Gibson Guitar Style
The recent saga of the Gibson guitar raid by the Fish and Wildlife Service continues to heat up. On November 2, Gibson CEO, Henry Juszkiewicz wrote an Op-Ed in the Huffington Post denying the use of illegal wood and admonishing the US government for using the Lacey Act to enforce Indian labor statutes that take away American jobs instead of protecting against illegal wood trade. After the raid in August, Juszkiewicz gave a press conference claiming that the seized wood was ‘certified’ sustainably harvested wood and went on a media tour, including to several ultra conservative radio and TV shows, to bolster his argument against government regulation. While Gibson does indeed use certified wood in many of their instruments, in this particular incident, the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), the certifying entity, has denied that this was the case. However, the raid and Juszkiewicz’ discourse have riled up conservatives who are against government regulation of “free” markets. Now Gibson has stepped it up a notch and hopes to get guitar lovers and enthusiasts riled up as well by launching a media campaign to rally music players to create songs, videos, and logos to amend the Lacey Act.
However, the key word here is “amend,” not end. According to Senior Fellow at the Center for International Policy, Glenn Hurowitz, the Lacey Act has long been supported by the US timber industry and large guitar companies like Martin and Taylor because of the market protections it offers them and Gibson’s recent political crusade is a smoke screen to try to actually weaken the law—though Juszkiewicz calls it “strengthening.” Despite the support of several sectors (timber, retail etc), others have voiced problems with the Lacey Act. As anthropologist Kathryn Marie Dudley, said in a recent Op-Ed in the NY Times, there are aspects to the law that are unclear and which are having an impact on more vulnerable sectors like independent luthiers. Concerned guitar owners have also raised fears that their instruments might be confiscated despite the US Fish and Wildlife’s public declaration that they won’t impound individual instruments.
What emerges from this debate is the complexity of the situation and how political timber really is. Missing from the debate so far, however, are the worsening conditions in tropical forest communities that supply the very raw material, or tonewoods, that make great sounding instruments, and depend on their continued existence. Deforestation in these communities has already created a ban on one of the original materials of 50’s era Gibsons, Brazilian rosewood. Since 1992, its near extinction led the international Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) to halt its use and exportation. The wood in question in these recent raids was Brazilian rosewood’s replacement in guitar fretboards, Madagascar Ebony and Indian Rosewood.
The other tonewood that is important for Gibson, that is not part of the current allegations, is the one that is the foundation (the body and neck) of their solid body electric line, including the iconic Les Paul and the SG. It is the fate of this particular species and that of the communities that depend on it that worries me. Honduran mahogany is what dedicated Gibson enthusiasts want in their Les Pauls. They feel that the use of another fine tonewood, African mahogany (Khaya), would be somewhat sacrilegious and not faithful to the original Les Paul Standard and Custom models from the 1950’s, therefore Honduran mahogany continues to be used exclusively on their Standard and Custom Shop models. One example of why we should be concerned can be found at the Rio Plátano Biosphere Reserve in Honduras. This past summer UNESCO placed the reserve on their ‘In Danger’ category because of its increased deforestation rates. The communities around the Reserve grow the FSC certified mahogany that supplies Gibson.
Knowing something about Honduran mahogany global trade makes this case even more interesting. Exploited by the British in the former British Honduras (today Belize), and the Caribbean coast of Honduras in the 1800’s, it was used as a source to make fine furniture in Europe and North America. The tree was then transplanted by the British to Fiji after WWII. When it was time to cut the very first harvest in the year 2000, decision over who would control the mahogany market led to the 2000 military coup d’etat. According to the Nashville Business Journal, Fiji’s current prime minister (who reached power by a coup in 2006) is said to be in negotiations to supply their Honduran mahogany exclusively to Gibson.
In my research, I travel often to southern Mexico and observe the conditions of forest dependent communities, many of which grow Honduran mahogany. This past summer, I visited a sawmill that processes mahogany for Gibson. A Gibson wood inspector happened to be looking for aesthetic deficiencies in neck blanks and bodies that day. According to him, he found quite a few. Perfectly good pieces of mahogany with minor deficiencies that probably could have disappeared in the sanding process were discarded. The wood seller can’t do anything with the discarded wood because it had been cut to the particular size that Gibson requested. And so there they were, piles of precious certified mahogany neck blanks and bodies rejected and going to waste.
In his piece in the Huff Post, Juszkiewicz, skillfully employing ‘green’ rhetoric argues that countries should have a certification system so that the market can pay premium prices for the wood and thus combat the causes of deforestation. According to my sources, mahogany growers in Central America get paid between $7 per neck blank and $5 for a body blank by Gibson. Blanks made out of wood that is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council and the Rainforest Alliance (organization of which he was a board member) and will end up in a guitar that costs between $1,000 and $7,000 depending if it’s a low end Les Paul Special or a Custom Shop Les Paul 1959 Reissue. That the communities that grow mahogany should get paid better, is a call that I heard from them loud and clear.
What complicates matters even further is the consumers. Americans love their electric guitars, especially the more iconic ones, like the Gibson Les Paul and the Fender Stratocaster. I appreciate the heritage of Gibson as an American company. My son was handed down a 1941 Gibson L-4 that belonged to his great-grandfather and it has enormous significance to our family. I also credit, Juszkiewicz for saving the company in the 1980’s and making it profitable and popular again. The question of whether the company ‘knowingly’ imported illegal wood is still up in the air until the charges are pressed and proven. Perhaps a more important, or at least equally important question, is how much profit and how much growth is enough (20% annual growth, according to Gibson) to enable the long-term security of the tonewoods that guitar players appreciate the most and the well being of the communities that depend on it? I don’t know the answer to this, but Gibson, using a business model that strives to produce more and more, and makes consumers desire more and more, is contributing to environmental degradation without really realizing the consequences. Most likely Honduran mahogany will suffer the same fate as Brazilian Rosewood. The story of tonewoods from Madagascar does not look good either, particularly after the 2009 government overthrow. I realize it’s not solely Gibson’s responsibility, nor the guitar industry’s, it’s the consumers as well. Wood is political and this case shows it well. Bamboo Les Pauls, anyone?
Jose Martinez-Reyes is assistant professor of environmental anthropology at the University of Massachusetts Boston. His current research is on the global production, trade and consumption of Honduran mahogany, its use as tonewood for guitars, and the implications for environmental conservation.