While the British composer Sir Michael Tippett may be able to claim The Blue Guitar as his creation, it is British luthier Pete Beer who is making headlines with his eco-oriented perspective on the instrument—call it a Green Guitar, if you will.
His first active interest in guitar-making came in the form of an attempt to build a chambered electric guitar after work in his tenement flat in Glasgow. An ambitious project without the proper tools, a bench, or a clue, this was soon brought to a halt by complaints from the downstairs neighbors. Since taking his first steps into the world of guitar lutherie, his ideas have grown enormously. Today, he is not only a world-renowned guitar-maker, but a pioneer of sustainable instrument building.
Beer is the world’s first maker to have built nylon-stringed classical guitars, including a Torres model, with back and sides of Forest Stewardship Council certified African blackwood. The timber was harvested in Tanzania as part of the Sound and Fair Project, the aim of which is to realize a sustainable trade in African blackwood through a “chain of custody” linking forest-dependent people in Tanzania to musicians throughout the world. It promotes sustainable forestry practice and creates a livelihood for local people. A testament to its initial success—the first harvest increased local incomes by a factor of 400.
Sustainability is a complex issue, and determining the eco-friendly status of anything you buy is difficult to do. In the case of guitars, the issue isn’t just one of trees being harvested and not replaced. Many factors are involved in calculating the total impact of a given raw material used in production. In most instances, it’s not simply which materials were used and where they came from, but the processes involved in getting those materials ready for use.
‘It makes for extra work, but I’m much happier
with my impact on the world.’
As an example of this, the Forest Stewardship Council, the global, not-for-profit organization dedicated to the promotion of responsible forest management, lists the following benefits as part of its certification process: “[FSC certification] improves conditions such as conflict over land tenure and use, workers’ health and safety, biodiversity, conservation, protection of endangered species and participatory forest policy.”
So how did all this begin? On the day I visited Beer at his home in Scotland, he explained how he came to develop such an environmental conscience: “Gradually, I became rather uncomfortable with my use of tropical timbers. I’ve always avoided Brazilian rosewood, along with anything from Madagascar, but that didn’t seem like enough. It came to a head when I spent some time volunteering in the building of a timber-framed woodland classroom under the supervision of the famous woodsman Ben Law. When I was asked about the timbers I used to build guitars, I felt ashamed to say what they were.”
Beer committed himself to resolving his newfound problem. He had managed to find FSC-accredited wood—that wasn’t difficult. Rather, it was its availability in dimensions suitable for guitars. After some investment setting up for high precision re-sawing and buying suitable wood, he now has good stocks of sustainable timber. Currently, Beer has FSC wood for everything except the ebony fingerboards, all without having to step outside the already “accepted” guitar species. “It makes for a lot of extra work,” he says, “but I’m much happier with my impact on the world now. To date I have made a number of guitars with this FSC African blackwood. I simply don’t think you could hope to find a better replacement for Brazilian rosewood. It does require some special treatment to work with it, simply because it’s so hard and it blunts tools quickly, but the results are more than worth it.”
Of all musical instruments, guitars account for the world’s largest share of manufacturing output. Guitar companies, then, are under a particular obligation to ensure their work stands up to the scrutiny of today’s environmental standards. According to Scott Paul, director of the Forest Campaign for Greenpeace, “Expensive musical instruments are a combination of many species from many different parts of the world. Alternative sources just don’t cut it for traditionalists, who can claim the ability to hear the difference between Indian rosewood and rosewood from Madagascar.”
Desired woods for guitar-building have become fixed by previous generations of guitar makers and players. But the pursuit of alternative building materials is being carried out for a couple of reasons: The quest for woods and other materials that can replace those that have had restrictions placed upon them have become too expensive, or have otherwise turned out to be undesirable; and to test new materials for some improvement of sound, construction, aesthetic design, or any combination of these. Despite the advantages new materials can offer, getting guitar players to accept any of these changes is an entirely different matter altogether.
If you are planning on buying your next instrument, and have a conscience to do so considering the environment, then the news is good—there are builders who cater to this market, including several in the United States. The UK-based builder Andrew Page has set up eco-guitars.co.uk and chooses to promote himself as a maker of instruments with a reduced carbon footprint. And with luthiers such as Beer making waves, it won’t be long before consumers are spoiled for eco-friendly choice.
“Sourcing responsibly harvested timber has been very important to me,” Beer concludes. “Although there is still a way to go to secure sustainable supply for every part of the guitar, having this timber available for the back and sides is a big step in the right direction. Furthermore, the wood is just beautiful in both looks and sound.”
This article was originally published in the Summer 2015 issue of Classical Guitar magazine.