What needs to change in guitars to make them eco-friendly | Music | DW | 06.04.2017
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What needs to change in guitars to make them eco-friendly

The guitar is the Germans' favorite music instrument. But how can tropical wood, which has recently been banned, be replaced in making them? The International Music Fair in Frankfurt reveals presents new innovations.

Rosewood can no longer be used for manufacturing musical instruments. This news was a shock to the music sector. This Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora ("CITES") regulation, which went into effect on January 2, 2017, prohibits, or at least complicates, the sale of rosewood products. But the sonorous rosewood is precisely the type needed to create instruments such as guitars, violins and marimbas.

"There are around one million products which will have to be registered," said Daniel Knöll of the Society of Music Merchants (SOMM). It is bureaucratic craziness that is completely overwhelming the music sector, he said. 

The new regulation could also intimidate potential customers, the industry fears. A pity, since Germans are currently in a buying mood. They spend over one billion euros a year on musical instruments.

Since the species protection regulation has comprehensive effects on the sale of musical instruments, the International Music Fair (Musikmesse), currently running in Frankfurt, is also focusing on the issue. Over 1,900 exhibitors from 55 different countries are showing their product innovations. There's also a wide range of concerts, workshops and lectures.

Guitars at the Musikmesse Frankfurt | Gitarren von Richwood (DW/G. Reucher)

Guitars are traditionally made from rosewood

The guitar is of particular interest at the fair this year. According to a survey conducted by SOMM, it is the most widely-played instrument among Germans. But hardly any guitars are made without rosewood. "The fretboard presents the greatest challenge in terms of the CITES regulation," said guitar manufacturer Gunther Reinhardt, and many of his colleagues agree. "Even if they're really basic guitars, the fingerboards are still usually made of rosewood."

New guitars without tropical wood

The species protection treaty has preoccupied the music industry for years now because the most popular wood - the Brazilian rosewood - has been banned from international sale since 1992. Only certified old stock may be depleted. That annoys Gunther Reinhardt. "It's only because in the 1960 and 70s the furniture industry clear cut the Amazon Rainforest to furnish the conference rooms of banks with rosewood," he noted. Now, all that wood is being gutted out and burned, he lamented.

Gunther Reinhardt showing a newly developed guitar made completely of thermally modified wood (DW/G. Reucher)

Gunther Reinhardt showing a newly developed guitar made completely of thermally modified wood

"And we're not allowed to manufacture guitars with it anymore. A small industry has to suffer because people were not capable of taking a hard line with the major players," he said. There are some 300 types of rosewood, which are now protected under the treaty since January.

Necessity, the mother of invention

Gunther Reinhardt has made a virtue out of necessity with his family business and developed a unique process that makes indigenous wood more stable and sonorous. In conjunction with the University for Sustainable Development in Eberswalde, near Berlin, he worked meticulously for three years on a research project involving the thermal modification of wood.

Using such thermal modification technologies can change the color and the hardness of the indigenous wood, the latter thereby increasing the vibration and thus the quality of sound. 

"The top panel of the guitar is made of spruce, the fretboard of pine," Reinhardt explained. "It is boiled and then massively pressed together to about 60 percent of its original volume."

The newly developed guitars by Reinhardt Acoustics go on the market this fall (DW/G. Reucher)

The newly developed guitars by Reinhardt Acoustics go on the market this fall

"So, the fretboard is not made of tropical wood, even though it looks like rosewood," he said. A snazzy solution to save some of the rain forest, in other words.

'Blood, Sweat and Tears'

Visitors can listen in on the sound of these new guitars at Reinhardt's stand at the trade fair in Frankfurt.

But that's not all they can hear. There's plenty of other technology to discover at the fair - such as digital, which has long been paving the way for much of the younger generation. After all, not every musician needs an instrument to play. Digital music programs and apps enable music novices to create their own melodies and sounds.

With countless live music events, the fair organizers are aiming to inspire young people to get involved in music.

For instance, last year's "Drum Camp" has evolved into this year's "Guitar Camp," which brings together prestigious guitarists and fair visitors. On stage, in workshops and master classes, the likes of Grammy winner Steve Stevens, guitarist for Billy Idol, and Robbie Williams' drummer, Karl Brazil, give tips on technique or the use of other equipment.

Musikmesse Frankfurt am Main 2017 | Guitar Camp (DW/G. Reucher)

Jen Majura of the band Evanescence plays ear-blasting music in the "Sweat, Blood and Tears" Box

"We want to convey the passion and motivation involved in playing music live," said Gerd Essl, curator of the Drum and Guitar Camp. "It's not about just watching a video on YouTube, but about picking up an instrument and playing."

Visitors can truly be inspired when they enter the two different "Blood, Sweat and Tears" boxes - where the music greats named above jam away in the 50-square-meter soundproof space. Some 150 visitors can cram inside each box and get an earful. It's a concert in a box - which is surely to get their blood pumping, their bodies sweating, and their eyes crying.


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