The Sweet Sound of Sustainability

The Sweet Sound of Sustainability

Photo Credit: http://www.crodog.org/guitar/guitar.htm.

Are you musically inclined or just like to curl up with a nice set of headphones and turn up 70’s classic rock to 11?

  • Did you ever think about the instruments that the musicians are using?
  • What are the instruments made of?
  • Are the materials used sustainability cultivated?

According to Professor Steven Errede, Department of Physics, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Illinois, “Musical instruments are made of materials of some kind. Stringed instruments (e.g. guitars, violins, pianos) as well as certain wind instruments (e.g. clarinets, oboes, bassoons, …) and many percussion instruments (drums, xylophones) are made of wood, – more specifically, tonewoods – i.e. wood from a certain limited number of species of trees that have musical, aesthetically pleasing tonal properties.” (1).  

Ah so not just any wood will do.  I suppose a Gibson Les Paul ® and a child’s Hello Kitty ® practice guitar are technically both instruments but one costs thousands of dollars and the other a mere $10.   A Stradivarius violin (priceless) versus a wood block (think “clomp clomp clomp” as you sing Dashing Through the Snow).

Some types of wood that were commonly used in the 1950s are close to extinct today and can no longer be used for mass guitar production. For instance, import and usage are restricted for certain types of Mahogany, Rosewood, and Ebony.  According a report on CNBC.com, “In 2018 an international crackdown on illegal logging in tropical forests has ensnared the makers of some guitars and other musical instruments, whose top-end products require small amounts of rosewood (2).   Fearful that Africa and Asia were losing rosewood forests, governments adopted the rules to stem the flow of smuggled rosewood to China’s luxury furniture manufacturers. But the restrictions have also hurt companies that use relatively tiny amounts of the wood in guitars, clarinets and oboes.”.

Ecologically minded guitar manufacturers, known professionally as luthiers, strive for CO2 neutral credentials in production, transport and transformation of the instruments.   According to Worldbank.com, one such company is Taylor Guitars.(3), “A key feature of function and beauty on a guitar is ebony wood and all ebony used by Taylor Guitars, a leading manufacturer of acoustic guitars, comes from Cameroon, including the region where the country is working to implement its first large scale program to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (3).  Through this collaboration, the government of Cameroon and Taylor Guitars will test approaches to enhance ebony stocks and other important tree species through community-based reforestation, contributing to the economic and social benefits for local people.”

In May 2017, Fender - the biggest guitar maker in North America - announced it would no longer be using rosewood fingerboards on its Mexican-made instruments. (4)  And some inventive luthiers are using bamboo for their instruments. (5)

Even musicians are taking notice.    Rock band Coldplay recently put out a bestselling album but has refused to embark on a tour to support it.  Lead singer Chris Martin says, 'We would be disappointed if it's not carbon neutral' (6).  Think about it: the band and gear have to be flown around the world.   A flight from New York City to London generates 986 kg CO2 (7).  Now imagine their last tour which the band performed 122 shows across five continents, and you can see the impact.

Further reading