“The State of Ebony”

Years ago, when I was young and single, I used to suffer from a condition of having certain quantities of money burning holes in my pockets. On one such occasion, I came up against a difficult choice: I could buy a somewhat entry-level Taylor guitar, or I could put a down-payment on a nice car. I was taking guitar lessons at the time, and my guitar teacher owned a nice acoustic-electric cutaway model from the Taylor guitar company. It sounded great.

I ended up getting the car, a decision I would come to regret not long afterward. Had I bought the Taylor instead, I might have developed some reasonable guitar playing skills by now. Who knows?

Anyway, over on one of the violin forums I frequent, I came across a link to the following YouTube video featuring Bob Taylor, the president of Taylor Guitars:

I have to say that Bob Taylor seems like a first-rate decent fellow.

I presently have two guitar fingerboards on the bench right now, both of B-grade ebony. I really do prefer the colored stuff to the boring, plain black, just from an aesthetic point of view. Of course, I use lots of ebony on violins too, and these blanks tend to be of the more uniform stuff.

But this brings up a good point. There are a lot of instrument makers out there. It may not seem like it, and as a percentage of population, it’s probably not significant at all. Hardly any of your neighbors personally know a violin maker, probably. Nevertheless, there are a lot of people in the world and even a fraction of them makes for quite a number of folks looking to get their share of scarce resources. Besides abundant hobbyists, individual luthiers, and pro shops like Taylor, we have mass-production factories that turn out cheap instruments by the truckload. While some of these use cheaper, more abundant materials, many do not. You can buy a pretty good factory-made violin outfit, case and bow included, built with figured maple, ebony fittings, and a good spruce top, for well under 400 US dollars.

One of the first issues I was made acquainted with upon taking up the work of lutherie, was the plight of pernambuco. It was something I hadn’t thought of, but it got me thinking about what sort of local sources I might turn to instead of buying imported woods from a dealer. There are many fallen Engelmann spruce logs in the mountains close to my house, and they are perfectly suitable for musical instruments. There is no ebony around here, of course; but there are perhaps other species that produce a dense wood that would be quite a worthy replacement. Maple is fairly plentiful and perhaps local tree removal services are disposing of it when it could instead be cured and made into fiddles. Sycamore, or buttonwood, is also plentiful and might make good solid-body electric guitars.

Anyway, it’s something to think about; certainly it’s one of the challenges of ¬†working in a market that is over-saturated with an endless variety of musical instruments for the choosing.

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