Guitar maker opts for more sustainable Sitka spruce

A worker routs the top of an acoustic guitar. (Photo by RA Beattie/Musicians for Forests)
A worker routs the top of an acoustic guitar. (Photo by RA Beattie/Musicians for Forests)

A little piece of Alaska has helped create some of the music industry’s biggest hits. Sitka spruce is a prized “tonewood” used to make guitars and violins. But one guitar company is pushing back and asking the feds and music insiders to reconsider clear cut logging in the Tongass National Forest.

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Tom Bedell thinks when most musicians pick up an acoustic guitar, they don’t realize they’re strumming on wood — likely harvested from old growth clear cut logging.

“If they knew that, they’d be outraged,” Bedell said. “But they don’t. They don’t think to ask.”

Bedell said 80 percent of the world’s guitars are built, in part, with Sitka spruce, harvested from the forests of the Pacific Northwest and Southeast Alaska. Guitar makers say a good piece of tonewood should ring like a wine glass, and Sitka spruce does the trick.

“You name it. Crosby, Stills and Nash, Bob Dylan. Anyone who plays an acoustic guitar, odds are, they played a Sitka top,” Bedell said.

That’s the part of the guitar that Sitka spruce is used for: the guitar’s top.

Bedell started his own guitar company in the basement of his parents’ garage as a teenager.

“In 1966 I opened my first retail store and that same year I opened a second one,” Bedell said. “So when I was a junior/senior in high school I was doing about a half a million dollars in business.”

Bedell said, back then, the idea was to make an affordable guitar, but he also realized the wood likely came from old growth clear cut logging.

After becoming a teenage guitar tycoon, Bedell sold the company and went into a different career for almost 30 years, before starting Bedell Guitars back up again in 2009 in Bend, Oregon. This time, he said, with the intent to make a different kind of product.

“I said, ‘OK, we’re going to stop using any clear cut of any kind in any of our instruments.’ … Because it’s not just about the tree,” Bedell said. “We get emotional about how that tree was treated. It’s the neighborhood it lives in.”

Tongass National Forest (Creative Commons photo by Henry Hartley)
Tongass National Forest (Creative Commons photo by Henry Hartley)

In Southeast Alaska, Bedell said that neighborhood is close to valuable salmon streams and important habitat, so he now relies on a supply of salvaged Sitka spruce from dead or down trees.

Brent Cole is the owner of Alaska Specialty Woods on Prince of Wales Island — Bedell’s supplier. His company deals mainly in salvaged trees, which they mill themselves.

The U.S. Forest Service is gearing up to transition away from old growth logging in the Tongass. But it won’t end the practice entirely. Meanwhile, some timber industry groups have said less old growth could mean fewer jobs in the region.

“Some of my timber constituents wonder why I built this factory with old growth on its way out like that. Where am I going to get my resource?” Cole said. “I guess if I stay as a small boutique of supplying custom builders, I guess that’s one way.”

Cole said there are two barriers to convincing the bigger guitar manufacturers to build with reclaimed materials: it can be more expensive than clear cut and the wood isn’t always pretty.

But when Charles Barber wanted to buy a guitar, he knew he didn’t want a cookie cutter instrument. Initially, he was looking at a rock ‘n roll design with inlaid snakes.

“I sent [an image] to my wife and she said, ‘please do not get a guitar that is that tricked out. Get something that is more traditional.’ And I said, ‘don’t worry,’” Barber said with a laugh.

Barber is a director at World Resources Institute: A global research organization that focuses on forests, climate and energy.

He’s having a high-end guitar built by Bedell to the tune of about $6,000. And while there are no inlaid snakes, you could call it sustainably tricked out. It’s being built with salvaged wood and details that include fossilized mammoth ivory, some of which has been unearthed by climate change.

Barber said he wanted this guitar to tell a story.

“People listen to music, they play music, they have more of a personal relationship with something like a guitar than they do the 2X4s that go into making your deck extension,” Barber said.

Tom Bedell agreed. He’s asking for lawmakers to end clear cut old growth logging in the Tongass, and he’s asking guitar makers to make the same pledge.

Bedell said he wants to show the world that salvaged sounds better.

“I’m doing this because to me there’s something really special about the music that’s part of our lives and the forests that enable the wood,” Bedell said.

Bedell said it might be a while before more musicians start asking for guitars made out of reclaimed Sitka spruce; it would be music to his ears.

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