Exert from a lecture given by John at the UC Berkeley Botanical Gardens
Trees and Tones - Wooden Instrument Traditions: Guitars

Top Cedar

The most I generally know about the woods whose potential I coax into musical expression is the general areas of the world they may come from, and their last known address. This Brazilian rosewood came from Brazil. This spruce from Europe. I may remember that this rosewood I got in Pawtucket, R.I. in 1973, the remains of stock used in baseboards for a mansion in Newport. Or this spruce was from a violin maker who showed up at the Carmel Classic Guitar festival in 1979, but that’s about it.  This tree is different.

The one thing I do know about all my tops is the minimum age of the tree from which it came. As any schoolchild knows, or used to know, all you have to do is count the grain lines. The top cut from this tree has at least 650, which means that along about 1288, when a 34 year old Marco Polo was in Asia with his father and uncle, thousands of miles away in the Northern Oregon Coast Range, a western red cedar shoot poked through the forest floor and began converting carbon dioxide, sunlight and water into organic compounds and oxygen, the basis for all life on earth.

 

It was at least 300 years before the birth of Bach. It slowly sent out roots to join its neighbors, and settled into its place on the earth. It would be undisturbed and thriving in the forest for over 6 centuries. The respectful Tillamook tribe joining it in the 15th century, the less so Americans in the early 19th century.
By looking at the widths of the grain lines we can see it going through periods of draught and deluge, and can use these same grains as a human timeline of events happening far away. You can mark where, in 1596 Shakespeare completes Romeo and Juliette, 1685 Bach’s birthday, 1775 the American Revolution, 1875 The first Kentucky Derby, and in 1920, women in the U.S.A. finally get the vote. Sometime between 1933 and 1951, possibly around the death of Freud in London, the tree’s life was extinguished.

The Tillamook Burn, a series of fires from 1933 to 1951, two started by loggers and one by a discarded cigarette, burned 350,00 acres. Our tree, scarred but standing, ceased to grow. Some timber salvage occurred, but when a retired logger entered the forest in the mid 70’s, cutoffs from the decay resistant cedar were still there, intact, air dried for 40 years.

 

The logger, Lachlan Doherty, stopped by my friend Jeff’s shop in Portland. He wanted a fine steel string guitar and asked if Jeff was interested in some old growth instrument grade western red cedar and Sitka spruce. He was. Lachlan located the trees, cut them into bolts (large wedge shaped sections as long as guitar tops), backpacked them to his truck on the logging road, and drove them to Jeff, who traded him one of his guitars for a pickup truck load of timber.

 

Jeff sold a bunch of bolts to me, where they sat around for a few years. I decided that my cedar guitars pretty much sounded like my spruce guitars, and, since I preferred working with spruce, I’d sell the cedar to a wood cutter, who only wanted the most uniform material. Now, makers and players were a bit more anal retentive then than now, and didn’t want stuff with varying grain patterns and colors ( which I love), so I kept the rest. I have a picture of me 40 years and 40 pounds ago with the wood in my shop, at the time in the basement of a music store in downtown Berkeley, Tupper and Reed.

About a dozen years ago I had a change of heart, had the bolts cut up, and began to build with cedar again. The resulting guitars surely sound to me very much like my babies, but do seem to bring something different to the table, especially with my latest designs.