We live in an environmentally-friendly and “green” age where household products are sporting the green stamps on every shelf.
But, what about the music industry? Seen any “vegan” or composite guitars lately?
When it comes to wood, the music industry is by no means the loudest demander of this natural resource. But, the industry is definitely impacted by the rapidly-growing depletion of it.
As music giant Bob Taylor put it, “Our beloved Brazilian rosewood was taken from us more than 25 years ago. Adirondack spruce was logged out. Today we see the signs of our current woods being diminished to a point of unavailability.”
So, what can be done? Actually, a few things can be done now that you’ve asked!
What is Sustainable & Eco-Friendly Wood?
Sustainability is the concept behind using, preserving, and replacing a natural resource that’s been used. When it comes to music, the industry should definitely be interested in sustainability since there are countless instruments that depend on reliable tonewoods to manufacture these instruments.
Sustainable forests implement many procedures to ensure the replanting of trees, protect damage to the eco-systems and wildlife that protect forestry, and to ensure they will still be there for many years to come.
How to Identify Sustainable Wood
In order to identify sustainable wood, you should look to the manufacturer’s source. Since we’re not always privy to all of their suppliers, you can look for the Forest Stewardship Council’s (FSC) official logo and certification.
They ensure responsible, sustainable forestry practices. You can also keep an eye out for the Program for the Endorsement of Forestry Certification (PEFC) logo as another way to identify sustainable wood used to make guitars.
Another good way is to research the manufacturer of your guitar. Good thing for you, many noted manufacturers and luthiers such as Gibson, Martin, and Fender; Yamaha, Guild, Taylor, and Walden have all pledged to the movement of transitioning to FSC-approved, sustainable wood.
Even without the FSC or PEFC certs, you can still count on brands like Seagull and Bedell to use sustainable, reclaimed woods, and alternative tonewoods that have been ethically sourced. They’re dedicated to sustainability with their Tonewood Sourcing Team, Bedell’s Tonewood Certification Project, and additional programs like the Bedell Wood Library code system.
What is Alternative Tonewood?
First off, you could let go of your bias against laminate and veneers to consider it an alternative. You have very thin plywood, an even thinner strip of veneer, and a low price tag! They can be made to look just like traditional tonewood, or they can have some funky grains that you know just aren’t natural.
However, there’s no substitute to real solid wood when it comes to sound quality and performance. So, turning to tonewoods other than the traditional ones like Genuine Mahogany, Rosewood, Maple, and some types of Spruce, can be considered an acceptable alternative.
Other ‘alternative tonewoods’ include:
- Unconventional wood that strays from the traditional.
- Environmentally-responsible wood alternative to protect endangered tonewoods.
- Any unique wood that strays from traditional tonewoods to produce a unique sound identity.
- Any wood that’s cheap and can be mass-produced that isn’t listed under CITES .
10 Sustainable Woods For Guitars
Now that we’ve discussed the many controversies over the definition of “alternative”, let’s get into what sustainable woods for guitars that you can consider for your next buy.
Often seen in cheaper guitars, it serves as a great alternative to alder or ash. Although it’s aesthetic appeal may be bland with its minimal grain and light color, it has full tonal balance with a meaty low-end and pleasing softness on the trebles.
2. Figured Ebony
While we know that pure, black ebony is on the endangered list, there are dried-out, decade-old stock piles of figured ebony. What’s with the figured? It has figures or “defects” in it that lend to its unique aesthetic appeal. Usually only used as fretboards, it adds appeal for its dark contrast against lighter tonewoods used for the body.
An excellent alternative for endangered Mahogany, and it’s even known as African mahogany.
The colors can vary from light to quite dark, and its acoustic properties are obviously warm with a tendency to hang onto the mid to low tones.
Originating in Hawaii, it’s a dense, tropical hardwood with a mid-range similar to mahogany and a high-end similar to maple. The best thing about Koa is that as it’s played more and longer, the wood ages and evolves to reveal rich, mellow, and resonant overtones.
However, it’s a source that’s not yet endangered, but they can be scarce for guitar-making. That’s why Taylor has created Paniolo Tonewoods to partner with Pacific Rim Tonewoods to institute an extensive planting of Koa in Hawaii.
Also known as “White Limba”, it’s been used since the ’50s as an alternative tonewood to mahogany, because it’s lighter in color and sometimes even lighter weight.
It offers lots of depth with a multi-dimensional mid-range.
This is a great alternative for alder, and if you get the flamed poplar, it’s a great alternative to flamed maple.
It’s a softer hardwood with good resonance and beefy tones.
Redwood is definitely a close alternative for cedar. It has darker reds, is similar in tone to cedar, and is robust and bright. However, indiscriminate logging of old-growth redwood has made this tonewood difficult to buy legally. Ensure the manufacturer can track their tonewood supply through trusted sources.
Often mistaken as African mahogany, the Khaya tonewood. Sapele is a sustainable, fast-growing wood that brands like Martin and Taylor have incorporated into their guitars. It’s just like mahogany, but it’s also got a bite for the trebles.
Again, Taylor popularized this wood as an alternative to mahogany, and demand is just getting better every year.
9. Spanish Cedar
What was once only used for a neck in a classical guitar, it can be considered an alternative to mahogany. It’s fairly light in color with medium reds and browns.
Similar to mahogany, it has a resonance and depth that performs excellently. However, this wood was listed under CITES III in 2001, so particular sources are limited.
10. White Oak
Oak may be a sustainable wood, but only when you buy judiciously. Thanks to Stella, white oak was used way back in the ’20s as a sub for exotic tonewoods.
It’s very dense, but it has the ability to provide bright tonality with a strong low-end presence for full-balanced overtones. Be sure to look for the FSC logo or reclaimed and recycled oak from the manufacturers.
Images of wood types sourced from The Wood Database.
It’s Not Wood, But It’s an Alternative!
While tonewood has a lot of living up to do when you want solid bodies and solid sound projection, some manufacturers go a step further. It might not be wood, but it’s an alternative!
Composite guitars are often made out of carbon fiber for a lighter-weight, more durable instrument that strays far away from traditional tonewoods. Overtones and resonance can vary depending on the guitar. However, they all have one thing in common – they’re practically indestructible and absolutely impervious to climate and environmental damage. Who needs a guitar case to protect it when you have a carbon fiber guitar?
Composite guitar companies: Blackbird Guitars, Composite Acoustics, McPherson Guitars
Ever heard of it? No exotic tonewoods needed. No waste. Fully recyclable. These guitars are new off the conveyor belt with their innovative “no waste” policy. Shreds of recycled Northern spruce wood fibers are mixed with a thermoplastic bonding agent used in a mold to make the guitar. When finished guitars don’t make the cut, they’re melted down again to make new ones.
Flaxwood guitar companies: Flaxwood Guitars
Who would think garbage could be a material to make a guitar? Obviously, someone did.
Of course, guitars made out of recyclables may look and play different, like this cigar box guitar and oil can guitar! Quite different from a conventional acoustic guitar, right?
However, Cyclotron guitars are made with a complete outer body made of recyclable materials to make the plastic-wood-plastic instrument.
Recyclable guitar companies: Simon Lee Guitars
Sustainable Guitar Companies
In an effort to help preserve the future of music magic and the natural resource for all purposes in life around the globe, these guitar companies are dedicated to sustainability. Some of these companies have FSC-certified guitars, and others are involved in their own sustainability programs for the same cause. Let’s give them a round of applause!
While it may look like a short list, we’re sure we are sure some have fallen through the cracks. However, we expect to see this list grow as the movement pushes forward!
Strumming Outside of The Box!
Being a pro player means making your own music signature and groove. You don’t have to imitate a troubadour’s identity and replicate their guitar to make your name. In fact, that rarely happens as it’s already been done.
Think outside of the box as your strum away from the traditional. It might be the difference in your music signature that sets you apart from the rest. So, when you see “alternative” in the guitar industry, who cares? You’ve got the look and the sound you want, and that’s all that matters!
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Trent is a music lover, musical instrument player and passionate audio afficionado.