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Dear Ebony: It's Time to Move On

Posted by in General on October 28, 2014 . 0 Comments.

Ebony has long been used by guitar makers, primarily for fingerboards. Just like rosewood and mahogany, ebony grows with wide variances of coloration. And as guitar owners, we have voted with our wallets and shown our strong preference for uniformly black ebony.

Here's the problem: Only about one out of every ten ebony trees has that uniformly black color that has long been the standard within our industry. And our insistence for black ebony, combined with wasteful logging practices and the lack of responsible forest management has created a lot of waste. Because ebony's lighter colored sapwood has little perceived value to the music industry, loggers typically cut down ebony trees until they find one with the desirable black heartwood and simply leave the others on the forest floor. 

This year, Taylor Guitars is celebrating their 40th year in business. Taylor has pioneered many new products and manufacturing processes, including UV curable finishes with low VOC emissions, and using lasers to cut guitar parts with previously unheard of accuracy. Bob Taylor admits to having mixed emotions about building guitars. Like all of us, Bob loves the beauty of exotic tonewoods but readily admits that our withdrawals from the earth's "wood account" are outpacing our deposits. Bob isn't new to this thinking. Nearly 20 years ago, Taylor Guitars built a guitar constructed from the wood of a discarded shipping pallet. Their goal was to prove that great instruments can be built, even in the face of dwindling traditional tonewoods. 

So what's going to happen? Should we all quit guitar and take up accordion? Not so fast. 

Today, if you buy a new Gibson Les Paul Custom, you'll be getting a Richlite, not ebony fretboard. Richlite is a man-made phenolic resin based material. Even the LP's $4,200 list price won't get you an ebony board. Rainsong has been building carbon graphite guitars for years and Flaxwood guitars are made from an innovative new tone material that is created by breaking the grain structure of natural wood and injection-molding it into shape together with an acoustically sensitive binding agent. Even Martin recognizes the writing on the wall and offers guitars built with HPL, a composite material made from paper and resin that is pressed at very high pressure.

So, to all of us old-timers, it's time to admit it. Tomorrow is here...now.

Last update: October 28, 2014

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