Guitar Woods Present and Future

Bamboo ForestWill your next guitar still be made from wood? What about your children’s or grandchildren’s guitars?

Throughout my lifetime, there has been a tendency for guitar players to be traditionalists. They prefer traditional designs built from traditional materials. This has been reinforced by collectors and historians who have declared the guitars from the 1930s to be the best designed and best sounding instruments ever. If you believe this, then the best that can be hoped for in a new guitar is to pick one made the same way from nearly identical materials and hope someday it ages to sound nearly as good as the 1930s models.

I have a lot of problems with that view. I don’t disagree that 1930’s Martin’s are great sounding instruments – though I’ve never held one much less played one. The main objection I want to discus for this article is that many of the materials used for those classic guitars are in scarce supply today and may be completely unobtainable in the future. Should we just roll-over, give up and decide to never build another guitar? Obviously not.

Endangered Woods for Guitars

The two problems regarding raw materials for guitars are scarcity and regulation. If you understand supply and demand, scarcity means the supply is limited compared to the demand and thus the cost will be high. This assumes there is any legally available supply. Regulations have been implemented in most countries and internationally to protect endangered species. As a consequence, some raw materials cannot legally be used even if they can still be found.

The Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species, or CITES is an agreement regulating the trade in endangered species. Plants and animals are covered by the 1973 agreement. You can see a database of species of trees used in wood products at The Wood Database. There are three levels of protection which are referred to by the Appendix the species in listed in, I, II or III.

Appendix III lists species which are not threatened world-wide but that a specific country wishes to protect locally. An example is Cocobolo, a substitute for rosewood in guitars. Cocobolo is only restricted if it is from Guatemala.

Appendix II is the next level protection as is meant for species which are threatened in the wild. They might not be threatened with extinction and (in the case of plants) might be under cultivation. Lumber from cultivated, managed farms or forests can legally be sold for use in guitars or other construction. Cuban Mahogany (Swietenia mahagoni) is an example of an Appendix II species.

The most restrictive classification is Appendix I. These species are threatened with extinction. No trade is allowed in these species. Brazilian Rosewood (Dalbergia nigra) is such a species. This was a popular wood for backs, sides and fingerboards of those 1930s Martins. No more.

An interesting way to look at the history of endangered trees is to use the Google Timeline search feature.

Substitute Woods for Guitars in use Today.

Canadian Red Wild Cherry. One of the most used woods for back and sides by the acoustic members of the Godin Family of guitar companies (Seagull, Art & Lutherie, Simon & Patrick, Norman and Lapatrie) is Cherry (Canadian Red Wild Cherry). These companies typically use laminates of Cherry for their backs and sides although Norman has one model with a Cherry top.

Ovangkol. Ovangkol (Guibourtia ehie) is an African wood that has been used in place of Rosewood for guitar bodies and fingerboards. Major manufacturers have been using the wood on some models such as the Taylor 414-CE, the Fender CD-220 and the  Martin OMC-16OGTE.

Bubinga. This is the name for wood from a species (Guibourtia arnoldiana) related to Ovangkol. It is used similarly to Ovangkol as a substitute for Rosewood. The Dean Exotica Bubinga guitar uses this wood for the back and sides.

Sapele. Another African wood (Entandrophragma cylindricum). This one has similar properties to mahogany, and is used as substitute for mahogany in many guitars. The Martin D-16 has a Sapele body.

Nato. Nato is another Mahogany substitute. It comes from two species of trees (Mora excelsa and Mora gonggrijpii). The Jasmine (Takamine) S34C NEX guitar has a Nato back and sides.

Bamboo I can find no production guitars currently listed that are made from Bamboo. But bamboo is often touted as a renewable resource and guitars have been made from bamboo. Yamaha had an Acoustic model FG B1 made from bamboo. First Act had an electric guitar, the Bambusa guitar. Fender showed a Lamboo telecaster at the 2011 Namm. Lamboo? Laminated Bamboo.

Guitar Companies and Renewable Resources

The Rainforest Alliance encourages sustainable agriculture. A number of major guitar companies are working with the rainforest Alliance to build guitars from SmartWood certified lumber. Martin and Gibson both have built smartwood guitars. Taylor reports that they have worked with Greanpeace along with Martin, Gibson and Fender to promote sustainable tonewoods.

Greenpeace has also worked to encourage the use of renewable woods. They have made Good Wood Guides to help companies and individuals choose woods that are not endangered (UK, NZ, AU).

 

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2 comments

  1. Dear Mr Sissors,

    I am a final year Product Design Engineering student in Glasgow and I am currently trying to design a new type of travel guitar which has thrown up a lot of questions about guitar design. Your website has been really helpful and has given a good grounding for lots of different areas of guitar design.

    I was hoping to ask you 2 questions related to the information here:

    1) Do you know of any completely fiberglass acoustic guitars? I am currently investigating material properties and I can’t figure out why wood is always chosen over other materials.

    2) Do you know of any acoustic guitars where the tuning pegs are on the body of the guitar and not on the head? I can find examples of electrics like that, but no acoustics. Is there some reason why this wouldn’t work?

    Thanks again for a great website. It is much appreciated.

    Chris
    Glasgow
    Scotland

    1. Hi Chris,

      Thank you for two interesting and unusual questions.

      I’ll presume you’ve seen the article in this same series on unusual guitar materials. Acoustic guitars have been made from plastic, metal, carbon fiber (graphite) composite and fiberglass. However I do not know of a purely acoustic guitar being made entirely from fiberglass. Fiberglass bodies have been used for electric and resonator guitars but the necks were made from wood.

      The reason most materials other than wood are not found in acoustic guitars is because they don’t sound good. The acoustic guitar top must transmit the vibrations of the strings to create the sound. Fiberglass sounds “dead”. Too much mass for the strength required. Resonator guitars use metal cones to transmit the sound so fiberglass or other materials aren’t as bad – but I’ve played fiberglass resonator guitars and they are less “lively” than wood or metal bodied resonator guitars.

      Carbon fiber is allegedly a better material for acoustic tops because the fibers are oriented in (mostly) the same direction. This is similar to the natural grain of wood tops and seems to be better for vibrations while providing the required strength.

      As to why aren’t the tuning machines put on the body of an acoustic guitar – the simple explanation is any mass added to the top of the guitar body will inhibit vibrations and thus give poorer sound. As a practical matter, where would you put the tuners on an acoustic body that didn’t interfere with either the sound or the comfort of the guitar?

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