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The state of ebony
February 4, 2014 7:06 PM   Subscribe

The state of ebony Bob Taylor on why your next guitar's fretboard may show some striation.
posted by Wolof (44 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite

 
Gah, I had no idea so much ebony was wasted just to satisfy a demand for all black ebony. I thought the point was that the stuff was unbelievably tough, I never cared about what color it was! Bring me spotted and streaked ebony, no problemo.
posted by 1adam12 at 7:17 PM on February 4, 2014 [1 favorite]


Wow. That is one charismatic and compelling man.
posted by 256 at 7:27 PM on February 4, 2014 [5 favorites]


If only 1 percent of corporate leaders were so observant and responsible.
posted by localroger at 7:45 PM on February 4, 2014 [1 favorite]


I love a little character in the ebony handles of my slipjoints. Just send that brown streaked ebony to Great Eastern Cutlery.
posted by stltony at 7:52 PM on February 4, 2014 [1 favorite]


Good on him. And I think that for anyone who absolutely has to have pure black ebony there are more than enough vintage guitars hanging on the walls of countless guitar shops to satisfy their desire.
posted by Fuzzypumper at 8:16 PM on February 4, 2014 [3 favorites]


Now that's how you use a substantial monopoly.
posted by ctmf at 8:34 PM on February 4, 2014 [3 favorites]


Ebony fretboards are the best. All my favourite guitars have ebony fretboards (you know what they say). Been looking to add the Taylor GS Mini -- yep, ebony.

BUT: It's the feel, not the color. There's really little down-side to just staining them so they appear all black if that's what you want.
 
posted by Herodios at 8:37 PM on February 4, 2014 [2 favorites]


wow. So many cowards and misers hide behind the excuse of "doing what the market demands" even when doing so is really shitty. The truth is, the market is not a rigid and inflexible thing, it's just a bunch of people, and people are susceptible to persuasion for good or for evil.
posted by Jon_Evil at 8:37 PM on February 4, 2014 [2 favorites]


From my recent Carvin order:

...
$ 30.00 - EFB - Ebony Fingerboard Black (No Streaking)
$ 0.00 - NIN - No Top Inlays - Side Dots Only
$ 40.00 - STJF - Stainless Jumbo Frets .055" H .110" W
$ 0.00 - -R14 - 14in Fretboard Radius (Standard)
...

The regular ebony fingerboards (may have streaking) are standard and built into the base cost of the guitar.
posted by Ardiril at 8:46 PM on February 4, 2014


I love a little character in the ebony handles of my slipjoints. Just send that brown streaked ebony to Great Eastern Cutlery.

I think that for anyone who absolutely has to have pure black ebony there are more than enough vintage guitars hanging on the walls of countless guitar shops to satisfy their desire.


Yeah, one person's streaked ebony is another person's figured ebony.

FWIW, mine are all (not necessarily vintage as such, but) older than most guitar players currently plying the trade. Reuse, rewind, recycle!

He doesn't mention it, but Taylor is also using a lot of sapele in place of mahogany.
 
posted by Herodios at 8:49 PM on February 4, 2014


Can't it be dyed? I've done that. I had a fretboard which was a little uneven and I made it pitch black, completely natural looking.
posted by Teakettle at 8:56 PM on February 4, 2014


MAPLE 4LYFE
posted by petebest at 8:56 PM on February 4, 2014


Can't it be dyed?

Purists.
posted by localroger at 8:57 PM on February 4, 2014


Wow. I can't decide whether I'm more impressed by how good a speaker he is or with the smart decisions he's made. Thanks, Wolof. That was really worth hearing.
posted by straight at 9:08 PM on February 4, 2014 [1 favorite]


Can't it be dyed?

You don't dye wood, you stain it.
 
posted by Herodios at 9:08 PM on February 4, 2014


Unless you're using dye.
posted by hydrophonic at 9:11 PM on February 4, 2014 [1 favorite]


Big star on stage rocking a striated fret board. End of problem.
posted by telstar at 9:24 PM on February 4, 2014


MAPLE 4LYFE

Rosewood. No finish. I've never owned an ebony fretboard, but rosewood is pretty hard, though it does wear, as hard as I play. I have 2 fretless bases - a Jazz with Rosewood & a Precision with maple. I've grown to love that maple neck, but it has a very idiosyncratic tone, and it took me several years to even find a use for the instrument. It's relatively soft & is due for a dressing, as I wear it down a the D on the A string especially, and that worries me, as it's a single-piece neck, & once the fretboard gets too thin, she's sunk. Thankfully I'm old enough that the neck will probably outlive me, as my luthier figured it has 2 or 3 dressings left in it. If only I didn't play so damn hard!

Rosewood sounds more conventional - sharper attack, more sustain & just more common, i guess. More robust, too. Can't stand a lacquered fretboard, even under frets. Fender laquered a lot of their maple fretboards, I guess to protect them. Boo.

On topic: I'm an old-fashioned tree-hugger and if we can save some trees by shifting expectations about appearance so long as it all sounds the same, then great. An instruent's beauty is in the sound it makes.
posted by Devils Rancher at 9:44 PM on February 4, 2014


This is an amazing decision. I look forward to seeing this change happen.
posted by Catblack at 9:47 PM on February 4, 2014 [1 favorite]


If only 1 percent of corporate leaders were so observant and responsible.

The truth is that corporate leaders are probably much more observant and responsible than you may ever know, for the same reasons Taylor is. It's good business. Corporate leaders don't always do the greenwashing thing nearly as good as Taylor, though.

This isn't really picking on Taylor. They've got to market their stuff, too. But the writing has been on the wall for a pretty long time over the traditional exotic woods used on stringed instruments, and manufacturing has changed continuously in response, well before Taylor was in existence. And Taylor certainly isn't the only company aiming for increased sustainability. Companies like LaSiDo have championed sustainable domestic materials and economical construction methods for a long time.

One thing I credit Taylor with is demonstrating over and over how little traditional materials and methods matter in making superior instruments. Their advantage comes from the fact that they had no legacy like Martin or Gibson steering them to traditional (and sometimes inferior) ways. Still, the market for things like guitars is remarkably conservative (one of the best selling electric guitars today still has three unshielded single coil pickups and has a path to ground through the player's body), and lore about the tonal qualities of wood X or construction method Y dies hard.
posted by 2N2222 at 10:24 PM on February 4, 2014 [1 favorite]


I have a Baby Taylor made of a mahogany top and neck, a laminate sapele body and an ebony fretboard. It's a lovely guitar with fantastic worksmanship and a warm, rich sound that's surprising to hear from a 3/4 guitar (full size dreadnoughts are just too big for my arm length).

I think the color in the "new" ebony material will prove popular, especially if Taylor manages to coax out the variations into something pretty (like jade work, where all the rings and discs are the same form but are unique based on the green and white variations in the stone).
posted by linux at 10:53 PM on February 4, 2014


Ok so: not to take away from this, because it really is fantastic and I applaud his candor and canny environmental moves (I mean really, positioning yourself to get the rights to 75% of the ebony output of Cameroon and then doing this is a master move). But by the end I totally stopped seeing that guy and started seeing Jeff Goldblum playing a character. Like, it was really uncanny.
posted by jason_steakums at 11:06 PM on February 4, 2014


Maple - especially high gloss varnished on a Strat neck - is unacceptable. You may as well be playing a baseball bat.
posted by colie at 11:46 PM on February 4, 2014 [1 favorite]


Maple makes a fine fretboard, just lightly oil or wax finish it instead of heavy lacquer or polyurethane. It emphasizes upper mid frequency clarity, and since guitar is a mid range instrument the fundamental feels very present and "snappy". Telecasters sound most like themselves with an all maple neck, for instance. I agree a thick gloss neck is a bummer.

Good on Taylor for taking these measures and going public. Now other manufacturers will have more incentive. I think figured ebony can be gorgeous, and with macassar becoming more rare this cameroon resource slowly opens possibilities. And I too hope LaSiDo in Canada eventually gets more credit for using woods like cherry and regional maple.

Also, the Taylor Pallet guitar.
posted by methinks at 12:02 AM on February 5, 2014 [3 favorites]


Maple . . . You may as well be playing a baseball bat.

Some players dig that baseball bat feel and pay extra for it at custom shops. (I'm not one.)

the Taylor Pallet guitar.

HA! Fantastic. The neck has an inlay of a has a forklift!

Baby Taylor made of . . . a laminate sapele body

Another thing he didn't mention: The work Taylor has been doing making laminates sound good.

The difference between solid wood and laminate guitar components is like the difference between solid lumber and plywood in construction. The latter uses less wood-y wood. but is cheaper in both senses.

So getting past that notion with good musical results would be quite an achievement as well.

Now: could someone clue in the fiddle-makers about all this? They use up a lot of ebony for fingerboards and other 'tone-woods', too.
 
posted by Herodios at 4:17 AM on February 5, 2014


20 years ago I played one of the earliest Eric Clapton signature Strats and it had a totally V-shaped neck, just a total triangle shape and unlike anything I've played since. It was very lightly lacquered maple and blew my (admittedly young) mind.

Nowadays those Clapton signature Strats have just the usual Strat neck it seems. Anyone know what was going on with that really pronounced V neck and how I might get a similar thing? Even the 80s examples I have seen on Ebay don't seem to have the 'bonkers V'.
posted by colie at 5:06 AM on February 5, 2014


Ebony is a holdover from a time before the ubiquity of plastics - it was the only way to get a durable, workable material in pure, perfect black. Now you can get any number of synthetics as pure black and shiny and durable as you like it.

The only reason to use wood as a non-sonic element to an instrument, such as a piano key or guitar fret, is because it's beautiful, and that, in the age of lifetime-guaranteed powedercoat finishes, means the essential character of the wood - its grain and imperfections as an organic substance.

And ebony is beautiful when a woodworker shows off the grain and imperfections, as in the aforementioned GEC pocket knives with ebony scales (the handle parts). Tho, to be honest, I prefer their horn and bone scales - re-uses a part of the cow usually discarded at slaughter.
posted by Slap*Happy at 5:46 AM on February 5, 2014


Or, it could be, like, totally Phenolic, man.
posted by petebest at 6:20 AM on February 5, 2014


With the rapid advances in 3D printing, I wonder how long it will be before it will be possible to print a wood-like material with whatever structural and esthetic properties are desired.

It has to be easier (if far less profitable) than printing kidneys.
posted by Enron Hubbard at 7:08 AM on February 5, 2014


Anyone know what was going on with that really pronounced V neck

The first thing that springs to mind is that the one you played might have been a Custom Shop model rather than the standard production Signature Series model. I think in Fender-speak "Custom Shop" mostly means a more limited production run and more attention to detail rather than an actual "custom" instrument where the player specifies everything and the guitar has to be made from scratch (although I think they can and will further customize an instrument.)

From what I can tell, Fender (and most other companies) tend to tweak the more mass-produced instruments to make them more palatable to more players, and an extreme V neck is gonna be too weird for a lot of people. So only the really expensive Custom Shop version will have a neck exactly like Clapton's while the regular Signature model would soften the V shape.

how I might get a similar thing

Aftermarket is probably your best bet. Your profile says you're in London, and as far as I know Musikraft is the main European company for aftermarket necks & bodies & etc. There's also the U.S. based Warmoth and USA Custom Guitars, which might be available through ebay if they don't ship overseas directly. All these companies have a wide variety of neck shapes and finish options.

Or you could go the (possibly) cheaper route of getting a more generic neck from AllParts or MightyMite (still some shape/material/finish options, including some V shapes, just not as many as the above companies) and then get a local luthier to shape the neck to your liking.

Here's a page explaining some Fender neck profiles.

For more info (and opinions . . . . oh, the opinions) than you can shake a stick at, try browsing through the forums at tdpri.com, strat-talk.com, and thegearpage.net.
posted by soundguy99 at 7:29 AM on February 5, 2014 [2 favorites]


Bob Taylor covers some of the same ground in this episode of Alton Brown's podcast, as well as the history of Taylor Guitars, his views on conservation, and vegan cashew cheese.
posted by zamboni at 7:30 AM on February 5, 2014


The only reason to use wood as a non-sonic element to an instrument, such as a piano key or guitar fret, is because it's beautiful, and that, in the age of lifetime-guaranteed powedercoat finishes, means the essential character of the wood - its grain and imperfections as an organic substance.

This is true, except for the part about the fingerboard being a non-sonic element.

With the rapid advances in 3D printing, I wonder how long it will be before it will be possible to print a wood-like material with whatever structural and esthetic properties are desired.

I have been planning an FPP on 3d printed guitar bodies for a while, so I went ahead and posted it this morning.

Only the bodies are 3d printed (and what bodies). The hardware is off-the-shelf and the necks are provied by Warmoth unless you specify otherwise.
 



 
posted by Herodios at 7:46 AM on February 5, 2014


Rosewood.

Rosewood as bad as ebony, ecologically speaking. It grows in the same places as ebony, and is harvested just as irresponsibly. When this guy talks about ebony being poached from national parks in Madagascar, well, they were also doing that with rosewood for exactly the same reason. (This was a big deal a few years back when Gibson was raided for using poached rosewood.)
posted by Sys Rq at 8:49 AM on February 5, 2014 [1 favorite]


Thanks soundguy99, very interesting. That 50s hard-v (number 4 in the diagram of necks) certainly looks extreme but really really worked for my hands.
posted by colie at 9:04 AM on February 5, 2014 [1 favorite]


I'm in the market for my first high quality (have a few cheapos) guitar and the sustainability thing has been a big question. Thanks for posting this!
posted by Big_B at 9:12 AM on February 5, 2014


Rosewood as bad as ebony, ecologically speaking. It grows in the same places as ebony, and is harvested just as irresponsibly. When this guy talks about ebony being poached from national parks in Madagascar, well, they were also doing that with rosewood for exactly the same reason. (This was a big deal a few years back when Gibson was raided for using poached rosewood.)

Yes, there are so many kinds of rosewood (alternatives to Brazilian and Indian), like Cocobolo, that are being integrated, until they too are either exhausted and or people adapt to alternative woods.

Wood is both malleable and relatively abundant, with those replenishability caveats. Synthetic materials were okay for lower range instruments like electric bass guitars but when applied to electric guitars (like the Steinberger L) it over-engineered the '70s Les Paul ideal of massive and heavy = controlled sustain, all hippie sandwich mahogany and brass hardware. The resonant results are arguably suboptimal for a guitar's range (I like them for what they are and understand the disdain). While alternative materials are a great idea and an eventuality, the interim will probably be best served by these smart laminates, alternative woods and responsible geopolitical negotiation. Again, this is a good move by Taylor for manufacturing.
posted by methinks at 10:23 AM on February 5, 2014


Various guitar manufacturers have approached sustainability in different ways. Bob Taylor and Taylor Guitars are a leader.

Martin Guitars makes sustainable models; see their Sustainable models web page.

Premier Guitar magazine has a good article on this subject.

There are some very nice smaller manufacturers devoted to eco-sustainable guitar building. internet searches will find more details.
posted by blob at 1:09 PM on February 5, 2014


So, Taylor said that using the streaky wood means they can use more of the trees they cut down now, which is great, but are they also going back and collecting all the streaky trees they previously felled and left there? Seems like you could shift away from logging into reclaiming all of those unless there's some reason that wouldn't work.
posted by jason_steakums at 3:56 PM on February 5, 2014


If they can retrieve them they should, but my guess is all that wood is rotted out and unusable.
posted by linux at 4:03 PM on February 5, 2014


Confession: I thought ebony was a form of rock!
posted by alasdair at 6:52 AM on February 6, 2014


It's a wood that rocks.
posted by colie at 8:38 AM on February 6, 2014


Bought a GS Mini last year, and glad to support an ethical luthier. It's an awesome instrument for its size, or any size, and cheap at the price. Yeah, it's sapele instead of spruce or mahogany. And the fingerboard is indeed a little streaky. And the fucker sounds as good as many fine vintage parlors I've played. Yay Taylor.
posted by spitbull at 5:58 AM on February 8, 2014


I'm such a computer nerd -- was about to inform you that Apple never made a G5 mini because of thermal issues...

But if Taylor guitars are good enought for Mike Keneally... Then they must be pretty damn awesome.
posted by Devils Rancher at 6:28 AM on February 8, 2014


Update: I bought a Taylor 114ce last night after playing over a dozen guitars in the last two weeks. The sustainability was a huge factor, but even playing other "friendly" guitars I just kept coming back to it. It is amazingly smooth and just rings.
posted by Big_B at 2:33 PM on February 19, 2014


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