Fretting About Fretboards

Written by Dan Schwartz

CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, has made a large impact on a lot of industries, and it’s meant to. For one thing, ALL trade in elephant ivory is banned — globally. I suppose we might debate the merits of this program, but no, we won’t; not here. This is a program that is unequivocally both necessary and does a lot of positive things. For one thing, we may continue to have some of these materials to work with.

Two weeks ago, I spent the weekend at the Fretboard Summit, a gathering of luthiers and guitar players organized around a magazine called the Fretboard Journal. It was fabulous weekend, with much music, many instruments, old and new, and non-stop discussions. From one friend’s perspective, the most interesting events were the unscheduled ones. One such unscheduled event found Rick Turner, a long-time friend who has built many of my instruments, and me in a conversation with Bob Taylor, co-founder of Taylor Guitars. Bob told us an interesting story.

Many of the woods used to build guitars are now endangered, and/or builders are required to purchase them already cut to a particular size in order to keep employment in their native countries. Ebony is just such a wood, on both fronts. A couple years ago, Taylor’s wood supplier in Madrid called with news. The ebony supplier in Cameroon was available. So…

Bob and his new partner, Vidal de Teresa of Madinter Trade, went to Cameroon and discovered two things that he told us about: on the day when they were being shown around, when they sat down for lunch, most of the workers at the mill didn’t eat lunch. Bob asked about them, and was told they couldn’t afford the meal.

And he discovered that for every tree cut down to get the virtually pure black ebony that was so prized in the rest of the world, 10 trees were cut down, found to have too imperfect a grain, and left on the forest floor. You can read about his journey for yourself, or watch the video:

I’ve been aware of Taylor for years — I own one of the acoustic bass guitars they made for a few years (perfectly black ebony fingerboard, of course), and almost bought one of the 6-stringed instruments (I bought a 50s Gibson instead, and have since thrown it over having discovered 30s Martins). But in the last decade I haven’t paid any attention. So I was surprised by the depth of his commitment to both the forest and the people who making a living off of it. If you could see Bob’s photograph’s of the factory when he first visited, and how it looks now…


Schwartz bass

Dan’s Taylor AB-3 acoustic bass.

Taylor/Madinter’s employees in Cameroon now have a middle-class life. No more not-affording lunch. And the partners are busy selling figured ebony, the 90% that’s not pure black, to the rest of the world.

But there’s something else he told us that burned a little deeper. Bob is some form of a man of faith; I don’t really know what form it takes, but it’s important to understand the depth of the revelation that came about in him. And what he said has relevance for everything we do, for many of our materials, for the beautiful veneers that adorn our cabinetry.

“People really suffer, so that we can have so much.”

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