Tracing guitar manufacturing all the way back to the trees from which the wood came from, a group of researchers took a close look at the guitar industry and its environmental footprint – and the results were surprising. The industry is struggling with scandals over illegal logging, resource scarcity, and environmental regulations related to trade in endangered species of trees.
Chris Gibson and Andrew Warren, both geographers at the University of Wollongong in Australia, spent six years tracing guitar-making across five continents, with a focus on the timber used — known in the industry as tonewoods for their acoustic qualities — and the industry’s environmental dilemmas. They visited guitar factories all over the world and analyzed materials and manufacturing techniques.
About 2.6 million guitars are produced every year, making it a US$1 billion industry. Unlike the timber used in construction or mass-produced furniture, which comes from plantation species selected for fast growth and quick returns on investment, guitars use rare woods from old-growth trees. This is because the slices of wood used on guitars are quartersawn, meaning they’re cut perpendicular to the growth rings to ensure stability and sound wave projection.
The slices have to be wide enough to become the front face, backs, or sides of the instrument, hence large diameter logs are needed. Guitar parts are then carved by hand or machine, sanded, and assembled. The soundboard (the top of the guitar) is critically important.
Until recently, a narrow range of timber species was considered suitable for guitars, the authors explained. Through centuries of traditional European craftsmanship, luthiers used spruces (Picea) as acoustic and classical guitar soundboards. This is because they were strong enough in order to be cut thinly and not collapse under extreme string tension.
For necks, guitar-makers use mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla) or maple (Acer species); for fretboards and bridges, ebony (Diospyros species) or rosewoods (Dalbergia species); and for acoustic guitar backs and sides, rosewoods and mahogany. Since the expansion of Hawaiian music, koa (Acacia koa) has also been used on ukuleles.
While some of the woods are plentiful and well managed, others have fraught histories and sustainability problems, Gibson and Warren found. Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis), used on guitar soundboards, for example, comes from trees at least 400 years old that are increasingly scarce. Ebony is also threatened in its African habitat.
“Habitat destruction for agriculture and urbanisation led to Brazilian rosewood — once considered the “gold standard” for guitars — being effectively banned from use since 1992. Guitar companies replaced it with similar species from other places, but they too were over-harvested,” the researchers wrote. “Scandals have engulfed the industry.”
Despite the sector’s environmental footprint, Gibson and Warren found that musicians are increasingly concerned about the origin and environmental impact of their instruments – encouraging guitar brands to improve transparency and rethink their ecological impact by embracing a wide range of alternative timbers.
Australian brands Maton and Cole Clark are among those leading the way. They started using native species decades ago and are now working with guitar timber suppliers to use bunya pine (Araucaria Bidwillii) for soundboards, Blackwood (Acacia melanoxylon) for backs and sides, and Queensland maple (Flindersia brayleyana) for necks.
Guitar-makers have also salvaged timbers from urban trees. In 2018, Cole Clark’s head of wood technology, Karl Krauss, heard of a municipal council near Melbourne removing sycamore-maple trees (Acer pseudoplatanus) seen as a fire hazard. He recalled their historical use in instruments and salvaged them for building guitars.
At the same time, guitar timber people are planting trees for future sustainable instrument manufacturing on their properties, and in partnership on cattle ranches and Indigenous-owned and managed lands. These efforts are guided by an ethic of care for trees, forests, communities, and guitars. The goal is to ensure wood for future guitar-making well beyond individual lifetimes
The research was published as part of a book called “The Guitar: Tracing the Grain Back to the Tree.”