Why Hemp Guitars?
The story of hemp is older than civilization itself. Going back more than 12,000 years, its history reflects both the resilience of the plant and the tenacity of those who have cultivated it throughout the human adventure. While it has been an indispensable source of weaving and construction material throughout the ages, it is only a relatively recent phenomena that the trusty hemp plant has faced such monolithic and indeed monopolistic opposition.
As we come to appreciate the unique versatility, strength, durability and environmental efficiency of hemp, we also quickly come to see how it came to have so many enemies, particularly amoung the powers in the timber, wheat, cotton, tobacco, oil & gas and pharmaceutical industries. With enemies like this, it doesn’t matter who your friends are. And yet, less than a 100 years after its illegalization across most of the western world, the humble hemp plant returns, stronger and more important than ever.
A Weed For All Seasons
Today hemp is being made available in a variety of forms from oils to waxes to resins, woven fabrics and pressed boards. Like any comparably versatile material, the boundaries of its application are limited only to craftsman’s imagination.
So while the idea of a hemp guitar may be strange at first, once ones comes to better understand the properties of the plant; the unique processes involved in pressing it, (not to mention the supremely resonant final result), the logic of a hemp guitar becomes quite intriguing.
While our work in building, repairing and designing guitars goes back many, many years before we very got our hands on hemp, we had experimented with a large number different available woods. While we love working with wood of all varieties, two important aspects of it continued to bother us. The first was the rather overblown obsession with tonewoods and the idea that certain very rare and even endangered woods somehow sound better than others.
The Tonewood Myth
Take Brazilian rosewood. While it may look very beautiful, we defy any player, even with the very best ears, to consistently distinguish a Brazilian rosewood guitar from one built of the Indian variety. Certainly there will be debate on this subject until the world’s last two luthiers are standing, one thing that most agree on is that when it comes to guitars the construction concept and building detail is what makes most, if not all of the difference.
If we consider the wide variation between a standard 50s or 60s Fender electric and those built from roughly the same parts since, the argument is well made. Under the watchful eye of Leo Fender, his lovingly (even scientifically) designed guitars were much less about the wood selected and parts that were sourced as they were the design, balance, tension and scale of the guitars; and of course, the people who built them.
A more recent proof of this came when Bob Taylor of Taylor Guitars decided it was time to silence the tonewood fetishists by building an guitar of palette woods sourced from the floor of his warehouse. He famously then sent the prototype to C.F. Martin, who’s enthusiastic blessing of what has been described as a wonderfully balanced, rich and powerful guitar proved the point once and for all.
The Godmother of Invention: Discovery
When we first discovered the process of pressing hemp, we actually weren’t thinking about guitars at all, but rather alternatives to pressed wood in the construction amplifier speaker cabinets. In our tests we found that that the weight-to-density ratio of hemp far exceeded ordinary pressed wood. Not only were the wood cabinets much stronger, but they were also considerably lighter and more resonant. Already well under way building our version of a boutique-inspired nod to the classic chambered body electrics of the early 60s, we realized we had nearly everything we needed to get to work on hemp bodied prototype.
While the electric guitar is a fairly recent innovation, the art of guitar making goes back hundreds if not thousands of years. And while the design processes and construction methods have been refined to near perfection, there remain almost endless pathways for the luthier to experiment; and this spirit of discovery is still alive and well today.
We are pleased to share with our own story of discovery and a process by which the world’s most versatile plant has found yet another application; yet again demonstrating hemp’s unique strength and integrity, and the exciting opportunity use it to redefine old crafts.
More on the fascinating history of hemp can be found on the pages of Canadian Hemp Guitars, but to the question at hand – how did hemp find its way to yet another perfect application, and one so near to our heart and soul, the guitar? That will be the subject of our next post.