In 2017 the future of guitar tonewoods was thrown into sharp relief with the almost overnight introduction of international CITES restrictions on the use of Dalbergia (rosewood). Caught largely unprepared, guitar makers responded in a variety of ways, including in some cases the complete removal of rosewood from their instruments and its replacement as a fingerboard wood with a variety of alternative materials, ranging from synthetics to previously unused species. Meanwhile, stories of customs seizures, export problems, raids on music shops and even of travelling musicians having instruments confiscated by zealous customs officials began to appear in the press.
Since then, instrument makers have pleaded their case with the CITES authorities and it seems possible that restrictions on rosewood used in musical instruments may be relaxed later this year. But rosewood is only part of the picture – many other tropical hardwoods have been deemed at risk and the list of restrictions is under constant review. So far, ebony has escaped them but it is under threat, which has led to a major project by Taylor Guitars co-founder, Bob Taylor, who has undertaken the largest recorded planting of West African ebony trees in Cameroon’s Congo basin. See also recently reported on BBC news: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p0768bfn
Taylor’s ambitious programme, called The Ebony Project, has seen the planting of 1,500 West African ebony trees. It isn’t solely aimed at securing supplies of the wood for the guitar trade – it has wider implications for the local populace too and has planted an additional 1,500 fruit trees to help provide sources of both food and medicine. Eventually, The Ebony Project aims to plant 15,000 ebony trees by the end of 2020.
Ebony’s long term future without the help of Taylor’s efforts is uncertain. Loss of natural habitat due to population growth, the bushmeat trade and logging have eaten into the native forest to the extent. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN)classifies the species as ‘Vulnerable.’
Why ebony matters so much to Taylor is because Bob Taylor has always used ebony on his acoustic guitars, preferring it to the rosewood used by many other makers. Even so, Taylor has begun to the change the way musicians regard ebony. In the past, the only kind of ebony used was black – indeed, many assume that ebony only comes in black, which is far from the truth. As Bob Taylor points out in our interview, there is no physical or acoustic difference between the traditionally prized black ebony and the lighter coloured version, but the colour of the wood cannot be determined until the tree is felled, which means a large numbers of otherwise perfectly usable trees were being cut down, left to rot on the forest floor when it was discovered that they offered only the lighter coloured ebony.
Taylor has worked hard to educate players and other manufacturers that lighter coloured ebony is every bit as good as the black wood and that it should be equally prized. This has met with some success as not only do Taylor customers buy instruments with lighter coloured fingerboards, but another major guitar maker, Fender, has also begun buying and offering lighter ebony on some of its models.
Taylor’s first step in the project began in 2011, when the company and Spanish tonewood supplier Madinter International joined forces to become the co-owners of Crelicam, an ebony sawmill in Yaoundé, Cameroon, with the goal of creating an ‘ethical, socially responsible value chain for ebony musical instrument components’ as they put it. In 2016 Taylor worked with the Congo Basin Institute to learn more about ebony ecology. The collaboration took form in The Ebony Project.
Taylor’s innovative work in Cameroon hasn’t gone unnoticed. The U.S. State Department gave Taylor its prestigious Award for Corporate Excellence (ACE), while interest from leading international institutions such as the World Bank resulted in the signing of a Public-Private-Partnership agreement between Taylor Guitars and Cameroon’s Ministry of Environment. The agreement is exploring the feasibility of scaling up the Ebony Project across Southern Cameroon.
Read our exclusive interview by Gary Cooper with Taylor Guitars co-founder and President Bob Taylor discussing The Ebony Project and the future of guitar tonewoods here