The Guitar: Tracing the Grain Back to the Tree

Chris Gibson and Andrew Warren

https://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/G/bo81816665.html

I finally got around to reading this book by Chris Gibson and Andrew Warren.

It will never make the Best Seller List, which is a shame because every person who owns a guitar should read it. That small piece of wooden magic in your hands has a very uncertain future.

Which is why every music festival should have a focus on encouraging farmers to grow tonewoods. Before the magic disappears!

https://theconversation.com/friday-essay-the-guitar-industrys-hidden-environmental-problem-and-the-people-trying-to-fix-it-159211

The Table of Contents gives a good idea of how the story goes.

Introduction

Part 1 Guitar Worlds

1 * The Guitar

2 * The Factory

3 * The Sawmill

Part 2 Into the Forest

4 * Rosewood

5 * Sitka

6 * Koa

7 * Guitar Futures

Acknowledgments

Notes

Index

The book is more a social/spiritual than a economic/resource oriented journey, which may appeal to guitar players.

Unfortunately the book does peddle some of the myths of the guitar world, such as

  • guitars can only be made from large, old, slow-growing trees; and
  • guitars can only be made from a small range of tree species.

Neither of these myths is true!

Cole Clark Guitars is just one example that breaks both of these myths.

What is obvious from reading the book is that the guitar industry is in serious trouble.

The book focuses strongly on what was historically, and is no more.

Having plundered the best of the best of the worlds forests, the guitar industry is running out of resource. At least a resource that they have been accustomed too = large, big, old trees!

If solid wood acoustic guitars are to have a future, makers (and consumers/artists) must shift from 2 piece backs and soundboards, to 3 and 4 piece. Big old trees will no longer be available in any volume.

Secondly, the guitar industry and tonewood suppliers must actively encourage, support and reward the planting and growing of tonewoods. Taylor Guitars and Pacific Rim Tonewoods are the only examples I know of who are doing this. Others must follow!

Thirdly, as I said, every music festival should have a focus on encouraging farmers to grow tonewoods.

I particularly enjoyed the chapter on Koa, recognising the many parallels between Koa and its Tasmanian cousin Blackwood. The one exception is that whilst Koa has turned the corner to a brighter future, Blackwood remains bound to its colonial past of plunder and waste.

The book finishes on a bright note, giving us the impression that the entire global guitar industry has experienced an environmental epiphany. If this is so there is little evidence of it on the guitar company web pages; Taylor and CF Martin being two exceptions. This is true even here in Australia.

A big part of the problem is that most guitar companies (and more so tonewood suppliers) are small businesses that do not have the resources to put into securing their future tonewood supplies. The very existence of these guitar/tonewood companies is premised on the ready availability of plundered cheap tonewoods. The idea of Maton or Cole Clark engaging with farmers to plant tonewoods is completely off the radar!

So the key question is – how will the global guitar industry secure its future supply of tonewoods? Will only the big companies survive the resource Armageddon?

This question is not asked in the book, nor is it answered! Not directly anyway!!

The answer will be in using smaller wood sizes and a larger range of different tree species.

But who will grow these trees, where and at what price?

I see no evidence as yet to link the guitar markets with landowners.

The same problem is equally true of wood furniture makers. They have no future!!

One gets the impression from the book that the only way the guitar industry will survive is if we suspend standard western economic theory. If that is the case the guitar industry has no hope.

One aspect of the book I found difficult was the very strong anti-monoculture rant. Never mind that all our food is grown in industrial monocultures. How else do we feed 7.8 billion humans?? Native forests are ecosystems that should be managed as such, but trees as commercial crops are just that. They are no different to apple orchards or cow ranches or corn farms. A blackwood plantation that covers 5-10 hectares or even 50 ha is a commercial decision made by the landowner.

The book provides no discussion of forest certification systems (eg. FSC, PEFC). Will certification guarantee future supplies of quality tonewoods? Absolutely not!!

Will the book change the global tonewood market or the guitar industry?

It’s a shame that the book was not launched by the Musicwood Alliance – assuming the Musicwood Alliance still exists. Beside Bob Taylor and Taylor Guitars, no one is telling the marketplace what the situation is.

Right now guitar players everywhere should be mobilising and marching in the streets demanding action.

Ultimately it is consumers and artists who will determine the future of the guitar industry. The more they know and understand what is happening the better it will be for everyone.

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