Horizon Blog

108. Guitar Zero

The guitar industry, like so many others, is wrestling with question of sustainability. How can it manufacture guitars sustainably? What does increasing guitar ownership tell us about sustainable consumption? This post explores these thorny questions through the lens of the Carolan guitar, considering how both its physical and digital aspects speak to the vitally important matter of sustainability.

Sustainably manufacturing guitars

Tonewoods. Let’s start with the ‘knotty’ question of wood. Read any guitar magazine and you’ll quickly figure out that the guitar industry is obsessed by the idea of tonewood, that the choice of wood fundamentally determines the sound of the instrument, and that seeking out very specific woods – from particular species, places, times, environmental conditions, or even individual hallowed trees – is the holy grail of making the perfect sounding guitar. While wood choice does undoubtedly affect tone, there is an element of myth here. An experiment to compare the sonic impact of tone woods (involving Fylde guitars as a partner) suggest that “the species of wood used for the back and sides of a six-string acoustic guitar has only a marginal impact on its body mode properties and perceived sound” [1]. The actual sound of an instrument is arguably more shaped by other elements in its ‘tone chain’ including playing technique, fingernails, picks and strings, instrument size and shape. Still, the myth of hallowed tonewood persists, especially in the marketing of guitars. Guitars are priced and sold according to the perceived quality – which often equates to the rarity – of their woods. Carolan itself has followed this line of thinking, carefully choosing the tone woods of spruce for its top and flamed maple for its back and sides, for both their visual and anticipated sonic qualities (see Post 8).

Deforestation. The industry is now stuck in a mire of its own making (sometimes quite literally as some makers seek out ancient trees that have been preserved for millennia in bogs, fens and swamps). The challenge to reverse deforestation affects users of wood across the globe, and while the guitar industry may be a small player relative to the paper, building and furniture industries, it clearly needs to re-examine its sustainability practices. Some manufacturers, Taylor guitars for example, have been vocal about the search more more sustainable woods and forestry practices.

Endangered species. A further challenge for the industry arises from the use of endangered species. Some traditionally prized tonewoods such as Brazilian Rosewood are now protected under endangered species legislation such as CITES. Even old guitars made from these woods before the legislation was in force require proof of provenance – guitar passports – if they are to cross international borders without risking confiscation and possibly even destruction.

Upcycling. One mitigation to these challenges is to work with reclaimed wood, making guitars from discarded objects that have reached the ends of their useful lives. Carolan provides an example of this approach, at least in part, as the mahogany (listed as an endangered species in Cites since 2003) used for its neck and inlay was taken from an old wardrobe (see Post 10).

Alternatives to wood. A more radical approach is to look beyond wood altogether. Carbon fibre guitars are increasingly finding their way into the market, in part due to to their ruggedness and portability. Interestingly, some of the perceived weakness – or at least difference – in the tonal qualities of these instruments is being addressed digitally. Onboard pickups and vibrators can generate reverb, delay and chorus effects without the need for external amplifiers, greatly enhancing tone as demonstrated by new instruments such as Lava’s ME 3 smart guitar shown below. Perhaps the combination of carbon fibre and digital technologies could exceed the tonal palette of traditional tonewoods?

LAVA ME 3 Smart Guitar digitally actuates combines carbon fibre to enhance its tone

Globalisation. The large companies who mass manufacture guitars have been outsourcing production to factories in East Asia and South America since the 1980s, beginning with Japan and Mexico, moving to Korea, and now increasingly focused on China. In contrast, local guitar making, at least in the UK, tends to focus on the higher (and far smaller) end of the market though bespoke, handmade instruments such as Carolan. Globalisation places its own stresses on sustainability in terms of the environmental costs of shipping goods and components around the planet. Like other products, guitars are relatively complex in nature so that the manufacture of their constituent parts may take place far away and distributed through complex supply chains. Tuners, bridges, scratch plates, electronic pickups and of course strings (!) may all be shipped in from overseas, even when a guitar such as Carolan claims to made locally.

Sustainably consuming guitars

More guitars. Globalised manufacture has radically shifted the relationship between price and quality to the point where budget guitars at the highly competitive lower end of the market tend to be very playable, and also sound good, at least compared to their counterparts from decades ago (any of you every try and play a 1970s Eko guitar?). This appears to have transformed how we consume guitars.

I was recently reading Hans, Ola and Ana Rosling’s Factfulness: Ten reasons We’re Wrong about the World and Why Things Are better Than You Think [2] and was delighted to encounter the following graph on page 64 (originally published by Gapminder [3]). As they write: “Culture and freedom, the goals of development, can be hard to measure, but guitars per capita is a good proxy. And boy has that improved. With beautiful statistics like these, how can anyone say the world was getting worse?”

Guitars per capita: playable guitars per million people from [2]

Guitarsenals. As a guitar player, I’m tempted to agree. It would be wonderful if more and more people in the world were gained the pleasure that I have from playing the guitar. But hold on. What does actually explain the 55 fold increase in guitar ownership? Are many more people owning guitars, or do guitarists each own more guitars than they did on 1962? The guitar press used the term Gear Acquisition Syndrome (GAS) to refer to guitarists’ apparently insatiable appetite for new gear. Tony Polecastro’s charming Acoustic Tuesday show on YouTube features guitar geeks proudly displaying their personal ‘guitarsenals’. Matt Parker, writing in Guitar World in 2020, suggest that “the average player now owns between seven and eight guitars” and questions the sustainability of our desire to build personal guitar collections [4]. While this trend may not fully account for the 55 fold increase, it seems that globalised production may have driven the commodification of guitars, which in turn may mean that many guitarists now maintain collections, seeing individual guitars as tools for a particular job, as collectibles, or even fashion items.

Vintage guitars. How can be combat GAS? One possibility might be to value second-hand guitars. There is a thriving market for vintage guitars (loosely deemed to be those over 25 years of age) which are prized for their apparent tone, vintage vibe, authenticity, and perhaps also for the stories they tell. Vintage gear is relatively expensive, so that old guitars often retain their financial value, or perhaps even cost cost more than their modern counterparts. This makes them generally unaffordable to many players and brings them more into the realm of collectibles. Indeed, famous guitars associated with individual players can fetch astronomical prices. Kurt Kobain’s 1959 Martin D-18E that he played during a legendary MTV Unplugged performance just five months before he died recently sold for a record £4.9M.

Kurt Cobain’s Martin auctioned for £4.9M

Fake vintage guitars. The guitar industry trades on the prestige of vintage guitars by encouraging us to consume more new guitars that ape their vintage counterparts. Reissues of vintage designs, replicas of famous guitars, and most controversially, the practice of relicing in which new guitars are deliberately trashed in the Custom Shop according to the persona of a fictional previous owner (for a premium price of course) all trade on our desire for vintage chic. While often charged with being inauthentic fakes, such ‘new vintage’ guitars sell well and if anything, appear to fuel our GAS rather than enabling us to treasure the ones we already own.

Modding. One trend that does appear to be growing – and that is certainly being promoted by the guitar press – is modding. The idea of changing our existing guitars by replacing components (e.g., pickups) might satisfy our GAS without us having to buy a whole new guitar. Of course we still need to buy new components and so need to figure whether this is actually more sustainable in practice. And of course it might just lead to us buying more guitars – might players add modding guitars to their collections?

Personalising guitars. If valuing vintage is part of the industry’s problem rather than the solution, what is to be done? Perhaps we need to encourage players to value the guitars that they already own. This is where Carolan comes in. One idea behind Carolan is to strengthen personal attachment to instruments by associating them with personal stories, the idea being that you write your own identity – rather than some imagined one – into your instrument. This is a form of digital personalisation that tries to make a guitar your own. Perhaps you will be more satisfied with a Carolan-like guitar that bonds to you as an individual and resists the urge to replace it with another?

Sharing guitars. Carolan does suggest another possibility however. Could the ability for guitars to capture and tell stories encourage sharing? Might our desire for novel guitar experiences is sated by borrowing old rather than acquiring new? This takes us back to the idea of the ‘guitar as service’ as discussed in Post 105. Could this replace the current consumption model of amassing increasingly large collections of guitars with one in which guitars are passed around? And of course such ideas are underpinned by digital services of the kind that Carolan has been exploring for the past eight years.

Carbon Footprint. A final angle on sustainable consumption might be to capture the carbon footprint of a guitar throughout its lifetime. According to Wikipedia, a carbon footprint is “is the total greenhouse gas (GHC) emissions caused by an individual, event, organization, service, place or product, expressed as carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e)” [5]. Might we associate guitars such as Carolan with an individual carbon footprint (as part of its wider gigital footprint) calculator that would enable players to better understand and ultimately adapt their practices?

The environmental costs of digital?

It’s tempting to feel smug at this point; might the Carolan approach may be part of the answer to the guitar industry’s evident sustainability challenge? Foolish thinking of course. There is no evidence yet of players demanding the kinds of identity services that Carolan offers. It remains a unique one-off thought experiment and research probe rather than any kind of commercial proposition. And, would it enhance sustainability even were it to somehow take off?

While digital services sometimes feel as if they are free (we don’t directly shell out cash for Youtube, Facebook or other identity services of the kind they Carolan uses) they are not; not financially or environmentally. First, one needs hardware. Consumers must invest in phones, tablets, laptops and myriad other devices. As with guitars, the numbers of these worldwide are skyrocketing, reflecting the spread of ICT around the world, possible population growth but also that individuals own ever larger collections of personal devices.

Second, are the more ‘behind the scenes’ environmental costs of the computing infrastructure, spanning all of these devices, the networking that connects them, and the vast server farms that store and serve up content to them, all of which consume vast amounts of energy. While (once again like the guitar industry) the IT industry may make claims to sustainability (as Google among others do), it clearly faces major challenges to reach net zero.

Sustain Life estimate that today roughly 1% of global energy is required to run the Internet and that by 2040 the ICT sector could account for 14% of global carbon emissions [6]. Berkhout and Hertin discuss how ICT has three kinds of impact of sustainable development. First-order impacts arise from the development and use of ICT. Second-order impacts arise indirectly from using ICT, for example energy savings through resource conservation and process optimization. Longer-term third-order impacts result from ICT changing life styles [7]. Balancing these impacts is difficult. As Naumann et al observe, “to date, it is not clear, whether the resource and energy savings through ICT overbalance the resource and energy consumption by ICT, or not”. In short, the environmental impacts of ICT are complex and unclear with potential for benefit but also major contributions to energy usages and carbon footprints [8].

Fighting Jelly

The challenge of sustainability is notoriously complex and difficult. Whatever way you approach it seems to raise as many questions as it does provide answers. Digital technologies may have a role to play in the future sustainability of guitars, perhaps in enhancing the acoustic properties of alternatives to wood, or in shaping how we value and share existing instruments as consumers. However, digital technologies are not themselves sustainable. The wider solution may well lie in our own fundamental attitudes, as individuals and globalised society, but even then I am left with feeling of ‘fighting jelly’ battling against the many interlinked factors that contribute to sustainability. Any consideration of Carolan’s impact on sustainability needs to consider a variety impacts, from the costs of its manufacture, to the costs of its ongoing demands on the Internet, to its potential to change lifestyles and especially patterns of consumption. There is much much more thinking to do …

References

[1] Carcagno, S., Bucknall, R., Woodhouse, J., Fritz, C. and Plack, C.J., 2018. Effect of back wood choice on the perceived quality of steel-string acoustic guitars. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America144(6), pp.3533-3547.

[2] Hans, Ola and Anna Rosling, Ten reasons We’re Wrong about the World and Why Things Are better Than You think”, Sceptre, 2018.

[3] https://www.gapminder.org/topics/guitars-per-capita/

[4] Matt Parker, How much is enough: is amassing a huge gear collection really good for your playing – or the planet?, Guitar World, March 17, 2020

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carbon_footprint

[6] https://www.sustain.life/blog/sustainability-issues-tech-industry

[7] F. Berkhout, J. Hertin, Impacts of Information and Communication Technologies on Environmental Sustainability: Speculations and Evidence, Report to the OECD, 2001,

[8] Naumann, S., Dick, M., Kern, E. and Johann, T., 2011. The greensoft model: A reference model for green and sustainable software and its engineering. Sustainable Computing: Informatics and Systems1(4), pp.294-304.

Originally posted at https://carolanguitar.com/2022/06/06/108-guitar-zero/