The Future of Wood in Acoustic Guitars

Our panel of a dozen acoustic guitar makers have gathered to talk about the woods they use to build their instruments. They're well aware of the concerns surrounding the future availability of those woods, not least the ecological responsibilities. "If we go in and destroy our forests," says Tom Bedell, "and the ability of our forests to create the oxygen and the complexities of the ecosystems, we could potentially make our planet non-habitable."

Tom is head hippie at Two Old Hippies Acoustic Division in Bend, Oregon, which makes Bedell and Breedlove guitars (as well as Weber mandolins). "How idiotic can we be! How could we do this to the very Earth that is the reason we can live and eat and breathe and love and care and make a difference? As a guitar company, I can set an example."

Bedell Revolution Orchestra
Bedell Revolution Orchestra. Photo by Melodee Music.

"The highest quality examples of most tonewoods are harvested from older, slow-growing trees," says Dana Bourgeois, founder and CEO at Bourgeois Guitars in Lewiston, Maine. "In most countries, trees are being consumed faster than they are regenerated."

Tom Watters, director of product development in the US for Takamine Guitars, which is headquartered in Nakatsugawa, Japan, reckons the most likely reason to be concerned is the furniture industry. "Also the paper industry—both gobble up quality tonewood at an alarming rate."

Tim Teel is director of instrument design at C.F. Martin in Nazareth, Pennsylvania. "Many of the traditional woods come from trees that are hundreds of years old," he says. "If these forests are managed properly, there will be enough supply. But if these great trees are logged haphazardly, it will create a problem for generations to come."

Richard Hoover at the Santa Cruz Guitar Company in (you guessed) Santa Cruz, California says that officially he's the firm's president but he prefers to call himself the original luthier.


Bedell Guitars on Reverb

"The consumer demand for pretty wood, real wood, has seen an exponential growth over the last couple of decades, especially the last decade. It's being vacuumed up, and the bureaus and organizations can't keep up with it," Hoover says. "The giant moneyed interests come in, and they buy geography. They don't buy trees, they buy geography, the whole thing. They scrape it and take it back and process it, everything from pretty wood to pulp and construction materials. So it's cause for alarm."

Kathy Wingert, who calls herself chief carver and dustmaker at Wingert Guitars in Los Angeles, California, says: "Guitar making isn't a problem. All the guitars in the world use a very small amount of the wood available. The best thing about wood is that it is sustainable—it only takes about 40 to 60 years for hardwoods to regenerate to the size of being useful for instrument making. Spruce is more of a problem because the tops we use generally have hundreds of growth rings. So while there is reason to be concerned, there is no reason to be scared. With a little bit of conservation now, with the flooring industry moving people away from solid wood planks and lumber suppliers using young wood or composites, we can overcome the overharvesting of the past."

Richard at Santa Cruz is not swayed by the argument that guitar makers only account for a small part of the demand for wood. "I don't feel excused by that by any means," he says. "My truck doesn't consume but a minuscule fraction of fossil fuels, but I'm part of the problem when I drive that back and forth to work, and I'm not proud of it. People look to us luthiers as maybe a little more enlightened, a little more woke than the rest of the general public, and they look to us as opinion leaders in what we're doing. I think it's real important we set an example in how we use our woods."


Santa Cruz on Reverb

"I have more reasons to be excited than I am concerned about the future of woods," says Mat Koehler, head of product development at Gibson Guitars in Nashville, Tennessee. "If in the future we don't have the ability to source one of our typical tonewoods, I know that we will find a suitable alternative to create guitars that sound just as magical. Some of the guitars we are making out of walnut right now sound unbelievable. But I'm very happy with our present supply chain, and it's very stable."

Miles Jackson, CEO at Cole Clark in Melbourne, Australia, isn't too worried. He says that as more companies grasp the benefits of using sustainable timbers and urban recovery programs, they'll find plenty of suitable timber out there. Admittedly, they'd have to put resources into urban recovery. "But it's the ultimate in sustainability," he reckons. "Part of all this is to keep educating customers that not all guitars need to have a spruce top and rosewood fingerboard, and not every guitar needs to have an ebony fingerboard."

Cole Clark FL2EC-RDBL Redwood & Blackwood
Cole Clark FL2EC-RDBL Redwood & Blackwood

Pepijn 't Hart, based in Amsterdam in the Netherlands, is the international sales and product manager for the Eastman Music Company's Guitar & Mandolin Division, headquartered in Beijing, China. He says it's obvious the biggest concern about acoustic guitar woods is the uncertainty about a fluent future supply.

"Manufacturers as well as guitar buyers must realize that we need to use all the wood from a tree, not just the 'pretty' parts," he says. "Ebony is now accepted with brown streaks, although many still prefer a fully black ebony fingerboard. When a tree is used for an acoustic guitar, we should accept every knot and stripe that makes this piece of wood unique—and I believe that Bob Taylor has been voicing this opinion for many years."


Taylor Guitars on Reverb

Over at Taylor Guitars today, Andy Powers is chief instrument designer at the company's HQ in El Cajon, California. He reckons we're on the threshold of two eras, that we're passing from the era of abundant natural resources, with a veritable surplus of natural resources, into an era where we witness and understand the finite nature of the resources in our forests. He says the old methods of harvesting cannot be allowed to continue in the same way.

"Our response must be one of concern and deliberate effort to make better use of the resource. There's a parallel to a distant past when our ancestors lived as hunter-gatherers. There came a time when that method of harvesting was insufficient to meet all our needs. In response, we became farmers to deliberately propagate and harvest to maintain and improve the resources at hand," Powers says.

Does It Have to Be Wood?

One way to preserve resources might be to find an alternative material—something other than wood—to make acoustic guitars from. A few of our panel have experimented with such stuff. Mat at Gibson says the company has tested synthetic materials for acoustic guitars since the mid-'70s.

"I've not tried one of those, but I've tried non-wood acoustic guitars ranging from the low to the very high end, and I believe they are fun," Mat says. "I'm not convinced they have the same soul and character as wood, but they are surprisingly resonant. A little bright, if memory serves."

Don Ruffatto, a Gibson product specialist at the firm's Bozeman, Montana, acoustic factory, adds: "Guitars made with synthetic materials do not have the ability to age, mature, and develop the 'vintage tone' that players strive for."

Tim at Martin says he's experimented with many non-wood materials for use in building acoustic instruments. "Our X-series is a prime example of experimental materials incorporated into the design and manufacturing of these guitars. The materials we've used on an alternative basis are decorative HPL (high-pressure laminate), industrial HPL, aluminum, carbon fiber, thermoset acrylic, and partially impregnated wood laminates. The result is a very nice way to expand our tonal palette, plus we use alternative materials in a responsible way in our product lines—for example, industrial HPL like Richlite is used for fingerboards and bridges on certain instruments to save ebony and rosewood for more expensive instrument series."


Martin X-Series on Reverb

Tom at Takamine recalls hearing some great guitars made using composites. "I feel they're very helpful in certain structural reinforcements on instruments. Composites are not a traditional sound—but that doesn't necessarily make them a bad sound. We've used the paper composite Richlite a bit in the manufacture of some bridges to good effect, and also we've used graphite rods to reinforce necks."

Pepijn at Eastman says they did start a guitar series using the double-top principle (dubbed the Eastman Double Top Series), borrowed from some classical guitars. "Simply put, the top consists of two thin slices of Sitka veneer, vacuum pressed together with a Nomex honeycomb core. Nomex is a synthetic fiber that comes from space technology. The result was pretty spectacular," he reports, "as the guitars sound amazingly rich and make creating sound seem effortless, literally amplifying the sound."

Otherwise, our panel are in love with wood. "I want my music to come from the forest," insists Tom at Bedell and Breedlove. Miles at Cole Clark says: "We have found alternatives—all in wood."

Martin Seeliger, luthier and CEO at Lakewood Guitars in Glessen, Germany says: "For our guitars, I see no alternatives in non-wood materials, since our customers simply want to own an acoustic guitar that was made from genuine materials."

Larrivee D-09 Artist Series Natural
Larrivee D-09 Artist Series Natural. Photo by Woodstock Guitars.

Jean Larrivée, founder, owner, and CEO of Jean Larrivée Guitars in Oxnard, California, is quite clear, too. "I have not made guitars from a product other than wood. This is not what we are about. My father was a cabinet maker, and I learned early in life to appreciate all types of wood, and I actually worked in forests in Hawaii, India, Canada, and many other countries."

At first glance it might seem logical to consider synthetic materials in the light of depleting natural resources.

"The reality is that growing and using timber is one of the most environmentally productive actions we can take," says Andy at Taylor. "The benefit of deliberately growing trees for timber use has many benefits in terms of carbon sequestration, habit creation, soil erosion, and climate stabilization, not the least of which is a high value end-of-life use as timber."

In contrast, he adds, synthetic materials are themselves potentially damaging to our environment in the way they're created or transformed.

"From a musician's standpoint,"Andy says, "the criteria for a great-sounding and enjoyable playing experience heavily favors an instrument designed and built from wood. A significant aspect of designing an instrument is to augment the musically pleasing vibration of a guitar, and dampen away unpleasant, inharmonic noise that can accompany vibrating strings. Many woods excel in this regard, and my experience is that most synthetic materials are less able to distinguish between the two, making for a less satisfying musical experience."

Richard at Santa Cruz puts his view quite simply. "My life revolves around wood," he says. "Not only do I have half a century of practice in working in wood as an instrument maker, but also we've looked scientifically to understand how wood works, how to manipulate it, how to get particular variance out of it. I'm not dismissing alternatives, by any means. It's an important thing that's happening, especially if you're interested in mass production. But I don't want to be a captain of industry. I want to be a luthier."

What Is Tradition Worth?

Every guitar maker ought to be using sustainable wood, and most want to. A sustainable or renewable wood means one that comes from a sustainably managed forest, designed in part to provide a long-term future for wood supplies. There are legal and administrative matters circling this whole area—not least in America the 2008 amendments to the Lacey Act, and more generally CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species—that we don't have space to address properly here.

But let's consider some of our panelists' views on the broader subject. Tim at Martin says the company's sustainable program began over two decades ago, and in its early days it was a struggle to have players pick up and play instruments not made from traditional tonewoods, much less buy them. "Guitar players by nature are very traditional creatures," he says, "and if you're buying an instrument that will last a lifetime or beyond, you tend to want a proven design."


Lakewood on Reverb

The pros are obvious for using a material responsibly harvested that will preserve a resource for future generations, Tim says. "Speaking as a guitar designer, this is great, because we can offer some of the more traditional woods in a sustainable instrument. On the con side, there are not as many wood species to choose from—although more in recent years—plus they are more expensive to purchase, and paying for and keeping track of the paper trail and certification through the production process is a daunting task."

Often, says Andy at Taylor, when musicians think of sustainable woods, they have in mind unfamiliar woods outside the traditional set of rosewood, mahogany, spruce, ebony, and so on.

"In fact, sustainability has more to do with the health and harvest methods of a forest," he explains. "Some traditional woods such as rosewood from India are among the most sustainable woods available. Other avenues, such as our urban wood initiative, open a new world of timber options. In some cases, woods can be substituted for traditional woods easily in a design. In other circumstances, instruments need to be designed around the unique characteristics of the woods that are available, in the same way luthiers worked during the centuries prior to global wood sourcing and logistics."

A preview of Taylor Guitars' "The Ebony Project"

Today, many makers have added all kinds of new or alternative woods beyond or instead of the traditional set, from bhilwara to ziricote, Huon pine to African khaya, eucalyptus to plum, and many, many more. Wood now comes more readily than ever from every corner of the earth—as Jean at Larrivée puts it: "These days, you can locate wood online, and our company is well known, so we have many offers. I travel widely, too, and so I find what we need."

Despite this, however, tradition still holds sway among some players. "I remember overhearing a customer ordering a special lifetime guitar from a small maker," says Miles at Cole Clark. "Small makers are special, as they can do special one-off guitars with different timbers and shapes. In this case, the customer said, 'Right, I want a special guitar—spruce top, rosewood back and sides, mahogany neck, and ebony fingerboard, in a dreadnought shape." I thought, Why? Martin has been making that guitar for a hundred years. At Cole Clark, we've moved away from this with a unique set of mainly sustainable tonewoods."


Eastman on Reverb

"Being a tradition-driven industry has its challenges," says Tom at Takamine. "Are guitars made from oak going to sell as well as ones made from Indian rosewood or mahogany? We've done well in our attempts with alternative tonewoods, but tradition still drives our industry." Dana at Bourgeois: "We've experimented with a variety of sustainable though non-traditional tonewoods, but in the very high end of the acoustic guitar market it's difficult to sell non-traditional woods, unless they're highly figured."

Richard at Santa Cruz is also aware of the drawbacks. "When you say 'alternative' sometimes people think, Oh, 'not as good,' that it's a substitute that will kind of fool you. And that's not the case. When we used koa in the '70s, when we used walnut and cocobolo before they were popular, well, they are every bit the equal in tone to our traditional woods. When we were starting out, we didn't have the credibility, but today we do." "Almost 50 years later, people look to us as doing the research, the science, the testing for them," he continues. "And when we bring a new wood to them, they trust us. Wood is extremely important to our clientele. And people will pay frightening figures for Brazilian rosewood, for the ancient 3,000-year-old spruce that we did, for kauri from New Zealand. These are all like unobtaniums. And people love the thrill of acquisition with these woods."

Acoustic Wood in 2031

To close, it's crystal ball time. Totally unfair, because who knows what tomorrow may bring? And especially so, perhaps, from the viewpoint of where we sit right now. But here we go anyway. So, in 10 years' time, will acoustic guitar makers still use the same woods used for decades before?

"I don't know," says honest Tom at Bedell and Breedlove. "That's the beautiful thing about free enterprise. People can pursue different dreams. I do know that every musician is different, every piece of wood is different, every song that is ever produced is different. Just like guitars, what makes music special is that it's unique, it's different, it's got variability."

Pepijn at Eastman replies with a qualified yes. "We'll all still be building dreadnoughts, jumbos, OMs, and so on. But there'll have been a significant change in what woods we use. The variety will be enormous, and hopefully some kind of innovation will have taken place, especially for entry-level acoustics."

"Crafting guitars is a beautiful mix of tradition and continuous evolution," says Andy at Taylor, "and this will hold true for the materials we utilize in our guitars. Some species of wood will remain in popular use, thanks to ever better growing and harvesting efforts. Other materials will fall from common usage. The point to remember is that wood, to use a species-generic term, is a heathy and environmentally beneficial material to use. While the construction methods, designs, and maybe even particular species of woods may adapt to the needs of the day, guitars will continue to be made, played, and loved. In the same way that musicians continue to develop and evolve within the context of their era, creative guitar makers will do the same. In my opinion, the future of wooden instruments is a bright one."


Bourgeois on Reverb

Dana at Bourgeois reckons traditional tonewoods will still be around in relative abundance, but prices will continue to climb. "Higher quality examples of these woods will be increasingly reserved for expensive guitars," he suggests, "and more and more middle and lower priced guitars will be made from sustainable and engineered woods." Miles at Cole Clark thinks there'll be a move to faster growing tonewoods. "And many more endangered timbers will be excluded from guitar making. For us, though, I believe it will be a very similar mix as it is now."

"I know I won't be done with my stack by that time," says Kathy at Wingert. "Some woods that are now newcomers will be considered tried and true by then, but the woods we use now will continue to be used." Tom at Takamine agrees. "But I also believe there'll be a wider range of acceptable alternatives," he says. "In the last few decades, ovangkol and sapele have become standard in the tone palette, and okoume and khaya are commonly used."

Tim at Martin predicts more species of traditional wood coming into sustainable programs like FSC, the Forest Stewardship Council, which he reckons will be good for everyone. "We'll see a greater use of fine wood veneer used in more expansive ways in our product line," he adds, "which provide greater yield and better appearance."

"All the same things will exist, but the percentages will shift dramatically," says Richard at Santa Cruz. "Anybody doing mass production will have to look for alternatives, because the costs of real wood are going to be higher. So cheap guitars won't have have the traditional woods."

He recalls that when Santa Cruz started back in the mid '70s, if a new luthier popped up, it would mark a surprising addition to a pretty exclusive network. "Today, guitar making is such a popular thing, and it's so accessible to people that there's a gazillion of them around the world. And, of course, they will all be using the stuff, too."

Richard concludes with a heartfelt wish for the healthy future of the acoustic guitar. "As you well know," he says, "a guitar is such a cool sounding thing. Even with the cheapest, crummiest guitar, you can write a song on it and change the world. So we're going to love guitars made out of whatever, just as long as we can make them."


About the author: Tony Bacon writes about musical instruments, musicians, and music. His books include The Ultimate Guitar Book and Legendary Guitars: An Illustrated Guide. Tony lives in Bristol, England. More info at tonybacon.co.uk.

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