Bob Taylor takes us on a guided tour down west coast USA as he builds the next generation maple guitar – and stays true to his environmentally green conscience.
Most guitar players will have undoubtedly purchased many guitars over the years. Whether it’s your first handed down instrument, a cheaply bought starter, or finally owning that dream guitar, there are many factors that would guide your choice: tone, feel, look and weight being just a few. And the one thing that binds all those factors is the raw material – wood. But, sadly, natural hardwoods are an increasingly scarce resource, and it’s not often that we sit back and think about the implications of our desire for beautiful guitars for the environment. But this is something that Bob Taylor, co-founder of Taylor Guitars, has thought about a lot, with a view to changing the manufacturing processes used within the entire guitar industry.
We are now numb to the statistics of global forest loss, but they are worth taking a minute to think about. An article in The Guardian newspaper in late 2013 stated that in the Amazon alone a forested area 50 times the size of a football pitch has been lost every minute since 2000. That equates to a total loss of 10 times the size of Great Britain – with only a third being replaced by natural or planted reforestation.
There are serious issues at stake with this dramatic loss of natural wood reserves. Obviously climate change – about three-quarters of Brazil’s emissions alone come from rainforest clearing, as trees are burned or felled and rot, making the nation the world’s sixth-biggest emitter of the carbon dioxide. Indeed, the World Resources Institute estimates that loss of forests contributes between 12 and 17 per cent of all annual global greenhouse gas emissions. It’s estimated that if the current rate of deforestation continues, up to 28,000 species are expected to become extinct by the next quarter of the century, and it will take less than 100 years to destroy all the rainforests on the earth.
A multitude of legislation and enforcement has attempted to cut down on illegal logging. In 2008, the Lacey Act, which bans the trafficking of illegal wildlife in the US, was amended to include plants and plant products such as timber and paper. Europe has similar laws, as does Australia. Together, these pieces of landmark environmental legislation try to reduce global demand for illegally sourced wood products, but illegal logging still accounts for a portion of the destruction of the world’s forests.
‘We are living in a generation where almost all of the wood species we would use in a guitar are stressed beyond belief,’ says Bob Taylor.
Although the musical instrument industry only accounts for a small portion of wood harvesting globally (compared to flooring and furniture makers, for example), there are high profile users of the exotic wood species that are currently at risk according to international agreements such as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). The musical instrument industry, therefore, should take its responsibilities seriously. Knowing this, Bob Taylor is driven to find solutions for the future of tonewoods, and Taylor Guitars has come up with an innovative approach to “doing their bit”.
This is where our journey starts: at Pacific Rim Tonewoods in the USA’s Pacific Northwest, about two hours’ drive north from Seattle, or an hour’s drive south of the British Columbia border.
Sustainably sourcing maple for responsible manufacturing
Pacific Rim Tonewoods is a specialist sawmill that has been supplying wood to guitar makers for over 30 years. They focus on sourcing sustainable tonewoods and take their environmental responsibility seriously. Their vision is a future that encompasses reforestation, energy and material efficiencies, and the continued support of land conservation and clean water projects as part of providing guitar makers such as Bob Taylor with the best tonewoods as possible.
Veteran logger Steve McMinn owns PRT – nestled in the North Cascades valley – and the company’s proximity to neighbouring Alaska and British Columbia means they have great access to forests rich with spruce – the standard for guitar soundboards. Bob Taylor has long been a customer of PRT and shares their ideology of reforestation and the sustainable logging of the tonewoods that he uses across his entire range of acoustic guitars. Of course, tonewood is much more than just “wood”. It’s lumber carefully chosen for specific aesthetic and technical properties, milled to precise specifications and expertly treated so that the instruments built from it will look great, sound great, and endure decades of playing.
Bob Taylor has long recognised this, and realising that the world’s rosewood, mahogany, and ebony supplies were dwindling, he looked at what can be used to build guitars with tonewoods readily available on his own doorstep in the United States. The answer? Maple.
‘One good thing about maple is that you can source it locally in the USA. It also grows back very well and you can cultivate it without worrying about narcotrafficking or laws,’ says Pacific Rim Tonewoods’ founder, Steve McMinn, ‘maple is just around.’
‘We build guitars out of rosewood from India; we log in Honduras; we use spruce from the USA; koa from Hawaii; ebony, sapele and Ovangkol from Africa; and so, really, when you think of a guitar and the hardwoods that are on a guitar, most of them come from equatorial locations – tropical rainforests round the equator. These countries are stressed and you know that they are because we, as humans, have been taking their natural resources for hundreds of years,’ says Taylor Guitars’ founder Bob Taylor, battling with the noise in the Pacific Rim Tonewoods mill yard.
‘We are reaching the end of that, so what can we do about it? What can I at Taylor Guitars do about? What can Steve at Pacific Rim Tonewoods do about it? What are we going to make guitars out of 50 years from now? 200 years from now? Well, maple is the great hope for a big percentage of the guitars that could get built. We can grow maple with some intelligence, and we can have superior starts and healthy trees. We can cut these maple trees at the right time, and we won’t need to have logs that are baked in the sun in the future. I’ll probably be gone by the time the first maple trees have grown that Steve has worked on and cultivated, but it’s still worth it. What do we have to do at Taylor? We have to redesign a maple guitar and spend a generation getting people used to maple guitars. Violins, mandolins, archtops, cellos, are all made of maple and spruce. You get to the flat top guitar and people go for rosewood or mahogany. Those woods are running out. We see great hope in Hawaii for growing mahogany and koa, but in order to do this we have to get people transitioned over to another wood because we can’t just keep making guitars like we do now. People make maple guitars by just taking off the rosewood back and sides, but we saw the flaw in that. Maple is a different wood, so it needs a different approach. I think there are two reasons why maple guitars aren’t popular: one reason is because they’re not brown, and the second reason is because people think the sound is too bright. I think you could build maple guitars that are brown and not fix the sound, and you’d still sell maple guitars. Maple is really hard to stain brown – it wants to be orange. Hey, people don’t want orange guitars, either. We’re making maple guitars that have been redesigned for maple wood, that are brown, and that sound as a guitar should. If we want to have guitars in the future, we have to start preparing right now,’ says Bob.
Part of what makes Steve McMinn and his team at Pacific Rim Tonewoods unique in the wood business is their love and commitment for trees – again, an integral part of Bob Taylor’s overall guitar building ethos. What is good for the environment is also good for people like Bob, but replenishing forests isn’t something that can be done quickly. PRT keep a year’s worth of inventory so that their clients are never without the tonewoods they need, but they are still a limited resource. Both the guitar maker and the tonewood supplier need to be efficient and creative in the way in which they approach logging and sourcing the best quality wood for guitars. Bob Taylor actively works towards creating and restoring forests across the globe – whether that be in Cameroon with his supply of sustainable ebony from the mill he has set up there, or across the US, with PRT, undertaking and sponsoring university research to investigate how to best propagate healthy and desirable lines of certain tree species. A desirable line of tree species, in this instance, would be a line displaying distorted growth – this may sound strange, but the growth is distorted in such a way that would lead to wood figuring which is an attractive aesthetic asset to a guitar’s body. And when this sort of distorted development happens, PRT can clone the wood to grow maple trees displaying the same growth, giving players more quilted or figured maple guitars.
‘When you see figured maple, what you’re seeing is the tree growing in a deviated form from a straight, clean growth pattern,’ explains Andy Powers, Taylor Guitars’ luthier who heads up all new build projects. ‘If you took a sample of straight hair from one person’s head, and compared it to a curly strand of hair, that’s the difference between figured maple and non-figured maple. The word we use to describe figured maple is “chatoyance” – that kind of light reflecting effect you get with figured woods. You’re looking at something that isn’t a uniformed colour, and that something has different cellular structures that reflect light in a different way. When I have a wood fibre that has grown crooked and all funny, when I cut a straight line through that I get a figured guitar back. Those fibers and cellular structures have been severed, and the light is reflecting off all of the passages almost like a diamond, reflecting light in all different directions. That’s what is making the figuring – that’s what is making the charm factor of the figured maple.’
Bob Taylor clearly has a plan in place for changing the way guitar makers source and use woods such as maple, but the bigger struggle is changing people’s perceptions about maple as a tonewood for flat top guitars.
‘It’s foolish to think that we can just keep making more and more guitars out of wood that comes from tropical environments. If we want to change that then we have to use another kind of wood. What are the candidates? Koa is a possibility. Walnut is one, too, but maple is the better possibility. Maple has a rich history of making great musical instruments so we have to begin to change the way guitar players view maple. The end goal isn’t going to be realised for another 20 to 30 years – but it’s an end goal with more people playing maple guitars, without even thinking twice about it; they just buy a maple guitar. Not all guitars need to be maple, but more of them certainly do. For people to “get it”, the guitars have to be brown, they have to not be so bright sounding, and we have to be making more of them so they are
pushed into the market. It’s all about the future of guitars. Interestingly, all I had to tell people was that ebony doesn’t come pure black, and that we throw away brown ebony. Now, we’re starting to use the brown ebony, and customers said, “Wow, nobody told us this before. We’re happy to have that brown ebony.” It’s actually pretty stunning, and so we’ve seen a huge amount of customers asking for brown ebony on their guitars. They desire it because of the way it looks, but it’s all about communicating it with people,’ says Bob. ‘At Taylor, with everything we design for the future, there must be sustainable components there and if there aren’t, we feel like we have missed the market. Everything has to be more sustainable. For example, let’s look at abalone shell – we have just put together a whole new initiative on this because in Baja California, Mexico (which is right in our backyard), there are some of the world’s most sustainable fisheries. We buy all of our abalone shell from these sustainable fisheries now and we’re working toward becoming a broker for abalone to all of the people that cut it, because it’s in our own backyard. A lot of these things you have to take into your own hands. It’s not that we’re doing this to sell more guitars – Taylor will always sell more guitars anyway. We’re doing this because we have to work with our partners in the industry to change the world.’
Taylor’s innovative worldwide measures for eco–responsibility
‘We’re going to reach an end to a lot of the woods we see on guitars today. To understand how we’re at this point, it’s worth noting that current state of other woods. Mahogany was discovered in the late 1700s as a great wood. Up until that point, the British used oak to make all of their fine furniture and had cut it all down by 1875 or so. There was this mahogany wood over in Belize – British Honduras in those days – and people started bringing this wood in saying it could be a great substitute for oak. It turned out that mahogany became the king of woods. 200 plus years later of heavy use of this species that grows through all of Central and South America, we arrive at a point in our lifetime when it is mostly gone. We are also arriving at a point where the forests are completely stressed. Not only are we running out of mahogany, we’ve also been wrecking forests in the process, too. The only way to be sustainable is to go to these places and be the best operator that you can be,’ Bob states from the Taylor HQ in San Diego, California. ‘I believe that it’s time for guitar players to understand the consequences of illegal logging in places like Honduras and Cameroon. The truth of it all is that it’s hard to be sustainable and the only way you can do it is to jump into Honduras, or right into Africa, and run your own company there the way you want it.’
Ebony is a product well known to guitar consumers. The dark wood has been a staple of musical instrument production since Egyptian times and is prevalent across multiple instruments – notably the black keys on pianos. The dense wood is often used for guitar fingerboards due to its durability and ability to hold frets. But ebony is severely threatened across the world – the traditional model being that companies go into countries and strip the ebony until there is nothing left. The cutting of ebony is then made illegal and the natural source of the wood dries up. Madagascar was one of the best sources of hard ebony in the world, but it no longer allows any legal harvesting (despite this, Greenpeace estimates that almost 200 logs a day are still disappearing illegally in the country).
For Bob Taylor, this provided a disconnect – and he wanted change. ‘We live in a time when all the wood we use is under tremendous pressure,’ he states. ‘This is the reason I’m driven to find solutions and leave as many improvements in place by the time my life on earth ends. We seek to make quality guitars that honour the wood and last indefinitely.’
When it comes to ebony sources there is effectively one economically viable and sustainable country remaining: Cameroon. Located on the western side of Central Africa, just north of the equator, Cameroon has been described as having all of Africa in one country for its cultural and geological diversity, which boasts beaches, deserts, mountains, rainforests and savannahs. Ebony harvesting occurs in the rainforest regions, which are located in the southern and eastern part of the country.
Cameroon is part of the Congo Basin, one of the most important wilderness areas left on the planet. At 500 million acres, it is larger than the state of Alaska and stands as the world’s second-largest tropical forest. The Congo Basin spans across six countries – Cameroon, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, Republic of the Congo, Equatorial Guinea and Gabon – and is teeming with life. There are approximately 10,000 species of tropical plants in the Congo Basin and 30 per cent are unique to the region. Endangered wildlife, including forest elephants, chimpanzees, bonobos, and lowland and mountain gorillas inhabit the forests. Four-hundred other species of mammals, 1,000 species of birds and 700 species of fish can also be found here. So, this is a much bigger story than just guitar manufacturing.
But while Cameroon has a lot of ebony, Taylor was not looking to repeat the mistakes of the past. In November 2011, Taylor Guitars and Madinter, an international distributor of musical instrument woods, assumed ownership of Crelicam, S.A.R.L., a major ebony mill in Cameroon. The Taylor-Madinter partnership was established as a separate holding company, known as TLM. Taylor began to develop a fresh framework for sustainable sourcing, one that blends socially responsible forestry with job training that will help Cameroonian communities support themselves and improve their living standards. Crelicam is now responsible for a large proportion of all the legally harvested ebony to come from Cameroon.
This alliance only harvests ebony in a way that is compliant with both local statutes and international regulations, but also aimed to do so for the benefit of the local community who, after all, should enjoy the value of their country’s natural resources. For Crelicam employees in Cameroon, TLM made significant improvements in both their working conditions and pay.
Robert P. Jackson, the former US ambassador to Cameroon stated: ‘We applaud Taylor Guitars’ efforts to improve employee working conditions at the factories, and its determination to institute less wasteful and more ecologically sustainable use of ebony. We believe by fostering Cameroon-US business initiatives, we not only improve income for American companies, but the livelihoods of many Cameroonians as well.’
‘What started as a “good investment” turned more into a social forestry, save the world, ecological company,’ continues Bob Taylor. In 2011, he discovered that ebony contractors were actually discarding lots of ebony that wasn’t seen as A-grade. B-grade would then be any ebony that was not pure black, but had streaks or colour within it. Unfortunately, the only way to discover if the ebony was pristine was to cut down the trees. So, there was a huge amount of wastage. Taylor estimates nine out of 10 trees were discarded for the one usable tree.
Taylor decided that the solution to this issue was to follow a philosophy to “use what the forest gives us,” and to allow variegated (coloured) ebony wood to be used, therefore reducing the wastage of healthy trees. And he agreed to pay the contractors a comparable amount for variegated ebony as was being paid for pure black. But for this to happen we (the guitar players) need to follow Taylor’s lead and accept that dappled wood on fretboards is part of the solution to this global problem – and that having non-pure black ebony affects nothing on the guitar. Blindfolded, would you even notice? No.
‘We’ll do everything we can as a guitar factory to make every guitar beautiful. But the nature of what we thought was beautiful for a hundred years is simply going to change,’ Bob summarises. ‘While the current conditions don’t mean that the days of all-black ebony are entirely gone, they do mean that if we want to ensure a sustainable ebony supply for future generations of instruments and players, we must embrace greater cosmetic diversity. Let’s embrace what the forest can offer us right now. Let’s be good stewards. Let’s practise good forest husbandry. Let’s help the people of Cameroon – and let’s live within the confines of Mother Nature.’
It’s a beautiful, modern vision for the guitar industry that can hopefully inspire other manufacturers, and indeed industries to follow suit. In the early stages of TLM’s operation, Bob Taylor visited many American guitar companies who rely on ebony. Madinter’s managing director, Vidal de Teresa Paredes, did the same with his company’s major ebony clients. Both gave detailed presentations to raise awareness of the harvesting inefficiencies of the ebony trade and to explain the new vision they hoped to implement.
But three years on from investing in a new sustainability model through Crelicam, does Bob Taylor believe the message is really getting through?
‘It’s a great question,’ he says. ‘In the Taylor Guitars world, we have changed things a lot. Our customers desire and ask for the wood with colour variation, and we use a huge quantity of it since we use ebony on all our guitars. Other manufacturers are slower to jump in, citing that their customers don’t want it, which I don’t totally buy in to because we sell to the same customers. In this regard, there is still a lot of work to be done, but I’m not discouraged in the least.’
In fact, Bob Taylor says that they feature the heavily variegated ebony on their 800 Series models – some of the best-selling guitars in the industry. Anecdotally, they’ve heard from dealers who’ve had customers come into their stores looking for 800s and other guitars with the most variegated ebony as possible. So what of the public and industry’s response to his initiative?
‘Public response is, “Atta boy, Bob. Send us your coloured ebony,” he continues. ‘Industry response is the same. Other manufacturer response is, “Atta boy, Bob. We believe in what you’re doing, just be sure you send us black ebony,” and this is mostly in the bowed instrument world more than the guitar world. Many know that we won the ACE Award from the US State Department for our work in a foreign country, presented by John Kerry to me. What blew my mind is this: a woman on the selection committee wanted me to know that it was the initiative to put the colour variegated ebony onto guitars and into the market that was the key to us winning the award. Think about that. The US State Department not only knew, which blows my mind, but they cared and felt it was valuable. I never would have imagined.’
Bob Taylor is referring to the US State Department honouring Taylor Guitars in January 2014 with the Award for Corporate Excellence (one of only three given each year). The award cited Taylor’s commitment to responsible practices in obtaining ebony for its instruments. Secretary of State, John Kerry, himself a guitar player, said, ‘When Bob Taylor started Taylor Guitars he made a commitment to produce the best instruments from the best materials, and quality ebony is near the top of that list. But over the years, ebony has become harder and harder to obtain, and it’s increasingly threatened with extinction because of the illegal harvesting practices that have become common throughout Central African forests. So, instead of joining the race to the bottom, in order to procure as much ebony as was possible, as cheaply as possible, Bob decided to change the race altogether – he bought an ebony mill in Cameroon, the only country in the world where it’s still legal to harvest ebony. Through that mill, Bob and Taylor Guitars have changed the entire ebony trade.’
‘It’s all of this that leads us to the bigger picture’, says Bob. ‘It’s more than not liking a maple guitar because it’s too bright. We’ll take the brightness away; Andy [Powers] knows how to do that, and then we’ll get the colour right. There isn’t a lot of maple out there yet, but we can change that. We can repopulate the forests with maple. We now get our mahogany from Fiji that people planted 80 years ago. For example, in Guatemala you could go down there and lease land to plant mahogany in a real natural habitat. You could ask the people there how it is and they’d say, “Oh, I’ve got mahogany planted down there and the government leaves me alone; it’s a stable government.” Yeah, they won’t bother you while you’re growing the mahogany, why would they do that? It’s when you want to sell the mahogany that they’ll bother you. For the 70 years while the wood was growing, there would be nothing to fight over because there’s no money there, but once that wood is ready to sell, it would become – behind tourism – the biggest gross domestic product of the country. We could have a wonderful time planting in a Latin American country, but when it comes to harvesting our wood, things could have dramatically changed,’ Bob says.
As lovers of acoustic guitars, we need to take responsibility for our choices. Not just for us, but for the generations of guitar obsessives yet to come. As such, Bob Taylor’s commitment to sourcing sustainable wood should be applauded and supported.
The next generation guitar: The 2015 maple 600 Series
All of this has been for a reason – the guitar of tomorrow, one with Cameroon ebony, US spruce tops, and US maple back and sides. A sustainable guitar: the 2015 600 Series.
The 600 Series has been a vital part of Taylor’s instrument offering for many years now. Despite its heritage and longevity, the 2015 600 Series offers a new approach to building a maple flat top guitar. For years, musicians have viewed maple guitars as merely a good stage instrument, or an overly bright sounding guitar used to cut through a loud mix. This new approach with the maple 600 Series reflects Andy Powers’ desire to build an instrument from this tonewood that is first and foremost, a fine musical voice. He sought to create an instrument that offers a warm, complex, and expressive voice able to reflect the musicality of the player. There are some architectural elements inspired by the rosewood and spruce 800 Series guitars, but much of the maple 600 Series guitars reflect a fresh approach on how to build a flat top guitar using a material which has been a mainstay in the bowed instrument community for the past five centuries.
‘People ask me what my mandate was for the new 600 Series,’ Andy Powers says, ‘and the truth is, it was simple: use more maple.’
‘I’m a huge fan of maple as a tonewood, and I have been since I first started building guitars. One of the first guitars I built was from maple. Some of the most significant guitars in our playing and making history were maple instruments – look at archtop guitars. The thing with maple is that, historically, we did the same things to maple as we did to rosewood or mahogany guitars – and that’s not fair. Maple has its own personality and needs to be treated in such a way. I’ve never understood why people would treat maple in the same way as rosewood. You don’t cook a steak in the same way as you cook salmon, right? We work with their personalities and do different things to them. In this case, I’ve treated it a bit more like I would if I was building an archtop guitar or a violin. One of the most notable things with the new maple 600 Series guitars is that the back braces don’t extend to the edge of the guitar. That’s a critical thing because, that way, the back of the maple guitar can move more like a violin, or more like an archtop guitar.
You’re not going to hear the same bright maple qualities that a lot of us associate with maple flat top guitars. Typically you’d see a maple jumbo – but that’s the only one that’s really stuck in our tradition. In our case, that’s not what we are going for with the maple 600s – we don’t want the big boomy sound of a jumbo, we want a richer, warmer sound with a more complex voice acoustically and on stage.’
The 2015 NAMM Show saw the launch of the new Taylor range – the redesigned maple 600 series. And as Taylor feature ebony in all of their guitars, the range will feature Crelicam-sourced ebony as well as the PRT harvested maple. Just take a look at the colour of the maple back and sides, with its stunning figuring – and the pickguard, in particular, shows how handsome non-pure black ivory can look on a high end guitar.
The redesign refers to tone enhancing design tweaks that Taylor has implemented; the ideas being that the traditionally bright tones of the 600s are underpinned with a warmer, softer note. And it certainly appears to be mission accomplished. The changes are subtle, but the richer tones give the guitar a more complete feel.
As the name would suggest, the body is maple, although it has a Sitka spruce top that undergoes a process called torrefaction – a roasting process that produces an aged tonal character marked by greater acoustic resonance and responsiveness. Torrefaction also gives the top wood a slightly darker appearance, much like that of cedar, complete with the customised bracing developed by Andy Powers, as well as different wood thicknesses for each model in the series. Then we’ve got the 3.5mm gloss finish, boosting the maple’s volume. The obvious aesthetic refinement here is the colour of the maple back and sides. This is a hand-rubbed brown sugar colour treatment that gives the maple a darker colour and a rich figure with vintage appeal. This special colour treatment on the back and sides adds no thickness to the top’s finish.
The guitars are finished with the traditional Taylor headstock and nickel tuners, and also feature Elixir Phosphor Bronze strings, while custom gauge Elixir HD Lights will be on the Grand Concert and Grand Auditorium models. The four models – the 614ce (£2,922), 616ce (£2,922), 656ce (£3,023), and 618ce (£2,721) – all feature the Taylor Expression System 2 pickup.
‘From here on out, our goal is to build the greatest guitar we can. In a nutshell, that’s what we have done. We have made a better sounding guitar for the future,’ concludes Bob Taylor.
Read our review of the Taylor 614ce 2015 here.