Wok and roll, anybody? Pushing the envelope of guitar-making technology, Japanese instrument giant Yamaha will introduce next month a new acoustic guitar made of bamboo -- a hollow, tree-like Asian grass that contains more air than wood.
For Yamaha, the three-year struggle to create the guitar was more than just a marketing gimmick. It was also an effort by the world's largest instrument maker to see whether instruments could be made from more environmentally friendly materials. (In addition to the bamboo guitar, the company is launching a line of bamboo snare drums.)
Traditionally, guitar luth-iers have relied on hardwoods such as mahogany, cedar and rosewood to create a beautiful guitar tone. But these slow-growing trees can take a half-century or more to reach maturity, and heavy demand from the furniture and musical instrument industries has caused some species to disappear faster than they can be replaced.
"Musical instrument makers tend to use the creme de la creme of lumber. That's one of the reasons that many of them are concerned," says David Arens of the Forest Stewardships Council, an international organnization that monitors eco-friendly commercial forests and companies that use them.
Brazilian rosewood, for example, a tree long favored by luthiers, was added to the endangered species list in 1992.
In a search for alternatives, some guitar makers have turned to more plentiful woods such as cherry, or to artificial materials such as fiberglass and plastic.
A few years ago, renowned luthier Bob Taylor of Taylor Guitars even built a guitar from an old oak pallet and construction-grade two-by-fours he found in the Dumpster outside his El Cajon, Calif., guitar factory.
"It even had the nail holes," recalls company spokesman Buzz Marcus.
Despite its humble origins, the instrument drew raves for its tone. Demand for the custom-made "pallet" guitar has been so strong that this year Taylor is planning to produce a limited run of them, expected to cost several thousand dollars each.
Yamaha designers wanted a material that could be mass-produced and easy to replace, and bamboo looked like it might fit the bill. It's one of the fastest-growing plants on Earth -- some species have been known to sprout several inches a day. Technically not a tree at all but a species of grass, the plant has a strong, flexible trunk that can soar to 130 feet.
In Asia, where bamboo is plentiful, the material has been used for centuries to make everything from fishing poles to houses to wind instruments such as the Japanese shakuhachi, a traditional flute.
"To make a soundboard is a lot more difficult than to make a flute," says David Bergstrom, a marketing director for Yamaha Corporation of America.
For help, Yamaha turned to Masatoshi Watanabe, a scholar at Kyoto University known in Japan as the "Bamboo Doctor" for his expertise in the material. Watanabe pointed the company to a species of bamboo that would sound good and be easy to harvest in large quantities.
The big question was how to extract enough wood from bamboo's thin rind of fibrous trunk to fashion the broad sides of a guitar. In the end the company had to design and built custom machines to do the job, says Shigeto Nomura, one of the guitar's designers at Yamaha.
Japanese luthiers shaved hundreds of strips of bamboo and glued these together into long sheets. For strength, they sandwiched several of these together at right angles to one another to make a board.
They then cut the pieces of the guitar from the laminate board with their custom jigs. In the end, each guitar, says Nomura, consists of as many as 600 bamboo strips.
There were other problems. For example, the luthiers soon discovered that bamboo is host to several insect species that munch its fiber. "You wouldn't want to open your guitar case and find it gone," says Bergstrom.
Yamaha officials are hoping to lure eco-conscious musicians such as Sting to play the guitar, which comes in two models priced at $500 without amplification and $700 with electronics.
Professional luthiers who have seen the guitar at industry shows were not impressed, however.
"It was a dud," says Rick David, editor of Guitar Maker magazine, a trade publication for luthiers. "The guitar has a very nontraditional sound."
But David says he applauds Yamaha's effort to look for alternatives to endangered woods.
"We would like to emphasize that bamboo is an extreme case in our research for alternative materials," Yamaha's Shigeto Nomura wrote in a recent article in Guitar Maker. "We hope this unique sound may inspire guitarists to create new songs and styles."
But guitar makers might have their work cut out for them, says Taylor Guitars' Marcus.
"It's difficult to get acoustic guitar buyers to move in new directions," he says. "Most people don't want anything that is really wild and far-fetched."