Acoustic Music, Monday Musings, Recommended Readings
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Wood that rejoices in transmitting music

Stringed instruments have an often unique and mysterious personality — a soul, if you will — that some find difficult to understand. How that personality is acquired is a complex story. Musical traditions and the work of composers and musicians who contribute to that tradition most certainly play a role. Sometimes part of the instrument’s personality flows from that of the musician. Violinist and conductor Pinchas Zuckerman can point to his famous Guarnerius violin and announce that “this is a complete extension of my being.”

And yet the soul of these instruments comes from more than just the musicians who play them so skillfully. Luthiers work a lifetime striving to perfect an instrument’s voice. Foresters select and cut the music trees.

Most important of all are the rare and vanishing forests that produce old trees and the wood that rejoices in transmitting music.

The words of a poet driven by wonder and curiosity.

Masters of Tonewood: The Hidden Art of Fine Stringed-Instrument Making (2022) by poet and author Jeffrey Greene is dedicated to exploring how those mysterious personalities we admire when a fine stringed instrument is skillfully played are acquired. It is a pleasing and illuminating deep dive into a fascinating world, skillfully written with the clarity of a poet and the love of an artist.

Most non-musicians have heard of stringed instruments made by Stradivari and the other celebrated luthiers such as Amati and Guarneri from the Golden-Age of Cremonese instrument builders.  What Greene does in Masters of Tonewood is take the reader beyond the single instrument and the famous names to help us understand the key resonance wood used in Europe for stringed instruments such as violins, violas, cellos, contrabass, piano, classical guitar, and harp.

The wood for the tops of many of these instruments comes from a very common tree, the Norway spruce. Yet the pieces chosen in crafting a great instrument only come from very old spruce trees that have grown in rare mountain forests at approximately 4,000 feet, “with unique soil composition, disposition to the sun, and prevailing weather patterns.” Wanting to see the birthplace of these magnificent instruments firsthand, Greene takes us on a delightful tour of the seven key European “musical forests” located in Italy, France, Switzerland, Austria, Romania, Poland, and the Czech Republic. Along the way he visits with the musicians who create musical art on these instruments; luthiers who take carefully selected pieces of wood and craft them into prized pieces of art in their own right; tonewood millers who carefully cut and prepare the logs for sale around the world; and the foresters who tend to these “renewable gardens” that are under attack by multiple forces in the modern world.

In an interview for France Today, Greene helps us understand the key role of the tonewood.

You might wonder how a small instrument like a violin can rivet a whole concert hall with so much sound, even “grab an audience by the throat” with the range of its emotive voice. Of course, the virtuoso musician gives the soaring expression to great compositions. But anyone who lives with creaky wood floors, like the ones in my Paris apartment, or listens to a woodpecker, knows that wood fibre possesses the remarkable property of conducting and projecting sound.

The musical forests of Europe, like similar stands of trees around the world, are stressed today by climate change, extraordinary storms that can destroy centuries of growth in a single event, and illegal logging, among other threats. Greene helps the reader understand what the countries of Europe are doing to maintain this universal treasure.

Near book’s end, the author looks at the extraordinary story of the guitar with detours to France, Spain, the Mississippi Delta, and beyond. He recognizes the role that the United States has played in popularizing the instrument.

And Greene also takes a delightful look at luthiers using alternative sources of wood, such as floorboards, backyard trees, and lumber that has been submerged in water for decades. He finds George Youngblood in Guilford, Connecticut, building a guitar using Sitka spruce, a popular tonewood in the U.S.

This particular material, however, was Native American-cut and recovered from old fish traps in the Pacific Northwest. Alaskan fish traps used to be made with weighted spruce logs. Without oxygen, the wood doesn’t rot and the minerals from the bottom of rivers and lakes replaces the sap, making it stiffer and a prized tonewood. And yet, sinker wood divers can disrupt decades-old and delicate ecological systems that support rich wildlife and plant communities. Luthiers such as Youngblood have to continually hunt for appropriate — and legally obtained — materials. Greene quotes the builder as reporting on “carcasses in the basement. There’s a whole pile of broken guitars I call ‘organ donors.'”

Running Dog Guitar Ought-3
My Running Dog Guitar Ought-3 (photo credit: Running Dog Guitars)

Masters of Tonewood connected many threads in my life. Several times while reading Greene’s love letter, I stopped to admire the beautiful Bearclaw Sitka spruce soundboard and Camatillo rosewood body of my Running Dog Ought-3 guitar, built by luthier Rick Davis, as well as the curly koa back and sides of my Running Dog parlor guitar.

Koa back of my Running Dog parlor guitar

Greene’s book is also one of a growing number of books on the interconnectedness of nature that I’ve absorbed over recent years, including Peter Wohllenben’s The Hidden Life of Trees, Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life, and David George Haskell’s The Forest Unseen. Much like these authors, Jeffrey Greene has injected a sense of wonder — and more importantly, a wonder-filled joy — into this vibrant and lovely work.

More to come…


Image by Samuel from Pixabay


I am David J. Brown (hence the DJB) and I originally created this personal blog more than ten years ago as a way to capture photos and memories from a family vacation. After the trip was over I simply continued writing. Over the years the blog has changed to have a more definite focus aligned with my interest in places that matter, reading well, roots music, and more. My professional background is as a national nonprofit leader with a four-decade record of growing and strengthening organizations at local, state, and national levels. This work has been driven by my passion for connecting people in thriving, sustainable, and vibrant communities.


  1. My good friend and longtime colleague John Hildreth and I were emailing over the amazing news that his Furman Paladins are going to the NCAA tournament for the first time in 43 years. In our back-and-forth he mentioned he had commented on a recent post with a link to the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix. His comment must have been swept aside as spam, but he sent me the link. It makes sense to include it here. Very cool!

  2. Pingback: March observations | More to Come...

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