Taylor Guitars hits the right note with a greener guitar

John Mahoney with Taylor Guitars' Bob Taylor and Scott Paul at the West Coast Arborists' lumber yard in Ontario.
John Mahoney (left) of West Coast Arborists with Taylor Guitars’ Bob Taylor (center) and Scott Paul at the West Coast Arborists’ lumber yard in Ontario, Calif.
(Courtesy of Taylor Guitars)

El Cajon-based company, one of the leading acoustic guitar manufacturers on the planet, unveiled Builder’s Edition 324ce in January. It’s the first guitar made with wood recycled from urban landscapes.

John Mahoney remembers looking at a pile of cut-down trees at West Coast Arborists’ Ontario lumber yard, lamenting how the discarded logs really deserved a second chance. The inventory in that facility, in San Bernardino County, is all urban wood — trees that have been salvaged from city landscapes because they’re diseased, damaged or have reached the end of their life cycles.

“It’s incredible how much wood goes to waste,” said Mahoney, urban wood supervisor for the Anaheim-based West Coast Arborists, which has been providing tree maintenance services to more than 300 municipalities in California and Arizona for 48 years.

Meanwhile, about 100 miles south, on Gillespie Way in El Cajon, Bob Taylor, co-founder and longtime president of Taylor Guitars, was looking to take his company’s global sustainability efforts to the next level.

“We’ve been making guitars out of wood for 46 years — wood from all over the world,” Taylor said. “A lot of U.S. wood, wood from Fiji, wood from the tropics. Over the years, we’ve seen a lot of pressure put on tropical forests. We needed to find a way to continue doing what we do but in a much better way.”

Enter Scott Paul. He worked for Greenpeace for nearly 15 years as its director of forest campaign. About four years ago, he joined Taylor Guitars as director of natural resource sustainability. And he, as it turned out, had the answer both Mahoney and Taylor were looking for.

In 2017, after attending an urban forestry convention in Orange County, Paul invited Mahoney and three dozen others to visit Taylor Guitars. Immediately, it became obvious that West Coast Arborists’ mission very much aligned with that of Taylor Guitars’.

“They’re way ahead of the game,” Taylor said of West Coast Arborists, “and they were our next door neighbor. It was perfect.”

Mahoney agreed: “Taylor’s and West Coast Arborists’ ethos, they line up pretty easily. It was very easy to work together, and it made sense.”

Taylor Guitars has partnered with West Coast Arborists to turn shamel ash into high-end guitars.
Taylor Guitars has partnered with West Coast Arborists to turn shamel ash into high-end guitars.
(Courtesy photo)

People loved it

Earlier this year, at the annual convention of Carlsbad-based National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM), Taylor Guitars unveiled the latest in its environmental efforts: a mass produced high-end guitar made of wood from West Coast Arborists’ inventory.

Builder’s Edition 324ce — with a mahogany face — is the first guitar made with wood recycled from urban trees. Taylor Guitars bills the $2,999 guitar as an instrument “that boasts acoustic properties we love ... (and) embodies Taylor’s forward-thinking philosophy and passion for environmental responsibility.” The company is marketing the new material as “Urban Ash,” but it’s actually wood sourced from a tree planted throughout California after World War II: shamel ash, also known as evergreen ash.

Taylor Guitars master guitar designer Andy Powers quickly fell in love with it.

“This ash species happens to be a great mix of the right weight, density, dimensional stability and drying attributes, and responds well to sawing, sanding and finishing,” Powers said in a statement. “In almost every physical way I can measure it, it’s reminiscent of really good Honduran mahogany.”

At Taylor Guitars' El Cajon facility, Clinton Jackson works on a guitar made out of urban wood.
(Courtesy photo )

Taylor Guitars, founded in 1974 in Lemon Grove by Taylor and Kurt Listug, is one of the leading premium acoustic guitar manufacturers on the planet, with factories in El Cajon and Tecate and annual revenues of more than $120 million. Today, it’s the instrument of choice for many of the world’s top performers, including Taylor Swift, Neil Diamond, Faith Hill and San Diego singer-songwriter Jason Mraz. It produces 160,000 guitars annually, and it expects that about 10,000 of that will come from urban wood. It’s a small slice of the pie, but it’s a start — and a good one at that.

“In January of this year, we showed it at NAMM,” Taylor said, referring to the largest trade show for music products held annually, “and people loved it. They ordered them, they sold them, they reordered them.”

Mahoney sees West Coast Arborists’ relationship with Taylor Guitars as a harbinger of what’s to come.

“Recovering wood from urban landscapes used to be a niche,” he said. “Now more and more people are finding uses for municipal green waste. We create so much green waste, and in the last few years, we’ve been doing a better job of upcycling them. For many big manufacturers, it’s kind of a stigma to use recovered urban wood. We needed a company like Taylor, who’s got the foresight and the determination to change that.”

Shamel ash logs in West Coast Arborists' Ontario yard will one day be turned into guitars at Taylor Guitars in El Cajon.
Shamel ash logs in West Coast Arborists’ Ontario lumber yard will one day be turned into guitars at Taylor Guitars in El Cajon.
(Courtesy photo)

In California, there are more than 175 million trees in urban landscapes, about 7 million of which are under the maintenance and care of West Coast Arborists. Over the last 20 years, West Coast Arborists, which keeps detailed data on all of the trees under its care, has identified 45 species of trees that are recoverable — trees cut down from urban centers that can have a future as high-end products like furniture, or in this case, guitars. The rest end up as firewood or mulch.

“We are definitely still learning,” Mahoney said, adding that his company removes more than 18,000 trees and plants more than 14,000 every year. “An average city has 150 species. In San Diego alone, there are 900 species of trees. For Taylor Guitars, we looked through our inventory of trees and identified trees at the end of their life cycle. They’re coming down after being planted 60, 70, 80 years ago.”

Mahoney handed Taylor Guitars a list of 10 species, which the company then studied and tested, looking for the perfect wood for its guitars.

“Guitars are one of the highest end wooden products you can make,” Mahoney said. “Most logs will not make a good guitar.”

Traditionally, guitars are made from tonewood — wood varieties that possess tonal properties — like mahogany, spruce, ebony and rosewood. Shamel ash, a native of Mexico, was by far the best fit, perfect for a guitar’s back and sides. And luckily, a steady supply is expected in the next few years as the trees, known for their thick trunks and full canopies, reach the end of their life cycles.

“It’s fantastic,” Taylor said. “As they take them out, we send them up to Washington to be milled” before bringing them back to San Diego County.

It’s a journey

Taylor Guitars’ relationship with West Coast Arborists is but one part of the company’s larger sustainability effort, and to hear Taylor say it, it’s just the beginning.

“Sustainability is not a destination,” he said. “It is a journey. We are honored to be on this journey, to pave the way so that the people that come behind us will be better off and have more choices.”

Indeed, Taylor Guitars has been paving the way for years all across the globe. In 2012, it partnered with Spanish tonewood supplier Madinter and bought an ebony sawmill in Cameroon to “take responsibility for the ethical sourcing of ebony.” In 2015, it launched a company to “improve the sustainability of koa in Hawaii.”

Now, to be a part “of something awesome,” Mahoney said, “to put the spotlight on something so beautiful, to be a part of something so magical ... it’s amazing.

“Seeing something that could have gone in the trash very easily,” he added, “and with some effort and foresight, seeing it made into one of the highest end wood products all around, that’s incredible.”

Taylor Guitars

Founded: 1974, in Lemon Grove, by Bob Taylor and Kurt Listug

Factories: Two state-of-the-art manufacturing centers, one in Tecate and one in El Cajon, where the 145,000-square-foot facility also is the company’s headquarters

Annual revenue: More than $120 million

Number of employees: Over 900

Guitar production: 160,000 annually

Expected production of Urban Ash guitars: 10,000 annually

Taylor Guitars' high-end guitar made out of urban wood.
Taylor Guitars’ high-end guitar made out of urban wood.
(Courtesy photo )