Climate change causes shortage of wood used to make famed Stratocaster guitars used by Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones

Sainted grandfather of electric guitars will no longer be made with the type of ash that causes its special ‘twang’, because of climate change

Alice Hutton
Friday 26 February 2021 12:57
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Rolling Stones guitarist Ron Wood and singer Mick Jagger performing at Knebworth in 1976. The Stones have been long-time fans of Fender’s Stratocaster guitars, which will no longer be made with ash due to climate change
Rolling Stones guitarist Ron Wood and singer Mick Jagger performing at Knebworth in 1976. The Stones have been long-time fans of Fender’s Stratocaster guitars, which will no longer be made with ash due to climate change

The wood that is used to make the guitars of some of the greatest ‘rock gods’ has fallen victim to climate change.

For more than 70-years iconic guitar masters, Fender, have been using ‘swamp ash’, or ‘music ash’ to make their Telecaster and Stratocaster models, known for giving a special ‘twang’ to the music of Jimi Hendrix, Buddy Holly, Bob Dylan, Muddy Waters, Keith Richards from the Rolling Stones and Chrissie Hynde from the Pretenders.

But now the special ash trees, also used by manufacturers Music Man, are in short supply following years of climate-related flash flooding as well as the arrival of an ash-gnawing beetle, according to Scientific American. 

In August last year, Justin Norvell, executive vice president at Fender, announced that the company would not longer use the wood for their electric models and told Guitar World: “It’s something none of us took lightly – ash is part of the DNA of what we do at Fender.”

Gerald Galloway, a civil and environmental engineering professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, told the magazine that the problems began in earnest in June 2018 with the arrival of the 12 wettest months on record, causing some of the most damaging floods along the Mississippi, a key supply area for the tree, in modern history.

He said: “We’ve got intense rainfall from climate change that’s increasing the amount of water going into the river. And an expanding system of dams, walls and levees – originally intended to prevent floods – may instead be making the situation even worse.”

The second problem arrived in the US in 2002.

The emerald ash borer beetle is usually native to Asia but is now in 35 US states and has reportedly killed millions of native ash trees by tunnelling through the wood.

Jennifer Koch, a US Forest Service biologist, said: “I think it’s the most rapid-spreading insect we’ve seen attacking trees in the US.”

Although the beetle hasn’t arrived in the lower Mississippi yet, environmentalists consider it only “a matter of time”, prompting logging companies to fell more than the usual 30 per cent a year, in panic, which will cause shortages in years to come.

The Fender Stratocaster was first produced in 1954 when its streamlined contours seemed strange and perplexing to many at the time.

Stars who helped give the instrument its reputation include old greats Buddy Holly and Jimi Hendrix, as well as swathes of modern artists like the Strokes. Bob Dylan infamously swapped his acoustic guitar for a Stratocaster for his revolutionary electric set in 1965, much to the anger of his die-hard folk fans at the time.

Sixty years after it was created, the much copied design of the Stratocaster has hardly changed and it continues to be the single most popular, best-selling electric guitar on the planet.

Over the years, a fair number of vintage Strats have sold for over $100,000 (£60,291), with some approaching $1 million (£602,900).

Eric Clapton’s “Blackie” sold for $959,500 (£578,499) in 2004 and recently the Stratocaster that Dylan played at Newport sold for a record $965,000 (£581,815).

In 2014, a guitar from the very first production line of Fender Stratocasters, bearing the serial number 0100, went on sale in Nashville, Tennessee in the US, for a quarter of a million dollars (£150,000), with the shop selling it branding the item “like having the right Rembrandt or Van Gogh or Da Vinci”.

As ash supplies dry up, prices could rocket even, putting the prized items out of the hands of all but the richest rock ’n’ roll stars.

Mike Born, former director of wood technology at Fender, told Scientific American: “The average player just won’t be able to afford it.”

For some musicians, the announcement by Fender that they will no longer use ash for electric guitar models is upsetting.

Richie Kotzen, former guitarist for heavy metal bands Poison and Mr. Big, told Scientific American: “Many years ago I had decided what my favorite woods were on a guitar. I learned that I liked a swamp ash body with a maple neck, and I stuck with it. Now I’m going to have to figure out a replacement wood for ash.”

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