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Handmade Guitars Aren't Endangered, says Longtime Santa Cruz Guitar Maker

Richard Hoover says that after 35 years his business is still thriving, despite complaints by the Gibson Guitar Corporation about Obama administration regulation of rare and endangered woods.

Santa Cruz Guitar Company founder Richard Hoover is surprised that the handmade guitar has suddenly become a political football.

He's made guitars for 35 years from vintage and antique woods – the ones that sound best and keep the instrument sturdy but light – such as Rosewood and Mahogany. But he knew from the start there were strict laws governing the cutting of these precious and endangered woods.

In August, after the Tennessee offices of venerable guitar maker Gibson were raided because the large-scale luthier allegedly used woods illegally imported from India, some turned it into a political issue.

Republicans claimed that it showed the overreach of government regulations. Speaker of the House John A. Boehner, invited Gibson’s owner, Henry E. Juszkiewicz, to sit in the speaker’s box during President Obama’s September jobs speech and Republican blogs claimed the crackdown on the company was an example of the administration's campaign against business and the free market.

They also claimed that the Gibson Guitar Corporation was raided, while C.F. Martin guitars, which uses the same woods wasn't, because Gibson is owned by a Republican and Martin by a Democrat.

Hoover, 59, who started making guitars in Santa Cruz after his precious Martin was stolen on a visit, isn't buying any of it.

"If you buy wood that is legally harvested, you don't have a problem," said Hoover, whose company of 17 employees turns out about 500 guitars a year, many of which are custom-made and sell for $3,500 to $5,000. A big manufacturer may turn out that many in a day.

"It's an absolute red herring to me," he said of the arguments that the government is attacking successful businesses at a time when we need jobs. "I'm proud to be part of the solution, not the problem."

He says his company sticks to the spirit of the law governing wood and other imports, the Lacey Act, which was written in 1900 to federalize game laws. It made it illegal to shoot game in one state where it was legal and bring it into another where it wasn't.

The law was expanded over the years. Ronald Reagan signed an extention of its provision to govern logging in 1981 and Congress added plants to the list in 2008.

"There are many things on the endangered list and we know we have to be careful with them," said Hoover. "Brazilian Rosewood is on the list, along with ivory and tortoise shell."

Hoover has become expert in finding used rare woods and recycling them into guitars. He found a batch of rosewood from the 1920s that had been made into cutlery in Sweden. People call him with antique dressers and cabinets, hoping they can be made into guitars.

He even found a 2,000-year-old redwood stump when they were digging foundations for the apartments across from the Catalyst that may one day play music.

Hoover loves his craft, which he learned first from books. His mother was a reference librarian, "the Google of her day," he said, who got him armloads of books on how to make violins. The same principles apply to guitars.

He gives tours of his company in a Harvey West warehouse near Costco every Tuesday and Thursday, where people get a look at what is a mix of old artisan crafts with some touchs of modern technology to create magical instruments that get their tones and character from antique woods.

Among the people playing his guitars are John Mayer, Brad Paisley, Robert Plant and Ben Harper. Unlike many music companies, Santa Cruz Guitars doesn't give instruments free to musicians in return for an endorsement.

Eric Clapton was one of the early buyers in 1978. So was bluegrass player Tony Rice. They helped put the company on the map.

The reviews of his instruments are fantastic, such as this one from Vintage Guitar Magazine: "Essentially the experience of playing a holy grail that is brand new."

Johnny at the Harbor November 14, 2011 at 05:27 PM
Great article..gald to see thriving businesses in Santa Cruz... Johnny at the Harbor
wil maheia November 16, 2011 at 12:32 AM
we have tons of rosewood being cut down illegally and sold to a politicians brother for less than 2 dollars per foot. do you think Richard or someone can come to Belize and show us how to make guitars? or something else with all this wood they are stealing and sending to China?
Jerry November 16, 2011 at 05:21 AM
Horse PUCKIE!!!! Mr. Hoover you have reminded me not to ever consider purchasing your guitars. I'll stick to Gibson or Martins $5000 instruments.
Brad Kava (Editor) November 16, 2011 at 07:08 AM
Jerry, instead of just name calling, it sure would be civil and nice to know what specifically you object to. I think someone who has been importing wood and making guitars for 35 years has some expertise. What is yours?
Tyrone Girdle November 19, 2011 at 06:39 PM
Local tonewoods can and should be used more often- I want locally grown/produced products- forget the exotics...Some black walnut, cedar, madrone. That's my kind of guitar.

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