Tag Archives: guitar

Out of tune with nature: the guitar industry’s growing environmental problem

Tracing guitar manufacturing all the way back to the trees from which the wood came from, a group of researchers took a close look at the guitar industry and its environmental footprint – and the results were surprising. The industry is struggling with scandals over illegal logging, resource scarcity, and environmental regulations related to trade in endangered species of trees.

C.F. Martin Guitar Factory. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Chris Gibson and Andrew Warren, both geographers at the University of Wollongong in Australia, spent six years tracing guitar-making across five continents, with a focus on the timber used — known in the industry as tonewoods for their acoustic qualities — and the industry’s environmental dilemmas. They visited guitar factories all over the world and analyzed materials and manufacturing techniques.

About 2.6 million guitars are produced every year, making it a US$1 billion industry. Unlike the timber used in construction or mass-produced furniture, which comes from plantation species selected for fast growth and quick returns on investment, guitars use rare woods from old-growth trees. This is because the slices of wood used on guitars are quartersawn, meaning they’re cut perpendicular to the growth rings to ensure stability and sound wave projection.

The slices have to be wide enough to become the front face, backs, or sides of the instrument, hence large diameter logs are needed. Guitar parts are then carved by hand or machine, sanded, and assembled. The soundboard (the top of the guitar) is critically important.

Until recently, a narrow range of timber species was considered suitable for guitars, the authors explained. Through centuries of traditional European craftsmanship, luthiers used spruces (Picea) as acoustic and classical guitar soundboards. This is because they were strong enough in order to be cut thinly and not collapse under extreme string tension.

For necks, guitar-makers use mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla) or maple (Acer species); for fretboards and bridges, ebony (Diospyros species) or rosewoods (Dalbergia species); and for acoustic guitar backs and sides, rosewoods and mahogany. Since the expansion of Hawaiian music, koa (Acacia koa) has also been used on ukuleles.

While some of the woods are plentiful and well managed, others have fraught histories and sustainability problems, Gibson and Warren found. Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis), used on guitar soundboards, for example, comes from trees at least 400 years old that are increasingly scarce. Ebony is also threatened in its African habitat.

“Habitat destruction for agriculture and urbanisation led to Brazilian rosewood — once considered the “gold standard” for guitars — being effectively banned from use since 1992. Guitar companies replaced it with similar species from other places, but they too were over-harvested,” the researchers wrote. “Scandals have engulfed the industry.”

Growing awareness

Credit: Pxfere.

Despite the sector’s environmental footprint, Gibson and Warren found that musicians are increasingly concerned about the origin and environmental impact of their instruments – encouraging guitar brands to improve transparency and rethink their ecological impact by embracing a wide range of alternative timbers.

Australian brands Maton and Cole Clark are among those leading the way. They started using native species decades ago and are now working with guitar timber suppliers to use bunya pine (Araucaria Bidwillii) for soundboards, Blackwood (Acacia melanoxylon) for backs and sides, and Queensland maple (Flindersia brayleyana) for necks.

Guitar-makers have also salvaged timbers from urban trees. In 2018, Cole Clark’s head of wood technology, Karl Krauss, heard of a municipal council near Melbourne removing sycamore-maple trees (Acer pseudoplatanus) seen as a fire hazard. He recalled their historical use in instruments and salvaged them for building guitars.

At the same time, guitar timber people are planting trees for future sustainable instrument manufacturing on their properties, and in partnership on cattle ranches and Indigenous-owned and managed lands. These efforts are guided by an ethic of care for trees, forests, communities, and guitars. The goal is to ensure wood for future guitar-making well beyond individual lifetimes

The research was published as part of a book called “The Guitar: Tracing the Grain Back to the Tree.”

Harvesting sustainable wood for guitars: Mahogany

This article is part of a series originally published by the World Resources Institute by Austin Clowes. You can read the entire series here.

Building a sustainable guitar

 

A guitar is useless unless it plays perfectly. Even the most beautiful woods can’t make up for poor construction, and the materials chosen ultimately have to serve a practical use. One of the most important parts of the guitar is the neck, which has to stay absolutely stable over years. If the neck bows too far in one direction or the other, the instrument becomes unplayable. The best guitar necks are made of mahogany. The reddish-brown wood has an interlocking grain that makes it especially resilient to changes in humidity and temperature, which would cause other woods to shift over time.

What Is Mahogany?

Genuine mahogany (Swietania macrophylla) is native to Central and South American rainforests, and is central to the colonial history of that region. Designers like Thomas Chippendale brought fine mahogany furniture to Europe, and the exotic timber caught the world by storm. The wood became such a part of Central American history that the flag of Belize still features two loggers underneath a mahogany tree.

Many slave ships were made from mahogany, and the word mahogany stems from the Yoruba language. Photo by Ben Fredericson (xjrlokix)/Flickr

Many slave ships were made from mahogany, and the word mahogany stems from the Yoruba language. Photo by Ben Fredericson (xjrlokix)/Flickr

While mahogany has a long colonial history, its sharp decline started in the 1950s as demand from the growing American middle class skyrocketed. At that time, guitar companies saw their market grow exponentially, but they also saw their costs rise as high-quality mahogany became even scarcer.

Between 1950 and 2003, over 70 percent of the world’s genuine mahogany was cut. This prompted CITES – the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species – to finally protect mahogany by restricting trade. In light of this regulation, manufacturers took two approaches to meet demand:

  1. Use more plentiful alternatives to genuine mahogany
  2. Support sustainable community forestry in Central America

African Alternatives?

Today, the term “mahogany” encompasses a wide range of tree species that span the globe. Each of these species is equally equipped for instrument making. Woods from the Khaya genus, native to the Congo Basin and Western Africa, are now as common on guitars as genuine mahogany from Central America. African mahogany is relatively cheap and abundant, and the available wood is often equal or superior to the Central American trees that remain. These woods resemble their Central American counterparts in both form and function, but grow so quickly that they can meet demand without severe threats to the environment. Likewise, plantations in Fiji are now supplying large amounts of quality mahogany, but at a sustainable pace.

A mahogany guitar neck typically houses a metal “truss rod” for added stability. Photo by Boyd/Flickr

Making the Future in Guatemala

Many guitar makers have taken a stand to support sustainable community forestry programs in Central America as well. Bedell Guitars, for example, sources its mahogany exclusively from a well-respected concession in the Peten Region of Guatemala. Since their founding over 15 years ago, these areas have had a deforestation rate of nearly zero. Taylor Guitars relies largely on cooperatives in Honduras for sustainable and legal mahogany. Selective harvesting from community forest concessions in Guatemala and Honduras enables the production of fine guitars while contributing to local livelihoods and combatting illegal logging.

Martin Guitars supports sustainable mahogany from several concessions, and has embraced Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and Rainforest Alliance certification. Martin even offers instruments that exclusively use FSC-certified woods. These external audits help Martin maintain high environmental standards while also reassuring consumers about their purchase. Gibson Guitars is also a large proponent of FSC-certified mahogany as an effective tool for businesses to promote sustainable use and impact local livelihoods.

The Peten region of Guatemala contains this UNESCO World Heritage Site. Photo by Adam Jones/Flickr

The guitar industry has set a great example with mahogany. Manufacturers are taking serious measures to harvest sustainably and to combat illegal logging. In the process, they are increasingly helping local communities build industry and wealth. Illegal logging is ultimately bad for everyone, and guitar manufacturers are investing in long-term solutions to the problems that cause it. As consumers, we can show our support for forests through our purchases. Luckily, mahogany has success stories in the making, but now the onus is on consumers to make informed choices when they buy instruments.

Forests around the world — including those that provide tonewoods for musical instruments — face threats of illegal logging and overharvesting. The guitar industry has already proven its ability to shift supply chains and to offer a more sustainable and transparent product. Now, the pressure for change must come from informed, conscious consumers.

That Viral Video with Guitar Strings? That’s Bogus. Here’s what Guitar Strings are Really Doing

Recently, a video published on Vine by Logan Gendizzle went viral. The video claims to show what guitar strings look like up close while the author is playing Weezer’s “Say it Ain’t So”. The video is pretty spectacular, it got tons of shares and likes… and it’s completely fake. The good news is that reality is much cooler.

Guitar Strings and Reality

As anyone who plays the guitar or knows the basic physics of strings could tell, guitar strings just don’t vibrate like that. Just to be completely sure, the writers over at Science Alert contacted Joe Wolfe, a physics and acoustics expert from UNSW Science in Sydney, Australia. According to Wolfe, what we’re seeing is “almost certainly an artefact of a moderately slow camera”. He explained:

“From the two frets in view, we can see that the whole field of view of the camera is only a few centimetres in the foreground. From this and the movie, we would naively deduce that the largest amplitude waves on the strings had wavelengths of only a centimetre or so. In reality, the waves with these wavelengths will have very small amplitudes, and the large amplitude vibrations will have wavelengths of tens of centimetres,” he explains.

So then what resulted in the phenomenon captured in the video? The key lies in the way the camera films the movement.

“The camera does not record all points in a picture at the same time – it scans across in lines from side to side (or sometimes top to bottom) until it has recorded a whole picture.

A more familiar example: Have you ever taken a movie from a high speed train or car window? Nearby objects like electricity posts seem to be leaning. Of course they are not, it’s just that the camera has recorded the top of the post first and, when it gets to the bottom of the post, the train has moved on. It’s more complicated when the object (like these strings) are vibrating,” Wolfe added.


Another video which illustrates a similar effect. The instruments are really out of tune though, so mute it or prepare your ears.

So there you have it: the video is misleading, sorry — the effect comes from the camera work, not from physics. But hey, I do have some good news — guitar strings really are cool when they vibrate; here’s the real deal.

How Guitar Strings Vibrate and Make Sounds

Have you ever wondered how a guitar makes sounds? We’re talking about acoustic guitar — no electrical fuzz, yet. Sound is transmitted via a pressure wave within a material. When you pick the guitar string, it vibrates quickly back and forth, creating such a pressure and leaving a vacuum behind. This alternating pressure creates sounds, which are amplified in the body of the guitar and ultimately sent to your eardrums. The bigger the amplitude of the vibration, the louder the sound. The frequency can also be changed by altering the tension in the string using the tuning pegs: tighter results in a higher pitch. The frequency also depends on the length of the string that is free to vibrate. You can read a more thorough explanation on Wolfe’s page.

The physics of string instruments is pretty awesome and can be quite complicated, so it’s easy to get fooled, especially when dealing with such a complex and intriguing effect.

Image via Paintings I love.