Dr Terry Mabbett looks at why swamp ash has struck a chord with guitar manufacturers – and how it could all end on a sour note, thanks to the emerald ash borer.

NORTH American swamp ash is traditionally used in the manufacture of world-famous Fender guitars. However, in April 2020 Fender announced it would be phasing out swamp ash wood for production-line electric guitars.

The company said: “In order to uphold our legacy of consistency and high quality, we at Fender have made the decision to remove ash from the majority of our regular production models. What little ash we are able to source will continue to be made available in select, historically appropriate vintage models.”

Fender guitars have a long and distinguished history, having been used, for example, by John Lennon on the Beatles’ album Rubber Soul, and George Harrison played one on Abbey Road.

The term ‘swamp ash’ does not describe any one particular species of ash (genus Fraxinus), but is a general term used by luthiers. These are craftsmen and craftswomen who build and repair musical instruments which feature a neck and sound box. Swamp ash describes the lightweight wood cut from a range of Fraxinus species found in wet or swampy areas. Wood which the term swamp ash covers includes timber sourced from:

  • Fraxinus caroliniana (Carolina or Florida ash), native to the south-eastern United States and Cuba;
  • Fraxinus nigra (black ash), native to the north-eastern United States and eastern Canada;
  • Fraxinus pennsylvanica (green ash or red ash), broadly distributed in North America east of the Rocky Mountains.

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Swamp ash is sourced from the Mississippi River where annual rains from across the central region of the United States traditionally combine with snowmelt to inundate the hardwood-dominated bottomlands of the lower Mississippi. When the floodwaters recede and soils dry out, logging crews fell and extract swamp ash trees. Part submersion for several months a year promotes growth of wood tissue comprising thin-walled cells with large intercellular spaces between, to produce a low-density wood prized by musical instrument makers.

However, excessive rainfall in recent years, attributed to climate change, has sown seeds of doubt about the sustainability of swamp ash supplies. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the 12 wettest months on record in the US were recorded from June 2018 to July 2019. Indeed, the agency found the 2019 spring floods along the Mississippi were among the most damaging in modern history. Furthermore, a 2018 study reported in Nature showed the area’s flooding has become more frequent and severe over the past 150 years.

Green ash (Fraxinus pennsylvanica) is one of the species yielding swamp ash timber and is a fast-growing species which adapts well to seasonal flooding, but it is the seedling trees which suffer badly from lengthening periods of high floodwater. Early growing season floods which fall away after a few weeks are not a problem, but young trees are clearly not equipped to cope with long-duration inundation and die in large numbers.

However, it is a much more immediate and tangible threat that is worrying guitar makers and their industry. That threat is a wood-boring and -tunnelling beetle called the emerald ash borer (Agrilus planipennis). This alien beetle pest, native to Asia, was first found 18 years ago in Michigan and has spread to 35 US states and five Canadian provinces, killing millions of ash trees along the way. Emerald ash borer is attacking a wide range of Fraxinus species including the three species from which swamp ash timber is harvested in the lower Mississippi. The emerald ash borer is yet to reach these floodplains but North American foresters and entomologists say it is not a matter of if, but when.

The question is, what types of timber can luthiers use as alternatives to swamp ash? Certain species, like big-leaf maple/Oregon maple (Acer macrophyllum) and red alder (Alnus rubra), are considered the best alternatives on offer at the moment. However, if tree breeders are successful with ongoing programmes to produce Fraxinus pennsylvanica resistant to emerald ash borer then swamp ash may live on in the Mississippi wetlands and the music industry.

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