Wood is at the heart of everything we do here at Ernie Ball Music Man. Step into our San Luis Obispo factory in California and the first thing you’ll see, right at the start of the production process, is a stockpile of the best timbers that Mother Nature has to offer. Our craftsmen might be sticklers for quality, but when it comes to finding the right wood for the job, we’re open-minded, experimental and always looking to the future. That’s why our guitars and basses feature mahogany, rosewood, basswood, poplar, alder, maple – and plenty more. It’s also why this year’s challenging swamp ash harvest won’t interrupt our mission to make the world’s best instruments. As Ernie Ball Music Man engineer Drew Montell says:
We’ve always experimented with different woods. You name it, we’ve got it.
Back To The Roots
The best tone woods are a labor of love. At Ernie Ball Music Man, we select only the highest-grade timbers, and we’ve often worked with swamp ash – otherwise known as ‘punky ash’ or ‘instrument-grade ash’. The wood’s weight of less than 2.8 pounds per board foot makes for a great instrument build, but it’s not easy to extract. This specific grade of ash can only be found in trees that grow on the banks of the Mississippi River, and with the tree’s base submerged for most of the year, the harvesting process is only possible when water levels drop in late summer and early fall.
Like any firm that deals in natural materials, we’re at the mercy of the environment. With record rainfall and Hurricane Barry raging across the Southern States in July, the Mississippi River experienced some of the worst flooding in the last quarter-century. Aside from the tragic loss of human life and damage to property, the high water levels made it almost impossible for our trusted wood suppliers to reach or extract the swamp ash, resulting in one of the worst harvests in recent history. The repercussions are being felt across the guitar industry, and even at Ernie Ball Music Man, we’ve depleted almost all the inventory of swamp ash in our California factory. Fortunately, after working with wood for the last 35 years, we’ve learnt that Mother Nature is unpredictable. So, while we were disappointed by news of the poor swamp ash harvest – we’re also well prepared.
Rest assured, swamp ash is very much a fixture in our future plans. We continue to compete with the industry’s major guitar brands for the slim supplies of high-grade swamp ash available for purchase, and look forward to better harvests in years to come. But swamp ash is not the only great timber out there, and true to the firm’s maverick spirit, we’re also looking at the bigger picture. Ernie Ball Music Man has always put energy into researching and sourcing more left field, lesser-known timbers from around the world for our electric guitars – not just in the name of sustainability, but also to discover new tone woods that could make our instruments even better. Our recent tests have shown us that poplar and basswood are both great substitues for swamp ash in our bass instruments, with an equally light weight and very similar tone characteristics. And as we continue to search the globe for the best woods you’ve never heard of, our factory stockpile is set to grow and our instruments are sure to maintain those sky-high standards. No swamp ash: no problem.