Have You Thought About A “Greener” Guitar

This post is part of Blog Action Day 2009.

Purchasing a new instrument is exciting.  Walking into a music store, scouring the shelves for a beautiful guitar or bass, searching for the biggest drum kit, or finding the best baby grand piano is an exhilarating moment for any amateur or professional musician.  Whenever I walk into a guitar shop, the different scents of woods can easily overload my sense of smell.  It’s a marvelous sensation.  I will pick up a guitar, examine the coating, pluck a few strings, tune it, and, yes, smell the wood.

As I test the guitar, I evaluate how the instrument feels, examine the grain on the wood, and, most importantly, check out how it sounds.  I don’t bother to ask where the wood came from, or if the manufacturer is abiding by environmental codes.  No, all I want is the perfect instrument to play my music.

I’d like to think that musicians are more conscientious and aware about the environmental ramifications of the instruments purchased, but I am not so sure.  I am certainly guilty of overlooking some of the more obvious attributes I should consider when I’ve purchased my own instruments.  When it comes to classical guitars, it really is all about playability and depth of the sound.

In an ever changing world where there is the expectation to embrace more sustainable habits, musicians have to adapt to changing times and environmental realities.  Deforestation is not only a leading cause for climate change, but is also depriving instrument makers of high quality wood.  We need to expect more from marquee music instrument brands to lead us through change.

Instrument Making and Deforestation

The thought of sacrificing sound for lesser wood resulting in less than ideal sound quality is an unthinkable notion, but at what cost?

Earlier this year, Gizmag reported that worldwide demand for wood has increased by 64% since the 1960s.   After WWII, the housing boom wiped out the Adirondack Spruce, the wood of choice for piano and guitar soundboards.  Now, over half of the Brazilian forest has been cut.  Over 20 African nations have also had their valuable wood cut.  As a result, 70 species of wood used to produce instruments are now threatened by extinction.

Here are some more facts:

  • The numbers of different species used, not the volume of trees logged but the fact that around 200 different species are used to make musical instruments
  • Prized trees like mahogany, rosewood and ebony are often solitary growers which are hidden away amongst other species. For loggers to reach the target trees, large areas of woodland need to be cleared
  • There’s a belief that old growth timber gives superior tone and depth. An instrument’s tone can make or break a player. It’s the differential, that “something” that can help raise the neck and headstock above the mire. The older the wood, the better the sound – or so they say
  • The desire for the beautiful, more exotic varieties of wood. After all, the instruments need to look good and sound great or no-one will buy them

Although the use of wood to manufacture instruments, is less than other industries, the fact remains cutting trees is hurting the environment and influencing climate change.

Corporate Responsibility

I mentioned earlier we need to expect more leadership from marquee brands.  Music businesses need to act more responsibly and protect the environment.  So, when I stumbled onto a recent story on Treehugger about Fender Musical Instruments Corp being fined by the US Environmental Protection Agency, I started to think more about music instrument business ecosystem and sustainability.   Fender was fined $78, 861 for the improper storage and handling of hazardous waste.  EPA inspectors found the following:

  • Hazardous waste stored without a permit
  • Failure to provide adequate aisle space for hazardous waste storage containers
  • Failure to inspect hazardous waste storage areas
  • Failure to close hazardous waste storage containers
  • Failure to provide required personal training
  • Failure to determine if wastes generated were hazardous

I love Fender guitars.  They sound, feel and look amazing.  That said, shouldn’t we expect more of them?  I want my instrument to look good, but I also don’t want to give money to an organization that isn’t considering the environmental ramifications of its own actions.  I was disheartened and deeply disappointed by this news.

Greening of Guitars

If musicians need to adapt, then the logical question is adapt to what?  If we need to expect more from businesses, then what brands are leading the charge and expect support?  To my surprise, there are a lot more options out there than I thought.

A little-known guitar company called Martin happened to recently make available “one of the greenest guitars” on the market – the D Mahogany 09.  The guitar is made with spruce and mahogany that is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council.  It turns out Greenpeace joined forces with Gibson, Martin, Taylor, and Fender (Yes, I know I just beat up on them, but still) to adopt a more sustainable and responsible way to purchase wood.  This partnership led to the Music Wood campaign.

Aside from using wood that comes from responsibly managed forests, there is ongoing experimentation with the use of different woods.   For example, some manufactures are experimenting with woods that are not endangered such as granadillo, red cedar and soma.  Bamboo, the fast growing plants on earth, is also being experimented with.  Companies are also starting to use recycled materials, or creating new synthetic materials by breaking down wood and combining it with a polymer and other synthetic materials.

Here is a short list of some guitar brands to further investigate:

The next time you walk into a guitar (or instrument) shop, ask for the eco-friendly guitars and at least give them a try.  I know I will. In fact, I may have to seek one of these alternative guitars and report back what I think…

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