Electric Guitars Will Soon Sound Different, Thanks to Climate Change

A shortage of swamp ash means manufacturers must turn to new woods.

playing electric Fender guitar

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame guitarist Don Felder, Fender guitar detail, performs in 2019 in Thousand Oaks, California.
Scott Dudelson / Getty Images

Rock-and-roll musicians are lamenting a recent announcement from Fender. Due to prolonged flooding along the Mississippi River and the spread of the emerald ash borer, there is a shortage of swamp ash wood, a favorite material used in the construction of electric guitars and basses.

The underlying reason for the ash shortage is climate change. While the swamp ash can survive underwater for weeks at a time, it struggles to thrive when that time stretches into months. Scientific American reports that, between June 2018 and July 2019, the U.S. experienced its 12 wettest months on record, and that "the 2019 spring floods along the Mississippi were among the most damaging in modern history." The area's flooding has gotten progressively worse over the past 150 years and is likely to continue in that direction as climate change intensifies.

Not only does the flooding make it harder for trees to grow, but it impedes logging companies from entering the swamp regions to harvest wood. Their window of opportunity is shorter and, in the words of Norman Davis, advisor for Mississippi-based Anderson-Tully Lumber, "The bottomlands have been pretty much inaccessible the last two and a half years."

Then there's the emerald ash borer, an Asian pest that has killed tens of millions of trees in North America since its arrival on the continent in 2002. Efforts to slow its spread have been largely unsuccessful, and concern is so great in some parts of the Mississippi region that logging companies have started taking all the ash trees they can get, simply to save them from the borer. Jennifer Koch, a biologist with the Forest Service, told Scientific American that this decision "makes sense under the current circumstances, though it leaves fewer trees for the future."

Treehugger reached out to veteran instrument maker Steve Martinko for comment (full disclosure: he is the author's father-in-law). Martinko, a luthier with over 40 years' experience building guitars and basses for many well-known musicians, explained that ash has long been a desirable material in electric instruments because of its light weight (under 2.8 pounds per board foot) and unique sound. It was also widely available in the past, making it affordable. 

He said ash could likely be replaced by soft (or silver) maple, which is also lightweight, but would have a different sound and be harder to finish because of larger pores in the wood. While the swamp ash's demise is unfortunate from a musical perspective, Martinko was hopeful that maple could fill the void. Maple has traditionally been used to make Fender guitar necks and stock heads, as it's extremely strong and "almost unbreakable in design." He went on to say, "There are over 100 species of maple in China, so lots to work with" – a point all the more relevant because much guitar production has moved overseas. Canada has 10 kinds of native maple and Europe only 3 or 4, he added. 

Red alder has been used as a cheaper alternative to ash in the past and could become more prevalent in instruments. There are also efforts underway to breed a new species of ash that's resistant to the borer, but that is a long-term project with no immediate benefits. In the meantime, musicians may have to get used to the idea that their dream guitar may not sound exactly like they wanted. It's at times like these when climate change doesn't seem so far off and impersonal after all. 

Katherine Martinko, October 2020
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