-building heritage where you asked yourself, “What can I make with what I have right here? Why not? What if I alter the design? Can I work with its unique characteristics?”
AG: Can you see using shamel ash in necks, too, or just bodies?
Powers: We’ve done some necks, but I haven’t built enough of them to adopt it in a widespread way—yet. I use the word “yet” because at some point, we may be building shamel ash necks; the wood does function pretty well. But we already have supply chains and methods for using plantation-grown Honduran mahogany, as well as maple… I don’t want to substitute something else because we want all of those different forestry models to continue. We rely on them and they rely on us.
AG: Any plans to introduce Shamel ash in other instruments?
Powers: Absolutely. It has definitely become one of our favorite new ingredients. Even if I were to remove the wonderful forestry model that’s producing this wood, the wood itself is a really fantastic guitar-making material. I’m going to be using it in different designs.
AG: Do you have your eye on any other urban wood source?
Powers: Shamel ash is the first species we introduced, but it certainly isn’t the last. There are other woods with unique qualities that would be fantastic guitar-making materials, and we’re slowly working through how to design around their unique characteristics. There’s also a lot of Indian blackwood, and it’s considered an invasive species in in Northern California. So, there will probably come a time when we tap into that resource.
AG: Are you looking mostly at urban woods in California?
Powers: There are hundreds of varieties of trees here in California, but the idea is much larger than just what we’ve got in our own backyard. That’s just the tip of the iceberg.
AG: It’d be fantastic if the industry followed suit.
Taylor: Anybody who makes guitars could go get some Shamel ash and make a nice guitar out of it. We’ve already had electric guitar companies contact us asking where they could get Shamel ash.
Get stories like this in your inbox
Paul: We’re happy to make introductions for other manufacturers to also source that wood. We don’t want a monopoly, because we are trying to enable a dream. We’re trying to enable a circular economy that can be good for the urban forest and also use this previously discarded resource.
Taylor: I don’t really look at it as, “I have this and you don’t.” It’s more like, “Let’s all do it because that’s more important than the competitive edge.” This is the way the world needs to move. There’s a high percentage of perfectly good trees that are being cut down in cities every year—just as many, in fact, as are cut down in forests. With some proper urban tree husbandry, we could harness that. And to me, it’s just so exciting to actually have a product of in real life.
Powers: It feels like a fresh new day because if we can work with urban woods and design around their unique characteristics, we could be building the new traditional wood—the new heritage—in a way that somebody would have a hundred years ago when they started using mahogany. It’s a real thrill to look around and go, “Wait a minute, there’s a whole new field for us to pursue.”
AG: It’s so cool to think these trees have been here our whole lives and now they’re in the form of guitars.
Powers: Absolutely. I don’t want to overhumanize these trees, but sometimes it feels like they’ve been laughing at us all this time. You’re hunting all around the world for this little primo sliver of some tree that’s thousands of miles away, and when you bring it back to the shop, the trees all around you are looking at you snickering, going, “Oh, if you only knew.”
Paul: I have the greatest job ever: I’m an environmental activist who works for an iconic company with an owner who’s been watching how guitar makers buy wood for 40 years. Bob’s transitioning from the way it’s been for the last 200 years to the way it’s going to be in the future, and he’s in legacy mode—he’s really passionate about giving back, and he wants to leave his mark, not just as a manufacturer, but environmentally speaking. And then you’ve got Andy, who’s going to be making guitars long after Bob and I are both dead. He’s thinking about the next 40 years. It’s a real unique situation.
Taylor: I can see the end of my life from here—I’m not trying to be morbid, I’m just saying the truth—and I’m just barely starting this thing. To me, this guitar is a demonstration project for how we could change the world: not the world of guitars, but the world of trees, the world of our cities, the world of what we plant, how we care for it, and what we do with it at the end of its life. I’ve always believed that you can change the world, and nothing could represent that better than a guitar. It’s just the best spokesperson ever. I just have to take the guitar out onstage and say, “Ladies and gentlemen, I’d like to introduce your future of forestry right here.” Let’s all think about it.
Photo at top: Bob Taylor (right) and Scott Paul (left) with West Coast Arborists urban wood supervisor “Big” John Mahoney.
THANKS FOR READING! Want to learn more about tonewoods? Click here for a free guide, compliments of AcousticGuitar.com.