Going Green – Still Going Strong…
Part I – For Guitar Makers, the Stakes Are Higher
In 2008, MMR ran an extensive feature on “the greening of the music industry.” In revisiting the topic four years later, we’ve discovered that many factors – ranging from a faltering economy, cutting edge technology, and finite resources – have upped the ante beyond any feel-good intentions and made the embrace of environmentally friendly practices a serious motivating factor.
For guitar makers, the stakes are high – since the original article was published, an armed federal agency stormed Gibson’s manufacturing plant in Nashville twice to confiscate rosewood that they say was taken illegally from Madagascar (though to this day no official charges have been filed). That the century-old Lacey Act, meant to protect animals, has been stretched to include rare woods has caused great controversy.
But while everyone we’ve spoken to embraces the goals of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), no one is saying it is easy.
Four years ago, Gibson, Martin, Taylor, and Fender (who declined to be interviewed for this article) were enthusiastic about their partnership with Greenpeace in the Musicwood Coalition that was going to optimize Alaskan forest Sitka spruce for sustainable management. It stalled when the Sealaska Corporation they tried to support achieve FSC certification had cut too much wood to qualify, and now that group is defunct.
But it’s “Game On” with many fronts. Getting more out of every precious piece of wood, experimenting with alternative woods, or pursuing carbon fiber as Peavey has done with its purchase of Composite Acoustics. Taylor has built a mill in Cameroon for not only their guitars, but also to sell to the competition. The vernacular is expanding.
And there’s a revolution afoot, as the leading manufacturers know that no matter what they do, the wood traditionally used for guitars is finite.
Linda R. Davis-Wallen of Martin makes it clear: “It’s a lot of work for the amount of guitars we’re building. In 1992 I was sourcing wood for 10,000 guitars a year, and now it’s grown to over 100,000.” Considering the dwindling supply and increasing protection of said wood, it’s a challenge.
In addition to exploring recycled materials, Martin has been at the forefront in tone testing and the development of alternatives for acoustic guitar construction, having introduced new models that use domestic woods such as ash, maple, walnut, cherry, and red birch, among others. In addition, the company is researching and implementing alternatives for some models, including: patented High-Pressure Laminates for the X Series and Little Martin guitars; aluminum tops for the Alternative X models; Stratabond birch laminate for neck blanks; Micarta and Richlite, unique fiber laminates, for fingerboards and bridges; and a shell laminate called Abalam that greatly increases the yield of precious abalone and mother of pearl for decorative inlays.
Taylor literally went into the jungle, setting up a mill in Cameroon. Bob Taylor says the process has really opened his eyes. “All your readers hope I just plant a tree, but this experience has really matured me. I know now it takes real dedication to do the right thing.” He shakes his head and continues: “Sustainability is bogus – sorry. That’s the truth. It’s further than we think because you have to get the first 10 steps right,” as in an honest legal system in places not yet known for such things.
Then there’s the real problem – the guitarist. Or is that just blaming the victim?
Taylor might sound cynical when he says every guitarist is an environmentalist up to the day he or she buys a guitar, and the very next morning they are an environmentalist again, but the day of that purchase looking at something with Brazilian rosewood, Madagascar ebony, et cetera, they are decidedly not. “They just want it.”
“It’s a marvel to have musicians sing about environmental issues on their Brazilian rosewood guitars, but it just shows they don’t want to give up on tradition either,” states Davis-Wallen. She also adds that the adoration of these sacred, rare/endangered wood overlooks that the craftsmanship is really what matters. “Let’s face it: You can make a crappy guitar out of Brazilian rosewood, yet we can go to Home Depot, grab some of their wooden pallets, and make a great sounding guitar out of that.”
But that begs the question, are commerce and growth the problems, or the solution? And does a Laissez-faire approach help or hinder the greater good? Gibson’s CEO Henry Juszkiewicz believes the latter is true. Write a pro-environment song on that acoustic, sure; but the geo-economic reality is a tiny bit more complex.
“As the infrastructure improves and roads go in, there’s more accessibility to virgin forest and some people would even question do we really want to save that resource?” Juszkiewicz asks rhetorically. “I’m on the ‘yes’ part of that equation. But commerce is not the problem, it’s the solution.”
This is our planet. We’ve made some poor choices. Here is our path forward.
KHS Walden Guitars
“There’s a bigger picture here,” adds Mike Robinson of KHS, which makes Walden Guitars. “FSC guitars may result in some sales to those who value the environmentally responsible way of life, and we’re happy when that happens of course. But there’s a drive within the KHS organization to be a responsible global citizen and make efforts in this area beyond just this Walden line. There’s a lot of chatter out there about this but we’re a company that presents a positive example.”
Jon Lee knows while it’s difficult, it’s not impossible to make a 100 percent FSC certified instrument. As head luthier of the Walden Guitar line for over a decade, he was able to achieve it with their Madera Series. “It’s not easy,” he sighs, saying he only knows of only a couple of other makers able to do it.
Lee says his pursuit of this took a long time, but he knew he wanted to do it: “FSC is the clearest, cleanest system out there. It’s about knowing the origins, the chain of custody and basically everything about the wood from the forest to packing of the final product.”
When Walden got serious about this, he says they had two ways to go about it: “We could try to stick as close to traditional guitar woods as possible, or push for the alternative wood route.” They went with the former. These are made of Sitka spruce and Central American mahogany. “The only alternative used in these guitars is the finger board is made with South American Katalox, which is similar to ebony in terms of hardness and tonality.”
Lee is very pleased with the Katalox although they had to work with it a little: “Fresh cut Katalox is pink, and while it eventually turns brown it takes a long time, so we dye it.”
Walden’s strategy is to prove what they can do with the traditional, and then build guitars that are 100 percent FSC certified with alternative woods.
In December of 2011, Martin was audited by primary auditor Samantha St. Pierre and observing auditor Gweneth Langdon – Chain-of-Custody Associates of the Rainforest Alliance, SmartWood Program. The company is still audited annually regarding FSC Chain-of-Custody certification compliance, and has been FSC Chain-of Custody certified from 1997 to 2004 and 2007 to present. Many co-workers across all functional areas are involved in maintaining the Company’s FSC compliance.
They recently announced that the company will use FSC Certified Recycled Sitka Spruce in an instrument it will unveil at the 2013 National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) Trade Show in Anaheim, California.
“Certification is very important for everyone’s future,” says Linda R. Davis-Wallen, who has been part of Martin since 1974, and since 1981 has been trusted with work of sourcing the wood. She says Martin has been involved in sustainability since the early 1990s. “That’s when we started to be concerned, started donating for replanting, and started looking to the FSC. Early on, there wasn’t that much timber being certified let along suitable for us.” They did work with the FSC and got to the 70 percent certified mark.
Then in 2004 the goal post moved, and the FSC demanded it be 100 percent. They got creative working with traditional and non-traditional woods and became re-certified in 2007. “It was still a hard thing to do,” she sighs. “There’s just not that much timber certified, and most of it is in Canada and places like Poland, and most of that is used in construction.”
But the trend toward certification is not just with companies making things out of wood, but the countries which are selling those products. “More countries are getting certified because they realize it’s their future. If they want to continue harvesting they need to be concerned about it.” Today there’s FSC mahogany and Spanish cedar, and they are working on FSC ebony.
There’s also FSC “controlled wood” which she describes as being one step below being completely certified. They are able to get rosewood out of Africa for that. Yet despite all they are doing less than one percent of all Martin guitars are 100 percent certified.
She says Chris Martin is upbeat about the future of it all. “The seventh generation of the family is coming to work, and nobody wants to see this business go away, so we’re doing everything we can in this area.”
Davis-Wallen says the long-range goal is to have every guitar 100 percent certified but “I don’t know how long that will take.”
Peavey Composites and Acoustics
“Composite Acoustics has been on our radar for many years,” says Hartley Peavey of his July 2010 purchase of the all carbon-fiber/guitar maker. “You can’t help but be impressed by the tone and ruggedness of the instruments. I always try to be different from other manufacturers in what I do. Composite Acoustics brought to market a different product that improves on wooden guitars in many ways.”
He says it’s been both a success and an interesting learning process, as making these guitars is a much different process than making traditional instruments. They brought the principles from CA to their main plant to make sure production was set up correctly. And while they are using the same proprietary processes, they’ve also made improvements. They upgraded to a new paint process that enables them to use the highest-grade paints and finishes possible.
The other changes involve construction. They added a brace under the fretboard where it meets the body; they are offering the GX with an optional slimmed neck profile along with the original; and both the OX and Cargo models now have inlayed logos, and the OX also has an inlayed rosette. “All CA guitars have an improved neck angle, and as a result improved playability. The nut dressing has also been improved on all models. But we didn’t change anything in the proprietary design and construction process that yields that magic Composite Acoustics tone.”
But his intention is not to replace traditional woods, but to provide a better alternative. “We all love our vintage wood acoustics, and they have their place—but that place is usually indoors, preferably in a climate and moisture controlled environment. The beauty of Composite Acoustics guitars is that they not only sound and play amazingly well, but they’re also completely impervious to the elements and are virtually indestructible. You can literally take a CA guitar anywhere, and it’ll always play the same as it did when you first played it, even in the rain.”
He’s betting the trend on composite instruments is upward. “Composite Acoustics are 100 percent wood-free—they are made from carbon fiber, a sustainable material that does not contribute to deforestation. But carbon fiber also offers substantial benefits in other areas. It is incredibly lightweight but also dense, strong, and durable. As you know, sound waves propagate best through dense matter. This allows us to make the guitar soundboard very thin and resonant, and project a very rich, dynamic and loud tone. These aren’t really niche products, per se, in that you don’t have to be environmentally aware or active to appreciate them. They’re great instruments first.”
Peavey says they are discovering other alternatives, too, like bamboo, which they’ve put in the Cirrus Rudy Sarzo bass. It combines exotic wood selections and a resonant neck-through-body design with studio-quiet active. The bass features chambered bamboo wings and a maple neck with mahogany stringers, graphite reinforcement and dual expanding truss rod.
Alluding to his recent run-ins with government agents who say Gibson violated the Lacey Act, it’s an understatement when CEO Henry Juszkiewicz says, “It’s probably more important us [to abide] than most because of our situation, though I would say, in general, we’ve always been aggressively pro-conservation, and naturally most of that has been focused on wood.”
He cautions against extreme elements in the environmental movement who “use almost smear tactics” that can have a negative effect. He has no doubt that the rainforest is depleting rapidly, but notes that the issue is much more complex than just blaming guitar makers, pointing to those clear-cutting for farmland or condos.
Yes, there are some “bad actors in the forestry business” but radical environmental elements don’t reflect the consensus of the green community, Juszkiewicz says. “They are quite dangerous in fact. Their position almost terrorist-like. But their agenda doesn’t address the important issue of how exactly are we going to save the rainforest? The trees are not the problem. Trees are a renewable resource. If you cut them all down on an acre, they will regrow.”
He makes the case that things would be better if the “simple economics” were trusted. If trees were in demand, the harvesters wouldn’t want to cut down all their trees. “You want to be consistent and sustainable, and you want to maximize the amount of output every year and thus create the most profit and protect future profits.”
The emphasis needs to be on teaching people how to manage forestry resources to maximize the output, and the motivation for sustainability and social responsibility will be to “keep the money going, and then I’m incentivized to protect that wood. I’m not going let poachers get in there.” He pauses and adds: “Commerce is the answer, not the problem.”
Another key component is getting the locals involved and profiting from the sale of their wood, as opposed to poachers getting pennies on the dollar. Gibson is working with the indigenous tribes of Honduras and Mexico, getting villages involved in legal forestry. “They can now send their kids to college where before they were living a subsistence lifestyle,” Juszkiewicz says. “That is win-win. Our company gets certified wood, the village has an improvement in the quality of life, and the government doesn’t have to waste resources policing the forest — the natives are doing it because they care about their livelihood.
Finally, he says Gibson is aggressively working with alternative wood. “The question is: Why are we using the wood we are using today? We’re using it because that’s the way it’s always been done. No one has studied and proved rosewood or ebony is absolutely the best material to use for a fingerboard. It’s been used for hundreds of years because at one time they were very cheap.”
He then tells the tale of pernambuco, today a rare wood highly sought-after by violinist for bows. Going back to the 17th century, the wood was actually used as shipping crates, and large piles of it was found discarded in European cities. Makers would go and pick out a piece and make a bow out of it. “Most violinists will tell you it’s the best to use in a bow but no one can prove it.”
At Gibson they are looking at all the available wood species to find alternatives. “Since we can’t use what was used yesterday, we are looking at everything with a fresh set of eyes. We’ve gone through a hundred different species to discover what works best, complete with blind consumer tests.” Both alternative wood like bamboo and composites are being used, and a recent Firebird features laminated rosewood that is getting a better tone.
Bob Taylor says this about wood: “It’s hard to get and it doesn’t grow on trees … how I wish it did.” He’s not joking as much as you might suspect. “I wish you could just go pick it off a tree. You have to go through all kinds of things to get it, and when you take it, you kill the tree. That’s the problem. If you buy lumber from traditional sources, you’re contributing to the demise of the rainforest.”
Taylor developed pioneering partnerships with environmental organizations like GreenWood Global, a non-profit organization that empowers indigenous, forest-based communities to support themselves through sustainable forestry practices. The company’s work with GreenWood in Honduras has led to a successful new paradigm of social forestry, allowing several villages to participate in the sustainable harvesting of mahogany.
But it was his recent experience in Africa that has changed him, offering a “reality check” when he thought he had an understanding of the situation.
“Sustainability is a word oft used, but it’s a hard word for me to jump to,” he sighs. “It’s hard to achieve, and sometimes I’m excited about it and sometimes I’m bummed. In a lot of places, sustainability needs to come after [the rule of law].”
While a supporter of Lacey, he says that a country’s lack of adherence to law and shadowy players in the business makes it something of an enigma. “I would say all of our wood is mostly legal, but it’s really hard to look behind the curtain, especially when that curtain sometimes depends on questionable harvesters.”
He’s brutally frank. For example, while he’s confident the Spruce is good and the mahogany is – mostly … “but when we take from Belize? I don’t know if it’s sustainable [there]. It’s all about working within their guidelines, and you could put a lot of experts in a room to argue if it’s truly sustainable or not.”
Sustainability is in the eyes of the beholder. “You can cut a tree down, plant three, hold hands and sing “Kumbaya,” but it’ll be another 200 years before someone else can cut it down. Then think about a spruce that was here before Columbus, 450 years, and we just cut it down for guitars.” Something is planted, but in 500 years … “the United States might not even be here then. So we have to look at all differently.”
Taylor took out a not-so-proverbial machete and, went into, Cameroon. His idea was to do it right – “squeaky clean legal” and do some good for the locals along the way. “Why don’t we stick our neck out and be a good operator?” he mused. They partnered with a Spanish wood supplier anxious to not repeat the situation that happened in so many other places, including Madagascar – depleting all the resources, leaving only impoverishment.
He describes the country as having a lot of ebony, but not many roads. And it was deep and hard to maneuver in many ways. “We made a commitment to do it with no bribes, legitimately getting permits, having real employees with real benefits. And we wanted to cut ebony for everyone. It’s already probably the biggest and only truly legal ebony operation out there. And all this needs to come way before we start talking about sustainability.”
When it’s pointed out he doesn’t have to go to all this trouble, he readily agrees. “We have plenty of money and doing fine, it’s true. But my reward for all this is to spend time with Cameroonians and fight with them for all the things that are wrong there … in reality it would be easier to steal the wood. To do it the right way is really hard.”
Taylor is operating two mills in two different towns. While the company is employing locals, right now it’s relatively few and “all” they are doing is cutting the wood and shipping it out. They have plans for doing more there but skill-wise, “they are at the bottom and need to go up. There’s hope, but there’s 80 percent unemployment so the poverty there is unbelievable.”
Taylor says that if they are pumping in, say, a $100 per worker per month worth into the economy right now, and if they can get C&C machines in there and just make bridges for Taylor, that number can go to $150. That would be good for Cameroon, and that is the transformation they are looking for.
Taylor believes much more needs to be done to make a positive change, and the onus is on the manufacturers and the marketers. For example, everyone treasure black ebony for its clean look. Well, typically those illegally looking for that cut down nine trees for everyone they find. That one they drag to the road and make a little money. The other nine? Abandoned.
“I was told no one will buy a guitar that’s not black ebony, and last September, I said from now on they will.” He laughs at how audacious that must sound, and makes fun of himself. “Yes, I decided something for the world! And the good news is now there will suddenly be ten times more ebony for guitars. When Bob Taylor shows up to the black ebony party, that party is over,” he says. “They will believe me. I can take it to the world.”
The quality, feel, and sound cannot be distinguished; the non-black ebony has some streaks in it – that’s all. So as the education of Bob Taylor continues, look for a legion of lovers of non-black ebony in a future near you.
Marketing Green: Does it Matter to the Player?
“That’s the magic question, isn’t it?” replies KMS’s Walden Guitar’s Jon Lee, whose 100-percent FSC certified Medera has a street price of around $1,200. On their website they play up the environmental aspect, declaring that the “guitarist can make purchasing decisions that serve both your musical aspirations and take part in reducing the over consumption of world resources.”
“Right now instruments with a positive back story are certainly attractive among early adopters, in this case a core group of people where these kind of choices are a way of life.” Lee, who lives in Portland, mentions that it’s a high among the culture there (jokes about the TV series Portlandia ensued).
But there’s always going to be the perception that best guitars “must” come from rare wood.
“Using non-traditional wood is a double-edged sword,” says Martin’s Linda Davis-Wallen. “You would hope that we could launch a guitar using it and people would follow. However, players are traditionalist by nature. And if you’re a music dealer, and you have one of each and only one slot empty on the wall, which would you hang? Which do you think will sell quicker?”
Getting customers to try something that might look a little different is the challenge, but then when they do and it sounds great you’ve created a convert. The education process is the issue. Some, but not all, understand that rosewood and mahogany may not be around forever.
“The consumer is increasingly demanding transparency from brands and manufacturers,” says Gibson CEO Henry Juszkiewicz. “They want to be sure we’re doing the right thing.” He believes choices consumers make traditionally have a lot to do with marketing, and that the reality from an engineering standpoint is that everyone wants something that sounds better and plays better, and what is used to make that happen becomes part of an education process. So they are working on new technologies to improve the instrument, and the proof that they’ve achieved that will need to be demonstrated to the players.
“Of course we also try to use our environmental efforts in our marketing,” says Gabriela König CEO of König & Meyer. “It’s in our brochures and on the Internet. We also feel that the customer takes into account our commitment when he buys a product. We also note that we get more and more inquiries from customers about our environmental efforts.”
“I think it’s certainly a selling point that dealers can use,” says Dansr’s Michael Skinner of their Van Doren products. The customers do care and he has proof: When they introduced their taller reed boxes that are actually significantly more environmental friendly, he got a lot calls and emails from concerned players. “Once we explained what we really did, they were like ‘wow!’ So there is clearly an interest. If more dealers knew that we had consumers emailing and asking those questions, I think it could make a difference.”
“There are players who have a heightened affinity for ecologically sound products, and I do think that these instruments probably satisfy that part of their purchasing decisions,” says Hartley Peavey. “As with any musical instrument or amplifier, though, many considerations go into choosing the right instrument. It’s a personal thing for most players. We all have our own preferences and motivations for why we love a certain type of instrument.”
“Some of the studies show that people don’t rank [green issues] as the most important feature,” says Jim D’Addario. But he adds that there is something to it being part of the product detail, and thus the corporate culture. “Why does everybody love Apple? There’s a certain culture, image, iconic brand they’ve built that’s in the brain. It becomes about selling the company and the culture, and people getting married to that, as opposed to just price and features. It’s a soft connection, but if you can deliver the corporate message consistently, when people understand how organic our reeds are, how we recycle the wire that falls to the side when making strings, suddenly there’s some kind of culture connection that’s subtle.”
When the customer is standing there deciding between two strings, and sees one is more environmentally friend, “that might be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.”
“I can get pretty cranky about it,” he states. “And I know I need to cut the customers some slack, but we’re going to educate the customer about this. You’re going to see more wood with stripes in it. We’re going to tell the story of this, put it on a film, show people playing ebony that isn’t black and raving about it.”
Bob Taylor: “Makers of products teach buyers of products, so if the consumer is innocent they won’t stay innocent if they hear the news. I was ignorant of the real situation, but as owner of a mill it’s different. You get the real story and it’s not pretty.”
Alfred’s Ron Manus believes that when the consumer is looking at two comparable books and looking for a reason to choose one another, that little “100 percent recycled” that appears on publications could be that reason. “I also hope that when a retailer is choosing which books to carry in their store, that they will choose to support environmentally responsible publishing.”
Dealer’s Perspective: George Hines of George’s Music
Can the enthusiasm for “green” wood go to far?
“I know Henry [Juszkiewicz CEO], I know Gibson, and I know they are supportive of the environment, and when they got raided, I got upset,” declares George’s Music George Hines. “Our customers want us all to be good stewards of the environment, and they appreciate our efforts, but I get concerned when the government gets involved.”
Hines makes the case that when something as dramatic as armed agents storming a factory in the name of conservation happens, it can have an adverse affect. “People generally want to do what’s good, but when something like this happens, they can get suspicious and distrusting of the whole movement.”
That issue aside, he says his 10 stores’ efforts have been aggressive in their conservation and it’s paid off. Scanners, the use of dropboxes, and Google docs have allowed him to have meetings, exchange data, collaborate with employees in ways that don’t require printing or mailing.
“We’ve had great things happen in the music industry since MMR first wrote about this in 2008,” says Hines. “Look at the lighting industry and the LED movement – even smaller bands can take a greener approach. And on the retail side, we’re aware that some of that gear is a little more expensive but in the long run it’s the right thing to do.”
As a guitarist who sells a lot of guitars, he agrees with some of the manufacturers that the responsibility is on them to come up with alternative solutions. “I think we’re fortunate with people like [Bob] Taylor and [Chris] Martin who really understand the situation. They make great instruments, and they are going to make guitars out of different materials. I believe in them. I have zero concern that they won’t redefine the new standards, that they won’t make great sounding guitars out of other things. Sure, there are guys like me who have ‘legacy thinking’ and think it’s all about Brazilian rosewood, but the guys who are in their 20s and 30s are more open.”