Forest Preservation Strikes a Chord with Guitar Makers

Honcho front guitar
Martin guitar made of Sitka spruce, rosewood, and mahagony.
Photo by Zach Copley

Any guitar lover knows that quality wood is a vital component to a great instrument. But not all are aware that the wood used to make most guitars comes from rare, ancient, and disappearing forests. To address this concern, a handful of guitar manufacturers and musicians have partnered with the environmental group Greenpeace to promote sustainable logging practices in forests that provide wood for the instruments. “This is both a public relations effort and an effort to do the right thing for our kids,” Henry E. Juszkiewicz, chief executive of Gibson Guitar in Memphis, Tennessee, told the New York Times.

The “MusicWood Coalition,” formed in January of this year, currently comprises nine guitar manufacturers, including Gibson, Martin, Taylor, and Fender. The group is working to foster a greater supply of wood for musical instruments that is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), an international organization that promotes environmentally, socially, and economically responsible forest management. Since 1997, the FSC has certified some 50 million hectares (148 million acres) of forests in more than 60 countries.

The first phase of the MusicWood Coalition is focusing on the Sitka spruce, a timber frequently used to make the soundboard for acoustic guitars and pianos—considered “the heart of the instrument,” according to a Greenpeace press release. For aesthetic and tonal reasons, guitar makers require wood from trees that are at least 250 years old. Currently, the main sources of the Sitka spruce are the coastal temperate rainforests of Alaska and Canada.

But these forests are disappearing fast. Scott Paul of Greenpeace told the New York Times that if current trends continue, all of the region’s old-growth Sitka spruce will be gone in just six or seven years. The coalition is encouraging private landholders in Alaska to apply for FSC certification, which would require them to adopt more sustainable logging practices while continuing to produce high-quality wood.

The guitar market accounts for only a small fraction of the demand for the spruce, with some 3 million acoustic and electric guitars sold in the United States every year, according to Chris Martin of C.F. Martin and Company. Just 150 Sitka spruce logs can supply the entire industry for one year. In contrast, nearly 80 percent of the spruce trees logged in southeast Alaska are sent to Asia for home building, Greenpeace reports. “These 400-year-old trees are getting buried in the walls of homes in Japan,” Scott Paul told the Times. The bulk of the remaining wood is used for door and window frames in the United States.

Despite the relatively low timber demands of the guitar industry, participants in the MusicWood Coalition believe they can have a powerful impact in helping to conserve the rare woods needed for instrument making, and the forests they come from. “We are seeking to partner with people closer to the forest that are trying to manage these valuable, precious resources more judiciously,” said Martin. The coalition plans to focus on other species of wood used in instrument building in later stages of the campaign.

This story was produced by Eye on Earth, a joint project of the Worldwatch Institute and the blue moon fund. View the complete archive of Eye on Earth stories, or contact Staff Writer Alana Herro at aherro [AT] worldwatch [DOT] org with your questions, comments, and story ideas.