How Guitar Construction Will Change in the Coming Years

Guitar players have a hard time with change, as Gibson’s challenges in ‘15 demonstrated. But to their credit, Gibson execs quickly realized that customers wouldn’t take to a wholesale revamp of its classic designs and responded by now offering both the Traditional and High Performance series, with zero fret and G FORCE tuners, this year.

Still, innovation is coming to the world of guitars just the same. Some changes emerge as companies seek to improve their products, but other changes are simply born of necessity. Here’s what to expect in the near future from both varieties of disruption.

Ebony is Gone, Rosewood Will Follow

Even casual observers of all things fretted have noticed the disappearance of ebony and the phasing out of rosewood. For some time, companies have been experimenting with alternatives on less expensive models.

Martin has used Micarta, a composite of linen, canvas, paper, fiberglass and carbon fiber or other fabric, since 2001 and later began employing Richlite, a phenolic resin/cellulose compound material. Gibson now uses Richlite instead of ebony on all but the most premium custom shop models.

Why? Ebony has been a model of unsustainable harvesting. Bob Taylor of Taylor Guitars took measures to bring the wood back to sustainability by buying the last mill.

Taylor Guitars "The State of Ebony"

Disappearing varieties of wood also caused the 2011 Gibson raid, where federal marshals confiscated ebony and rosewood protected under the Lacey Act. Gibson changed almost instantaneously to “baked maple,” which has which been called by other names — like roasted or torrefied maple — by Fender, Ernie Ball, Charvel and others. Major players have adopted it for use on high-end, high-dollar guitars, such as the Charvel Guthrie Govan, so trickle-down is expected.

And the future? With traditional tropical hardwoods disappearing, companies will use Richlite and maple even more, while continuing to experiment with new materials.

Acoustics Aren’t Immune

Breedlove Oregon CE made from Myrtlewood

Tropical hardwoods like rosewood and mahogany will also start disappearing in acoustic guitars because of scarcity and cost. Both large and small U.S. guitar builders already are testing the waters with domestically harvested exotic woods.

Breedlove has greatly expanded its use of myrtlewood, which is harvested near its Oregon factory. And last year, Taylor “revoiced” its 600 Series, which now is constructed from maple, another domestic hardwood known for its sustainability, by revamping its bracing and adding torrefied tops and other tone-enhancing touches. Gibson has also gone the all-American route with its J-15, substituting a maple neck and American walnut fingerboard and back in place of more traditional woods.

Gibson went further with its newest innovation, the Solid Formed Series, which uses domestic woods. It also reduces the amount of wood used by employing multi-piece necks with scarf joints and by using pressed instead of arched tops. While those construction methods are traditionally associated with cheaper production, Gibson marketing is extolling the virtues of the process as a means to reduce wood consumption and waste.

Meanwhile, venerable acoustic giant Martin has been adding more sapele — a more readily available mahogany relative — to its models for many years.

Harder Frets on Standard Instruments

Fret material remained unchanged for decades until the vintage guitar movement, led by Stevie Ray Vaughan, made relics cool. Interest in old guitars came at a cost, however, because of worn-out frets.

In recent years, stainless-steel frets and stronger alloys from EVO, Jescar and other manufacturers, have become more popular. Gibson tried it last year with “cryogenic treated frets.” Already an option on custom shop instruments from EVH USA, Parker USA, Suhr, Ernie Ball and Carvin/Kiesel models, it’s only a matter of time before it becomes the standard in response to consumer demand.

Luthiers hate refretting harder alloys, but using them as standard OEM equipment keeps costs lower over the life of an instrument. That’s meaningful because prices continue to rise.

No More House Brand Hardware

Gibson Tikibird with Vibramate

What else does the future hold? Fewer companies will be making their own hardware, and that’s a good trend because they’ll substitute better third-party equipment. It’s already happening with pickups on guitars that aren’t Fenders or Gibsons.

Expect a warm reception for the trend. Consumers are willing to pay a bit more to buy an instrument they know they won’t have to gut. That’s why guitar manufacturers are slowly embracing hardware from makers like Wilkinson, TonePros, Floyd Rose, Vibramate, Grover and Hipshot.

Fender has been installing Floyd Rose bridges at an increasing pace, and Gibson already has two models with a Vibramate — the Brian Ray SG and Elliot Easton Tikibird — and has been phasing in TonePros tune-o-matic hardware for the last several years. ESP even has an LTD model with the Evertune bridge installed for less than the cost of a retrofit. With locking tuners becoming standard, all parts of the instrument demand improvement.

So get ready for change this year and beyond. Expect new features to become standard. Try, like it or not, to embrace new woods.

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