Fender has been using ‘swamp ash’ since the 1950s for its Stratocaster guitars. That’s changing.
The type of wood used in these guitars lent a particular sound to many famous musicians. Muddy Waters, Keith Richards, Chrissie Hynde, Bob Dylan, and many more have praised their Fender guitars. The swamp ash used to make these guitars is sourced in the lower Mississippi delta – an area experiencing rapid climate change.
Swamp ash can refer to green ash, black ash, and white ash. It’s become an integral part of Fender’s sound over the years, usually cheap and readily available. But Mike Born, former director of wood technology at Fender, says that is changing.
In 2019, an acute shortage of swamp ash forced Fender to announce a change in its line-up. The legendary guitar maker has abandoned the use of swamp ash in many of its Stratocasters or Telecasters. Instead, the wood is reserved for high-priced vintage models only.
“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,” the company stated. “What little Ash we are able to source will continue to be made available in select, historically appropriate vintage models, as supplies are available.”
Fender says the dwindling supply of wood for its Stratocaster is due to climate-fueled flooding in the swamps where the wood is harvested.
The area is staying underwater longer during the year, reducing workable days for logging crews. Constant flooding also endangers the growth of new saplings, making it hard to regrow what is harvested. An invasive boring-beetle is also spreading, making wood unusable.
Experts warn that the supply of swamp ash could become even more tenuous. “The average player just won’t be able to afford it,” Born says. Flooding in the lower Mississippi has become more frequent and more severe over the last 150 years. The lack of supply has resulted in changed guitar partnerships, too. Richie Kotzen of Poison’s signature Fender guitar models are now made with a different wood.
“Many years ago I had decided what my favorite woods were on a guitar. I learned that I liked a swamp ash body with a maple neck, and I stuck with it,” he told Scientific American. “Now I’m going to have to figure out a replacement wood for ash.” So what are the alternatives, since swamp ash is so rare?
Red alder may be an adequate wood that produces a similar twang. Fender uses alderwood to make less expensive versions of many of its swamp ash guitars, and it’s been a mainstay in many Fender models for decades. But not everyone agrees that it’s a reasonable substitute. “Ash has a very fast attack. Think of a bright clap,” says Brian Swerdfeger, Vice President of Fender’s R&D. “Alder has a warmer, softer attack. Still a clap, but it’s rounder.”
One option may be to breed swamp ash trees elsewhere, where flooding and parasites aren’t a problem. But that project will take decades to mature, and the swamp ash shortage is here now.