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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Green Guitars

Air Date: Week of

Reporter Mary Ambose profiles environmentally-conscious guitar maker Linda Manzer. Manzer's guitars, played by artists such as Pat Metheny and Bruce Cockburn, forgoes the ivory and rainforest wood found in many high-quality guitars for cow bone and driftwood, or wood from windfalls or sustainably harvested trees.


CURWOOD: Many fine guitars are made from Brazilian or Indian rosewood, and ivory. But with Brazilian rosewood being cut faster than it is growing back, and the endangerment of elephants, how do environmentally sensitive musicians find new instruments with beautiful tone? Increasingly, they are turning to green guitar makers like Linda Manzer. Mary Ambrose has our report.

AMBROSE: Linda Manzer's workshop in Toronto is cramped and hot and full of wood dust. She doesn't need much space - she only works on one guitar at a time. It takes from two to four months to build one. The waiting list for one of her instruments is a year and a half. Manzer began her love affair with the guitar when she played it herself. She decided not to be a professional musician and found another way to satisfy her love for music.

MANZER: Being a guitar maker combined three things that I really loved, which was music, working with my hands, and fixing things and designing things. And the three of them put together was just a perfect chemistry for me to be at peace with myself. And luckily I can make a living doing it.

AMBROSE: She's been doing it for 20 years and she's very good. She's sold guitars to Carlos Santana and Bruce Cockburn. She sold 13 guitars to jazz guitarist Pat Metheny.

(Metheny music up and under)

AMBROSE: This guitar cost Metheny $2000 when he bought it from Manzer in 1982. Her cheapest guitar now is $3000, but they can go up to $20,000. Bill Garrett is a guitarist. He's taught guitar and he's owned a guitar store. He says that technically all of Manzer's guitars are wonderfully precise.

GARRETT: There is a clarity in the notes, and particularly higher up in the finger board. And that sometimes is hard for builders to find. So you have an equal response from the different notes coming off the different frets all the way up and down the finger board. That's something that not everybody achieves. But she does.

AMBROSE: But ever since she apprenticed as a guitar maker, Manzer was aware of the environmental implications of her avocation. Historically, the pegs of a guitar are made from ivory. When her sister showed her a book about elephants being slaughtered for their tusks, Manzer stopped making guitars with ivory. She used cow bones for the pegs, instead, and it made her guitars a tougher sell.

MANZER: When I stopped using ivory, everybody thought my guitars were of lesser quality because I was using only bone instead of ivory. The public has now become educated to where they refuse to have ivory on their guitars, besides the fact that it's illegal now. But the same thing will probably happen with wood, but in the meantime, guitar makers are now at this sort of awkward, in-between stage where the public hasn't quite caught up with the reality.

AMBROSE: One of the realities is that the traditional woods used for making guitars, like Brazilian rosewood, have been chopped down at a furious rate. They have only begun to be replanted. Afraid that the wood will be wiped out entirely, it is now illegal to have a guitar made with Brazilian rosewood unless the tree was made before June 1992.

So Linda Manzer is using cedar from Washington State, which has fallen naturally during storms. She's using Indian rosewood which goes beside tea plantations and is winnowed out when it covers too much of the tea. She's talking to a cooperative in Peru which strip farms a new wood which she likes called Quinilla Colorado. She's trying new approaches to an old art, but she has to convince the players it's a good idea.

MANZER: I've found the most effective way of selling somebody well known, such as Bruce Cockburn. The guitar he has that I made the top of it is from a piece of cedar that rolled up on the beach in Vancouver Island. And what I did was, I cut it with a saw just as I was leaving my apprenticeship with Larivee and I saved it for years and I cut it into guitar tops. Well, I personally wasn't responsible for that tree being cut down, although somebody was, somewhere, but it's using wood that would otherwise not be used. A tree didn't get cut down. So he's got that on his guitar. And when I tell people that story, everyone wants a piece of that wood.

(Music under)

AMBROSE: Soft wood is used in making tops for guitars. It has to be at least 200 years old. Younger wood is too thin and not wide enough for the front of the guitar. If the guitar top is glued more than once, the sound suffers. Wood from an old tree is more even, and that gives the instruments the best tone. The grain lines, or the rings of growth, help carry the guitar's tone. But in 50 years' time, all the wood which is that old will have been logged already or will be locked up in a preserve. There's a move to make acoustic instruments out of plastics, but Manzer says she doesn't think that's environmentally sound and she admits that she'd stop making instruments if she couldn't use wood. Music remains her first love, and that's the reason she builds guitars.

MANZER: I just love, I absolutely love the sound of acoustic guitars. It speaks very loudly to me as an instrument, and - it sounds corny - but it kind of resonates with how I think musically. It's the kind of instrument that you can pour yourself into and it seems to come right out of it. It's a very revealing way of playing a musical instrument, is to play it acoustically.

AMBROSE: Pat Metheny has recently commissioned another guitar from Linda Manzer. Since he never specifies which wood he wants, she may persuade him to let her use Quinilla Colorado, or she may try some Sitka spruce which was found having fallen in a storm in a Washington state forest. It won't be hard to convince Metheny - he trusts her completely. Meanwhile, Bruce Cockburn has just released a new album of Christmas music and for the first time, Linda Manzer has been given an album credit. For Living on Earth, this is Mary Ambrose.



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