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Posts Tagged ‘theremin

“Yes, there are two paths you can go by / But in the long run / There’s still time to change the road you’re on”*…

Chrissie Hynde fronting the Pretenders with a swamp ash Fendar

Every winter and spring, rains across the central U.S. combine with snowmelt along the northern reaches of the Mississippi River to inundate the hardwood-dominated bottomlands of the lower Mississippi. When the floodwaters recede and soils dry up in summer, logging crews harvest species of trees that include green ash. Being partly submerged for months encourages these trees to produce thin-walled cells with large gaps between them, creating a low-density wood prized by musical instrument makers. Since the 1950s, American guitar giant Fender Musical Instruments has used this kind of ash to create its iconic electric guitars. Countless music legends, from bluesman Muddy Waters to rockers Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones and Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders, have loved their Fenders, and many say this wood gives the instruments a warm but crystal-clear twang. This niche has earned it colloquial labels such as “swamp ash,” “music ash” or “punky ash” in the lumber and music industries (although the names are used for a couple of others species of ash as well).

Once cheap and readily available, swamp ash became an integral part of Fender’s DNA over the decades, says Mike Born, former director of wood technology at the company. But earlier this year an acute shortage forced Fender to announce it would move away from using swamp ash in its famous line of Stratocasters and Telecasters—reserving the wood for vintage models only. Fender blamed the dwindling supply on longer periods of climate-fueled flooding along the lower Mississippi—which is endangering saplings and making it harder for lumber companies to reach standing trees—as well as the looming threat of an invasive tree-boring beetle. Another renowned U.S. manufacturer called Music Man raised similar sourcing concerns in 2019, which the company described as having “one of the worst harvests in recent history.”

The ominous situation shows how climate change consequences can reverberate through all aspects of society—even rock and roll. And the swamp ash supply could soon become still more tenuous because experts expect global warming to continue making floods worse. “The average player just won’t be able to afford it,” Born says…

Flooding and a wood-boring beetle threaten supplies of storied ‘swamp ash’: “Climate Change Hits Rock and Roll as Prized Guitar Wood Shortage Looms.”

(Violin makers have their own version of the same issue…)

* “Stairway to Heaven,” Led Zeppelin… on which Jimmy Page played the solo on his swamp ash “Dragon Telecaster.”

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As we harmonize, we might spare a thought for Leon Theremin; he died on this date in 1993. A Russian inventor, he is best known for his eponymous theremin, one of the first electronic musical instruments and the first to be mass produced. While the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations” is the example of theremin use that springs first to most folks’ minds, that performance was actually on a knock-off (a similar-sounding instrument invented by Paul Tanner called an Electro-Theremin); still, it had the effect of driving demand– both for the theremin and for electronic instruments more generally.

He is also well-known in more arcane circles as the creator of “The Thing” (the Great Seal bug)– a covert listening device that hung in plain view in the office of the U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union, and allowed Russian intelligence to eavesdrop on secret conversations for seven years. Concealed inside a replica of the Great Seal of the U.S. gifted by Moscow to Ambassador Averell Harriman in 1945, it was “passive” (relied on energy from nearby sources)– and is thus considered by many to have been the ancestor of RFID technology.

Theramin playing a theramin

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