A craftsman flicks sandpaper over a deep-vermilion-colored guitar body. He pauses for a moment, then sands a bit more.
After another workman fits the neck and strings to the body, the instrument will look like an electric guitar made with the finest mahogany and rosewood. But he's actually using environmentally friendly, substitute woods. These and other companies' "green guitars" sound even better than guitars made with traditional woods, according to some musicians.
Modulus Guitars located in Novato, just north of San Francisco, now makes 80 percent of its electric guitars from wood certified as coming from sustainable forests. Modulus participates in an international environmental program to encourage musical instrument makers to use certified traditional and alternative woods.
Instrument makers must begin to preserve exotic woods now, says Rich Lasner, president of Modulus Guitars. "Some of them are highly endangered," he says. "There's the possibility they won't exist at all in the near future."
Realities of selling instruments
But when environmentalists cross paths with business people, controversy swirls. Concern arises over whether enough certified wood is available and whether musicians would buy green guitars.
Guitar-makers have traditionally used mahogany cut from tropical forests in countries such as Brazil. Because mahogany trees grow far apart, loggers may destroy all the other nearby trees to harvest a single log used for guitar-making.
Years of deforestation have practically eliminated certain other rare woods. No more than a 20-year supply exists of African blackwood used in making woodwind instruments. Brazilian rosewood, used for guitar necks, has become endangered.
So four years ago, the British-based environmental group Fauna & Flora International began a program called SoundWood to encourage instrument makers to conserve the forests. SoundWood encourages manufacturers to buy wood from logging companies that replant trees, protect the local ecosystem, and respect the rights of local people dependent on the forest, such as Indian tribes.
If logging companies meet these tough criteria, then their products are approved by an outside certification company. Modulus Guitars buys most of its wood from certified forestry companies.
SoundWood does not advocate boycotts, but instead chooses to work with instrument makers to encourage the use of certified woods. Instrument makers "are not singled out as a target," says San Francisco SoundWood spokeswoman Pam Wellner, "but as a partner."
SoundWood has enlisted the support of a number of famous musicians, from violinist Yehudi Menuhin to former Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir. Mr. Weir encourages his fellow musicians to buy green instruments as one small step towards protecting the environment.
Such concern for the environment is commendable, says Bob Taylor, owner of Taylor Guitars in El Cajon, Calif., but it must match the realities of selling musical instruments. First of all, he notes, guitar-makers use a very small percentage of rare woods when compared to building contractors or furniture-makers.
While personally supporting conservation efforts, Mr. Taylor says he can't find enough certified wood to meet his production needs. His company manufactures acoustic guitars, which use a lot more wood than electric guitars. Taylor produces about 12,000 guitars a year compared to Modulus' 1,200.
And he doubts that consumers would buy guitars made with substitute woods, even if they were environmentally friendly.
"Consumers have been told by the guitar-makers for years that rosewood and mahogany are premium woods" that produce a unique sound, says Taylor. Even some environmentally aware musicians insist on using guitars made with endangered woods because of the sound quality issue, he says.
"For crying out loud," says Taylor, "you see musicians singing save the rain forest songs on Brazilian rosewood guitars."
Taylor believes that fine quality guitars can be made from alternative woods, including American ash, oak, and walnut. To prove his point, he made a guitar out of an oak warehouse pallet and a two-by-four stud. "It sounds great," he says.
Modulus Guitar's Mr. Lasner concedes that manufacturers must educate consumers about environmentally friendly woods. He stands next to a workbench as a craftsman fits a neck made with New Guinea red cedar to the body of a guitar.
He notes that despite the counterculture image of many guitarists, they are conservative in their guitar-buying habits.
Fusing the old with the new
So while the red cedar has never been used before for guitar necks, it's fused with graphite on the neck to look just like traditional rosewood.
Calvin Keys, a jazz guitarist visiting the Modulus showroom, says the guitars made with alternative woods have the same look and feel as traditional guitars. "And the sound is even better," he says.
Lasner sees the SoundWood campaign picking up support. Major manufacturer Gibson Guitars of Nashville now sells a green model and Pennsylvania-based Martin Guitars is experimenting with one. Manufacturers will eventually understand that using certified woods also makes good business sense, says Lasner. As exotic woods become rarer, prices go up. But if such wood is replanted and manufacturers use alternative woods, costs will stabilize.
If instrument makers don't conserve now, says Lasner, in 100 years "we'll be thinking about how great it was when there were guitars. We don't want that to happen."