It doesn’t say enough to say that acoustic guitar building is not easy. At its core, it is a myriad of precise cuts and exact angles held together by time-honored techniques and very occasional innovations. Its complexity is further increased by the material used: the fibrous, once-living material used for the guitar’s resonant cavity, to provide its structural integrity, and the source of its beauty; wood, by definition, where no two pieces are exactly the same. In many ways, the guitar building exercise is a cruel puzzle, but a challenge loved by guitar designers and builders.
Once the guitar building puzzle is solved, to bring a guitar to market, you must also deal with all the additional complications inherent in a modern manufacturing process in order to produce a guitar that will compare favorably with other instruments in its class. That would include the need for consistency and providing value. A new constraint, and one not welcomed by master guitar builders, is the shrinking supply of instrument building materials.
In recent years, the exotic tonewoods that luthiers have used for decades have become more complicated to source in part due to increasing environmental legislation. Someday soon, some select woods may not be available in quantities needed for mass production of instruments. That’s why a recent innovation by Taylor Guitars, the use of urban wood– wood sourced from trees found in cities rather than from the typical industrial suppliers or the tropics– is so important. It is notable not only to the musicians who will play and enjoy the instruments, but also to those who care about protecting the ecosystem that we all share. To prove a point, Taylor Guitars has stepped away from the crowd and is adding a line of high-end guitars built with urban wood.
Introducing Urban Ash
Andy Powers, Master Guitar Designer for Taylor Guitars, was keen on finding a promising alternative to the staple woods used by today’s guitar makers. He knew that the idea had promise. “You just need to look at the master guitar builders of the past,’ says Powers . “Like great artists of the time, they looked around for materials that had the right properties for the instruments they were building. They employed what was local and plentiful. They used what they had, and when one wood was not available, substitutions were made. For example, Mahogany guitar necks, popular now, were a replacement for earlier Spanish Cedar–because it was more plentiful.”
Powers, along with company founder, Bob Taylor, and Taylor’s Director of Natural Resource Sustainability, Scott Paul, started researching the use of an urban wood that would act as a proof of concept that alternative, sustainable woods could be used and would not negatively impact the sound or beauty of the instruments that would bear the respected Taylor name. They found just what they had hoped for in a stock of wood reclaimed from along state highways by a local arborist and stocked not far from the Taylor Guitar headquarters in Southern California. The ‘new’ material, which Taylor is calling “Urban Ash,” is being sourced from removed Shamel Ash trees. Originating from Central America, trees of this species were planted throughout California starting in the mid-1940s, and many are now nearing the end of their life cycle and need to be taken down. Unwanted along the highways and in cities, they are good wood in good quantities and ripe for reuse. The team from Taylor hoped the stock of old Ash could take on a second life as parts for great-sounding instruments.
It turns out that urban trees solve a multitude of problems, but create some, as well. First, trees in an urban setting are put there for a reason. It could be to prevent soil erosion, shade, or just simple esthetics to make a neighborhood more inviting. After trees have served that purpose and reach end-of-life, however, they present a problem when they need to be removed. Something needs to be done with them and costs associated with removing a tree are not trivial, especially spread across a state. Costs include manpower with a knowledge of trees and machinery, the use of heavy equipment, and disposal costs. In urban settings, two factors about tree removal seem to be true: trees are removed at taxpayers expense and disposal fees always increase. Turning a tree into mulch is a popular way to avoid some of the cost to dispose of it in bulk, but environmentalists ask, ‘What better alternatives can we find?’ “Let’s go back to the same methodology guitar builders used 200-300 years ago,” offers Paul. “Let’s ask, ‘What do we have? What is here that we can use? The answers may surprise us.”
West Coast Arborists, Inc. (WCA, Inc.) is the family-owned company that has saved the felled Shamel Ash trees that Taylor was eying. The well-known arborists provide professional tree maintenance and management services for over 330 municipalities and public agencies throughout California and Arizona. As a result, WCA manages tree services in almost every city in CA and has access to records of tree plantings and removals for many species. “Forward thinking arborists, like WCA,” notes Paul, “consider alternative uses when they take out a species. In the case of Shamel Ash, they felt there should be a use for it, so took the steps to mark and protect quantities in their log yard which we were happy to discover.”
WCA’s forethought in saving and organizing a stock of logs that might be reused allowed Powers and Taylor some choices. They looked at different samples to determine if a species could be milled to provide pieces with good guitar-building characteristics including strength, workability, and tone. Many factors contribute to the ultimate condition of a felled tree. In the case of WCA’s Shamel Ash stock, the trees’ prominent placement in cities and along highways meant that they grew in open sunlight and were regularly pruned away from roads and power lines. These conditions encouraged them to grow straight and tall–good for large usable sections of milled product. The final selection of stock from WCA provided samples that Powers could start to process and analyze in the shop, as well as the promise of enough Ash to build a good run of guitars.
Powers took about two years to research processes and assess the qualities of “Urban Ash” before finally designing with it. “Just as with playing a great instrument, working with good wood is an inspiration,” he says. “From just picking it up, appreciating the origin and its look, it is all done in service of the musician–to build an instrument that will enable self-expression.” With properties similar to aged Mahogany, Powers looked at all of the characteristics of Taylor’s new “Urban Ash” to determine how to use it to its best advantage. “Builders should look carefully at all wood,” he says, “and develop from there based on your ‘ingredients’. It’s a practical mindset, much like a cooking style. After all, style develops on a practical level. It’s just that most people don’t look far enough.”
At present, Taylor features Urban Ash in three of their player-focused designs: Builder’s Edition 324ce (pictured above), a Grand Auditorium format where the ash is paired with a mahogany top; Taylor’s more compact GTe Urban Ash model with a Sitka Spruce top (below); and their neo-vintage 326ce cutaway acoustic/electric.
Wood in a Changing World
Using urban wood is far from Taylor’s first sustainability effort. For years, the company has worked around the world to become more directly involved in the sourcing of the tonewoods used in their guitar building process. In Cameroon, Taylor is the co-owner of the Crelicam ebony mill in Yaoundé, transforming the mill there with better working conditions and more modern technology that allows them to make more from less. In 2014, Taylor was recognized for that work by the U.S. State Department with the Award for Corporate Excellence. The company has also partnered with The Congo Basin Institute to fund The Ebony Project, which conducts basic ecological research on West African ebony and has a goal to plant 15,000 trees.
In Hawaii, Taylor Guitars has been sourcing koa through a partnership called Paniolo Tonewoods. Since 2015, Paniolo has worked with innovative landowners who harvest dead, dying and malformed trees that were stunted from cattle grazing, or were simply in decline. The wood from these trees has become thousands of guitars and thousands of new koa have been planted. Powers notes that sourcing of select materials for guitar building is not only about availability and sustainability, but also about people. “Our interactions in different parts of the world can have a serious impact on the local economies and workers,” he says. “There is a lot we have to consider.”
Powers and Paul agree that the one guitar line built from urban wood isn’t likely to have a large impact in the marketplace, but producing the line does act as an important and notable proof of concept. It sends an important message: alternatives exist. Once proven in a manufacturing setting, what other uses can we find for Taylor’s “Urban Ash” and other species of wood? Will the furniture manufacturers find new looks moving away from the traditional wood selections? What other uses can be found for this and other already harvested crops of wood. And knowing about successful reuse, shouldn’t we be planning for reuse of the trees we plant in urban and other settings?
Paul observes that it is fitting that a guitar, a machine built for human expression, should be a leader in wood sustainability. “After all,” he says, “if a guitar’s ultimate purpose is to tell stories, what better instrument exists to tell the story of a tree? With as many as five or six species combined, each contributing a different musical ‘voice’, it beautifully represents forests from around the world. Guitars can connect all of us.”
“Finding a local arborist who was concerned enough to save the trees that they had been commissioned to take out, was very fortunate,” notes Paul, who has traveled the world as a forest policy expert, 15 years of which as a Forest Campaign Director for the environmental protector, Greenpeace. He notes how recent environmental legislation has focused instrument makers’ in particular on thinking toward the future. “Clearly, our world is changing very fast,” he says. “Just a few years ago companies pulled out the forest products they needed without concern. It’s what we’d done for 200 years, but that’s changed. We’ve come to that point where the species we use or don’t use today may be very different in as little as just 10 years. That’s why a new source for wood, and the concept of urban wood in particular, may be increasingly important in coming decades.”
The world is changing, urban areas are expanding, and natural resources that were once plentiful are becoming more and more scarce. The timeline is compressing and the data is clear, what is not clear to many is what’s to be done about it. We can all play a part in reversing obviously wasteful trends, but efforts by prominent businesses, like Taylor Guitars, with bigger voices and larger ecological footprints, can more readily impact policy. Even better are innovations that can at once build something beautiful and put us on a path to a better balanced ecosystem. That’s exactly what American guitar maker, Taylor Guitars, is doing with their new line of guitars built from environmental-friendly “Urban Ash”.