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Wood Wars (This Is Totally Whacked)

by vaughn skow September 07, 2011 4 min read

The big story in this week’s Tennessean Sunday Paper (Sept 4, 2011) was on Nashville Based Gibson Guitars.  The story wasn’t about how wonderful it was to have one of the world’s premier guitar builders in Nashville.  In fact, it wasn’t about the guitars at all; it was about the wood they are made from.  It seems the Fish and Game department has just raided the Gibson plant for the second time, once again confiscating guitars, files, computers, and yes, wood.  When it comes to guitars and the wood they are made from, Big Brother is indeed watching.  What do I think about this, well ... read on dear reader!

First a little history (and I do mean little):  In the late 1800’s, as the world began to shrink, some weird rich folks began to think it was cool to own animals such as Panda Bears and Tigers as pets.  It got so out of hand that an international law was enacted to keep protected species from being transported from their country of origin ... the "Lacey Act" as it’s usually referred to.  Fast forward by a hundred years or so to 2008 when, here in the US, the interpretation of this law was extended to include plant as well as animal species.  In the world of high-end guitar manufacturing ... this is akin to "all hell breaking out".  If an anal-retentive Fed (yes, a fish and game agent) wants to press the measure, they can force anyone who owns a guitar made of ... say Brazilian Rosewood or Indian Ebony to produce provenance proving that every bit of wood, bone, etc on said guitar is of legal origin.  They can confiscate instruments and hand out fines on top.  This is a case where you are guilty until you prove yourself innocent.  This is some scary stuff.  Really scary.

Back in 2008 the Fish & Game folks raided the Gibson plant for the first time, taking around $100,000 worth of stuff.  They never came up with anything to charge Gibson with, and they never returned the confiscated inventory either.  It’s like the IRS meets the mob meets southern good-old-boy politics meets the Chicago political machine.  Evidentially they didn’t feel as though they inflicted enough damage to Gibson back in 2008, this time they are going for the jugular. 

This issue is discussed in length in the current (Aug 2011) issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.  They suggest that because of this mess, the values of the worlds greatest instruments might well be on the verge of falling apart.  If guitars can not be sold and shipped to America without the threat of an over-zealous agent seizing it upon arrival, what real value does it have?  The article even warns that performers traveling outside the states might think twice before bringing their prized guitars with them, for fear it might be seized when they come home for having a non-documented end-pin or the like.

How big of an issue is this? Read this article from the Wall Street Journal: Aug 26, 2011 Guitar Frets: Environmental Enforcement Leaves Musicians In Fear.

So, you all know about the (other) love in my life, my ’67 Martin D-28.  She’s made of woods that are today "illegal" (mainly the Brazilian Rosewood), but it was, of course totally proper to produce such a guitar in 1967.  But, how would I try to explain those subtleties to a gung-ho federal agent who wouldn’t know a ’67 Martin from a 2011 (graphite) Rainsong?  I think the rule of thumb here is that once the government has taken something, they never give it back.  If it’s you or me vs. the Federal government, we will loose.

So, what’s the answer?  Should the fine guitar makers of the world simply start making all of their instruments out of inferior, lowly regarded wood that no governments give a flying rip about?  Should we all then resign ourselves to playing these crappy sounding instruments, while hiding our good instruments in a dark closet living in fear that the Feds will find them? 

Don’t get me wrong, I love this here lil ol planet, and I’m quite a little "greenie" myself, but to me, this issue is a moot point anyway (and by that, I mean it’s all a bunch of crap).  Guitar manufacturing wasn’t what cleared the Brazilian rainforest of its Rosewood, nor is it taxing India’s supply of Ebony.  Guitar makers, both currently as well as historically, use a tiny fraction of the wood harvested worldwide.  It’s just a case of the big bully zeroing in on the small weak kid.  A company like Gibson may be big to us guitar players, but on a world-wide manufacturing scale, they are a pip-squeak company.  Here is another sad truth: we guitar players don’t exactly have a lot of political clout in Washington; I think the exact amount would be zero.  Ever heard of the big guitar lobby?  I didn’t think so.

Maybe it’s time we change that.

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