[ jack davis and the eco guitars ]It was coincidental that Jack Davies approached me at around the same time that I had been thinking of building some guitars using non-tropical hardwoods. He wanted a particularly unusual concert guitar, and it provided an excellent opportunity for us to work together on a new design. The instrument that he imagined was a guitar of top quality, built without the use of tropical hardwoods. It also had a cut-away, a 22 fret neck, and a combined saddle transducer and internal microphone. We both felt that this was not designed to be a way of imposing a particular moral viewpoint, but rather an exploration of the possible. The final test of our success was not totally defined, but we agreed on a rule-of-thumb test : that it should not be possible from a blind test (i.e. with the guitar hidden from view) to tell either that the woods were unusual, or that the guitar was built with a cut-away.
As it turned out, it was a very enjoyable experience and when the guitar was completed, we agreed that the results were highly satisfactory all round. We worked together at every stage, so that the end result was very much a collaboration of ideas. Instrument parts are chosen primarily for three quite different qualities. Firstly, they have to be functional. For example, it would be pointless to make a neck out of a timber like balsa wood, which would break in two as soon as the strings were tensioned. Secondly, for some but not all parts, they are chosen for their acoustic properties. Thirdly, materials are chosen for their beauty. Functional considerations are fairly clear-cut, but aesthetic ones are harder to define, since opinions concerning both sound and beauty have varied considerably through the years and are sometimes little more than reflections of current fashion. Tradition is like a path through a forest. Because generations have walked the same way before, you can follow the path even if you do not know where you are going, confident in the knowledge of others who came before you. To a significant extent, each family of instruments is defined by its own unique "path" : a consensus of opinion by makers of past generations. There may be other paths to follow, but the way is not sure and the effort of pioneering a new path is great.
One of the important ways that instruments are defined is by the choice of materials, and generally the range is quite limited. The most obvious area of discussion concerned the initial choice of materials. It was natural that one of the main areas of discussion concerned the initial choice of materials. During the period around 1200 to 1500 instrument making was arguably a fairly unsophisticated affair. Trade was limited and materials were often chosen because they were locally grown and readily available. As a result a wide range of native materials were once used in the construction of both guitars and lutes. In the area of guitar making, as with many other uses of timber, increasing use was made of tropical hardwoods. There were significant advantages for craftspeople using tropical hardwoods. The quality of furniture suddenly leaped forward with the use of mahogany from the West Indies. As well as the texture of these new materials, there was also a much wider choice of colour. There was now a supply of timber very rich and dark in colour and with vivid grain.
Almost all temperate timbers are rather pale in colour, mostly in the range of white to pale yellowish brown. The only truly dark native wood is walnut. This significantly limits the range of colour that makers can use and as soon as more exotic supplies became available, they were seized on by marquetry cutters, furniture makers and Tunbridge Ware manufacturers, to list but a few. Conventional wisdom dictates that the best material for the back and sides should be Rio Rosewood (Dalbergia Nigra). This could only happen once the import route from Brazil could supply Europe with adequate supplies of tropical hardwoods. At the peak of the trade, it was common to find this beautiful rosewood used even for utilitarian items like knife handles. Rio rosewood was chosen by guitar makers for two main reasons. Firstly, it looked particularly attractive, being one of a handful of world timbers that is very, very dark in colour. Secondly, among all the world's hardwoods, Rio is one of the easiest to plane and to bend. The saving in production time is as significant now as it was now. For the back and sides of the guitar, it was necessary to find a substitute for rosewood. There is a theory that the back of a guitar is very critical, and acts as a reflector of sound. This has given rise to bowl-backed or parabolic backed instruments. This is in fact, a misguided theory and a poor model to follow.If you look at other instruments, like the violin, it is clear that woods like sycamore or maple work very well, together with a number of other possible temperate hardwoods, particularly fruitwoods like pear, apple or cherry. If any of these woods were used for the back and sides of a classical guitar, the change in sound would be very limited, often inaudible. The main difficulty in choosing an alternative material became that of aesthetics. Only tropical hardwoods are particularly dark in colour, and even then the choice is limited to a few rosewoods, and one or two strange things like lignum vitae or wenge. Maple is particularly good as a substitute, but it is shockingly white and violins are almost always stained down to a rich red-brown. Whenever you use stains, the subtle features of the wood are lost and only the really eye-catching aspects remain, like the great blaze of pattern typical of "fiddle-back" sycamore.
From early on, we were both happy with the choice of yew wood for the back and sides. There were a number of possible alternatives, but most were rather pale in colour and we felt that this was not appropriate to this style of guitar. Yew wood was a natural choice from my point of view. It is a slightly maverick timber, since it sits between the families of hardwoods and softwoods. Evolution has taken a softwood and let it acquire a number of features that would normally fall within the domain of the hardwoods : the needles have become broad and flat, heading towards the broad leaves of the deciduous trees, and uniquely amount the world's softwoods the yew gives berries as fruit. It is also a fascinating timber from a historical point of view. It was yew wood that gave rise to one of the great military innovations of the middle ages : the English longbow. Admittedly the wood was imported from France or Germany, but in its day it was the most important strategic weapon in Northern Europe and at weekends the good people of England were forced by law to troop off to the village greens (often reluctantly it must be said) to practice their archery skills. During the great period of lute-making, yew wood also made its appearance. For at least 200 years, lutes were made with backs assembled using quite a small number of staves : typically 9, 11, or 13. Around 1600, makers changed their style of building to multi-ribbed backs. These were almost invariably made of straight-grained yew, cut straight down the line where the heart and sapwood met to give a stripe of brown and brilliant white on every rib. Visually this doubled the number of ribs from the true 30 or so, to give the effect of around 60 zebra stripes. This was probably the most spectacular flowering and the highest level of sophistication of the art. Soon after this, the lute was overtaken by changes in musical fashions all over Europe and gradually fell into almost total neglect.
Tradition has long dictated the most suitable timbers for soundboards, and although many alternatives have been tried, there has been very limited success in finding good alternatives. Almost always, the soundboard would have been made from one of the European mountain-growing softwoods, usually the family of Picea (spruce). In recent years, Western Red Cedar has been added as a very satisfactory soundboard material for guitars. It is an interesting choice of name, being neither truly cedar, nor truly red! It is however one of the family of North American redwoods, and does grow on the West Coast of the United States heading north from the state of California. It was soon decided that the guitar should have a soundboard of Western Red Cedar. The choice of the other materials was more difficult. It was unexpected that the most difficult decision became the choice of fingerboard. Ebony is unique, and many of the possible alternatives appeared second-rate. Laburnum is sometimes used, being a native British timber, but it is the colour of dark Dijon mustard and very open-grained. It really looks like a poor quality Indian rosewood, and has little to recommend it. Even Indian rosewood is rather coarse in texture, and neither Jack nor I liked this feeling under the left hand.
It was clearly necessary to find a close-grained wood with a silky texture. This is often the quality of the fruitwoods, so pearwood was considered. It has many pleasing qualities, but suffers from being a little soft, and also from its pinkish brown colour - rather like steamed beech, which can look quite attractive in some contexts but in this case just was not right. Maple has often been used, especially by makers of electric guitars. Naturally, it is brilliant white, but takes stain very well. Maple finished in transparent blue of green gives one of the most attractive instruments I know, but it is again not really suitable to a classical guitar. Finally, in desperation, we tried boxwood. Although we both felt it might look shockingly pale, it is possible to deepen the colour through very attractive shades of yellow. Typically this was done by flute-makers and the process involved the use of dilute nitric acid. Box is native to many parts of Europe, where it tends to grow rather small, like a hedge. If large sections are needed, they usually come from Brazil, and it is back to the rain-forests! However, it is possible to find European box in sections large enough for a fingerboard and the final choice was Turkish, left fairly pale. The position inlays were all in carefully selected green abalone and together with a neck of American cherry, the overall effect was very unexpected and very pleasing. The final decisions related to the other inlays, particularly the bindings. I wanted to create an effect very much in the style of my more usual guitars, so the choice of walnut and sycamore stripes was straightforward. I like to use heavy bindings. It gives the guitar a feeling of boldness and solidity, which is somehow reassuring.
The usual outline of an acoustic guitar has fairly gentle curves and it is relatively easy to bend thick sections to shape. However, cut-aways have sections of very tight curves and it is common to use either thin solid or even plastic bindings, which fold easily into shape. It is possible to bend wood up to about one inch (25 mm), but it requires quite complicated processes and the wood must be "green" (unseasoned) at the time. As timber dries, it becomes increasingly brittle, since the cell walls loose their moisture and dry out. Once the process is complete, the timber can never be totally softened again. It is like making toast from bread. If you put water on toast, it does not revert to a slice of the original loaf! It was easy to find some very attractive American Black Walnut, but not in an unseasoned condition. I knew from the start that the material would not be happy to take the curves at the 4mm of thickness that I required. Even after soaking the strips in steam was not enough to stop breakage. The final solution was to steam first for about 40 minutes, then remove a single strip at a time and immediately apply it to a very hot bending iron, supported by a metal strap round the outside. Using this process, it would have been possible to generate curves quite a lot tighter than were required.
At this point, the design of the guitar was complete. It has turned into a real guitar and to some extent, the process is over. However, the moral issues are less easy and have no end. The choices we make and the consequences of those choices are not always clear. While many makers, myself included, try to adopt a responsible attitude to our use of materials, it is by no means clear what to do for the best. Changing from tropical hardwoods to temperate hardwoods will not ultimately provide a solution and it is questionable whether temperate hardwoods are any less endangered that tropical ones, and at present there does not seem to be much difference, except that it may be possible to sustain temperate forests in smaller independent areas without causing the collapse of entire eco-systems. It may be salutary to consider that around 1000 years ago, most of the British Isles were covered with forests. We have already deforested our environment far more effectively than anything that has so far happened in South America, and the same is true of many parts of the world. Take for example the American redwoods : since around 1900, some 90% of the redwood forests have already disappeared, mostly to fuel the building boom that swept California at the beginning of this century. Forests are a natural part of the ecology of the planet and in the long run, trees can regenerate with very little help from mankind. If treated with respect, forests can provide habitats for a great richness of wildlife, and also provide timber for human use for all eternity. Timber could be an endlessly renewable natural resource. Mankind could learn to value the natural resources of our beautiful planet. It should be self-evident that areas of the land should be preserved for the good of all life and bio-diversity.
If that day ever comes, the solutions will be quick to find, but until then, people will continue to plunder the resources of the planet for short-term gain and long-term disaster. Is it really such a hard choice to make?
Trevor Semple's Ecology Policy