Houses, railroads, toothpicks, popsicle sticks, telephone poles, books, bookshelves, magazines and guitars—what do they have in common? You guessed it, boys and girls: they’re all made of wood and wood-based products.
Which, as it turns out, is a problem. Every year, millions of innocent trees are slaughtered so that we can continue leading the common, convenience-filled lives to which we’ve grown accustomed. And that would be fine, except for one thing: millions of new trees don’t magically pop up each year to replace the old ones. In most parts of the world, wood is harvested irresponsibly, with little or no attention to reseeding, regrowing and regenerating a supply of timber for future generations.
Guitar builders, in particular, are affected by the ever-worsening tree shortage because they rely on very specific and increasingly rare woods to create instruments that have the tone, stability and appearance musicians’ desire. Important luthiery woods like maple, ebony, rosewood and mahogany have become harder to obtain, thereby driving up their price. As a result, it’s become increasingly difficult for builders to produce instruments that are both good sounding and affordable.
Enter SmartWood and the Rainforest Alliance, an organization concerned with preserving what remains of South America’s rainforests. SmartWood is a division of the Alliance that sends representatives to forestry operations around the globe, where they inspect each company’s methods of harvesting and reseeding. Operations that responsibly and effectively replenish the resources they exploit are certified by SmartWood. This certification ensures builders and craftspeople that such materials are ecologically friendly.
Gibson CEO Henry Juszkiewicz first heard about the SmartWood program in 1994 while attending the Rainforest Alliance’s annual gala concert. He reasoned that, by establishing relationships with environmentally farsighted operations, Gibson could secure a sustainable timber supply, thereby ensuring its guitar building future.
Four years later (1998), Gibson had revealed the fruits of those relationships with the Les Paul SmartWood Exotics. The new line consisted of six guitars featuring tops fashioned from unusual, “smartly” harvested tropical woods. Each guitar listed for $1299 new, and in the spirit of philanthropy, Gibson donated a portion of the profits from the SmartWood guitar sales to the Rainforest Alliance.
Composed of mahogany bodies and necks (like most Les Pauls, except those made in the Seventies that had maple necks), each of the six models in the SmartWood line featured tops made from a different but equally stunning wood: Curupay has a deep chocolate-walnut richness; Peroba recalls the orangey hue of the old pine ceiling beam; Banara has a golden, banana-like glow; Ambay Guasu boasts the even lightness of maple; Taperyva Guasu is reminiscent of a sun-bleached rosewood, and Chancharana is a deep, warm-brown russet.
The guitars are lightly finished with a satin-like UV-resistant compound that seals and stabilizes the wood without masking its feel or nuances. All models feature a Curupay fingerboard, a traditional Les Paul two-humbucker pickup configuration, a Tune-O-Matic stop tailpiece bridge and gold hardware.
Based loosely on :”the Les Paul variant” of the late Seventies and early Eighties, the Exotics are light and well balanced, with a slim contour that is also quite reminiscent of the Les Paul Custom Lite that saw limited success in the late Eighties. For standard Les Paul players whose shoulders and backs can no longer take that 10-pound payload, the thinner body on these instruments will provide some relief. In addition, the Exotics’ “1959 Rounded Les Paul” neck shape is beefy but now unwieldy and will feel instantly familiar to Gibson players. The fretwork on all six instruments is excellent, the trapezoid fretboard inlays cleanly installed, and the playability on all models is exactly what you’d expect from a good Les Paul. No surprise there.
Gibson reports that, beyond their obvious cosmetic differences, the exotic tops have little or no effect on the sound of these Pauls. I played all six guitars through a Marshall Super Lead and a Blackface Fender Deluxe and could detect no significant tonal differences among them. Of course, no two sounded exactly the same, but them no two guitars made of wood ever will. That said, the Exotics did share a common sound that we’ve come to expect from Les Paul: a fat low-end that is soft yet present, a midrange that is rich, and sweet highs that are neither piercing nor dull.
The bridge-position 498T humbucker (standard on most non-Custom Shop Gibson electrics) is a relatively hot pickup that drives amplifier preamp sections well without being muddy or too unruly. This is certainly one of the best stock pickups that Gibson has produced in the latest decade or so. And while it does not have the pedigree or clarity of their 57 Classic reissues, it is more versatile than those pickups and performs equally well in mellower blues applications and balls-to-the-wall scooped midrange riffathons. The neck-position pickup, a 490R, is sweet but powerful and can produce throaty, rounded lead tones. With the guitar’s volume rolled back, the neck pickup maintains excellent bite and clarity while generating chimey, bell-like clean sounds.
The End Line
For sound and playability, the Les Paul Exotics offer nothing less than would be expected from the Les Pauls we’ve come to know and love. What’s more, they prove prove that a guitar built from wood harvested in ecologically conscientious manner is just as viable as one crafted from timber obtained with traditional methods. Gibson should be congratulated for taking this step. I for one, certainly hope they reissue the Exotic line soon.
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