The sound of electric guitars may soon be different, and the reason why may surprise you.
Until recently, the bodies of most of the guitars and basses you hear played on records and in concert have been built of wood from the swamp ash tree (fretboards are typically maple, ebony, or rosewood). Swamp ash has been a favorite of guitar makers for years because it sounds good, is lightweight, and up until now, has been plentiful and inexpensive.
But the swamp ash is in trouble in both the U.S. and Canada. Flooding along the Mississippi River has increased dramatically over the past 150 years, and the 12-month period between June 2018 and July 2019 was the wettest on record in the U.S. The plucky swamp ash can live underwater for weeks at a time, but months of being submerged will do it in. Soggy conditions also make it harder for lumber companies to harvest the trees. At least one reports that it hasn’t been able to do it for more than two years.
Even worse, a pest called the emerald ash borer arrived from Asia in 2002, and no one’s been able to figure out a way to eradicate it. The borer has devoured tens of millions of trees in North America, leading some logging companies to harvest all the ash trees they can just in an attempt to take out part of the bug’s food supply.
Because of all this, the Music Man company announced in 2019 that it had exhausted its supply of ash wood at its California plant, and earlier this year Fender — maker of the iconic Stratocaster, Telecaster, and Precision bass models — issued a statement saying it would limit use of the ash wood it has left to “select, historically appropriate vintage models, as supplies are available.”
Biologists are working to breed a borer-resistant species of ash, but that will take years. In the meantime, potential stand-ins for ash include red alder, which is cheap to get. There’s also silver maple, which is lightweight and strong, but hard to finish and has a different sound from ash. The big selling point for maple? More than 100 species of it grow in China, where most guitar production is centered these days.
So if you own a guitar or bass that’s more than a few years old, hang onto it. They literally don’t make ’em like that anymore.