Are Gibson guitars killing the rainforest?

 
Billy Jack tests a Gibson Les Paul guitar in a Nashville shop Gibson fans have a lifelong affection for the sound, but little idea about where their guitars come from

Iconic US guitar maker Gibson is facing a criminal probe over claims it broke environmental laws while importing wood. So is music the next threat to the world's forests?

"Up here you grow up liking Fenders or you grow up liking Gibsons," says Billy Jack, 55, sat in a Nashville music store eyeing up a trio of shiny new Gibson guitars.

Cradling a $3,800 (£2,413) Gibson Les Paul, Mr Jack, a veteran guitarist, recalls riffs gone by as he explains his fondness for one of rock's iconic instruments.

"You can hear it in your ear. It's how quickly you can run through your chops. It's the tone. You just can't go wrong."

But things have gone wrong. On 28 August federal agents raided Gibson's Nashville and Memphis premises, seizing shipments of Indian rosewood and leaving the venerable guitar maker more than a little off-key.

The agents brandished search warrants issued amid suspicions that Gibson had violated the terms of the Lacey Act, an environmental law that requires imports to the US to comply with laws in the country of origin as well.

Gibson: An American icon

Gibson guitar
  • Founded by Orville Gibson in the 1890s
  • Primarily made acoustic guitars until 1950s
  • Les Paul electric became hugely popular
  • Famous Gibson guitarists include Elvis, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, The Edge
  • Bought out in 1986 by Henry Juszkiewicz and David Berryman

It was the second raid on Gibson since the Lacey Act was amended in 2008.

Gibson is now a conservative cause celebre, with anti-Washington activists in Tennessee and beyond hailing the firm's predicament as an example of the "unacceptable over-reach" of the US federal government.

Facing a criminal investigation, Gibson boss Henry Juszkiewicz has formed an uneasy alliance with the Tea Party, even appearing on stage in Nashville at a sun-drenched weekend rally called to support his firm.

Introduced to a cheering 500-strong crowd as "the man who stood up to the federal government", the mild-mannered Mr Juszkiewicz followed a string of tub-thumping speeches and political country music acts.

But he seemed hesitant to add his voice to the anti-Washington, anti-regulation clamour, instead urging the crowd to keep fighting "injustice and unfairness".

Offstage Mr Juszkiewicz - who denies any wrongdoing - had a decidedly un-Tea Party take on things: "I'm a very strong believer in socially responsible sourcing and I think the government needs to be involved to ensure that happens," he says.

"But there's a difference between intervention and over-reach."

Tariff dispute

Mr Juszkiewicz values the seized wood at $500,000 (£317,517). That's enough rosewood for 10,000 fingerboards - a strip running along the neck of the guitar vital to the overall tone and performance of the instrument.

Woods used in a Gibson Les Paul guitar

Woods used in a Gibson Les Paul guitar
Wood Origin

Rosewood/ Ebony

Central and South America, central Africa and Asia

Mahogany

Central and South America (lesser mahogany types from Africa)

Maple

North America and Far East

Source: Greenpeace USA

With Gibson's production lines badly hit, the firm is seeking alternative supplies. But finding new wood will not be easy.

Illegal logging means reputable supplies of wood used to make guitars are scarcer, and more heavily regulated, than ever before.

Brazilian rosewood - dalbergia nigra - regarded by some guitarists as the "holy grail", is effectively unavailable, officially listed as an endangered species. The export of ebony and rosewood from Madagascar has been banned amid pressure from environmental groups. They are available from India, but only under certain conditions.

Yet the demand for an ever-dwindling supply of hardwoods is not letting up: Gibson alone produces some 700 guitars a day, according to Mr Juszkiewicz.

Two years after a shipment of Madagascan ebony was confiscated, Gibson ran into trouble when a shipment from India arrived in Dallas this June. According to a federal affidavit, the wood was brought into the US under a tariff code that made it illegal to export from India - thus violating the Lacey Act.

Henry Juszkiewicz insists the wood is from a sustainable source, and the dispute is really over tariff coding. Gibson has letters from the Indian government supporting its interpretation, Mr Juszkiewicz says, but they have not been made public.

"The government is using innuendo with words like 'fraudulently', as if there was some deception taking place. We've been purchasing that wood for 17 years exactly the same way."

In any case, he insists, an armed raid "should not be the first response to an import-export issue".

Gibson's Henry Juszkiewicz on his alliance with the Tea Party

Dubious sourcing

It is the armed raid that has now polarised the debate around Gibson and given it a wider political resonance.

For the Tea Party, and for local Republican Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn, the sight of federal agents raiding an iconic American company symbolises everything wrong with modern-day Washington.

"What I've heard from people is: 'If it can happen to Gibson it can happen to me,'" Ms Blackburn tells the Nashville rally.

"Why Gibson?" she asks offstage, alluding to a widely-held belief among conservatives that Gibson had been unfairly singled out. "There are concerns about selective enforcement. That's something that we can help with in Congress."

Even supporters of the Lacey Act admit compliance is a tricky and subjective business.

The two Gibson cases are the first cases under Lacey since forest products were added to the legislation in 2008, according to Scott Paul, director of forest campaigns for Greenpeace USA.

Henry Juszkiewicz (c) during President Barack Obama's address to Congress, September 2011 The Gibson boss (c) was a guest of House Speaker John Boehner at Congress in September

Despite the criminal probe, there is "no suggestion that the Indian wood was cut illegally," he says. Instead the debate rests - as Henry Juszkiewicz contends - on the tariff coding.

Natalie Swango, manager of Luthiers Mercantile, the California-based import firm that brought the Gibson wood into the US, says there are clear dangers of criminalising the import of legally sourced wood.

"We are importing from a country [India] that grows its trees in state-owned forests," she says. "My concern is that without amendments to the Lacey Act we may be forced to go to a country like Mexico, or Indonesia, where they are not watching their forests so closely."

The 2009 Gibson raid, though, could have more serious repercussions. In that case the firm is suspected of knowingly importing wood from Madagascar that was cut illegally.

"Everyone is innocent until proven guilty," Greenpeace's Scott Paul says of that case, while warning that the industry as a whole has questions to answer.

"There has always been an underlying feeling that a significant proportion of the wood used in musical instruments has come from illegal or highly dubious sources."

Preserving the sound

Instead of threatening the future of America's guitars, though, one veteran musician hopes the furore can prod the industry towards a sustainable future.

"The wood that goes into guitars is crucial to the tone of the instrument," says Laurence Juber, an acoustic guitarist who lined up with Sir Paul McCartney in Wings.

"I can show you the difference in sound between Indian rosewood and Brazilian rosewood and ebony and maple."

Failing to protect global forests could lead to changes in the ways guitars are designed and constructed, Mr Juber adds. That's not something guaranteed to preserve the musical experience as we know it, and it's something he wants to prevent.

"Hopefully I can help keep the industry alive and in 300 years people will also be able to play guitars and get some pleasure out of them."

In Nashville, Billy Jack was not thinking about the trees felled to craft his new Les Paul. He had faith his favourite guitar maker would come good in the end.

"If Gibson have an environmental issue then they will have to change their wood. And I'm sure they will do the right thing because they have been in the industry so long.

"In the end, it's their reputation on the line."

 

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  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 193.

    181.mrxen

    Forcibly put, but I can't help thinking that there just might be slightly bigger issues leading to the inexorable destruction of the planet than a few Les Pauls and SGs. I appreciate that some of the woods being used are in dangerously short supply but perhaps that's more down to the exploding population of South America hacking and burning its way out of grinding poverty.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 192.

    So many comments. So much mis-information. You'd think that Gibson and other luthiers were the sole users of wood. I think you'll find that more hardwood (such as the mahogany used in the body of Les Paul), is consumed by the international building trade & furniture industry.

    If Gibson have broken the law, then they should be prosecuted. But please don't demonise the whole industry.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 191.

    My old Gibson has several parts of it made out of elephant ivory, and pretty much everything else it's made out of is banned by treaty. It sounds great though. It sounds like Gibson have been a little bit sloppy in their paperwork more than anything else with this second raid, the Lacey Act is strict on compliance but it shouldn't cause any trouble if you can control your shipping properly

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 190.

    What?! Lets distract ourselves from the major culprits of deforestation like the meat industry by picking on Guitars, although in my opinion Gibson's aren't very good. As for Tone Wood well, that's all a bit Spinal Tap..

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 189.

    Hey all you fellow Gibson owners - We already know that Gibsons 'sustain forever' - so what's the problem here?

    Seriously though - Hagstrom guitars (Sweden) make their fretboards out of an ebony-like composite and I can tell you that it looks, feels and plays like ebony and Hagstroms are fine guitars - so Gibson has alternatives if it wants to look beyond its traditional woods

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 188.

    budgood

    Lester Young played tenor, not alto.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 187.

    I love music and guitars. I worked hard all my life to get to a point were I can finally afford to buy the guitars of my dreams. Always dreamed of owning a Gibson of which I now own several. As unpopular as this will be with most of you, I don't care if its made of illegal wood, I just don't give a damn. I do my bit, recycle, less car journeys etc.Never seems to be enough for some though.Tough!!

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 186.

    AGAIN , politicians out of step with the concensus of the general public (though possibly not some of the inane and usually extremist and vocal minority groups)..... but then what`s new ? Almost EVERY problem these days is down to politicians , they are not solving the world`s problems , but instead are creating them and have been doing so for some considerable time now !

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 185.

    @173 (AnotherVoiceInTheWilderness)
    Believe me, this is one subject I am very clued up on my friend because I've been an activist against modern toilet paper for over FIVE years now. Also, a tree is not just defined by what you can see ABOVE GROUND, while a tree might appear mature above ground, underground its a different story and a fully matured root network usually takes 100's of years.

  • rate this
    -1

    Comment number 184.

    Clapton has been very much a Fender guitarist ever since.

    Yeah well no brand has an unblemished record, luckily Jeff Beck has been playing Strats since the 70's so all is right with the world and balance is restored.
    A lot of people HAVE played Gibsons but everyone ends up loving the single coils in the end!

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 183.

    @171

    Glad you agree with me, even though you thought you weren't. :)

    Exactly, carbon fibre acoustic guitars sound much better than traditional wooden ones. They are also stronger, lighter and smaller for the sound produced ... so no more having to cart around massive dreadnoughs.

    Say hello to small travelling guitars that actually sound good.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 182.

    What's odd is that while Gibson is facing investigation, cheaper imports from China and/or South America continue to be imported. Despite them containing the "endangered" wood and despite the Lacey act being appropriate to them also.

    So why has Gibson been targeted? Is it due to it's political connections? Remember the transaction WAS approved by the US Government. They knowingly broke no law.

  • rate this
    -3

    Comment number 181.

    I am astonished at how many ignorant and stupid people on this site think its all okay to take what resource we want from the planet and dont foresee the irriversable damage we do. Mind boggling to say the least.

    Maybe we should extract Henry Juszkiewicz teeth and use them as plucks, see if he objects then.

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 180.

    Gibson are stuck in the 50s. Technology and attitude wise. Sorry, the Robot Guitar doesn't work and it doesn't count.

    Just buy an Ibanez. Better and cheaper. Without dubious historical ballast and eco-friendly.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 179.

    Gibson are big boys. If they're interested in a long term future and the timber is so important, then let Gibson secure their supply chain by starting their own forestry business.
    I have an Ibanez and a Washburn, both manufactured in the far east without this law - I hope that the parent companies source their wood responsibly... but I have no way of checking.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 178.

    @l j s
    Electric cars use Lithium batteries, a commodity that is not only highly toxic to mine, but limited in size. Trees on the other hand are easy to grow, sustainable and (if you like) such up CO2 as they grow.

    As for less people, wow.. another eugenicist spouting their hate in the form of environmentalism. Which people should died then ljs? Not people like yourself, obviously. Other people?

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 177.

    This is all about sustainability and Gibson's are famous for their sustain "You could go and have a bite and you'd still be hearing that one."

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 176.

    "Famous Gibson guitarists include...Eric Clapton."

    Well....Eric Clapton hasn't played a Gibson since the 1960's. He got his first Stratocaster in 1969 and has been very much a Fender guitarist ever since.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 175.

    Its the musicians technique that makes the sound not so much the material its made from, take Lester Young as an example. He played a cheap tinny alto sax but had one of the richest tones in Jazz. Yes, federal authority is pernicious but industry needs to act responsibly. Both public institutions and corporations need to start living up to the standards society expects of them.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 174.

    Why focus on Gibson? British manufacturers, such as Overwater, freely advertise that their instruments are available with components made from exotic woods. Many of their names suggest they come from Africa, where environmental groups are less likely to be agitated even though the long term implications for the environment are just as devastating.

 

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