In acoustic guitar circles, the legend of “The Tree” is never too far away from enthusiastic conversation. Revered for its tone and figuring, is this mahogany the greatest tonewood?
Our tale begins in 1965. A band of loggers are hacking their way through the Honduras rainforest in search of a prize when they come across a monster; a giant Swietenia Macrophyllia over 100 feet tall towers over them and they ready their axes. Sounds like something out of an Indiana Jones film, doesn’t it? But what they had discovered that day would go down in the history of luthiery forever because the giant we’re talking about here was a tree – and one of the largest and most exquisite examples of fine Honduran mahogany ever found. The loggers had done their homework; they knew that the tree’s twisted back would yield some fine figuring in the wood and so they set about cutting it down. Back in the mid 1960s, such expeditions were frequent.
The CITES treaty that would ultimately restrict the use of mahogany from this region was still years away – and it wasn’t as if they had guitar manufacturing foremost in their minds, either. On the contrary, in those days it was rosewood that was king for the backs and sides of acoustics and mahogany was considered as something strictly for the budget ranges. On that day, the loggers’ goal was the furniture industry and they considered that this old, twisted giant could prove as valuable as gold once it was hacked down and boarded out. However, as we know, the best laid plans – well, they often have a way of tripping even the most noble intentions up and this was certainly the case here. Once the tree was felled, the loggers’ problem was how to transport it out of the forest and in doing so, it fell into a ravine, lost, it was thought, forever. Naturally rescue attempts were mounted but they all failed and the magnificent tree laid lost and alone for over a decade before another attempt was made to grasp it from the jungle’s clutches. A wood dealer called Robert Novak heard about the fallen giant and when he managed at last to trek through the jungle and visit it, he recognised its significance almost immediately. A fierce bidding war for ownership of the tree broke out and it wasn’t until 1981 that Novak finally assumed ownership after the furniture industry backed away from the sale believing that the amount of time the tree had spent in the ravine at the mercy of the weather might have rendered it useless for their purpose. But the problem of freeing it still remained and so Novak devised a plan whereby the wood could be roughly harvested on site and floated down the Chiquibul river to a sawmill.
Once that seriously risky manoeuvre had proved successful and the cut up tree arrived at a sawmill, Novak saw that his investment had been worthwhile. A genetic fault in the tree had produced mahogany with a figuring so sublime that a legend was born. It produced over 12,000 feet of timber boards, each unique with patterning in the wood that varied from something that resembled fine netting to long geometric shapes. While such patterning in maple is common, finding this level of intense figuring in mahogany is incredibly rare and so the wood fetched quite a premium from the outset. A lot of it found its way into the workshops of cabinet-makers and bespoke furniture manufacturers but the guitar industry remained temporarily aloof as the boutique acoustic industry was still in its infancy. In the end, it was luthiers Richard Hoover of Santa Cruz and Mark Berry who each invested in a few sets of the wood and found that the instruments it produced were as remarkable as the wood they were made from. To their amazement, the mahogany from what is now simply referred to as “The Tree” sounded, in some cases, more like Brazilian Rosewood.
Today, wood from The Tree is known in some quarters as “Unobtainium” and if you’re lucky enough to find a set at all it can cost over £1,000 per foot for the raw material alone and if you want a guitar built using it, the price would rocket by six or seven times that amount. Typically, instruments using the wood have a rich, honey toned colour with grain patterns that vary from the amazing to the supernatural and, in order to bring the story of this remarkable wood into sharp focus, I tracked down two luthiers who have experience of working with the sumptuous mahogany and one lucky owner of an instrument made from it.
I spoke first of all to Patrick James Eggle, who managed to track down two sets from The Tree and has used one of them in a customer’s special order for a parlour-sized instrument.
‘I was after some for years before I managed to find a couple of sets,’ he tells us. ‘They cost me quite a lot and I’m not in a hurry to use the wood, but one of my best customers was after something unusual and so I let him have a set, but I’m quite happy to hang on to the other one until the right time.’
I told Patrick that I had heard that the wood had the looks of quilted maple, but the sound was more like fine rosewood.
‘I think what we found with the guitar that we built is that it is harder and heavier than other Honduran mahogany that I’ve used. With that in mind – the fact that it is more dense – then it does tend more towards a rosewood. It’s got a bit more bass, I would say, and a bit more top end, whereas most mahogany is more in the middle. So sonically it’s quite interesting, although it’s difficult to really gauge it because we only used it on one guitar. If we’d used it on a few guitars, we’d have been able to compare them as we built them.’
I asked Patrick what sort of premium wood from The Tree added to one of his instruments: ‘I’m not sure what I put on it; it was either three or four thousand pounds,’ he said.
I wondered if he had managed to get his hands on one of the really outrageous sets.
‘Well, I wouldn’t say that it was one of the more spectacular ones. It’s got a nice figure, but it’s not a real head-spinner. It’s got a nice quilt to it but I’ve seen some pictures on the internet of these ridiculously figured sets. It’s not like that but it’s definitely very nice. It’s got this very rich, dark colour to it.’
And, as far as the other set is concerned, are there any current plans to use it on a guitar? ‘No, no plans; it’s just sitting in my dry room.’ Good news for somebody somewhere who wants something extra special to add to his six-string collection, then.
The second luthier I contacted was Jason Kostal in Arizona. I asked him what his experience using wood from The Tree had been like.
‘In addition to being one of the most sought after and rare woods available, The Tree mahogany has some beautiful sonic characteristics not as common in any of the standard mahogany varieties,’ he says.
‘The density of the wood differs throughout as a result of the deep trophies shell type figuring that we see in it. The result is a set of wood that vibrates differently than a more consistent set of wood like Honduran mahogany, for example.’
Interesting; this would mean that the highly figured status of the wood can actually be harder to work with?
‘Builders have to account for the difference in building with the wood,’ he agrees. And what about the sound? ‘My impression of The Tree is
that it naturally produces more warmth in the bass and mid range than a normal set of mahogany. When I built a guitar for Michael Watts, we wanted to capture some of that warmth while still having the projection and clarity of rosewood and the sustain normally associated with a harder wood. I accomplished this by paying attention to the over-thickness of the sides and back plate. I also coupled the sides with an additional layer of ebony as an inner laminate to add resonance and sustain to the total system. The result is a visually stunning guitar that has a very unique tonal palette that can be heard in any of the songs that Michael has played with it. It is truly one of my favourite guitars that I have made to this day.’
It wasn’t too hard to track down the owner of the guitar that Jason was talking about – it belongs to The North American Guitar’s Michael Watts. The guitar in question is a Kostal Modified Dreadnought, topped with German spruce.
‘The build started in 2010 when Jason was still at the Somogyi workshop on his apprenticeship and it was built in that workshop using the same moulds. He delivered it to me at the Montreal Guitar Show in 2011 and about a half hour later I was playing it on stage!’
No pressure there, then! I was curious to hear how Michael would sum up the sound of his guitar. Is it true that it has the sound of a good rosewood to it? ‘The specifications for my guitar were purely sonic rather than aesthetic. Just about everybody who has heard of The Tree will tell you there’s a lot of received wisdom out there saying that yes, it’s spectacular visually and it’s a very dense mahogany and therefore there have been comparisons with rosewood. I love mahogany, I think it’s a wonderful wood and as I had every intention of ordering a mahogany instrument from Jason, I did ask if he had any sets from The Tree and he had one and I thought either go hard or go home – and so I went for it. The sound of this guitar, I believe, is due more to the luthier than the materials, but that said I wouldn’t say that this has a characteristic rosewood sound. It is palpably denser than a mahogany guitar with a full spectrum across the midrange – there’s no real scoop to the sound that you’d expect from rosewood and the upper partials are present, but there isn’t an overpowering rosewood overtone. I was very specific in what I wanted from the instrument and that’s exactly what was delivered.’
What about the double-sided feature? ‘Jason built it as a double-sided instrument; the inner sides of the guitar are ebony and this was an idea that he thought he’d taken from Michi Matsuda and he phoned Michi up and said that he’d like to put ebony sides on a guitar and was it okay and Michi said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about, I’ve never done that.” So it was just one of those little bits of inspiration. It’s a really great mahogany-sounding guitar, but as I say, the ingredients are subservient to the chef in this case. It does look gorgeous and the value of the instrument has soared since it was first built due to the scarcity of the wood and its subsequent fame. It’s been on the cover of a couple of guitar magazines; no one cares about the guy who owns it!’
Has Michael come across guitars by other builders that have used timber from The Tree? ‘It’s spectacularly rare and the prices for it are almost punitive for a good set. I know that James Olson has built at least one guitar with The Tree and Michael Greenfield has a couple of sets and has just finished a G4.2. It’s very, very high-end wood and you pay accordingly. I’ve heard of prices going from about six and a half to around ten thousand dollars just for the wood alone, depending on how spectacular the grain is. It’s probably one of the first “celebrity” woods. As I understand it, George Lucas’s office at Skywalker Ranch is panelled with The Tree.’
At the end of 2014, Reuben Forsland of JOI Guitars based in Vancouver Island, British Columbia, worked together with the world renowned, Grammy-winning, rock and roll hall of fame inductee, Slash, to create a monumental instrument made from The Tree. Reuben first met up with Slash after a 2014 concert with his new band Slash featuring Myles Kennedy and the Conspirators in Coquitlam, BC, Canada. They discussed some of the finer details of the guitar specifications; first and foremost, Slash’s biggest stipulation was that the guitar should “sound amazing” so the choice of The Tree wood was perfect. When asked about the rosette design, Slash decided to leave it completely up to Reuben.
‘The inspiration for the rosette came to me much like all my best thinking: while on an ocean-side walk. I found this rusty old electrical part sitting amongst the rocks and the way the sun was shining on it, it reminded me of the interior workings of an electric guitar volume dial – and that was it! I brought it home and shined up some of the rusty aluminum wires which I then inlayed into the ebony around the rosette. I positioned the pieces in a circular manner with simple “humps”, or “rises and falls” of the wire to create the feeling of energy, like in a heartbeat monitor. I then outlined the ebony rosette with fine (pure) silver.’
The “Slash Model” as Reuben calls it, is a small jumbo with 25.4” scale. It features The Tree mahogany for the back and sides, paired with a rare, glacier Sitka spruce top. The guitar has Sitka / carbon fibre bracing, dual laminated sides for strength, carbon fibre reinforced quilted Honduras mahogany neck with dual action truss rod, 1¾” nut width, 2¼” string spacing, a custom JOI Guitars pinless ebony bridge, ebony binding with pure and sterling silver borders, ebony fretboard, sterling silver encased marble for fret markers, and 1:21 gear ratio’d Gotoh tuners with petrified whale vertebrae buttons. The guitar was further customised with a beveled arm rest, a shallow heel for Slash to comfortably get to the upper frets without having a cutaway (he did not want a cutaway), and a custom shaped neck featuring Slash specific width and thickness, as well as an offset for Slash to do his string stretching as he plays. A custom ordered K&K pure mini and under-saddle pickup, and custom Hoffee guitar case were added to complete the package.
So there you have it; a giant, misshapen tree that has become a legend in the boutique acoustic guitar industry with something of an ambiguous sonic reputation, too.