When Maton Guitars custom luthier Andy Allen builds an instrument that uses the tiniest sliver of Brazilian rosewood, the guitar takes on a new identity.
The buyer is issued with a guitar passport to prove its constituent timbers were harvested legally and sold through a registered supplier, so it can be taken overseas without fear of it being impounded.
Integrity of timber supply has become a big issue for the instrument-making industry in the wake of a scandal that cost Nashville manufacturer Gibson almost $3 million last month.
Guitar maker Andy Allen, with two guitars - one has a rosewood fretboard (pictured right) and the other a native mulga fretboard. Photo: Wayne Taylor
Maton lodges the information about the rosewood guitars on an international register, so there is an audit trail of where the timber was harvested, stored and sold. The paperwork is to satisfy the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, which has long banned the harvest of the Amazonian rainforest timber.
Maton general manager David Steedman has to go into even more detail when exporting the company's Australian-made guitars and ukuleles to buyers in the US, stating precisely the amount of each timber contained in each model.
He submits this paperwork to comply with the Lacey Act — a recently amended US law that tripped up Gibson in 2009 and again last year — when shipments of timber from Madagascar and India were seized in armed raids.
Gibson last month reached a settlement with the US government, agreeing to forfeit a $260,000 shipment of Malagasy ebony, pay a fine of $300,000 and pay $50,000 to a nature protection awareness campaign. The company estimated its legal costs were about $2 million.
Gibson disputed the US government assertion that it knew the timber shipments were from illegally harvested sources, but negotiated the release of one shipment of timber from India by agreeing to settle the case.
Maton Guitars, which employs 60 staff in Melbourne and builds between 8000 and 9000 guitars and ukuleles a year, pioneered the adoption of Australian timbers in guitar manufacture.
Mr Allen has inked his initials on more than 16,000 Maton instruments over the past 20 years, including 500 built in the custom shop, which was set up on the company's 60th anniversary in 2006.
Most general production guitars are made with a soundboard of North American spruce, a slow-growing conifer species, with about 10 per cent using a soundboard made of bunya pine, grown in plantations in Queensland and northern New South Wales. Already, Australian timbers are used in the neck, back and sides of the guitars.
However, 40 per cent of guitars ordered through the Maton custom shop are built with bunya soundboards, reflecting the taste of buyers who have $6000 or more to spend on their custom guitar.
Another Australian timber is being introduced onto the fretboards of Maton guitars, Queensland mulga, a species of desert acacia or wattle, which Mr Allen says is a better tonewood than rosewood or ebony.
"When I tap it, the mulga has a bell-like tone," Mr Allen says.
Cole Clark Guitars, the rival Melbourne commercial guitar maker, is also trying out new fretboard timbers.
Cole Clark Guitars chief executive Miles Jackson said it was experimenting with new fingerboard combinations using native tree species from southern Australian forests.
Cole Clark, which has 30 staff and builds between 4000 and 5000 instruments a year, has also decided to focus all its attention on its acoustic guitar and ukulele products. It is phasing out its electric guitars for the time being.
Mr Jackson, who took over as chief executive in May, said hollow-bodied electric guitars would be reintroduced with a new body shape and design, but only after a new factory fitout was completed.