Talking Heads – Bob Taylor founder of Taylor Guitars

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Photo: Chris Sorenson

Taylor Guitars doesn’t just talk the talk about the ecological implications of guitar making. Co-founder Bob Taylor has taken the lead by ensuring a future for ebony though his ambitious Ebony Project in the Congo. The following interview with Gary Cooper explores the potentially awkward relationship between the need for fine tonewoods to make exquisite guitars and the need to conserve tropical forests. But it begins by asking, do guitarists really care?

GC: Before we get to the specifics of The Ebony Project in the Congo, I’d like to ask about the general issue of environmental concern among musicians. Has Taylor Guitars done any research that measures concern over sustainable wood resources among its customers?

BT: We have not conducted research on the topic. But I have a pretty good hunch based on my years of contact with customers. If I were to sum it up, I’d say that there are very few customers who use sustainable wood as a criterion for their guitar purchase. Why is this? Because they’re not concerned? I don’t think so. Of course they’re concernedbut they’re not connected with choices yet. The more Taylor tells them what we’re up to, the more they give us feedback that they appreciate this, and them knowing it makes them tend toward Taylor as a brand.

Picture Credits:Taylor Guitars

Now, to be sure, not many will buy based on that alone, but rather, which guitar on the wall on the day they buy is the best guitar for them. Increasingly often customers ask what they can do to help in Taylor’s efforts to be more sustainable, for instance donate money, or volunteer some work, and my answer is always that it’s really our responsibility to solve this for them by advancing our guitars toward more and more sustainable manufacturing habits.

It’s our job to find ways to become more sustainable and offer it as part of what a Taylor Guitar is. In the end, it’s hard for a consumer to buy based on sustainable efforts until the guitar makers come to market with guitars that are known to be more sustainably made. And remember, sustainability is a journey. We are becoming more sustainable each year. I hope to advance Taylor to a point where it’s well developed and well known that when you buy a Taylor you’re buying a guitar with sustainability front and center in every action we can take in making them.

Photo: Chris Sorenson

GC: Have the CITES restriction on rosewood caused you any significant problems and if so how you’ve mitigated them?

BT:Fortunately for Taylor, we had, and have less problems with CITES restrictions on rosewood than others. This was unplanned, but since I believe strongly that ebony is a superior wood for fingerboards and bridges, we don’t use rosewood on any guitar unless the sides and backs are rosewood, except for some rosewood binding here and there. Imagine if you had a rosewood bridge, or headplate on nearly every guitar you made on the day that CITES hit? This made an otherwise non-rosewood guitar a CITES restricted guitar, for one small piece. We lucked out. Our choice to not have rosewood in those components was not a plan to avoid future CITES, rather a preference to using ebony and more pointedly, our own Crelicam ebony.

Photo: Chris Sorenson

But for our rosewood bodied guitars, yes indeed, a huge problem that took a long time to solve. This was because no country was prepared. It’s still difficult now, but possible. Interestingly, it’s paperwork, permits, applications, restrictions, and coordinating compliance authorities in each country that was the problem. Our wood itself was legal and traceable just as before. The CITES control did not improve our concern or habits on rosewood, as they were already very good. It just gummed up the governmental bureaucracy and initiated tons of international governmental permits, mostly for finished guitars, and I really struggle to see the conservation value in that.

GC: There has been a suggestion that following industry representations, the rosewood limitations might be lifted for musical instrument use. How do you feel about that?

BT: While we cannot predict the final outcome, we feel very good about that for a couple reasons. Instrument makers use a fraction of a fraction of the wood. Taylor gets nearly all of it from India, one specie, and it’s well controlled there. We have long lasting and stable relationships with the suppliers. We are not digging deeper into country after country looking for the last piece of wood. To expand further, the main reason CITES looked at rosewood control was due mainly to the expanding middle class in China and Vietnam, who all now have the ability and desire to buy reproductions of traditional Ming Dynasty hongmu furniture. The wood is typically red and so a colossal amount of any reddish rosewood, of any species was being extracted from every country where it grows. I’m talking about unbelievable amounts.

Musical instrument makers do not do this. Our use is very stable. The main gripe we have about the current CITES implementation is that once we sell the guitar to a player, they are not released from the responsibility. If they put their guitar up for sale, across a country border, they are committing a serious CITES violation if they don’t know which pieces are some kind of dalberia (rosewood) and if they do not obtain an export permit to send, and an import permit to receive the guitar. Imagine making criminals out of anyone selling a guitar in the future. A good instrument can last 50, 100 years or more and sold countless times.

Regulating rosewood was a good idea but the implementation was an overreach and a mistake, which they admit now. We hope to be able to change that. We strongly support what CITES is trying to do.  I should point out that any such possible CITES relief in no way relieves companies like Taylor Guitars of the permitting and due process of importing our rosewood. That remains the same, as it should, and we’re happy with that. But once the guitar is finished, and proven to be made from legal wood, then the chains are lifted and free commerce can take place, which will prevent a guitar player down the road from committing a crime that they know nothing about.

Photo: Chris Sorenson

GC: Moving on to The Ebony Project, even leaving aside the environmental and sustainable benefits it brings to the people and the country involved, it is also a vote of faith for traditional tonewood – in this case, ebony. Given that you aren’t going to see the ebony from your planting for around 80 years, presumably this means you believe we will still be using it then?

BT: Yes, I believe we will. I don’t see a clear guarantee of that from my vantage point here and now. But our planting and sustainable efforts may help pave the way. Let me explain. It does not require very much ebony to supply the world market for guitars, and other than violins, pianos, some bagpipes and pool cues there is no other market. Ebony is not used for furniture or millwork like rosewood is. This is because ebony does not like to be cut into large boards. They crack and twist, making it a poor wood for furniture,  but it is very good for small pieces like fingerboards.

Therefore, the worldwide cutting of ebony is very small. We know there are over 30 million ebony trees in Cameroon and the surrounding Congo basin areas, alive and growing, plus those we plant. While most of those are in areas where they cannot be cut legally, it may come to pass that with strong efforts and proof that we can plant thousands, or perhaps millions over time, a steady but small amount might be released for harvest. There is no plan for this yet, but that doesn’t mean we can’t evolve to that. The areas where cutting is allowed in Cameroon are small and would not last for 100 years. But if other areas were managed well and opened for controlled harvest there could be hope. But then again, the greatest long-term threat to ebony in the Congo basin is not from logging, it’s from land conversion – turning forest into palm oil, coffee or something like that to feed a hungry world.  That’s the real threat.

GC: Every now and then guitar companies come up with a ‘wonder material’ that ‘replaces’ ebony/rosewood/mahogany and other tonewoods but none has really succeeded yet. Do you have any views about, or experiences with, synthetics?

BT: I’m not a champion of synthetics. Wood works better. The best wonder-material is always going to be wood, we just need to manage forests better and widen the acceptable species we allow a guitar to be made from. Imagine, if a wonder material could be biologically grown in a lab, for instance, that had the properties we want? Wait! That sounds like wood! Let’s just grow wood! It’s so easy. Why waste our time doing other things? The stuff grows on trees. That said, I’ve seen one ebony substitute made from paper that could work if it came to that. And there are other species that could work instead like some varieties of eucalyptus, if colored to be pleasing to the eye. Nevertheless, it could make a viable guitar if needed. For now I prefer to use ebony and invest in its reforestation.

 

Photo: Chris Sorenson

GC: Another approach that some advocate is switching to native US and European woods as alternatives to commonly used tropical woods. What has been your experience of that and what are your feelings about it as a possible course of action to ease the pressure on tropical woods?

BT: We’re actually far down the path on that. Recall how much we promoted American maple with the redesign of our 600 series a few years back. This is the most obvious choice and I’d love to see players buy in to it. They still prefer rosewood and the sales prove that out. We’re now in the process of switching from mahogany to maple necks on many guitar models like the Baby and GSmini, which reduces some of our own impact on mahogany. We have also started what we call an Urban Forest project, identifying and harvesting timber that grows in cities and is taken out at end of life and basically thrown in the garbage dump at tax payers expense. We have been making prototypes and we love them. We’re now at the stage of sourcing the timbers we like, as an experiment to see if we can obtain the volume and quality we need. Urban trees are a vast supply that currently is being mulched, made into firewood, or made into park benches and live edge tables. However, there are logs that could make guitars. We can ease a lot of pressure on all forests if we’re successful.  Also, along the way we’ve learned about the increasingly dire state of urban trees in cities around the world. We are supportive of efforts to stabilize, diversify and expand the urban tree canopy. You’ll be hearing more about that in time too.

But hear me, I can’t talk about this topic without mentioning that we can’t demonize tropical tonewood.  There are 7.7 billion people on the planet locked in an interconnected global economy searching for food, fiber and fuel.  From a natural resource perspective, forget about north and south, east and west. It’s one tiny planet.  It’s not like we’re going to discover a new continent that no one noticed before that’s just full of forests.  So, the cold truth is that we’re either going to assign value to tropical forests that are not otherwise in national parks or reserves, or a lot of the tropical forests that remain today are going to be turned into palm oil plantations or soy fields or otherwise degraded to the point that they are not forests.  It’s not as simple as saying “don’t buy tropical”.  Yes, it’s true that for the last few hundred years humanity has a bad track record of unsustainable exploitation of these resources but it’s just as true that we’re now at the cross-roads, and we need to make a choice. If we value natural ebony, if we decide we want it, then we need to value the forests they come from.  Trust me, if we abandon ebony it’s not like that forest will be left alone.  Sorry to be a bummer but the endless frontier is over.  The question is how will we decide to manage the land and the resources on it?  We can assign value to a standing forest and manage it responsibly for ebony and all the other things it gives us or we can just turn our back and wish them all good luck as other larger economic forces close in.  I’m not abandoning these people.  We’re going to follow best practices and we’re going to plant some trees. I’m not going down without a fight.

Photo: Chris Sorenson

GC: Have your projects (the mill and the planting) involved any other guitar firms? I heard that Fender has begun buying the lighter coloured ebony from you, for example?

BT: I give major kudos to Fender for using Crelicam ebony, and especially Crelicam colored ebony. Their customers love the wood on the guitars. Check out Fender’s Acoustasonic to have a good look. They care, and they support the work of Crelicam by simply purchasing wood that was honestly, legally, and ethically harvested. I’m hoping other manufactures will also move in this direction as in nature not all ebony trees have a black heart.  Problem is, you don’t know which ones do until you cut them down.  Think about all the trees that have been cut and left abandoned on the forest floor only because a far off distant market only buys the black ones.  I would not be surprised if 50% of ebony trees cut over the last 50 years in West Africa were left because they were not black enough. Its tonal quality is the same. What a waste! By the way, all Crelicam fingerboards can be purchased from our partner in Spain, called Madinter. They’re easy to contact and they have a great reputation world around for selling musical instrument wood in the right way, which is why I’m proud to be partners with them.

GC: You have ploughed a lot of money and time into this project, have any other manufacturers offered to get involved, maybe with collaborative projects?

BT: No, I haven’t had offers like that, but I also don’t expect them. I think it would be very difficult for us manufactures to collaborate on a level like this, even though we’d all love to think we can, and even though the outside world dreams of it at times.  There would be too many cross purposes and different ideas about the money and time involved. This money and effort I plough into this is my own freely made decision. I expect no return, and I do it for my own personal pleasure and reasons. However, by buying the wood from Crelicam, as Fender and many others are doing, I view that as collaboration more than just a Purchase Order, because I realize that they’re paying a bit more and honoring my request to not prefer the pure black wood and that’s a high level of collaboration in my opinion. I’m thankful for the customers we do serve who have the same feeling on the topic as we do. I feel they are highly enlightened and I am grateful for the trust and support they give to this project by choosing to buy from us, as it helps a lot!

Photo: Chris Sorenson

GC: Do you feel at all tempted to try similar initiatives with other woods in other places?

BT: Of course! Yes! We are doing something very similar, but totally different, in Hawaii with our partner Pacific Rim Tonewoods. It is very well developed and you can check it out at www.Paniolotonewoods.com.

And, I’ll mention that Scott Paul, our Natural Resource Sustainability Director at Taylor Guitars, who also was the Director of the Forest Campaign at Greenpeace for many years, has as his personal and professional mission, to find other opportunities where we can get involved with restoration projects for the species we use from other parts of the world.

Photo: Chris Sorenson

Maybe projects that we can join, maybe people interested in starting something new, or to expand more of the same work through Congo Basin Institute, which manages The Ebony Projectand brings the girth and expertise of UCLA into the group. I think with Crelicam, Paniolo, and our Urban Forestry initiative, I might be tapping into my own resources to just about the extent I can. I spend nearly 90 days a year going to Cameroon, and so do many of my Taylor and Madinter colleagues. But who knows, maybe one day I can reach deeper still, and maybe we can find some kindred spirits along the way.

More information on The Ebony Project: https://www.taylorguitars.com/ebonyproject/