Electric guitars will soon sound different thanks to climate change

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Rock and roll musicians lament a recent announcement from Fender. Due to prolonged flooding along the Mississippi River and the spread of the emerald ash borer, there is a shortage of swamp ash lumber, a favored material used in the construction of electric guitars and basses.

Fender said in a press release earlier this year that its remaining stock of ash will be used “in selected, historically appropriate vintage models as supplies become available,” rather than being the material of choice for the most of his instruments. “In order to maintain our legacy of consistency and high quality, we have made the decision to retire the ashes of the majority of our regular production models.” Another guitar maker, Music Man, made a similar statement in 2019, saying it had exhausted the inventory of swamp ash at its California factory and would begin experimenting with new woods.

The underlying reason for the ash shortage is climate change. While swamp ash can survive underwater for weeks at a time, it struggles to thrive when that time spans months. Scientific American reports that between June 2018 and July 2019, the United States had its wettest 12 months on record and that “the 2019 spring floods along the Mississippi were among the most damaging in modern history” . Flooding in the region has progressively worsened over the past 150 years and is expected to continue in this direction as climate change intensifies.

Flooding not only makes it harder for trees to grow, it prevents logging companies from entering swampy areas to harvest timber. Their window of opportunity is shorter, and in the words of Mississippi-based Anderson-Tully Lumber advisor Norman Davis, “the bottomlands have been virtually inaccessible for the past two and a half years.”

Then there is the emerald ash borer, an Asian pest that has killed tens of millions of trees in North America since it arrived on the continent in 2002. Efforts to slow its spread have been largely unsuccessful, and the concern is so great in some parts in the Mississippi region that logging companies began taking all the ash trees they could get, just to save them from the borer. Jennifer Koch, a Forest Service biologist, told Scientific American that the move “makes sense under current circumstances, even if it leaves fewer trees for the future.”

Treehugger has reached out to veteran instrument maker Steve Martinko for comment (full disclosure: he’s the author’s stepfather). Martinko, a luthier with over 40 years of experience building guitars and basses for many well-known musicians, explained that ash has long been a sought-after material in electric instruments due to its light weight (less of 2.8 pounds per board foot) and its unique. It was also widely available in the past, which made it affordable.

He said ash could probably be replaced with soft (or silver) maple, which is also lightweight, but would sound different and be harder to finish due to the larger pores in the wood. Although the disappearance of swamp ash was musically unfortunate, Martinko hoped that maple could fill the void. Maple has traditionally been used to make Fender guitar necks and heads, as it is extremely strong and “almost unbreakable in design”. He went on to say, “There are over 100 species of maple in China, so a lot to work with” – a point all the more relevant as much of the guitar production has moved to the stranger. Canada has 10 native maple species and Europe only 3 or 4, he added.

Red alder has been used as a cheaper alternative to ash in the past and may become more common in instruments. Efforts are also underway to create a new species of borer-resistant ash, but this is a long-term project with no immediate benefits. In the meantime, musicians may have to get used to the idea that their dream guitar doesn’t sound exactly the way they intended. It’s times like these where climate change doesn’t seem so distant and impersonal after all.

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