Posted by: Mark Nielsen | August 7, 2012

When Guitars Go Bad: Gibson’s Black Market Ebony

The Gibson Custom Larry Carlton Signature
ES-335… a jazz player’s gem.



I just heard a small news item on WXRT, my favorite local Chicago rock radio station. Apparently Gibson Guitars, those “grand old Tennessee gentlemen” of the music industry, aren’t so gentle after all: they were caught illegally exporting rare Madagascar ebony wood and fined by the Feds in excess of half a million dollars (including forfeiture of the wood itself). The bare bones of the story can be found over here at Reuters.

So now I’m stuck. I’m pissed, but not even for the reasons you’d think.

Of course, I’m all about protecting the precious resources of the earth, whether here or abroad. Madagascar, like far too many African nations, has been severely deforested and in other ways stripped of much natural beauty, both by its own poachers/citizens and by centuries of Western (i.e. Northern) colonial powers out to make a quick buck. If it’s not black diamonds, it’s gold, or overproduction of charcoal, or poacher-provided fetishized rhino horn (all to help Mr. Miyagi keep his fleshy samurai sword hard? I mean, come ON!).

And yet, when I compare Gibson’s crime (over-harvesting, basically) to the more direct exploitation of actual people throughout the Third World, in industries of too many kinds to count, then Gibson’s offense strikes me as an easy target. Fining such a mid-level company is all for show, but the Feds don’t go after the Big Boys with the real dough. Too many real political or economic implications, if you regulate or sanction multinational corporations whose business practices are equally unfair, but mostly out of our jurisdiction, or else putting money into some congressman’s back pocket.

For instance, are U.S. regulators ALSO going to look seriously at the working conditions in Gibson’s Chinese guitar factories? …like, to see if employees are being made to breathe harmful varnish fumes and shorten their lives? Is Gibson’s insensitive and unregulated Chinese electronic parts supplier polluting the water of an entire village (or what used to be a village, but has now become a 500,000-person boomtown in just ten years)? With the national government’s full implicit support, are the locals squashing any hint of a labor dispute, with a swiftness that American companies can only dream about?

I doubt that we’ll be hearing those kinds of news stories. Instead, let’s just keep ignoring the elephants in the room, while we put out a few mousetraps so we can at least SAY we’re interested in justice. Also,  India and a number of other swiftly developing nations are just as guilty of some of the above abuses as China, lest one think this is just another random “Commie bastards!” rant. It’s actually a “capitalist bastards!” rant…

Know’wut I’m sayn’, homies?

For the record, I’m just using my informed imagination with the above guitar factory example. Yes, sweatshop conditions still exist all over, but the smarter companies are getting better at balancing worker safety and profit, in the era of (for example) Apple’s highly publicized suicide rate at their Chinese iPad plant. But just because things are quiet somewhere, doesn’t mean basic human rights problems have been solved.

So Gibson’s subcontractors in China are probably only guilty of this:

  1. stealing U.S. jobs,
  2. building crappy knockoffs of one of the great American brands, and then
  3. selling them back to us at designer prices.

I have a mediocre Chinese-built Epiphone Les Paul, so I can at least say this confidently: the enemy is not Gibson, it is us. We’ve slowly let this imbalanced system happen, over the past forty years. We giggled over the low prices of goods, complained occasionally about quality, but then remained willfully ignorant of the precarious position we’d be in now: when semi-skilled workers have to compete with recent college grads for the plum job of Wal-Mart Greeter. Whoopee!… ain’t we still the greatest country in the world?! (Ummm… )

And yes, I’m the enemy, too. I’m a sucker for buying into the Les Paul look and hype, and being ready to pay more –even for a crappy tone– just because of the brand (and because I’m ignorant, a wanna-be musician at best, and thus unwilling to pay for a high-end, higher-cost U.S-built model.)

As for the wood and materials: my own fretboard is maple with mother-of-pearl inlay, not the ebony wood for which Gibson got the slap on the wrist. So I’m safe on that account. Plus anyone who’s heard me play will tell you I’m never guilty of ROCKIN’ too hard (honestly, I’m pretty clumsy on that fretboard, with short fingers, and never was much for practicing…). So I may be part of the problem, but my only punishment is that I’ll never get to play mainstage at Lollapalooza.

I’ll probably forgive Gibson, but it will take awhile. They’re just a symptom of much bigger problems. Maybe they can earn back my respect, especially if they send me one of those semi-hollow bodied jazz guitars I’ve coveted for fifteen years…


  1. It’s interesting because this Gibson situation seems to be a pretty clear case of wrongdoing, whereas the economic growth vs. human and environmental decency issue is much more morally tricky. However, I think you’re right on in saying that Gibson is small potatoes compared to the human pain caused by much bigger companies. This pain is seen as the necessary side effect of long-term growth and, ultimately, something like prosperity. I think it’s hard to disagree that going through pain for future prosperity is a worthwhile trade-off. But I think that we’ve accepted a false narrative that suggests that people in developing economies need to suffer horribly in order for incomes to rise. The problem is that it’s really, really difficult to untangle economic fact (that’s just the way it is) from sin (that’s the way it is because we’re greedy, lack empathy, etc.). Anyway, I like the post. Very thoughtful.

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