Wondering what’s up with MusicWood?

by Mike Gaworecki

January 28, 2009

This Houston Chronicle article provides a great snapshot of the state of our MusicWood campaign (and it’s in my hometown paper, no less! Yeah H-town!):

Musicians are always singing about social change. Now their guitars are getting into the act.

Martin Guitar Co. has just unveiled one of the greenest guitars to date: the D Mahogany 09, an acoustic guitar made entirely from wood certified by the Forest Stewardship Council.

Finding certified mahogany for the neck and certified spruce for the top and internal braces was the big challenge. Other sustainable woods were available, but they would have changed the tone of the guitar.

Very risky, in guitar circles.

“Nontraditional woods have what I suppose is a nontraditional sound,” said Dick Boak, spokesman for the 166-year-old Pennsylvania company. “And as green as the music community is, they’re very conservative when it comes to their instruments.”

Or, as Houston musician Lise Liddell put it: “Some people think their animals are people. We think our instruments are.”

Good guitars are typically made from old-growth spruce, rosewood, ebony and mahogany. It takes time for a new guitar to find its sound.


The best-case scenario is a guitar made from old-growth wood that’s had decades to mellow with age. Like wine.

“The great thing about a Martin guitar from, say, 1941, is that it’s going to sound better today than when it was made,” Spencer said. “I guess that’s the beauty of tonewoods. They just sound sweeter as they get older.”

But it’s hard to find tonewoods in sustainable species.

So a few years ago, Greenpeace got together with the heads of Martin, Gibson, Taylor and Fender — four companies synonymous with great guitars — to talk about wood. In particular, the environmental group wanted to discuss Sitka spruce, which is often used to make the soundboard, or top piece of an acoustic guitar. Once these trees reach a certain size — which can take 90 to 250 years — their wood lends great tone and projection to guitars, violins, pianos and other instruments.

But a lot of Sitka spruce grows in Alaskan forests that are rapidly being cleared for construction and other purposes.

Scott Paul, Greenpeace’s forest-campaign director, said the organization asked the guitar-makers to consider the environment.

“We’re aware that you are all buying your spruce from one company in southeast Alaska,” he said, recalling the meeting. “This company is logging at a rate that if things don’t change, they’re going to run out of wood in our lifetime.”

Relatively speaking, these guitar companies use a very small portion of the Sitka spruce logged by Sealaska, the Alaskan company in question. But Greenpeace figured that high-profile guitar guys could have a big impact on the public and on the logging companies. Greenpeace was right, and the Music Wood campaign was born.

“We brought the top guitar executives to southeast Alaska on a tour of the region,” Paul said. “We put these guys in the same room with guys from the logging company. We figured something would happen. The logging company is looking for new ways to stay profitable, and the guitar guys want old-growth wood forever.”

The logging execs really took to the guitar CEOs.

"It seems like everyone in America was in a band in high school,” Paul said. “All these guys are high-end craftsman. People just love them.”

The goal of the Music Wood campaign is to help the music industry use wood certified by the Forest Stewardship Council. Wood certified by the global nonprofit comes from forests that have been audited for good management practices.

Today, Sealaska has taken the first steps toward certification. Gibson is FSC-certified and produces FSC guitars, though they’re mostly electric and don’t use Sitka spruce.

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